Christopher Fry Fry, Christopher (Vol. 10) - Essay

Christopher Fry Harris


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fry, Christopher 1907–

Born Christopher Fry Harris, Fry is a British dramatist, screenwriter, translator, critic, and children's author. Using the form of the verse play, he mingles drama and poetic language, humor and tragedy, metaphysics and wit in an Elizabethan richness that invites comparison with Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot. Also Elizabethan is his incorporation of verbal ornament into the actual meaning of the play, creating an elegant view of reality. The unconscious effect of poetry and word sounds is drawn upon for dramatic impact. Fry celebrates life in his work, often using religious and historical themes. His optimism has been criticized by some as escapism. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

J. Woodfield

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fry's plays concentrate on a group of closely related themes: the redemptive power of love, both eros and agapé; the wonder, paradoxes and unity of existence; the cycle of life, death and renewal; the operation of necessity and the nature of individuality; and man's relationship with the universe and with God. Several of his plays—The Boy with a Cart (1939), The Firstborn (1949), Thor, with Angels (1948), and A Sleep of Prisoners (1951)—are overtly religious, but the secular plays, through their distinctly religious sub-structures, also pursue, in Fry's own phrase from A Sleep of Prisoners, "an exploration into God." A few examples of such sub-structures are the ritual death and rebirth patterns in A Phoenix Too Frequent (1949) and in The Lady's Not for Burning (1949), the process of love, sacrifice and redemption in those plays and in Venus Observed (1950) and The Dark Is Light Enough (1954), and the sacramental nature of Rosmarin's human relationships in the latter.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Fry should be drawn to the near-mythical contest between Henry II and Becket over the respective demands of Church and State. Their struggle exemplifies the clash of the secular and the spiritual and, although unresolved historically except by death, invites the artist to explore its shape. Fry's exploration in Curtmantle takes the path of a dual quest. One aspect is "The progression towards a portrait of Henry, a search for his reality," which is indicated in the play by Richard Anesty's repeated question at the end of the Prologue: "Where is the King?" Structurally, this theme is explored in a series of episodes which are linked by the process of history and by the controlling consciousness of William Marshal's memory. The other half of the quest is also firmly established in the Prologue: the search for "Law, or rather the interplay of different laws: civil, canon, moral, aesthetic, and the laws of God; and how they belong and do not belong to each other."… This second quest is inextricably allied with the artist's desire to find form: just as Henry's energy "was giving form to England's chaos" …, so Fry is attempting to structure action, character and language in a form that will express the "permanent condition of man" and will yield meaning for the modern audience from the barren facts of history.

The controlling framework of the play is William Marshal's mind. The memory device is not used as in The Glass Menagerie to explore the narrator's experience, but to endow Marshal with a choric function which enables him both to recount the action "[doing] away with time and place" … as Fry intended, and to comment on its significance. Marshal's name suggests his function: he is a high official of the court close to the king; he marshals the facts in order for the audience; and he records the passing of time and events. Another function is to manipulate the response of the audience in favour of Henry, a role which is an important corrective to history, especially as recorded in the dramatic interpretations of Tennyson, Eliot and even Anouilh, where the dramatic focus, and inevitably sympathy, lie with Becket rather than Henry. Marshal respects Henry's energy and his determination to replace anarchy with order on behalf of the people he governs. His respect and that of the common folk indicate the range of the governed, and give a reference point for the facts of church exploitation that lead to the division between Church and State, Becket and Henry. Marshal's mind and attitudes express the "Pugnacious reality" … that lies behind the facts of history.

Another structural means of exploring this inner reality is through the use of expressionistic and cinematic devices which reject the surface reality in favour of a stylized, or even distorted presentation of the stage action and its setting. Both the turbulent action and the storm setting of the Prologue indicate the chaotic state of the kingdom to which Henry is attempting to bring order. Paradoxically, it shows disorder under Henry's very nose, and thematically the storm foreshadows the turbulence of his reign. There is a smooth scenic transition into Act I, when the wind drops to a calm and the darkness changes to light. Anesty's final question at the camp, "Where is the King?"… is answered by Marshal in Westminster: "The King's arrived in the yard…."… This non-realistic merging of time, place and action characterizes the sequences of the play, and helps to produce tight dramatic unity. (pp. 307-08)

The telescoping of historic events leads to an exciting dramatic pace which asserts the inevitability of Henry's tragic downfall. Once he decides to appoint Becket Archbishop, and "co-ordinate the two worlds" … of Church and State, all subsequent decisions partake of the same quality of hamartia. The combination of the device of memory and the technique of expressionism, by enabling Fry to escape the limitations of a realistic chronological approach which would break the action, carries the audience through a sequence of decisions and outcomes that drive Henry inexorably down the path of tragic descent. The episodes, which lend themselves to a Brechtian Epic treatment of disjunction, are thereby bridged rather than broken, and the plot unfolds in one continuous movement interrupted only at the end of Act I at a climactic point where Henry squares for a fight, and at the end of Act II where an appropriate pause occurs at Becket's death. As tragic hero, Henry fulfils the classical Aristotelian pattern of the great man of wasted potential whose fall, brought about by hubris and flawed decisions, involves his realm, which sinks in power and prestige with its king…. [Henry progressively] assumes the role of divinity ascribed to him by his subjects, and it is this defiance of the ontological order that constitutes his major crime. Henry's gradual—and unconscious—movement towards this self-concept is skilfully dramatized by Fry in both language and action. Henry possesses a charisma not unlike that of the Countess Rosmarin, yet more positive than hers. In The Dark Is Light Enough, Fry endows the human Countess with divine attributes: in Curtmantle, he humanizes the...

(The entire section is 2585 words.)

Stanley M. Wiersma

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Any mature understanding of violence and pacifism must begin with an acknowledgement of the violence in one's own heart, and in A Sleep of Prisoners … Fry had defined the progression from the recognition of violence within to a complete pacifism. That play begins with the personal violence of Cain and Abel, moves through the political assassination of Absalom by Joab but condoned by David, progresses to the sacrificial offering of Isaac by Abraham, and concludes with Daniel's friends in the fiery furnace, the flames being the inescapable violence of the human condition, which the pacifist must learn to endure without being violent in return.

Although The Dark is Light Enough is three years later than Sleep, no other play intervened, and this paper assumes that Fry's perceptions of violence and pacifism remained constant during the interim. The chief difference between the plays is the surrealistic, lyrical organization of Sleep, in the writing of which Fry was still discovering his own position on violence and pacifism, and the cause-and-effect plot of Dark, in which Fry is expressing what he has discovered earlier.

Though the literary form of the two pieces is very different, the intellectual content is much the same: violence as self-assertion, violence as loyalty to the state, violence as loyalty to God, and, finally, violence to be endured but not to be inflicted. (pp. 4-5)

The theme of the duel is fascinating to trace through [Dark]. Just at the point that Jakob is using Belmann's hell-bound agnosticism as his pretext for not fighting the duel, Stefan takes up the duel with Gettner. Both Jakob and Stefan are sure that they are issuing challenges in the cause of honor. Still, whether duels are fought or not has less to do with the moral necessities of honor than with the murkier necessities of violence. Violence is like an infection with its own irrational necessities. The violence in the situation and within the people is moving toward a duel; who fights it or against whom is beside the point.

The hostile attitude of Jakob, Belmann, and Kassel against Gettner, the hostile attitude of Jakob toward the other guests, and Stefan's vacillating attitude toward Gettner suddenly fixing itself on violence are all like the hostilities of the war between Austria and Hungary raging outside. (p. 9)

Like Sleep, Dark embodies violence as self-assertion; both plays, also embody the idea of violence as loyalty to the state. The permissive violence of David and the active violence of Joab against Absalom in Sleep is justified in the minds of the instigators because it is intended for the good of the state.

Likewise, Janik in Dark also justifies his violence because it promotes the justice of the Hungarian claims against the Austrian tyranny. (pp. 9-10)

The inadequacy of a strictly military identity is evident when Janik, who before as a soldier condemned the Countess for sheltering Gettner from the Hungarians, returns to the Countess, at the play's end and after his defeat, as a private person, expecting the same kind of treatment as she gave Gettner before.

A military self is never enough, not even on the just side of a war. For even just wars are fought by military establishments which institutionalize violence, justify violence as the only means to freedom, and measure patriotism by the energy of the violence. Violence for the honor of Hungary or Austria is only a little less selfish, a little less narcissistic, than violence for personal honor.

In addition to violence as self-assertion for honor and violence as loyalty to the state, Sleep and Dark embody violence for God's sake. The honor of God is the motivation for Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac in Sleep; his willingness to sacrifice Isaac is a combination of performing violence and enduring it, of activity and passivity.

The honor of God is at once Peter's consolation and his cause. When the Hungarians are completely broken, Peter consoles himself with the fact of the Incarnation…. The Incarnation is for Peter a redefinition of the concepts God and man, which cannot be altered by any circumstances, a sure basis for confidence. But the Incarnation is also a process: a learning to become both a son of man and a son of God, along with Jesus Christ. Whatever else being a son of man means, it certainly means taking pains choosing the most Christlike alternative in a muddled situation. Whatever else being a son of God involves, it involves being permanently conditioned against disillusionment in failure. (p. 11)

But Peter never reaches serenity, for at heart he remains an overbalanced activist. Stefan sends for him and he rushes to Rosmarin's house "the moment/He could manage to get away."… Taken captive by the Hungarians, he fights valiantly on their side. Making up with Gelda in Act III, he can stay only briefly; he must rush off to Austria because the victorious government is "shooting and hanging/Every Hungarian of note who fought in the war."… The concept of betrayal keeps coming up, for Peter is never sure he has done the right thing:

You make me think
I shall betray something either way,
Staying or going. If I stay, I think
Of nothing but getting to Vienna. If I go,
I think of nothing but what you have said to me….

Peter lacks a single workable criterion by which he can make moral choices and then, for good or ill, rest in them. Peter is that humanly understandable but logically contradictory phenomenon: the militant pacifist. He fight for peace the way Jakob fights for the honor of the Countess and the way Janik fights for Hungary, but in the cause of peace one should not fight at all. (pp. 12-13)

All three learn something about the violence within themselves. Jakob sees it is not an isolated instance of outraged honor which drives him:

One always thinks if only
One particular unpleasantness
Could be cleared up, life would become as promising
As it is always promising to be.
But in fact we merely change anxieties….

The military Janik returns defeated, he for whom the Hungarian cause had become everything. He must be coaxed by the Countess to sing a bawdy song of the soldiers. Only after he sings does the Countess comfort him:

I know your cause is lost, but in the heart

(The entire section is 2790 words.)