Enid Bagnold

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Walter Kerr

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I find myself touched by "The Chinese Prime Minister" and I don't think it is because [the play is] … about the end of things coming so soon after they have just begun. I am touched, I think, because I have seen one whole play in which there is not a single careless line.

There are careless scenes, oh, yes. Quite a large portion of the middle act is taken up with a crossfire of family quarreling that has as its purpose the badgering of [the main character] until [she] is pushed into a vital, and mistaken, decision. The sequence is ratchety enough to badger you, too, and to make you wonder whether the silken strands of the evening can be gathered into one steady hand again. But even here "carelessness" is not quite the right word. For playwright Enid Bagnold never does anything simply because she cannot think of anything better to do. Whatever she does, she does on impulse, inspiration, with a jump and with a dagger in her hand, eyes gleaming. The gleam, the mad glint of her inspiration, may indeed flash out of the untidiest of corners. But in itself it is marvelously pure.

The obvious word for a lofty, detached, unpredictably witty play of this sort is "civilized." But I think we should do Miss Bagnold the justice of trying to avoid obvious words. "The Chinese Prime Minister" might more nearly, more properly be called humanely barbaric.

Its comedy is barbaric in the sense that, for all the elegance of elbow-length blue gloves and for all the urbanity of precise syntax sounded against deep chocolate drapes, the minds of the people who make the comedy are essentially brutal minds, minds capable of caring for themselves….

The play deals with "the fascination and disaster of growing old" with a steady, open, impish and boldly questioning gaze that will not take sentiment for an answer. As a result of its unflinching smile and its emotional reserve, it earns sentiment. (p. 395)

[All] who speak Miss Bagnold's brisk, knobby, out-of-nowhere lines somehow or other become admirable. For the lines are thoughts, not echoes, not borrowings. And they are so often so very funny because they come not from the stage or from remembered literature but from a head that has no patience with twilight cant.

Miss Bagnold does not construct a play that all audiences will settle to easily…. [But it] shimmers on the stage—and wavers there, too—like a vast, insubstantial spider's web, strung with bits of real rain. It is not conventional, and it is not altogether secure. But it is written. And what a blessing that is. (p. 396)

Walter Kerr, "'The Chinese Prime Minister' Bows In," in New York Herald Tribune (© I.H.T. Corporation: reprinted by permission), January 3, 1964 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXV, No. 1, January 20, 1964, pp. 395-96).

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