Enid Bagnold Walter F. Kerr - Essay

Walter F. Kerr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The dramatist who would convey one of the essential secrets of her play by having two of her characters sit down in the second act and simply ask one another twenty questions is quite a daring one. The dramatist who can, while engaging in this pretty game, make us all lean forward and hang suspended on every curious word must be a very good one.

I say "must be" because … ["The Chalk Garden" is] baffling on quite a few counts….

Gleams of some kind of truth flash back and forth across the stage somewhere between the words that are spoken and the glances that are evaded. Tea goes on being served, flowers go on being transplanted, the conversation grows brighter and brighter. Spurts of wild humor cascade without warning over the darkening landscape; epigrams that would do credit to Ivy Compton-Burnett leap unpredictably out of sober, even savage, clashes. Whatever is being communicated is communicated elliptically, around psychological corners, with the impulsiveness of thunderbolts out of clear blue skies. It is as though Miss Bagnold had wanted to dramatize what one of her characters calls "the shape and shadow of life, with the accidents of truth taken out." Truth is an accident, and cannot be discovered until eleven o'clock.

But what is truly baffling about ["The Chalk Garden"] … is that, out of all that is circuitous and eccentric and delightfully left-field, something very real is communicated. At the last the defiant picture slips gently, almost imperceptibly, into focus: this particular world rests on a soil of chalk, and nothing can grow in it; only someone who has brushed death and earned detachment can penetrate the underbrush of daily living, weed out the simple facts, and save a couple of souls.

It should be obvious enough that Miss Bagnold has not written a play, or used a method, that is likely to have vast popular appeal. She has done one thing, though: she has had a vision of what a very fresh and personal kind of play could be like and she has seen it through with wit, literacy, and an almost unearthly integrity. A special taste, no doubt; but, on its level and of its kind, extraordinarily tasty.

Walter F. Kerr, "Theater: 'The Chalk Garden'," in New York Herald Tribune (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), October 27, 1955 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. 16, No. 20, October 31, 1955, p. 229).