Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821
The Contractor opens with three naked poles, the basic framework for a large tent. The workmen drift onstage slowly, shivering and preoccupied with food; the audience sees that it is early morning and cold, the beginning of the working day. Ewbank hurries them along with a few choice insults. His two concerns are that the lawn will be damaged and that the workmen will upset a house full of guests by relieving themselves in view of the windows. The audience swiftly gathers that he is not only the boss but also (for the first time in his working life) the client. The tent will showcase a first-class wedding reception for his daughter, who is marrying “above” her family. The men go through the “ritual of touching forelock,” but Ewbank’s fussing makes little difference to the rhythm of their work. It is punctuated already by bursts of patter (and sly jokes on the boss’s discomfort) by the two Irishmen, Marshall and Fitzpatrick.
Paul lounges onstage, hands in his pockets. While the truck is unloaded, he lingers, offering to help. Ewbank ignores him; his daughter, who enters briefly, is clearly more a favorite. When the family leaves, the men revert to type, snatching breathers and mouthfuls of food, mocking Glenny’s stammer, discussing wives and daughters, making up limericks, and playacting at “work.” Nevertheless, work proceeds methodically; side-poles are erected, then canvas shackled. The latter, Bennett points out, is all new: clean and white.
One by one, all the inhabitants of the house are drawn to the work. Old Ewbank wanders in, showing off a piece of rope he made in his craftsman days. Act 1 reaches its peak of physical activity when the men all crawl under the canvas and, pulling in unison on the “guys” (ropes), raise the tent. Paul reappears and settles to work. The walling is hung, and battens for the flooring are laid out. Mrs. Ewbank makes the men a pot of tea. At the end of the act, Paul sits, abstracted, in the empty tent while the men take their break.
Act 2 concerns the beautification of the tent; muslin drapes and a roof are pinned up and the poles decoratively sheathed. Flowers and white ironwork tables and chairs are arranged. Glendenning has a fit of crying when the others accuse him of selfishness for scoffing a large bun; Ewbank consoles him with chocolate, which Glenny shares. Meanwhile, Ewbank has had a drop to drink (detectable in his broader accent) and rolls up his sleeves to work. The men work barefoot at laying the polished parquet floor. Bennett, resenting how (to his mind) Kay picks on him, reveals that Kay once spent time in prison; Fitzpatrick needles Kay, but with little result. The bigmouthed Irishman’s conversation with Paul also lays bare Paul’s entire lack of direction and self-worth. Ewbank is similarly uncertain; left alone with Paul for a few uncomfortable minutes, he offhandedly offers him the lucrative business; Paul refuses.
When the tent is finished and the men have gone home, Ewbank looks up at it and simply comments, “Come today. Gone tomorrow.” The family members gather and tentatively start dancing (without music), and as the act ends, he whirls Mrs. Ewbank round in a waltz. The others leave, and Ewbank stoops to pick up Old Ewbank’s discarded bit of rope; he leaves slowly, and slowly, too (as at the end of act 1), the lights fade.
Between acts 2 and 3 the wedding takes place, unseen and unheard. Act 3 opens on the following morning; the beautiful tent has suffered; its drapery is loose and soiled, bits of the dance floor are missing, and furniture is topsy-turvy. The men drift in, as before. Fitzpatrick makes the rounds of the discarded bottles: Some may not be empty. Glendenning collects litter, and Kay directs the others. As they work on the muslin walling, a revelation of sorts is made. In the day between the erection of the tent and its dismantling, Bennett’s wife has left him. Fitzpatrick’s aggressive humorous needling becomes too much, and Kay sacks him.
Fitzpatrick is immediately reinstated, however, when a morose Ewbank arrives. He chivies the men along, as before. Old Ewbank wanders on with his useless bit of rope and holds forth on the work ethic; his keeper, Old Mrs. Ewbank, steers him away, since they are to leave. Paul, too, announces his departure, destination unknown. The tent is dismantled and the truck loaded. Before the men depart, Ewbank produces a tray with cake and spirits; they join together in a toast to the marriage. Then, as the sounds of the departing truck die away, Ewbank is joined by his wife. They contemplate the marks on the lawn, the chill of the impending autumn, and the wedding that has so quickly come and gone. Then they leave and the stage stands empty: “bare poles, the ropes fastened off. The light fades slowly.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 194
The Contractor exploits to the fullest the perennial fascination of audiences with actors making something right before their eyes; the raising of the tent becomes entirely absorbing during the performance. That activity compensates for the play’s entire lack of conventional dramatic “action” (the wedding is elided, and all dramatic conflicts—between Fitzpatrick and Bennett, for example—are defused). The Contractor is static, yet full of life. It might best be called an evocation rather than a drama.
This play is “well-made” in the Chekhovian sense. It is not only well shaped (compare, say, the mirroring of its opening and its close, or consider how the men’s continual eating at every odd moment climaxes in the sharing of the wedding cake) but also wonderfully well written—Storey’s ear for dialogue and cliché is very fine. Furthermore, particularly in the “double-act” of Fitzpatrick and Marshall, Storey plays with words and with the working-class music-hall tradition of song, patter, and the “turn”:
Marshall:[Glendenning’s] fallen in love, Kay.Fitzpatrick: With the lady of the house. (They laugh.)Marshall: She was only a tentman’s daughterBut she knew how to pull on a guy.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 163
Sources for Further Study
Free, William J. “The Ironic Anger of David Storey.” Modern Drama 16 (December, 1973): 307-316.
Haffenden, John. “David Storey.” In Novelists in Interview. London: Methuen, 1985.
Hutchings, William. The Plays of David Storey: A Thematic Study. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.
Hutchings, William. “’Poetic Naturalism’ and Chekhovian Form in the Plays of David Storey.” In The Many Forms of Drama, edited by Karelisa V. Hartigan. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985.
Liebman, Herbert. The Dramatic Art of David Storey: The Journey of a Playwright. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Porter, James E. “The Contractor: David Storey’s Static Drama.” University of Windsor Review 15 (1979-1980): 66-75.
Quigley, Austin E. “The Emblematic Structure and Setting of David Storey’s Plays.” Modern Drama 20 (1977): 131-143.
Solomon, Rakesh H. “Man as a Working Animal: Work, Class, and Identity in the Plays of David Storey.” Forum for Modern Language Studies, July, 1994, 193-203.
Taylor, John Russell. “David Storey.” In The Second Wave: British Drama of the Sixties. London: Eyre Methuen, 1978.
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