John Russell Taylor

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

[David Caute's] first play, Songs for an Autumn Rifle (1961), is a complex and ambitious attempt to come to terms with the moral and political issues behind the 1956 Hungarian uprising, not only as they affected the Hungarians and the Russians in Hungary, but as they affected communists and non-communists elsewhere. The structure is very intricate, switching backwards and forwards between Hungary and London, and keeping several groups of characters in play at once—the editor of a London Communist newspaper, confused by the turn of events, his dogmatic mistress-cum-editorial assistant, his son in the army who refuses on principle to serve in Cyprus, the Hungarian rebels, good and bad, the Russian invaders, humane and ruthless. The play finally turns on the editor's decision to resign, and how he will do it, with maximum publicity or bowing quietly to the will of the party (eventually he does the latter). Caute's writing here has been accused of undue intellectualization, but I cannot help wondering if that is not largely because critics know Caute is academically interested in political theory before they come to anything creative he has done; in fact, though not all the characters are equally well realized (the women in particular are not too clearly seen), the play shows real dramatic talent allied to firm intellectual control of its argument.

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The Demonstration (1969) is even better, and incidentally characteristic of its generation in its preoccupation with standards of judgement and the borderland between reality and illusion. Central to its action is the continuing attempt of a university professor to contain student protest by letting it (hopefully) transmute itself into art as a dramatic metaphor on the stage of the university theatre. Motives and intentions are constantly called into question, and realities show themselves as illusions, illusions as realities, as fact and fiction change places. The dilemma of the central character, Stephen Bright …, is that, not unfamiliar in the middle generation of academics, of trying to protect his own position, his own standards of rules, and yet come to terms with, understand and, if possible, control the turbulent ideas and emotions of his rebellious students. In this struggle he is sublimely unprepared and unprotected; he has theorized, but his students do, and the results of his ideas, or something like them, in action are unnerving. In the end it is the play Pentagon 37, with which Bright has tried to contain student revolt, which itself defeats him, and within the context of which he is brought to a realization of his own rejection and impotence.

Among other things, the play itself is a metaphor, illuminating many of the problems the dramatist faces if he tries to use contemporary reality as the basis of art. And one thing it makes clear: in Caute's view literal-minded realism is just inadequate as an approach to the extremes and complexities of modern experience. (pp. 202-04)

John Russell Taylor, "The Legacy of Realism: William Corlett, Kevin Laffan, Christopher Hampton, Barry England, Anthony Schaffer, Robert Shaw, David Caute," in his The Second Wave: British Drama for the Seventies (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.; in Canada by A. D. Peters & Co. Ltd; copyright © 1971 by John Russell Taylor), Hill and Wang, 1971, pp. 191-204.∗

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