A play about old age should not itself be tired, but the writing in The Chinese Prime Minister is sometimes more enfeebled than its subject matter. Enid Bagnold, I am informed, was seven years about it. That's too long, especially when the work still lacks plot, or focus, or clear intention. I would guess that the author spent the major portion of those years honing up her dialogue, for each line has been sharpened to a fine edge. But she has grown too sage, and the epigrams tend to come out homilies. Take, as typical, this sentiment, which I assume to be the theme of the play: "The only way to enjoy death is to exhaust life." Note how Miss Bagnold has structured the thought; note the Latinate balance, the euphuistic contrasts, the rhetorical antitheses. Note also that, for all its formal finish, the sentence offers purely routine wisdom. This may be a personal prejudice, but the carpe diem motif has begun to strike me as a commonplace and sentimental notion. There is something contradictory in these self-conscious exhortations to instinctual pleasure—and something useless, too, since how does one decide to follow such advice? Miss Bagnold is too tasteful to tell her audience to enjoy, enjoy, live life to the fullest, realize every golden moment…. Still, one senses her wrestling with a like temptation: and there is a quality in her play which is as banal as the proverbialism in a fortune cookie.
In short, The Chinese Prime Minister lacks the poetic suggestiveness that so distinguished Miss Bagnold's previous drama, The Chalk Garden. And though it employs many of the same characters …, these characters now seem very isolated and disjunct, lost in the separate corridors of the author's mind. As if aware of this, Miss Bagnold has shaped them to a Chekhovian design, while borrowing that loose, eccentric structure that Shaw used in Heartbreak House—the play wanders, lurches, and ambles according to the author's fancy. In The Chalk Garden, the action was built around a suspenseful plot; here, it is built around a 70-year-old actress on a latter-day quest for identity. But the character is simply not interesting enough to justify the loss of narrative. (p. 28)
Robert Brustein. "Mid-Season Gleanings" (reprinted by permission of the author; © 1964 by Robert Brustein), in The New Republic, Vol. 150, No. 5, February 1, 1964, pp. 28, 30.