J. A. Collins
Unfortunately (and unjustly as well) the name of Christopher Fry has been linked with that nebulous monster, The Establishment. And since the mid-fifties responsible theatre in England, as elsewhere, has been out to get the Establishment. Fry, in my opinion, deserves more than a summary dismissal, a dismissal (for some) decided on by applying the criterion of guilt-by-association….
Christopher Fry has defined comedy as 'an escape, not from truth but from despair: a narrow escape into faith', a definition which suggests an attitude towards—rather than a solution for—the central paradox: the mystery of existence itself. And in Fry's plays the attitude of faith is always love—romantic love, brotherly love, love of God and the universe; but even in love (the acceptance of faith) spirit and flesh refuse to harmonize and the old battle continues. Fry's dramas usually end on this absurd note of discord, however muted.
The absurdity however has its point: Fry advocates a theatre of 'purpose' over a theatre of 'behaviour', which is to say that he is more interested in what man is than in what he does—or when he does it…. (p. 63)
And the human being, Fry constantly reminds us, is paradoxical; and the heroes and heroines of his comedies (as well as many of the minor characters) have that touch of absurdity which makes men sane. They fly in the face of convention, as did the mad poets of life in the novels of G. K. Chesterton. Their actions are outrageous—and highly entertaining—but behind their actions lies the mystery of a conflict as ancient as the seasons: Dynamene (A Phoenix Too Frequent), preposterous in her husband's tomb, dies into life through her love for Tegeus Chromis; Thomas Mendip (The Lady's Not for Burning), tired of killing, yearns for death but falls into life through his love for Jennet Jourdemayne, yet tells her, 'Girl, you haven't changed the world'; the Duke of Alstair (Venus Observed), mouldering in autumn, praises 'A sudden illumination of lumbago' and the solitude of late love, but his enthusiasm for love and existence is tempered by the reminder of death in Reedbeck's snore….
Fry's characters are usually the poles of paradox and their mutual attractions and repulsions the actions of dramas which do not 'conclude' but suggest, rather, a perilous means for continuance; but it is the quality of the thought which gives the plays texture and fibre and this quality finds expression in the verse idiom of the character.
Paradox is not only a mode of thought, it is also a way of verbalizing that thought. Its frequent manifestations are within Fry's case often a metaphysical wit, verbal irony, puns, exaggeration for the sake of rhetorical inflation (rhodomontade), humorous invective, and conceits. These, as would be expected, often overlap, and an exchange between characters will sometimes exhibit them all—and at the same time state the play's theme and advance action as well as incident. (p. 64)
[Combination] of incident and verse, the outer and the inner lives of the characters, is both the action of [a Fry] play and the unfolding of its theme.
Fry relies strongly on incident, not only in his comedies but in all of his plays, and in that respect he is a conventional realist. Incident, however, in Fry's dramas is not primarily 'to advance plot' or 'to reveal character'; it is present, more importantly, to illustrate paradox. It is the gesture which complements the words, and the result is the play's action. In the comedies incident is fantastic—as fantastic as an allegory—but so is the verse, in its obvious poetic effects, fantastic.
But Fry is aware of the need to keep his fantasies under control and he does this, as did Ben Johnson, by turning lyric effect into satiric. Thomas Mendip's 'faintly festive' hiccups do occur in spite of his eloquent denials of them; and their counterparts in language and/or incident and gesture are continually turning song to satire. Doto, for example, the promiscuous maid of A Phoenix Too Frequent (another of Fry's...
(The entire section is 1699 words.)