David Caute Roger Gellert - Essay

Roger Gellert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[David Caute's play Songs for an Autumn Rifle] deals with the impact on Socialist consciences of the Budapest rising of 1956, and it centres round the editorial desk of the British Communist paper Onward. The editor, Robert Hewson, is a man of high character and literary standing (hard to call to mind a comparable Communist editor in post-war Britain), but he is the Party's employee and must toe the Party line—which is no longer easy, as the dispatches from their Budapest correspondent, Paul Manning, are being grotesquely censored and rewritten before publication, and Hewson feels that the truth must be told. He must publish the dispatches intact, or resign….

[When the revolution fails] Manning comes back to London breathing fire and brimstone, confronts Hewson, and at last, with great difficulty, shames him into resigning.

This is the outline of the main, ideological plot, and the moral force of the crisis is such that it should have sufficed to carry the play. But Mr Caute is determined to pile on further agony. He gives Hewson a son doing his National Service, who refuses to go to fight at Suez, but is talked out of his rebellion by a smart young Intelligence officer in a scene parallel with his father's capitulation…. In addition. Hewson's secretary is engaged in a prolonged struggle with his wife for possession of his body and soul. It is too much; what promised to be a serious play by an intelligent writer turns into a contrived, conventional, almost commercial piece of 'theatre'; strong scene follows strong scene, while one's faith in the central debate slackens and the ring of truth fades more and more. The dialogue, too, goes corny under stress. 'You destroy everything you touch…. Your whole life has been based on a lie.'

If the framework of the play is overtheatrical, however, the details are sympathetic and convincing…. Mr Caute, in fact, is well inside Hewson's skin, desperately trying to see everyone's point of view. (p. 357)

Roger Gellert, "Unilateral Disgruntlement," in New Statesman (© 1961 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXII, No. 1592, September 15, 1961, pp. 357-58.∗