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

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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, though, but so does Morris: his jealousy of Alec's quiet happiness, his dawning realization that one after another his all-purpose political solutions have let him down, his strange, contradictory relations with his wife, his family and his religion, all gradually fit together into a completely credible portrait of a rounded, inconsistent, coherent human being. Above all, the characters exist most intensely in relation to one another—particularly with Morris and Alec: the constancy of their relationship despite trials and vicissitudes, personal dramas within their respective households and changes in the world at large, is evoked with great delicacy and true, unsentimental feeling.

Nothing else Taylor has written is quite on this level of accomplishment, but none of his plays is altogether without distinction. Allergy (1966) is a one-acter about a Glasgow journalist torn between his Marxist principles and his hankering after private security—Morris and Alec rolled into one, as it were. His worries express themselves visibly in a disfiguring red rash which covers him when he arrives with a new girlfriend (for whom he has supposedly thrown over wife and job, though nothing is definitely decided yet) in a cottage in Ross occupied by a rather less complicated friend who grinds out a minority Marxist journal on his own hand-operated duplicating machine. The play is a very funny fantasia on the process of rationalization by which Christopher determines that he is actually allergic to adultery, and that really it is somehow more socialist to go back to his suburban life, away from germs and crude nature. The whole thing works beautifully in its own terms, and carries its meaning lightly, without demanding thoroughgoing 'interpretation'.

This is hardly true of Happy Days are Here Again (1965), which was interpreted by some as political allegory, by others as Theatre of the Absurd. Maybe it was neither, though fantasy it certainly was: the Jewish uncle of a prostitute now busy having an abortion gathers together five of her clients (a representatively various bunch including a poet, a capitalist, a cleric, a biology student and an electrical engineer) and leads them into a sort of inquest on the life of the absent tart. Symbolically (or absurdly, as the case may be) the engineer accepts the major share of the guilt, and lets the rest hang him; but then they have to deal with the moral consequences of their action. The effect was muddled and uncertain in tone; though originally written for the stage, the play worked much better in a shortened, rewritten form for radio. Fable (1965) is a one-act parable about a newly converted lion and a jackal discussing the morality of killing an antelope, which ends with the lion, doing what comes naturally to lions, being killed for his pains by a hunter, thereby paying for the sins of his ancestors as his descendants may pay for his. QED, but much too trite and obvious to work as drama.

An early play by Taylor, Aa Went the Blaydon Races, a lively costume piece about a Tyneside pitmen's strike of a century ago, fulfilled excellently its declared function of providing a piece of local pop theatre for the opening of the Flora Robson Theatre in Newcastle in 1962. A later venture into pop theatre, the musical Who's Pinkus, Where's Chelm? (1967) worked less well; a whimsical piece of Jewish folklore …, it takes place in a mythical village of fools from which Pinkus, the most foolish of them all, sets out to make his fortune in the next town, but loses his way and arrives back prepared for success with the single formula that it is not enough in life just to follow the dictates of your heart. All this plot (such as it is) is disposed of in the first act, and the second is occupied entirely with elaboration and repetition. The show sadly lacked wit, point, or even a good tune or two to give it an occasional lift. (pp. 186-90)

The television plays of his which achieved most notice … were Thank U Very Much for the Family Circle (1968), a realistic but scarcely riveting account of the family life of a shifty, opportunistic door-to-door salesman …, and his trilogy Revolution (1970), three half-hour plays linked by a common theme, in that each depicted a notable revolutionary—respectively Cromwell, Lenin and Castro—in a crucial period on the eve of his revolution. They were solid and respectable—Taylor has put together an interesting book, Making a TV Play, which details the whole history of the Cromwell episode—but lacked the clear individuality of Taylor's Glasgow-Jewish-Marxist pieces. It is not merely a matter of the exotic local colour, though no doubt that helps; it really does seem that Taylor's talent goes into overdrive when it draws on his fund of firsthand experience, but otherwise is all too liable to idle and hang back. (p. 190)

John Russell Taylor, "Three Social Realists: John Hopkins, Alan Plater, Cecil P. Taylor," in his The Second Wave: British Drama for the Seventies (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.; in Canada by A D Peters & Co. Ltd; copyright © 1971 by John Russell Taylor), Hill and Wang, 1971, pp. 172-90.∗