Graham Greene

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Graham Greene Drama Analysis

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In the introduction to the 1974 edition of his first thriller-novel, Stamboul Train, Graham Greene confesses to an early passion for playwriting. While his earliest attempts at that genre have never come to light, the idea of shaping scenes dramatically informed much of his work as a novelist. Greene admitted that he sometimes found it essential to escape the liquidity of the novel to play out a situation, a confrontation between two characters perhaps, within the narrow confines of a space approximating the dimensions of a stage. This dramatic method within the form of the novel reached its climax in The Honorary Consul, in which most of the story takes place in a hut in which the kidnapped victims are held hostage.

Whereas dramatic form has influenced Greene’s novels, the theme of what may be his most popular novel, The End of the Affair (1951), pervades his most ambitious plays: The Living Room, The Potting Shed, and The Complaisant Lover. Frequently thought of as a Catholic novelist, Greene, who may have converted to Catholicism out of an intellectual need to find answers to questions ignored by the Anglican Church, makes his most explicit statements about the relationship of God and human beings in The End of the Affair, a first-person narrative in which a novelist, Bendrix, searches through his memories of Sarah Miles, the woman he loved and lost, to attempt some understanding of the role that God has played in his own life. Sarah, who did not remember that she had been secretly baptized a Catholic by her mother against her father’s wishes, had undergone a crisis during a London bombing. Finding her lover supposedly dead amid the debris, she had prayed to God to restore him to life. In exchange, she would believe in him. With Bendrix alive, Sarah broke off the affair and remained with her loving but dull and passionless husband Henry, a civil servant. Unable to cope with the pain of a life without passion at its center, Sarah seems to have willed her own death after a cold is aggravated by her being caught in the rain. Bendrix, who contemplates but rejects suicide, comes to understand Sarah’s dilemma, her growing need for God, when he reads her diary and enters his own dilemma as he attempts, but fails, to shut God out of his life. The novel’s real miracle is not Bendrix’s seeming resurrection after the bombing but his finding and offering of comfort and love in a nonphysical relationship with Henry Miles, whose need for Sarah is as great as his own. God’s love offers them all eventual peace.

The Living Room

In The Living Room , twenty-year-old Rose Pemberton, the child of a Catholic mother and a non-Catholic father, both deceased, goes to live with her two spinster great-aunts and her great-uncle, a priest who for many years has been confined to a wheelchair as the result of a car crash. Just before coming to her new home, Rose has entered into a physical relationship on the night of her mother’s funeral with a man twice her age, Michael Dennis, the executor of her mother’s will and a lecturer in psychology at the University of London. Dennis still cares deeply for his neurotic wife, who has a desperate need for him, and he makes clear to Rose that he cannot marry her. When Rose sees Dennis attempting to comfort his wife, she realizes for the first time that there are different kinds of love. Rose tries to overcome her despair by submitting to God’s love and...

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mercy as she takes a fatal dose of the pills with which Dennis’s wife had threatened to commit suicide herself. Rose’s great-uncle, the crippled priest, must explain to Dennis, who understands the mind of man but not the ways of God, that God’s realm is eternal. As a woman loves her child after the pain and suffering of bearing it, humankind finds eternal comfort in God’s love. Death is the child of humankind. For that death, which leads to God’s mercy, to be borne, human beings must first suffer the pain of life.

The most intriguing aspect of The Living Room, a play marred by its too-frequent emotionally charged confrontations, bordering on the melodramatic, is its unusual setting. Rose’s elderly great-aunts, Teresa and Helen, practicing Catholics, fear death even more than they love God. Like Luigi Pirandello’s character Henry IV (in his 1922 play), in an attempt to freeze time, to keep death at bay, they have made the third-floor nursery of their home its only living room. Every room in the house in which someone has died has been closed off. The dead have been forgotten; their pictures have been removed. The only room still available in the house, the living room, becomes Rose’s bedroom, and it is in the living room that Rose makes her choice, reverts to childhood as she seeks God in prayer, and dies.

The sisters Helen and Teresa, the characters in The Living Room who undergo a believable change as a result of the play’s action, force the theological issues of the play without being at its center. Helen, younger than Teresa but the stronger of the two, prevents Rose from committing the mortal sin of going off with a married man by convincing her nearly senile sister that she is ill and that Rose must stay to help nurse Teresa back to health. Helen has her daily woman, Mary, spy on Rose just as Bendrix, in The End of the Affair, hired Parkis, a private detective, to follow Sarah. Like Parkis, Mary comes to sympathize with her prey and regrets her involvement. After Rose’s death, Teresa asserts herself by choosing to move into the living room, which Helen wants to abandon. By embracing the memory of her dead grandniece, by choosing to meet her own eventual death in the room in which Rose died, Teresa forces her sister to an acknowledgment that God’s mercy could not be served by Helen’s unmerciful acts toward Rose, another of God’s creatures, for whom, hypocritically, Helen had only professed love. Helen’s role as villain, however, is a relative matter. A Catholic audience would understand that her actions have in fact kept Rose within the Church and leave Helen’s judgment to God. That same audience would further recognize the ambiguity of the play’s ending. Is Rose finally damned because of her suicide or does she achieve salvation? Greene leaves the question—which echoes that posed by Scobie’s suicide in the novel The Heart of the Matter—unanswered.

The Potting Shed

Greene’s next work for the theater, The Potting Shed, adheres to the conventional structure of the well-made play. A secret withheld from the protagonist is eventually revealed to him and to the audience as well. Benefiting from his experience as a writer of some well-plotted novels that he termed entertainments, Greene builds the suspense in what might be considered his religious thriller for the stage with a sure hand for most of the play. What makes The Potting Shed a sounder work than The Living Room is the author’s ability to relax the dramatic tension with humorous dialogue and some nuances of characterization absent from the one-dimensional earlier play. Adding an extra dimension to The Potting Shed and contributing greatly to its success was the memorable performance by John Gielgud in its central role. First produced in New York in 1957, The Potting Shed was presented in London the following year with some minor changes that reflected Greene’s original intentions. The most significant change was in the season of the third act—during the Christmas season in the American version, closer to Easter in the British version.

Like The Living Room, The Potting Shed is centered on death. The play’s premise is the imminent death of one H. C. Callifer, author of The Cosmic Fallacy and founder of a rationalist movement to disprove the existence of God (a belief that aligns him with Smythe, to whom Sarah Miles turned for comfort in The End of the Affair). Callifer’s works, which enjoyed a great vogue during the period in which twentieth century people moved from doubt to disbelief in the existence of a deity guiding their destiny, have in recent years fallen out of fashion. Faith is respectable once again, and Callifer, on his deathbed, has generally been forgotten. Indeed, in the last year, his soon-to-be-widowed wife reports, his masterwork has sold only three copies for export. Mrs. Callifer had instructed her precocious thirteen-year-old granddaughter Anne to send telegrams to absent family members informing them that Callifer is near death. With a mind of her own, Anne has taken it on herself to add the name of her uncle, James Callifer, the younger of H. C.’s two sons, to those summoned to Wild Grove, the family home, despite her grandmother’s deliberate omission of his name.

James Callifer, a newspaperman in his mid-forties who lives and works in Nottingham, has not seen his father in fifteen years and has spent little time at home in the last thirty years after having been sent away to school when he was fourteen. The estrangement from his parents seems to have been their doing. In fact, as his father’s death becomes imminent, his mother forbids him to enter Callifer’s sickroom.

Curiously, James has no memory of anything in his life before he was fourteen, and his life from that time on has been an empty one. His marriage to Sara, who has also joined the family in the Callifer household, failed when both husband and wife became aware that he had lost interest in the relationship, or perhaps had never had any. James has no close relationships, not even with his dog Spot, who is being housed in the potting shed, where seedlings are prepared for planting and the garden tools are stored. Overcome by an unaccountable fear on the dark path to the shed, James would let his dog spend the night without water rather than go to him.

After the memorial ceremony, marred by Spot’s spilling the ashes as they are about to be consigned to the river, James learns that another family member was not notified of Callifer’s impending death. His Uncle William’s absence, however, is understandable, for William is the family pariah. H. C.’s younger brother did not merely convert to Catholicism; he committed what was for his rationalist brother the ultimate sin: He became a priest.

On the eve of his return to Nottingham, James is informed by his niece Anne that she has heard that something shocking involving him occurred many years ago in the potting shed. In trying to learn something of his past, James has been seeing a psychiatrist in Nottingham. Despairing of a cure, however, he has hinted at suicide, even stolen some pills from his doctor. Prodded by Anne, he eventually learns the family’s dark secret when he hunts down his drunken uncle, Father William, in a run-down presbytery in an East Anglian town.

Long ago, James and his uncle were close, and William attempted to teach James basic Christian precepts, which H. C. violently opposed. The confused fourteen-year-old James hanged himself in the potting shed. Finding him dead, William prayed to God for a miracle—a miracle the reverse of that in The End of the Affair. In the novel, on finding Bendrix dead, Sarah offered God her belief in him in exchange for her lover’s life. In the play, on the other hand, William, a believer, offered God, in exchange for the boy’s life, what he loved most in the world: his faith. Having forgotten the terms of the bargain, Father William has spent the intervening years in despair, with whiskey his only means of getting through an existence without meaning, without hope.

James’s journey toward the light is a moving one, and the confrontation between nephew and uncle is as highly charged a scene as any that Greene has written in novel or play. That the mystery is solved at the end of the second act, however, makes an anticlimax of the third act, in which Mrs. Callifer admits to spending her life protecting her husband from an acceptance of the truth of the events in the potting shed. Having accepted God’s love, loving him in return, her son James is at last enabled to love another human being and offers that love to his former wife, Sara. Despite the weakness of its final act, The Potting Shed, more than The Living Room, can, on the strength of its intriguing mystery, engage an audience uncommitted to the author’s own religious beliefs.

The Complaisant Lover

In The Complaisant Lover, Greene returned to that staple of so much of his fiction, the tragic triangle. The relationships of Sarah Miles and the two men in her life, her civil servant husband and her novelist lover, in The End of the Affair, were obviously still on his mind when he wrote this play about Mary Rhodes, her dull dentist-husband Victor, and her worldly-wise lover, Clive Root, an antiquarian bookseller. In the play, however in contrast to the novel, Greene chose to rely on the sense of humor so evident in The Potting Shed but absent from The Living Room, a humor that should come as no surprise to readers of his fiction. Long an admirer of the comic actors J. Robertson Hare and Alfred Drayton and their Aldwych farces so beloved by London audiences of the 1920’s and 1930’s, in both The Complaisant Lover and his following play, Carving a Statue, Greene extended himself by exploring the relationship between farce and tragedy. In The Complaisant Lover, he was successful; in Carving a Statue he was not. Perhaps the single feature contributing to the success of the former is, surprisingly in a work by Greene, the total absence of any allusion to God. Mary loves both men, and both return that love without any of them having to come to terms first with a love for or a hatred of God.

Evident from the start of The Complaisant Lover, an obvious advance over his earlier work for the stage, is Greene’s ability to sustain a scene in which characters reveal themselves in extended small talk rather than dramatic confrontations. In the after-dinner conversation at the Rhodeses’, Victor engages in some mildly boorish behavior as he relates unamusing anecdotes and plays practical jokes on his guests. One of them, Clive Root, who is paying his first visit to the Rhodes household, is obviously unamused. He has recently entered into an affair with Victor’s wife, Mary, and he is unable to surrender himself to Victor’s jolly mood. Clive is also irritated by the unwelcome advances of yet another guest, a determined but inexperienced nineteen-year-old. Alone with Mary, Clive pleads with her to leave her husband and family, but Mary already understands what Rose had to learn in The Living Room: There are different kinds of love. The best Mary can offer Clive is a brief holiday abroad. Telling Victor that she is going to Amsterdam with an imaginary friend whom she spontaneously christens Jane Crane (the rhyming jokes about Mary’s friend become the play’s running gag), Mary makes plans for a trip with Clive. Her plans further call for Victor to join her after “Jane’s” departure.

The comedy of manners of the opening scene becomes the pure farce of the play’s second scene, set in a hotel room in Amsterdam. As Clive is about to leave, Victor appears a day earlier than planned, accompanied by a Dutch manufacturer of dental equipment who speaks no English. Entirely without guile, Victor is pleased to see Clive and has no suspicions concerning his wife. When Mary asks Clive, who still wants to marry her, to let matters stand until Victor learns the truth, Clive attempts to force the issue. He dictates to a bewildered hotel valet a letter to be posted to Victor, supposedly from the valet, informing the dentist of his wife’s infidelity.

The mood changes again in the second act after Victor reads the letter, part of which the valet has got right, part of which has gone hilariously wrong. The revelation, however, plunges Victor into despair, not at the abandonment of his God but at the possibility of his abandonment by the wife without whom he cannot live. Contemplating suicide but rejecting it as a silly solution for which he is not properly dressed—tragedy requires togas, not the dinner jackets of domestic comedy—the sometime boorish dentist takes on near tragic proportions. In a moving scene with his wife, he pleads with her to stay, making clear Greene’s belief that marriage has little to do with sexual satisfaction and more to do with living in a house with someone one loves. Victor had stopped making love to her only when he had become aware that he was no longer giving her physical pleasure. Mary, desirous of a future involving a physical relationship with Clive, cannot turn her back on her past sixteen years with a man who needs her, a man who has been a good husband to her and a good father to her children. With a variation on the ending of The End of the Affair, the establishing of a solid relationship between husband and lover after Sarah’s death, Victor, eager to be a complaisant husband, suggests that his very-much-alive wife keep both of her men. Reluctantly, Clive enters into the newly formed relationship.

The accommodation at the end of The Complaisant Lover is by no means a conventional happy ending. Bendrix and Miles at the conclusion of The End of the Affair may in fact be happier in their loss than are the three characters in The Complaisant Lover in their resignation. None has exactly what he wants, and Clive is realistic enough to understand that the day will eventually come when he will tire of the arrangement, when Mary, recognizing Clive’s pain, will end it. Greene seems unable to refrain from bringing to bear his own religious scruples, here unstated, on his characters’ moral dilemma. At any rate, in The Complaisant Lover he has fashioned his most successful play and expertly handled its varying moods.

The Return of A. J. Raffles

As Ibsen moved toward mysticism in his exploration of artistic creation in Bygmester Solness (pb. 1892; The Master Builder, 1893) and Naar vi døde vaagner (pb. 1899; When We Dead Awaken, 1900), Greene, too, turned mystical in Carving a Statue, a play about a failed artist and his indifference toward his unhappy child, which Greene may intend as an echo of God’s creation and the sacrifice of his son to redeem it. In the delightful The Return of A. J. Raffles, by contrast, Greene for once gave himself over wholeheartedly to the pursuit of fun. The author’s subtitle tells all: An Edwardian Comedy in Three Acts Based Somewhat Loosely on E. W. Hornung’s Characters in “The Amateur Cracksman.” As Raffles helps Lord Alfred Douglas get even with his father, the marquess of Queensberry, in a plot involving the prince of Wales, Greene sends his characters scampering in and out of an established social order, the conventions of which parallel the bewildering manners and mores of the contemporary world. The play’s inability to find an audience despite an elegant and accomplished production by the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company may well have dampened Greene’s enthusiasm for the theater.


Graham Greene Short Fiction Analysis