Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448
David Storey has called The Contractor “one of the most satisfying things I’ve written” precisely because it is impossible to pin the play down: “It is when I feel that I don’t really know what [one of my plays] is about that it lives—it lives for me almost in the measure that it escapes and refuses definition.” For all of its apparent simplicity, The Contractor has a mysteriousness, perhaps partly because of its ritual aspects. The bonding of the group of more or less work-shy and unemployable “bloody misfits” who erect the tent, the repetitiveness of the men’s byplay and patter, and even the perfectly balanced structure of the play itself all fit familiar patterns.
While work is seen in The Contractor as its most fulfilling ritual and as an index of value (hence the desire of the family members to join in), it is also recognized as pointless. The tent is an ephemeral thing (“Come today. Gone tomorrow”), and Old Ewbank, as spokesman for the northern puritan work ethic, parodies what he preaches: “I worked thirty or forty hours a day.” For this reason, the play has been seen by some critics as absurdist, in the tradition of Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954), and Storey has been praised for his achievement in coupling entirely realist drama with the Theater of the Absurd. The tent itself is palpably real, but it is also an elusive metaphor for transience, for aspirations, and perhaps even for artistic creation.
Storey’s work consistently draws on autobiographical material. The Contractor focuses on the minutiae of a job he once did himself: tent-erecting. He includes within the play his surrogate, Paul, the boy out of tune with his family because he has been educated out of his class. He does not, however, accord Paul (or any of the characters in this emphatically group play) a central position. Old Ewbank, too, is a wanderer, and displacement seems part of the human condition when Ewbank says: “Nomads, Kay, that’s us . . . Tenting . . . First tent I ever had, you know, caught fire . . . went up. . . .”
Critical attention has also been drawn to the lack of labor-relations problems in The Contractor. For Storey, class conflict—a major subject of the British “New Drama” in the decade preceding The Contractor—is centered instead in the family. The play has a postcapitalist flavor; while Ewbank is indisputably the boss, he in fact has more in common with his “family” of workmen, including language, than he does with his real family, especially his son. “Don’t bloody well sir me,” he tells Fitzpatrick, “or I’ll fetch you one round your ear.”