Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3434
Storey has said that he is best known in England for his novels and in the United States for his plays. He has spoken also of being dismissed in the theater as a novelist and in literary circles as a playwright. His own attitude toward his work is divided. He feels a sentimental attachment to the novel, but writing plays gives him a sense of control that is lacking in writing fiction.
Central to Storey’s writing is the sense of life as a process of integration, disintegration, and renewal. In his play In Celebration (pr., pb. 1969), for example, three brothers return home to celebrate their parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary. They confront their past and then disperse again to their respective lives. Other familial relationships are dramatized in his plays about a football team, a crew of workmen, an art class, or inmates at a mental institution. His novels also depict estrangement from family and friends as a process of changing circumstance.
Storey’s plays deal with changing times, when the old is about to give way to the new. He is one of a number of dramatists of his generation whose roots are in the working class. In his close association with the Royal Court Theatre he joined in the spirit of the Angry Young Men, a term for such playwrights as John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, and John Arden. He shares with Harold Pinter a keen ear for the rhythms of everyday language and an equally keen eye for physical details that eventually translate into a play. The genesis of most of Pinter’s plays is a visual image of two people in a room, one standing and the other sitting. Similarly, Storey recalls having been struck by an image that remains at the end of The Contractor—a white metalwork table left on an otherwise empty stage. The table and two white metalwork chairs became the opening scene for his next play, Home.
Most of Storey’s novels deal in one way or another with characters from working-class families, depicted with a keen eye for the detail of local color and dialect. Generally, the novels are more thoroughly realistic that his plays, even if they sharply focus on a single character.
Within these broad thematic and stylistic concerns, specific themes, such as the work ethic—particularly the vibrant physicality of work or play—haunt his plays. In communal activity, where rules and rituals are shared, body and soul blend in an artistic entity. At times, the physical and spiritual are mutually hostile, as in Storey’s own experience on a rugby team among players who had difficulty accepting a painter in their midst.
Storey also contrasts the unity of old beliefs and their fragmentation in successive generations. In In Celebration, for example, the parents insist on an education for their sons, but their eldest son, in turn, questions the value of education for his own children. Much the same is true of the father-son relationship in the novel Saville. Not until the third or later generation does reconciliation seem possible, as demonstrated in his play Early Days (pr., pb. 1980). Until then, there are only painful choices to be made and guilt to be endured.
Storey attaches great value to family in both a literal and a figurative sense. The bond formed by family or by mutual endeavor matters deeply. For his characters, work provides a communal bond that may substitute when family ties are weakened or destroyed. This often occurs when the younger generation rises out of the working class. The term “generation gap,” a fashionable sociological phrase of the 1960’s, is in Storey’s plays a deep emotional and spiritual conflict between youth and age, between the old and the new, between the spiritual and physical. It is, in metaphysical terms, a confrontation between birth and death, as in Early Days, a play about an aged, once-successful diplomat who confronts his own decline. In its largest sense, this play is about an incurable sense of loss at the passing of time. Similar issues arise in the novel As It Happened (2002), in which an emeritus professor assesses his future after a failed suicide attempt.
With plays as physical as The Changing Room, at one extreme, and as artily abstract as Home, at the other, Storey’s work has posed some classification problems for critics. No definition of his style is as effective as Storey’s own three-part categorization. Under the heading “poetic naturalism,” he has placed The Contractor and The Changing Room. In Celebration is a “very traditional literary play,” and his “overtly stylistic” plays include Home. These four plays are his best known. In Celebration is famous for its treatment of the family theme. The Contractor and The Changing Room are recognized for breaking new stylistic ground. Home is remembered for its Beckettian echoes made unforgettable by the acting of Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson.
Storey’s novels, on the other hand, tend to a more direct realistic style. They nevertheless share many of the same thematic concerns.Virtually all of them are vaguely autobiographical, dealing with how characters who rise out of the working class can destroy or badly skew family and personal relationships. The central characters in these stories live in a close, personal world set against a rapidly changing society. Their lives are fragmented and distorted by the forces of class, family, money, and career. The later novels often confront issues of growing old and assessing a life’s value, such as A Serious Man (1998), about a successful playwright, or As It Happened, about a retired professor.
This Sporting Life
First published: 1960
Type of work: Novel
Rising out of the working class, a young man enters into a lucrative career as a professional rugby player but loses his emotional bearings in the process. He ends up isolated and trapped in a world that may soon have no further use for him.
Storey began his career as a novelist during the 1950’s, writing several novels before finally seeing both Flight into Camden and This Sporting Life published in 1960. Arthur Machin, the central character of This Sporting Life, is a professional rugby player, as Storey himself had been. Rugby is his life. Inside it, he knows his place and takes some pride in what he can do, but outside it he cannot fully relate to anyone. He is aware that two powerful, moneyed men in the mill town that hosts the rugby team dictate the terms of his life. Mr. Weaver and Mr. Slomer, mutual enemies, make things difficult, since deference toward one may be taken as a slight by the other. Launching what could become a lucrative, if short-lived, career in the hard-hitting, brutal sport of rugby, Arthur becomes beholden to Mr. Weaver in several ways, including receiving money advances and automobiles from him.
Standing outside the rugby world is another significant character: Arthur’s landlady, the widow Mrs. Hammond. Arthur rents a room from her when he first joins the team. He helps her with chores and with her two young children, Lynde and Ian. Eventually he seduces her. They begin a regular sexual routine. Yet, he is never quite able to sort out his relationship with her. He stays as her boarder long after he could afford better lodging. He buys her trinkets, a television, a fur coat, and other valuables, making her feel like a kept woman. She gradually becomes bitter and then angry. She throws him out, but from that moment her own life begins to deteriorate. By the end he only relates to her by sitting at her side, holding her hand, as she lies in a coma on her deathbed.
Storey plays two time periods against each other to build the sense of a fragmented, uncontrolled, and alienated life. Events in the present, written in the present tense, are juxtaposed against those from the past, written in the past tense, that meet with the present at the beginning of part 2. Moreover, the novel is written in first-person, giving an egocentric quality to the narrative. Arthur refers to Mrs. Hammond only as “Mrs. Hammond,” never using her first name, Val, until she is no longer in any condition to respond. He also is alienated from his father and mother because they both view Mrs. Hammond as a loose woman. As a final irony, Storey ends the novel with a long account of a rugby match played after Mrs. Hammond’s death, as if rugby is all that Arthur has left. Sadly, in a few more years he will not have even that.
First produced: 1969 (first published, 1969)
Type of work: Play
A family reunion turns into a painfully honest confrontation of three sons with one another and with their parents.
The most recurring of Storey’s themes, family conflicts, is nowhere more forcefully rendered than in In Celebration, first produced at The Royal Court. For their parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary, Andrew, Steven, and Colin Shaw—lawyer, teacher, and labor arbitrator, respectively—return to a grimy mining village to take their parents to the best local hotel for a celebratory dinner.
The dinner at the town’s most posh hotel serves as an occasion in act 1 for the renewal of familial relationships. In act 2, the acrimonious purging of family secrets, which for many years had lain unspoken beneath the surfaces of small-town respectability, takes place.
All three sons are the beneficiaries of a university education. Andrew and Steven are married and have families, and Colin is about to marry. All three seem to have fulfilled their parents’ dreams for them. Steven and Andrew have taken on the responsibility of parenthood. Colin, to his parents’ satisfaction, announces his intention to marry, adding that he will do so only because it is “less embarrassing to be married than not to be.”
Yet with rituals established—education, jobs, and family—something is amiss. Andrew, the eldest and most cynical of the sons, has given up law to become an artist. Steven has “packed in” the much-talked-about novel he is writing. Colin’s reluctance to marry, having an implication of homosexuality, foreshadows marital problems.
After the elder Shaws have retired and the sons have had a minor quibble about who sleeps where, their sleep is interrupted by Steven’s crying, the result of nightmares he has experienced since early childhood. The four men, safely out of the hearing of the mother, indulge in recriminations about the past.
Andrew has already recounted his mother’s farming him out to a neighbor for six weeks when Steven was born. Andrew had unsuccessfully pleaded to be admitted to her room. Now free to choose for himself for the first time in his life, he exchanges law for painting. He recalls laboring for “a home, a car, a wife . . . a child . . . a rug that didn’t have holes . . . I even married a Rector’s daughter.”
The deepest psychic wound involves the death of Jamie, the oldest brother, at the age of seven, when Andrew was nearly five and Colin nearly two. Mrs. Shaw, six months pregnant with Steven, attempted suicide because of an accumulated sense of guilt for Jamie’s death, ostensibly caused by pneumonia but, according to Andrew, actually caused by “galloping perfection” and beatings from his father. That perfection was marred from the beginning by the Shaws’ marriage, compelled by a pregnancy that greatly dismayed Mrs. Shaw’s family. According to Andrew, his mother was “raised up by a [pig] farmer to higher things than being laid—in a farm field—by a bloody collier.” The brothers eventually leave, Andrew to continue his painting, and Steven and Colin to confront their respective futures.
Some of Storey’s other plays also deal with the breakdown of traditional family relationships, including The Restoration of Arnold Middleton, The Farm, Mother’s Day (pr. 1976, pb. 1977), and Sisters (pr. 1978, pb. 1980). The same theme also appears in several of his novels, including Flight into Camden, Saville, and Thin-Ice Skater (2004).
The Contractor and The Changing Room
First produced: The Contractor, 1969 (first published, 1970); The Changing Room, 1971 (first published, 1972)
Type of work: Plays
The harmony and energy of a rugby team and a construction crew constitute other kinds of families.
Companion pieces first produced at the Royal Court Theatre, these two plays are the most striking examples of Storey’s plot technique of omitting the play’s central event from the onstage action in favor of dramatizing the characters’ inner states of being. The omitted events consist of a rugby match in one play and a wedding in the other. In The Changing Room, Storey substitutes locker-room action and conversation for the game; The Contractor substitutes the construction and dismantling of a wedding tent for the wedding ceremony.
The main feature of both plays is the physical activity that creates a bond among the participants and is seldom realized in situations outside of sports or the workplace. What makes the routines in work or play so vibrant and what sets these plays apart is the absence of conflict, except for the communally shared criticism of the outside world. For Storey, teamwork can reach heights that “like art, [can become] something transcending, both to the performer and observer.”
The clock in the brutally rough game of rugby runs constantly, and time-outs occur only for disabling injuries. The Changing Room’s locker-room rituals take place before a game, during a time-out, and at the end. All thirteen men on the team are at one point or another naked and participate in towel-slapping and joking with a flow of energy that is both sensory and rhythmic. Similar rhythms are experienced by the crew constructing a wedding tent for their boss’s daughter’s wedding in The Contractor. Although middle class, the owner of the company and his family have moments in which they join in the spirit of the work. It is into this physical rhythm and flow of energy that the audience is drawn.
Ordinary lives and dialogue, consisting exclusively of nondramatic conversations that reflect the daily lives of most people, inform the plays. Within the plays’ ordinary events the extraordinary is contained. Storey dramatizes life as it is lived. In the fragments of conversational exchanges, characters reveal the dramas of their inner lives. In both plays, Storey creates poetry from the naturalistic dialogue, much of it in local dialect and some of it in bursts of song.
First produced: 1970 (first published, 1970)
Type of work: Play
Two men and two women in a mental institution find dignity in a haunting and poetic recalling of their pasts.
The idea for Home, first produced at the Royal Court Theatre, occurred to Storey when he was struck by the concluding image of The Contractor—a metalwork table on an otherwise bare stage. Home opens upon a bare metal table, with two occupied metal chairs, outdoors at a mental institution. That there are only two chairs poses problems of seating when two women join the two men.
The men are middle class. Harry, a heating engineer, and Jack, a distributor of foodstuffs in a wholesale store, exhibit sensitivity and some gentility as they recall fragmented bits of their pasts. Marjorie and Kathleen, on the other hand, are anything but likely companions for the two men. They are concerned with physical matters, particularly their ailments, and they indulge in the kind of gossip and quibbling that have characterized their lives. They bicker especially about chairs, which are continually being carried on and off the stage. For all four, the present is about making things as comfortable for one another as possible.
Within this framework, Storey draws the interior landscapes of his characters in the tradition of the so-called plotless play. Characters freely exchange bits about their lives and their times in attempts to make sense of things. Christmas, for example, is not the season of good cheer it is supposed to be because “the moment money intrudes . . . all feeling goes straight out the window.” The men discreetly recall their sexual inclinations, the camaraderie of wartime, and the large families of the past. The diminishing of England itself is suggested in Jack’s fragmented references to “this little island.” Harry replies, “Shan’t see its like,” and “The sun has set.” In this personal and historical elegy something is gained: The human bond formed among the four characters has allowed them to give voice to a moving experience of commonality.
First published: 1976
Type of work: Novel
Colin Saville is the son of a coal miner who rises out of the working class to become a teacher by his early twenties. In the process, his relationships with his family and others become strained.
Saville is a rich and detailed chronicle, an ambitious undertaking that tracks the progress of Colin Saville, the eldest son of a coal miner, from the 1930’s through the 1950’s and over the span of more than five hundred pages. It is regarded as Storey’s most significant work, and it won the prestigious Man Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary award for fiction.
The Saville family lives in the coal-mining district of Yorkshire. Colin’s father, Harry Saville, leads a life of backbreaking work in the coal pits. Harry hopes for something more for his sons, Colin, Steven, and Richard, but especially for Colin, whose education is a matter of priority. Harry is good-natured but also ignorant and slow-witted. The mother is somewhat depressed and lethargic, and the brothers are distant and unmotivated. Ironically, Colin’s success pulling himself out of the coal-mining life and into a career as a teacher and poet creates resentment and bitterness in the family he leaves behind.
The story is realistic and objective, written in third-person voice. Despite that, the perception borders on first person, as every episode puts Colin at the center and all other characters are defined in terms of his relation to them—his father, his mother, or his brothers, for example. Nothing in the narrative is outside his direct experience. However, there is an important exception, for the novel begins some years before Colin’s birth. The first chapter and most of the second chapter deal with the birth and early life of Andrew, the son who died six months before Colin was born.
The exception is deliberate, for Storey creates a kind of ghostly presence hovering over Colin, who was expected to be the worthy replacement for Andrew. A much later scene has Colin visiting the cemetery where Andrew is buried and exorcizing his brother’s ghost to liberate himself so he can pursue his own life.
The life of the Savilles in Saxton, Yorkshire, is a microcosm set against the larger world of the Great Depression, World War II, the gradual breakdown of the British class system, and the fall of the British Empire. These forces contribute to Colin’s opportunity to shape a new life beyond the coal pits, but they also drive a wedge between Colin and his family. It is not that the family is cruel, loveless, or untrusting. Colin feels a strong bond and a sense of responsibility for his family. Similarly he develops strong friendships with others in his neighborhood. However, his abilities and his determination take him to new experiences far outside the realm of friends and family.
There are those who would like to pull Colin back and others who unwittingly hamper his ambitions. Among the former are the masters in his school, who like to abuse him verbally and hold him in check, as if they would prefer that he fail to realize his talents. Among the latter are Stafford, a friend and the son of one of the mine owners, whose social status ultimately alienates him from Colin. Colin’s love for Margaret, the daughter of a well-to-do physician, is similarly thwarted by the strictures of society. It is as though he becomes classless and belongs nowhere in that strange, unstable world of post-World War II England. Indeed, Elizabeth, a middle-aged woman who becomes a sort of substitute mother, tells him, “You don’t really belong to anything. . . . You’re not really a teacher. You’re not really anything. You don’t belong to any class, since you live with one class, respond like another, and feel attachment to none.”
In Colin’s farewell meeting with Margaret, who stays in Saxton while he moves to London, she says that changing the scenery does not change who one is, and she describes Colin “of belonging nowhere; of belonging to no one; of knowing that nowhere you stay is very real.”
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