C(ecil) P(hillip) Taylor John Russell Taylor - Essay

John Russell Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Though Cecil P. Taylor] has reversed the pattern of [John] Hopkins's and [Alan] Plater's careers by starting on the stage and taking up television, extensively though not exclusively, afterwards, in other respects he seems to belong very much in a group with them. Partly it is his journalistic background …, partly the genres in which he has worked—realistic social drama, musical documentary à la Plater. His most immediately distinctive contribution is his personal background, which is Glasgow-Jewish. But there is also his talent, which is variable, but at its best can produce drama which, in its own quiet way, stands comparison with the best the decade has had to offer.

He is at his best, I think, in Bread and Butter (1966), a slow-burning but finally very gripping piece. 'Gripping' sounds a curiously old-fashioned term of praise, but it is apt, for Bread and Butter gets full value from an element in general rather misprized by the newer dramatists (dedicated comedians apart): plot. There is, after all, something very comforting about a plot. However uninteresting we may find the characters and situations of a play initially, if we have perforce to spend a whole evening with them, it is practically inevitable that sooner or later we shall begin to feel at least a faint stirring of interest in how things will turn out, what will become of character A or B.

This is very much what happens in the course of Bread and Butter. Initially, the four characters who make up the cast seem uninteresting. The two men, Morris and Alec, are too broadly, simply what they are: Morris the perennial political enthusiast, haring off now after one political panacea, now after another, and Alec, the soft, silly listener to what other people say. Their women, Sharon and Miriam, are even more colourless and the background of working-class Jewish life in Glasgow between the wars, unfamiliar in the theatre, sounds much more attractively exotic than it is. Big events in the outside world come and go, but to Morris and Alec they impinge only as subjects for conversation, the groundwork on which Morris can embroider dizzying patterns of Marxist theory. The development is deceptively slow, the play almost static up to the half-way mark, which brings us to the end of the war, with Morris's fortunes on the down-grade and Alec's slightly on the up. The author's technique may seem limited and repetitive: in virtually every scene he uses to excess the old 'new drama' ploy of conversations continued at odds, with neither participant listening to the other—signifying, of course, failure to communicate or, as Pinter has it, fear of communication. Which is all very well in small doses, but continued obsessively in scene after scene can become extremely tiresome. However, by this time the plot has established its insidious hold: it has become quite interesting, in the most naïve, old-fashioned way, to know how things will all turn out for the two households.

And the second half not only answers this query, but does so far more tellingly than the question was posed in the first half. For by the end of the war, it transpires, Miriam, Alec's wife, who always did have her calculating side, has become warped about money to an extent which makes the mild, amiable Alec begin to question seriously whether, after twenty-odd years of married life, he really likes his wife at all—and decide that, all things considered, he doesn't. Not only do these two characters grow in stature and complexity,...

(The entire section is 1449 words.)