Christopher Fry

by Christopher Fry Harris

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Fry, Christopher (Vol. 2)

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Fry, Christopher 1907–

An English playwright, screenwriter, and translator, Fry writes verse plays in the Elizabethan manner. He is the author of The Lady's Not for Burning and A Sleep of Prisoners. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

Christopher Fry is a poetic dramatist of originality and daring who has restored to English drama something of the verbal sprightliness and the relish of the exploratory and suggestive use of language that we get in the Elizabethans. But one has serious reservations. Fry's poetic imagery is too indiscriminate, too loose, too much the same in different dramatic circumstances, to be the full and profound expression of completely realized drama…. It is lively and eloquent and often arresting; but it might belong anywhere. One feels that a brilliant but lax imagination, going hand in hand with a sense of the humour and wonder of man and nature, is letting itself go. The same lack of emotional particularization and full realization is found in the development of his plots, which flow negligently on until he remembers to wind them up. It is all very attractive, and sometimes a deeper note is touched, half mystery, half wistfulness, which appeals in another way. But it is not mature art, and we can only wonder whether it will develop until it becomes so.

David Daiches, in his The Present Age in British Literature, Indiana University Press, 1958, pp. 166-167.

When Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not For Burning (1948) blazed into the prevailing greyness, it seemed likely to become the beacon of a new era of poetic glory in which words would again be released into magnificence. The drabber critics chided Fry for his verbal energy and resource, and for what was alleged to be the lack of dramatic content in his plays; but theatre audiences drawn from all social and intellectual levels delighted enthusiastically in the language, and found enough of story and action to entertain and satisfy. This play has something of Marlowe's dialectical abandon, united with something also of the intellectual acrobatics of the metaphysicals; and while there is much exquisite grace of expression there is also the earthy salt of colloquialism. The verse in The Lady's Not for Burning and in Venus Observed (1950) runs "with a careless and forgetful music/Looping and threading, tuning and entwining" [Venus Observed, II, ii].

After Venus Observed Fry tended to bridle his unique gifts and to hark back to the Eliotesque manner in which he had experimented earlier. This retraction led those who had disfavoured his 'looping and threading, tuning and entwining music' to declare that A Sleep of Prisoners (1951) was his best play. The controversy of which he became the unwilling centre must be left for settlement in the future on the basis of his total work, though it may boldly be said now that for a moment of time Christopher Fry brought light and air as well as music and warmth into the frigid charnel-house of contemporary verse drama, but that he lapsed into the contemporary mode in The Dark is Light Enough (1954) and Curtmantle (1961).

A. C. Ward, in his Twentieth Century English Literature 1901–1960, Methuen-University Paperbacks, 1964, pp. 136-37.

Some two decades ago, Christopher Fry emerged as one of the brightest talents of the British stage with his lively verse play, "The Lady's Not for Burning." "It was the first piece—the spring—of a planned quartet of "seasons"—lyric celebrations of nature and the enduring human spirit. Now, after a hiatus of sixteen years, Fry has completed his quartet with "A Yard of Sun," his summer play,...

(This entire section contains 2281 words.)

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and it is infused with the warmth of an Italian July…. "A Yard of Sun," like the other parts of the quartet—the autumnal "Venus Observed" and wintry "The Light Is Dark Enough"—shimmers with poetry and affirms Fry's belief in a basically mystical Christian benevolence. The setting is a sun-drenched Sienese palazzo courtyard in 1946, on the day before the Palio, the famous annual horse race. The story centers on the postwar reunion, conflicts and reconciliation of three brothers—a partisan, a Fascist and a profiteer. But as with the other "seasons," plot is secondary to Fry's gift for words.

"Fry in Summer," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc. 1970; reprinted by permission), July 27, 1970, p. 79.

Fanciful and stylized, [Fry's plays] are written in a verse that it hardly seems fair to call blank. Everything is cloaked in a brocade of metaphors. Was that a rooster's crow? No, it was "the pickaxe voice of a cock, beginning to break up the night." Did it rain? No, "the heavens emptied their pots." Fry uses such figures of speech—more figures than speech—in an attempt to jolt his audience into a fresh recognition of commonplace truths….

A Yard of Sun … rises to Fry's characteristic pitch, which might be described as cheeky-cosmic. The simplest of his characters can spin out rococo banter about the universe, God and the meaning of life….

Unfortunately Christopher Fry's characters and incidents are rarely as surprising or as meticulously well-chosen as his metaphors. His wit is bright, his set pieces are ringing, his sentiment is affecting, but his drama, unhappily, is hollow. The glittering language too often seems to be gilt for a nonexistent lily.

Yet despite its faults, Sun may help to restore some balance to Fry's reputation. Bearing the subtitle A Summer Comedy, it completes a quartet of plays intended to celebrate the seasons and the regenerative powers of the human spirit. When Fry began the cycle in 1948 with The Lady's Not for Burning (spring) and continued two years later with Venus Observed (autumn), his name flared like a rocket over the grayness of postwar theater. He was, it seemed, no less than a successor to the Elizabethans. After his winter play in 1954, The Dark Is Light Enough, the English stage was stormed by the realistic "angry" playwrights, and Fry was jostled off. Suddenly, it seemed, he was no more than an arch and interminably garrulous trifler.

Now, after a 16-year hiatus, which Fry has devoted largely to film scripts and translations of foreign plays, Sun serves as a reminder that his old acclaim and ostracism were both exaggerated. At their best, his plays strike a mean that, if not golden, is a highly polished alloy.

Christopher Porterfield, "Gilt Without the Lily," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1970 by Time Inc.), August 10, 1970, p. 56.

Hailed as the twentieth-century Shakespeare for his effervescent wit, dismissed as the composer of verbal background music …; hailed as the inheritor of Eliot's tradition of verse drama, dismissed as a confectioner of verbal meringues …; hailed as the perfect blend of poet and dramatist, dismissed as an Ogden Nash trying to write Paradise Lost: Christopher Fry has been an enigma to his critics. (p. 3)

The constant theme in all of the plays is the quest for identity on the part of one or more of the characters. That element is constant because the plays are part of Fry's quest for identity. The quest for identity is for Fry a religious quest, a man's identity becoming plain in proportion to his discovery of God. (p. 4)

After the war Fry was to link the theme of redemption from evil with the theme of comedy…. In Boy, because Fry's vision of evil and theory of comedy are still undeveloped, the comic elements do not have a redemptive meaning. (p. 8)

There can be no doubt that Fry's thinking through both his pacifism and his involvement in World War II accounts for a deeper sense of the world's evil in Firstborn than in the prewar Boy. (p. 10)

A Sleep of Prisoners (1951) is Fry's best religious play: unique in design, rich in dramatic invention, and profound in its exploration into God…. The plot is a very simple one, though the relationships it explores make as complicated a design as any in contemporary drama. (p. 13)

Two objections arise to [A Sleep of Prisoners]: Why reverse the biblical order of the narratives? Obviously, the Abraham-Isaac episode should precede the David-Absalom episode. Actually, the reversal makes Fry's theme clear: violence for increasingly lofty motives, until at last one is enduring violence for God's sake. The other objection arises from a realistic expectation of the theater: How can what one man dreams affect the spiritual state of another man? It is another way of asking the question, Could it have happened? A fairer question about this kind of play would be, Does it show the audience what the writer wants to show? Fry shows, it seems to me, the four stages through which any pilgrim in search of himself must pass: self-interest; progressingly through loyalty, to secular community; progressing through obedience to God into identification with him; progressing into a community in which all the increasingly anonymous pilgrims are members one of another.

Such a play declares plainly that a man's only hope is in being a pilgrim and a stranger. Wherefore God is not ashamed to be called Sleep's God.

Nor is Fry ashamed to call God the God of the comedies as well as of the religious plays. The only difference is that the plays written for church production name God while the plays written for theater production do not. It is Fry's contention that God does not need to be named in order to be worshipped … [and this notion is] crucial for an understanding of the comedies…. The comedies are even religious in the same way as the religious plays: they involve the quest for identity. (pp. 17-21)

Together with [A Sleep of Prisoners, A Phoenix Too Frequent, and A Yard of Sun, Curtmantle] is one of Fry's four best plays. But Curtmantle's peculiar value within the whole Fry corpus is the interesting angle of vision it provides on the comedies, because it is opposite to them. Without Curtmantle, one might be inclined to say, on the basis of the comedies, that Fry sees salvation for man in quest—any quest. Curtmantle restricts that impression by showing us a man who seeks the Kingdom Without, arrives at it, cannot recognize it when he arrives, and is denied membership in it—all because he has not sought first the Kingdom Within. A quest must be an essentially religious quest in order to bring peace; any quest that does not bring peace, however noble that quest may be, is a quest for the Kingdom Without. (p. 43)

Fry's plays are not only about religious pilgrimages; they are part of the ongoing pilgrimage. Fry's characters are much closer to ordinary people than those [characters delineated by the playwrights who most influenced him, particularly Charles Williams and T. S. Eliot]. Ordinary life is the stream in which Fry goes fishing. (p. 44)

Fry is a Christian, but that reader will be fairest who comes with fewest preconceptions about Christianity and non-Christianity. Fry's plays are not illustrations of conventional Christianity, but revelations of what Christianity means for Fry as twentieth-century pilgrim. (pp. 45-6)

Stanley M. Wiersma, in his Christopher Fry ("Contemporary Writers in Christian Perspective" Series; used by permission), Eerdmans, 1970.

I found some of the reviewers' reactions to the Chichester revival of Christopher Fry's play, The Lady's Not for Burning, somewhat intriguing. The play having been written in the late 'forties, when it had an enormous success, it was doubtless inevitable that the word 'dated' should be bandied around. There is an amusing school of criticism that finds it difficult to concede that anything written between World War II and Look Back in Anger can have the smallest relevance to the contemporary world or can be offered in the contemporary theatre as anything other than a quaint curiosity, even if it might be reluctantly admitted to have some sort of merit. The dismissive term for such works is 'dated'.

This is a valid enough point of view, I suppose, though I cannot see how precisely it can be applied to this particular play. How 'dated'? In its setting, yes—the scene is an English market town in the year 1400, 'either more or less or exactly'—but in that respect it is hardly more (or less or exactly) 'dated' than it was in 1948; and that is not what is meant, anyway.

Perhaps, then, it is in some way typical of the dead and despised theatrical world of the late 'forties and early' fifties? Here again, not so. Christopher Fry's verse plays, it seems to me, have either an eternal relevance or they have none at all, and are no more exclusively—or even especially—typical of that period than they are of our own. It is sometimes said loosely that they were part of some great resurgence of verse drama, but this is a fanciful thought indeed. Fry himself would certainly not agree with it. He contends—and I suspect he is right—that plays have always been written in verse. Probably most of them (more so than in the case of prose plays, because they are more difficult to write) are not very good and don't get produced.

But whenever a poet-dramatist comes along who does write good plays, his work does get produced—or, at least, it will be a sorry day when it is not. Perhaps we have reached that sorry day. Perhaps if James Elroy Flecker or Maxwell Anderson or T. S. Eliot or Christopher Fry were trying to break into the theatre today they would not succeed. This is possible, but I hope—and tend to believe—that it is not true. Indeed, I think that if The Lady's Not for Burning had just been written it would be received as joyously as it was in 1948, even by the same reviewers who now purport to find it 'dated'.

Kenneth Hurren, in Drama, Autumn, 1972, p. 72.


Fry, Christopher (Vol. 14)