John Mortimer Essay - Critical Essays

John Mortimer Drama Analysis

In his autobiography, John Mortimer says that a novice writer is obsessed by “the panic-stricken search for a voice of his own. His ears are full of noises, a cacaphony of sweet airs from the past and the even more delightful sounds of the present.” Early in his career as a dramatist, Mortimer found a proper voice, as a writer of comedies of manners, sex farces, and Chekhovian one-act plays in which he attempted “to chart the tottering course of British middle-class attitudes in decline.” He said that comedy “is the only thing worth writing about in this despairing world,” which “is far too serious to be described in terms that give us no opportunity to laugh.” His choice of subject matter, he wrote, “was dictated by myself, my childhood, and such education as I was able to gather . . . ,” for he believed that a writer “can only work within that narrow seam which penetrates to the depths of [his] past.” Within such a “narrow seam” he created memorable moments in the theater. Though his farces, such as Marble Arch and Mill Hill, are little more than whimsies, other plays have enduring merit, particularly The Dock Brief, The Judge, and Collaborators, and the autobiographical A Voyage Round My Father is a major achievement. Mortimer was a diligent practitioner of the brief play (“In a one-act play the enthusiasm has no time to die”) and must be credited with demonstrating not only the commercial but also the artistic viability of the form on the modern stage; concerning the latter, he wrote:A play, even if it lasts not more than five minutes, should be able to contain at least one life, with a character that can be conceived as stretching backwards and forwards in time, with an existence longer than those moments which actually take place on the stage. A play is a demonstration, in which an audience can recognize something about themselves. As with a picture, this can be achieved by a few lines in the right position.

Mortimer’s experience with writing radio plays and his mastery of the dramatic form, as well as his work in the cinema, prepared him for television scriptwriting. He clearly preferred radio plays, which he described as having many advantages: “They are not subject to the technical mischances and distractions of the theatre and television. They call on the audience to make a great effort of imagination and in them words must be used, as they were in the Elizabethan theatre, to paint scenery or suggest changes of light.” On the other hand, “If you’re in a theatre where you know everything is unreal and you know it’s all an act of the imagination—and you know that all you have are actors standing on a platform—then you can do anything, just because it’s entirely imaginary. But if you’re in the cinema where you have to try to be literal, then I think it’s much harder.” His television scripts developed his largest audiences and gained for him his most widespread critical acclaim, particularly the Rumpole of the Bailey series, which began in 1975, and the 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. During the decades in which he wrote plays—for radio, stage, and television—Mortimer demonstrated his ability to conceive of clever situations and manage them deftly, to create believable characters even when they are stereotypes, to write dialogue that abounds with witticisms, and to endow even his whimsies with the insight of a perceptive social conscience. He led theatergoers to a better understanding of themselves while making them laugh.

The Dock Brief

The Dock Brief features an old barrister whom success has eluded for a half century (and who may be, Mortimer speculated, “a distant cousin of a far more extrovert creation, ‘Rumpole of the Bailey,’ whom I wouldn’t begin to think about for another fifteen years”). The barrister is randomly selected to defend “an equally unsuccessful criminal” who is accused of murdering his wife. In the man’s cell, the two rehearse their courtroom scenario, assuming the roles of judge, witnesses, and jurors. At the actual trial, the barrister becomes befuddled and loses the case, but the judge frees the defendant because the barrister’s incompetence has rendered the legal process “ever so null and void.” The pair rationalize that the counsel’s “dumb tactics” won the day, and they depart whistling and dancing. Funny though it is, The Dock Brief also has a message: “I wanted to say something about the lawyer’s almost pathetic dependence on the criminal classes, without whom he would be unemployed, and I wanted to find a criminal who would be sorrier for his luckless advocate than he was for himself.” The play also exemplifies Mortimer’s belief that comedy should be “truly on the side of the lonely, the neglected, the unsuccessful” and “against established rules and . . . the imposing of an arbitrary code of behaviour upon individual and unpredictable human beings.” When The Dock Brief was revived in London in 1982, it was as part of John Mortimer’s Casebook, which also includes The Prince of Darkness and Interlude and is a trilogy that criticizes three pillars of society: the law, the Church, and medicine.

What Shall We Tell Caroline?

What Shall We Tell Caroline?—Mortimer’s first play written expressly for the theater—is a sensitive character study in which a curmudgeonly headmaster who is constantly at odds with his wife convinces an assistant to continue a pretended affair with her, for “If we stopped quarreling over her now . . . think how empty her poor life would be.” Caroline, their overprotected eighteen-year-old daughter, silently observes the sparring, but at the close of the one-act play she announces her intention to go to London to live and work. Her escape from the stifling home environment anticipates Mrs. Morgan’s desertion of her husband in I Spy and Paddy’s flight to Paris in Collect Your Hand Baggage. The play also foreshadows later works in which variants of the ménage à trois motif are present, such as The Wrong Side of the Park, Bermondsey, Gloucester Road, and Collaborators. The characters in all of these plays—including The Dock Brief and What Shall We Tell Caroline?—have a comic vitality touched with pathos. They have trouble communicating with others and coping with life, and they make accommodations that only superficially resolve their problems. Except for The Dock Brief, all of these plays are about unhappy marriages.

The Wrong Side of the Park and Two Stars for Comfort

In 1959, “with a good deal of trepidation,” Mortimer wrote his first full-length play, The Wrong Side of the Park, which opened in London the following year with Peter Hall directing and starring Margaret Leighton. The central character, according to Mortimer, was his house in the Swiss Cottage section of London, but this ménage à trois play also features “an anglicized Blanche Dubois” who is wed to a “dull boy” and lives in squalor with her in-laws. When she is attracted to a lusty boarder who reminds her of her first husband, she fantasizes about her first marriage, but in a somewhat contrived happy ending, she is reconciled with her present husband, who is made to seem better than he actually is. Although reviewers praised Mortimer’s original treatment of old-hat subject matter, some said that the play was too long, with neither characters nor plot adequately sustained. It enjoyed a modest popular success, with a run of 173 performances. In 1962, Two Stars for Comfort, Mortimer’s next full-length play, had an even longer run of 189 performances, with Trevor Howard as a solicitor-turned-publican “who,” Mortimer has said, “always told people what he thought they wanted to hear, an extension of the pleasure principle which only works in the extremely short term.” A reworking of an early, unpublished novel, the play is the first in which Mortimer presents the law as a repressive force.

The Judge

The law as repressor is also a theme of The Judge, which was criticized for diffuseness when it opened in London in 1967 (it ran for only sixty-seven performances). According to one reviewer: “Conditioned by his naturalistic habits, [Mortimer’s] plotting is ill served by his non-naturalistic...

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