David Rudkin John Elsom - Essay

John Elsom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Why is David Rudkin's Ashes … a sad, but not a tragic, play? What dimension does it lack? The brief reply, a kind of energy, begs more questions than it tentatively attempts to answer, for Rudkin's play bears all the signs of honest effort, which is energy of a kind. Its theme is as fundamental as that of Lorca's Yerma, which it resembles: childlessness, but seen from the angle of a couple, not just from a wife's….

There is so much to respect about Ashes (not least, Rudkin's ambitiousness) that it goes against the grain to record that … [it] is a dreary, self-absorbed play. Rudkin has given himself a situation which he has not managed to develop into a story. From the tone of the opening scenes, we know that Anne and Colin will not have a child. Even when the urine tests prove positive (to the strains of triumphant music), an ominous piano rumble from the Erle King indicates that Death is not far behind. On one level, therefore, the situation cannot develop: it can only go from bad to worse. And so the final scenes of the play, and particularly Colin's long monologue about Ulster, are anticlimactic, leaving the feeling of one damn thing after another….

[The] true failure of Ashes … is the lack of imaginative vitality. Rudkin knows what he wants to say, but he cannot find the dramatic means to do so.

John Elsom, "Ashes to Ashes," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of John Elsom), Vol. 93, No. 2411, June 19, 1975, p. 817.