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 fiery furnace, the crucible of humankind’s experience.
The creation of their dreams in terms of army life gives the whole play a sense of immediacy while underwriting the repetitive nature of history and the cumulative meaning of human experience. The mixing of biblical situations and military terminology provides a very effective vocabulary for the verse of the play, creating the same kind of tensions that the larger design of the play encompasses.
The fourth character, Meadows, a man beyond the maximum age for enlistment, has accepted his involvement with humankind by the symbolic act of voluntary enlistment, and he provides the structural links between the waking and sleeping worlds. For the most part, as the other dreamers act out their passions, Meadows lies awake in his bunk; the others wake fitfully from time to time, and the waking men interact on the edge of their dreams. For example, after Adams, as Joab, has cut down Absalom with his tommy gun, David (no longer the king) awakens, and in the anxiety of his guilt, which had been objectified by his dream, asks Meadows, who has been awake, if he has heard a shout (the cry of the dying Absalom). Meadows’s reply, “Nobody shouted,” indicates the complexity of the formal convention of the dream, which is to be compared to the interior monologue technique in the sense that the world of the dream creates its own significant content and form although its larger setting is the external world.
There is a progression in the dreams that David and Peter enact, moving from the wrathful killing by Cain when Abel wins at dice to the meaningful but averted sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. In the final experience of the furnace, when all three join in a single dream, Meadows appears as Man, who undergoes with the others the purgatorial fires in which humankind is tried. The fourth figure, the role which Meadows takes, is present in the biblical story and is traditionally identified with Christ; yet only if Christ is to be seen as a type of Everyman—not God but first of all Man, sharing the experiences of humankind—does this reading of the figure do no violence to accomplishment of the play.
In A Sleep of Prisoners, Fry deals more directly with the state of human beings in the modern world than in any of his other plays. David, for example, has the obsession Auden expressed in the 1930’s, that the world is divided into “we’s” and “they’s,” “ours” and “theirs”; “I’ve got to know which side I’m on./ I’ve got to be on a side.” The intent of the play is to suggest, however, that sides and the wars and hatreds they represent offer no solutions, for no person is an island: “Whatever happens on the farthest pitch,/ To the sandman in the desert or the island-man in the sea,/ Concerns us very soon.” The involvement of humankind in its history is a purifying experience, just as the flames in the biblical furnace suggest the purgatorial nature of the dreams the men have endured. The flames in the furnace become human figures, the unquenchable fire of breath and blood, which “can only transform.”
(The entire section is 2939 words.)