Christopher Fry Analysis
by Christopher Fry Harris

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Christopher Fry Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

All of Christopher Fry’s plays reflect his serious commitment to humanist and pacifist values and express the determined democracy of the individual spirit that is a legacy of Fry’s Quaker heritage. Fry’s insistence on the wonder of human life and the capacities of human beings, individually and collectively, for the growth of soul and conscience, has led him to some of the excesses of language and plotting for which he has been both disparaged and celebrated. Fry’s career seems, ironically, almost a mirror of the effect of his best plays: a relatively brief and dazzling burst of light on the generally dark horizon of modern drama. He has persisted stubbornly through his original efforts and his translations of French playwrights to bring to what he sees as the contemporary theater’s dreary realism a sense of delight and celebration that is nowhere else to be found and to wed this hopefully awakened sense of wonder to verse, a fit medium to oppose the dullness of the prevailing dialogue of contemporary realism. Fry’s final reputation in the history of twentieth century drama may be that of one of the stubborn eccentrics he so loves to portray on the stage, but he will be respected for his desire to suggest a healthy—and very serious—alternative for his time.

A Sleep of Prisoners

A Phoenix Too Frequent and A Sleep of Prisoners are Christopher Fry’s two most successful one-act plays, a length that Fry easily mastered. Of the two, A Sleep of Prisoners is the more interesting because it is one of the few plays in which Fry tries to deal with a contemporary setting, and it is, formally, the most experimental of Fry’s plays.

In many ways his most complex undertaking, A Sleep of Prisoners can be described as one of the most immediately modern of Fry’s plays, not simply because it has as its characters four prisoners of war and as its setting an interlude in World War II, but also because, in this play, Fry draws on the experimental formal techniques of the modern theater. The scene of the play is a church converted into a temporary prison for four captured soldiers who, under the pressure of their surroundings, reenact biblical scenes in their dreams. Within this framework, Fry describes his intent and his design in the play’s prefatory letter to Robert Gittings: “I have tried to make a more simple statement though in a complicated design where each of four men is seen through the sleeping thoughts of the others, and each, in his own dream, speaks as at heart he is, not as he believes himself to be.”

This structure achieves a welding together of the spiritual history of humankind and the dreams of the four sleepers in an expressionistic fantasy that reveals the theme of the play. The dreams are made up of significant moments in the growth of vision Fry hopes to express, and the treatment of the material (the weaving of the patterns of the dreams and the final dream shared in common) suggests that the technique of the play owes more than a little to the Jungian idea of a racial memory, or perhaps to the tendency in modern poetry to suggest a composite experience and protagonist, as in Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and in William Carlos Williams’s Paterson (1946-1958).

The dreams of the four soldiers involve moments of passion, of suffering, of sacrifice, and the dream lives of the men are determined by their temperaments, which are established in the brief exchange that opens the play. Peter Abel, outwardly easygoing, uncommitted, and even-tempered, is attacked by his friend, David King, whose nerves are frayed by the whole experience and by his concern for Peter’s apparent untroubled acceptance of the situation in which they find themselves. In their subsequent dreams, these two reenact the conflict in the roles that their names and natures suggest—Abel and Cain, Absalom and David, Isaac and Abraham—until they finally join Corporal Adams in his dream, and the three of them become Shadrac, Meshac, and Abednego in...

(The entire section is 2,939 words.)