John (Clifford) Mortimer 1923–
English dramatist, novelist, scriptwriter, critic, and translator.
Although Mortimer began his literary career as a novelist, he has gained his greatest success as a playwright. His works make effective use of autobiographical experiences, particularly those relating to his career in the English legal system. As a lawyer, Mortimer has argued for the defense in several freedom-of-speech trials and helped to have government censorship powers over the British theater abolished in 1968. As a writer, Mortimer is partial to comedy; he believes that it is "the only thing worth writing in this despairing age, provided the comedy is truly on the side of the lonely, the neglected, the unsuccessful." While containing fantasy and humor, much of his work has at its center such serious topics as human rights, the problems experienced by society's outcasts, and corruption in the legal profession.
Mortimer unites many of his interests in The Dock Brief (1957). In this play, an undistinguished lawyer is chosen to defend a man accused of murder. The lawyer, who has waited all his life for this chance, rehearses his defense with his client, and fantasizes about the effect his closing argument will have on the jury. However, once in the courtroom, the attorney is dumbstruck and loses the case. Nevertheless, his client is freed because, according to the judge, the lawyer's incompetence has caused an unfair trial. Such surprise endings are typical of much of Mortimer's work.
Although most of Mortimer's dramas are traditionally constructed, they treat many of the same issues dealt with by his more experimental contemporaries. For example, the failure of communication is a prominent theme in the one-act plays The Dock Brief and What Shall We Tell Caroline? (1958), among others. Critics often praise Mortimer's one-act plays for their eloquent dialogue and for his grasp of theatrical convention. However, many find his full-length plays less successful because their plots are either too ambitious or too slight for the longer format. Mortimer is praised perhaps most of all for his ability to incorporate humorous autobiographical anecdotes in his work. For example, the play A Voyage Round My Father (1970) is a witty, sensitive portrait of his father, and Clinging to the Wreckage (1982) is an autobiographical account of his various occupations and acquaintances. Mortimer has gained recent critical acclaim for his script for Rumpole of the Bailey (1975) and his adaptation for television of Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited (1981).
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed. and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13.)