Christopher Fry

by Christopher Fry Harris

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Christopher Fry is well known for his many translations of plays into English verse, which have had successful productions both for the stage and, in some cases, for the cinema. His first published translation was of Jean Anouilh’s L’Invitation au Château as Ring Round the Moon (pr., pb. 1950), Fry’s only effort in prose. He followed it with several translations, including The Lark (pr., pb. 1955; of Anouilh’s L’Alouette), Tiger at the Gates (pr., pb. 1955; of Jean Giraudoux’s La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu), Duel of Angels (pr., pb. 1958; of Giraudoux’s Pour Lucrèce), Judith (pr., pb. 1962; of Giraudoux’s Judith), and Cyrano de Bergerac (pr., pb. 1975; of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac). Fry also published critical prose, including An Experience of Critics (1952) and several important essays on the use of verse in drama. He worked on television productions and screenplays, and his work for the British Broadcasting Corporation, The Brontës of Haworth, was published in 1975. His screenplay credits include Ben Hur (1959) and The Bible: In the Beginning (1966). A family history, Can You Find Me, was published in 1978.


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Christopher Fry was one of the most popular and prolific of twentieth century English verse playwrights; only T. S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats exercised a greater influence on the development of twentieth century verse drama. Fry differed from Eliot and Yeats, however, in that he did not establish a reputation as a poet before turning to the stage. Fry began with an early and practical interest in the theater as an actor and director.

With the exception of his translation of Anouilh’s L’Invitation au Château, all of Fry’s plays are in verse in a century that has provided primarily a theater of realistic prose—a prose that Fry claimed had lost all contact with anything other than surface reality. Fry insisted that his use of verse was in the service of reality, that verse provided a medium for his attempt to shake the world alert again to the deeper reality of every human being’s ability to experience afresh the eternal miracle of life—a reality at present obscured and staled by custom. In Fry’s view, humankind has domesticated the enormous miracle of life and become deadened to the wonder that is everywhere available. Fry attempted to give voice to his sense of the miracle of life with the language of poetry. He derisively identified prose on the stage with the tinkle of breakfast cups. In a 1951 article in Saturday Review, Fry makes it clear that “poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement.”

This worldview probably accounts for much of the adverse criticism Fry’s plays have received, for his work sometimes rings false or hollow, irresponsibly separated from the world the theatergoer accepts as real. Sometimes the reader or viewer senses that Fry protests too much for a man firmly grounded in the “enormous miracle” of the world, and the atmosphere of his plays often has the unfortunate effect of sheer fantasy. The use of distant times and scenes adds to a sense of unreality, and it would seem particularly unfortunate that, if Fry’s aim is to reestablish wonder in modern man, he should feel the necessity for setting his dramas in a world removed from the present by time and distance. A Sleep of Prisoners and A Yard of Sun are exceptions, and Venus Observed and even The Dark Is Light Enough can be viewed as fairly direct comments on the contemporary dilemma, but Fry’s plays are never “modern” in the same sense as are those...

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of Eliot, W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Stephen Spender.

Fry seldom sought to come to grips with the modern world by taking it as the arena of his explorations. Rather, he worked by indirection, indicating in the world of his plays the importance of the individual, the meaning of humanity, the futility and needless cruelty of wars, and the possibilities for redeeming life through love. Having demonstrated the vitality latent in the world, Fry believed that he made sufficient comment on the modern situation. This approach is misleading in view of Fry’s claim to be interested in the problems of his own time, for the emphasis in his work appears to be not on modern human beings, but on humankind, as if Fry thought he could best restore human life to its proper heritage not by showing the paltry thing it has become in the twentieth century, but by showing what it has been and yet may be. Thus, Fry’s dramaturgy stemmed from his romanticism, which expressed itself in an undaunted humanism and drew its vocabulary from natural and biblical sources. In Fry, there is little of the peculiarly modern vocabulary that one finds in other contemporary playwrights; as a general rule, the science Fry drew on for his images is that of alchemy or astronomy; his psychology was that of the theory of humors; his textbook, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). It is not surprising, then, to find the charge of romantic escapism leveled against Fry: The dangers inherent in his approach are obvious.

Given his orientation, the problem Fry faced in terms of language is perhaps clearer when one considers that the mainstream of poetic idiom for the modern verse play is that established by Eliot and manipulated by Auden and others. This is an idiom, on the whole, expressive of the modern world as it has appeared to these poets, and such a language could be of little use to Fry. He needed a language not to embody the dreary failure and, at best, partially reclaimed successes of the modern world, but a language to carry as much as possible the wonder, the miracle, the exuberance of a world that, most likely, never was. Against Eliot’s habitual understatement, Fry’s project demands a language of overstatement, resulting in excesses: the riot of images that often impede the dramatic progress of a passage, the wit or whimsy that sometimes seems to exist for the sake of its own good nature, and the verbal coinages that can be effective theater for a time but begin to pall before the end of the third act.

Fry’s linguistic debts have been traced to various and varying sources, and if all of the critics are right in their assumptions about sources, his verse has an impressive (but impossible) cosmopolitan paternity. Fry’s work has been linked to that of the Georgians, but the Elizabethan playwrights as well as the Jacobeans, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, are most often named as his literary ancestors. Fry’s desire to recapture a sense of life and wonder does suggest certain early seventeenth century parallels, as do specific literary borrowings from William Shakespeare’s comedies. In this respect also, Fry’s dominant rhythmic pattern is usually blank verse, although he makes extensive use of variations involving a four-stress line and the anapestic foot, which give his verse its characteristic speed.

Clearly, Fry’s verse drama has taken a direction quite opposite from Eliot’s, and one need only compare Eliot’s The Cocktail Party (pr. 1949) and Fry’s Venus Observed, both published in 1950 and both dealing thematically with the acceptance of limitations and the discovery of identity, to discern the differences in verse and treatment. In the Eliot play, the verse is submerged, approximating in general the common speech of modern people, rising to poetry only in moments of emotional intensity. In the Fry play, the verse is insistent throughout the play. Although both playwrights are concerned with the human being in his social context, the verse of The Cocktail Party seems much more solid, genuinely grounded in an action, which in itself has a depth that the action in the Fry play lacks.

Fry, as a dramatist, did not consistently master the third voice of poetry identified by Eliot in “The Three Voices of Poetry” as “the voice of the poet when he attempts to create a dramatic character speaking in verse: when he is saying, not what he would say in his own person, but only what he can say within the limits of one imaginary character addressing another imaginary character.” Fry’s characters, no matter how exorbitant their humors, generally reveal in their speech the voice of the poet, slightly academic and a little self-conscious, and it is for this reason that so many of Fry’s characters sound alike.


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Fry, Phyl. A Sprinkle of Nutmeg: Letters to Christopher Fry, 1943-1945. Foreword by Christopher Fry. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour Editions, 1992. A selection of letters from Fry’s wife, Phyl, to her husband during the last three years of the period that he was away on war service. They give a glimpse of life in rural Oxfordshire during the war and the relationship between the playwright and his wife.

Leeming, Glenda. Christopher Fry. Boston: Twayne, 1990. After a brief chapter on Fry’s life, the work offers a play-per-chapter discussion of the canon. It is much more a literary study of the drama than a performance study of the pieces as theater. Contains the first discussion of One Thing More: Or, Caedmon Construed, commissioned in 1986 by Chelmsford Cathedral and the BBC. Supplemented by a select bibliography, a chronology, and a brief index.

Leeming, Glenda. Poetic Drama. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Includes a long chapter on Fry’s poetic drama, “in conventional setting.” The work traces the language from early dramas (“assertive manifestation of the characters’ thought”) to later work (“the positive assertiveness of his language provokes critics to regard his work as like plum cake, too rich and too sweet”). Complemented by an index.

Roy, Emil. Christopher Fry. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968. From his success in 1948 (“A contemporary Shakespeare” said the press) to the inevitable comparisons to T. S. Eliot, Fry is examined to his 1961 play Curtmantle, one play per chapter. Attention is paid to the seasonal arrangement of his plays and to the religious view, dramatized in A Sleep of Prisoners, “that man can grasp hope through an endurance of suffering.” Includes a bibliography, an index, a chapter on Fry’s imagery, and an overview.

Salmon, Eric. Is the Theatre Still Dying? Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. Curtmantle and A Phoenix Too Frequent are treated in separate discussions around Salmon’s thesis that the theater is in fact alive and well if people take “some aspects of the English-speaking theatre of the last eighty years and examine them for signs of life.” Sees Curtmantle as “surely and safely theatrical” and laments its disappearance from the repertory. Bibliographical essay and index.

Spanos, William V. The Christian Tradition in Modern British Verse Drama: The Poetics of Sacramental Time. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1967. A discussion of A Sleep of Prisoners, demonstrating its debt to Charles Williams’s “sacramental doctrine of the Way of the Affirmation of Images.” Sees Fry’s “conception of human action as a figured dance that traces the outline of the mystery.” Select bibliography and index.


Critical Essays