Trevor Griffiths Essay - Critical Essays

Griffiths, Trevor

Introduction

Griffiths, Trevor 1935–

Griffiths is a British author of juvenile fiction and plays for stage, radio, and television. Critics sometimes imply that style is sacrificed for his Marxist themes of revolution, socialism, the corruption of the bourgeois, and capitalistic failure. Griffiths is currently concentrating on television plays in order to reach the widest possible audience.

Alan Brien

[Even] in these days of stage nudity and mimic intercourse, such an episode [as the one opening Griffiths's The Party] still requires some strong dramatic justification for its sensational presentation. Partly because it is one of only two flurries of actual action which occur throughout the oratorio of talk and argument that evening in 1968, in this London flat, during the Paris revolt of students and workers. Partly because it throws some background light on the central character which nevertheless fails to illuminate his psyche much better than his physique.

How is he so rich, for example? (pp. 39, 41)

What is his secret sorrow, evoked with such Chekhovian melancholy by Mr. Pickup, with the dented smile and neglected hair of an old paintbrush left behind by the decorators?… Nobody up there asks him, and so nobody down here is ever told….

Such a subject [as the "Revolution" of May 1968] demands more than a Shavian rehash of what was said at the time by those who stayed in Britain wondering what hadn't hit them.

Either we need a multi-media, documentary post-mortem with first-hand evidence and all the stereoscopy of hindsight. Or we need to see how the event affected people here and then how they affected other people here.

The author, Trevor Griffiths, has said that 'nearly every major character in the play is me or is the scintilla of me'. It is an honest, and quite brave, admission of creative egoism. But I'm afraid it shows: for despite the dozen or so characters, and two outstanding performances, The Party remains a one-man show. (p. 41)

Alan Brien, in Plays and Players (© copyright Alan Brien 1974; reprinted with permission), February, 1974.

J. W. Lambert

The Party is a truthful play; but it is also sadly muddled [and] theatrically ineffective….

Essentially The Party—the title refers vaguely to political parties, specifically to a gathering of radicals called together by the TV producer—consists of three very long speeches. (p. 18)

Unfortunately the play in which Mr. Griffiths has framed these impressive diatribes is almost non-existent, and a notable step backward from his last full-length work, Occupations….

The sum total, though intelligent and not really boring, is basically uninteresting, because there is no real conflict or development, psychological or otherwise, only a basically contemptuous summary of crippled progressives. And what induced Mr. Griffiths, even if he did not wish to complicate his picture by making much of the events of 1968 in Czechoslovakia, far more wretched than those in France, to throw in a mere flippant allusion to that unhappy country? A mildly comic au pair girl with a Czech flag on her back and a pet hamster named after a prominent Stalinist seems to me an exceptionally shoddy way to evade commenting on the fall of Dubchek. (p. 19)

J. W. Lambert, in Drama, Spring, 1974.

Peter Ansorge

The six young apprentice comics who attend the evening classes organised by one-time master comedian, Eddie Waters [in Comedians], are under no illusions about the state of their chosen profession…. [They are training for] TV-satiated audiences who have come to accept a whole new repertoire of outspoken radicalist and ugly, sexual jokes. 'It's not the jokes. It's what lies behind them,' insists their teacher who is trying to maintain his humane standards against the increasing amorality of the business. At the end of the first act we meet the London agent, Challenor, who has come to judge the comics with the offer of contracts for the most successful. He tells the student comedians to forget the wisdom of their teacher. 'I'm not looking for philosophers. I'm looking for comics…. Any good comic can lead an audience by the nose. But only in the direction they're going. And that direction is quite simply … escape.'

The second act is taken up with the acts, observed by Challenor and the stoical Waters. It is an enthralling demonstration of how we can choose either to sell or to save ourselves on a stage. (p. 22)

The last scene is a moving epitaph to the comedian's art, an acknowledgement that jokes are, perhaps, a reflection of our worst rather than our best instincts. Reviews have criticised this moment as an instance of bad taste, excess and fantasy on the part of the writer. But the whole scene comes from a sense that the joking has ended, 'all the funny men have gone home'. Price [who is Waters' "favorite and most gifted pupil"] quotes from Robert Frost's poem about the world ending in ice rather than fire. He leaves the stage, but not, one imagines, to follow a career in comedy.

Griffiths has written a beautiful, multilayered and unforgettable account of the comic art. I hope that its very lucidity won't be taken as mere analytical dissection of something which remains, finally, undefinable—humour….

There's a sense of staying power and parable about Comedians…. (p. 23)

Peter Ansorge, in Plays and Players (© copyright Peter Ansorge 1975; reprinted with permission), April, 1975.

Harold Clurman

Trevor Griffiths's Comedians … is a distinctly worthwhile play, but there are some difficulties in the way of its full appreciation. The first arises from the American audience's unfamiliarity with its background. The second is a diffusion—perhaps more apparent than real—in the play's composition. Though Comedians is an altogether appropriate title, it tends to disorient the spectators because it sets up an expectation of continuous hilarity. The play is for the most part quite funny, but "fun" is not its point….

There is a specifically British base to [Comedians]. Class differences and distinctions are crucial to every phase of English life…. The open battle of the classes in England began only lately on anything like a grand scale. The English drama of the past twenty years provides evidence of this. Comedians is a new and highly engaging variation on a theme that more and more preoccupies English society.

Griffiths's play is obliquely a correction, almost a rebuke, to much of recent English writing for the theatre. Too often, the playwright implies, it expresses mere resentment, disgust, cynicism, hopelessness. Such attitudes are not enough: they will not serve….

The technical difficulty in the play is its seeming lack of continuity of intention from the first two acts to the transition of the last. What begins as a series of racy characterizations and gutter jokes ends in a sober, very nearly impassioned discussion of issues of which we are only faintly aware and scarcely involved. (p. 670)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1976 The Nation Associates), December 18, 1976.

Jack Richardson

Starting from a premise that [Comedians] is novel and rich with antic possibility, the play manages to scuttle itself with perfunctory, self-righteous anger. Set in Manchester, Comedians begins with a group of young men who aspire to be nightclub comics, meeting in one of those dismal cubicles of adult education….

There is one student … who we perceive has a genuine and personal comic imagination, whose humor, at least in the classroom, goes much deeper than that of his fellow students. Among those who are simply looking for a better way to earn a living, he stands out as a real artist….

[We] wait for this prize pupil to perform in a manner that will send his provincial audience back to bingo and Comedians' audience into several levels of appreciative laughter.

While waiting, one is treated to a variety of ways in which a comedian can endure an agonizing death on stage, and in each of the bumbling performances, Griffiths manages to present not only the comedy of ineptitude, but also the true character of the performers. The failures are painful and funny, and one believes nothing can possibly go wrong in a work that seems so closely in tune with the lives and setting it depicts. But, alas, one's confidence is premature. The genius of the classroom comes on and proceeds to aspire to social significance. Wearing the make-up of a mime, he tries to make human contact with a...

(The entire section is 440 words.)