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.)
Answer Yes or No is professional in manner and closely knit. Mr. Mortimer, whose Rumming Park has left an agreeable impression, writes with an authority remarkable in a man under 30, and gets his story going with a verve and precision which command the reader's confidence. His hero Ransom, a young Common Law barrister, is isolated by circumstance, and is making his way by devotion to work and ability. The first chapter shows him in court, and the skill with which his nature—humane but sturdy, conscientious but not diffident—is conveyed through action, in a double sense of that word, is admirable. Mr. Mortimer has a mature conception of characters and relationships in public life, but an immature conception of private emotions and conflicts.
Ransom meets a couple called Letts and almost at once fails deeply in love with the unhappy wife, Caroline. A close parallel exists in Ransom's mind between this triangle and one in a defended divorce case in which he is appearing; the story shifts between the two without loss of impetus. It is the unfolding of Letts which causes a decline in the reader's confidence,...
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for that white-faced mental sadist belongs in some pretentious film, and the predicament in which he involves Ransom seems false, too. He is stagey, and so is the culminating scene of violence between the two men. It is sad that Mr. Mortimer, such a persuasive guide in public places, should give private faces "blazing eyes," and make the nice genuine Caroline break out melodramatically: "I'm just a woman of flesh and blood who needs loving, that's all."
"Public and Private Lives," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1950; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2525, June 23, 1950, p. 385.∗
It is time a halt was called to titles containing the words "traitor," "treachery" or "betrayal." Mr. Mortimer's novel is the choice of the Book Society, which shows again how unerring is that awesome body's sense of the contemporary: Like Men Betrayed is nothing if not the English Novel, Model 1953. It is a highly professional piece of work, but its modishness prevents one from taking it very seriously. Its characters, chilled by cold blasts from Greeneland, brace themselves with a little weak Sartre. In the country, the county families run their feckless riding schools while waiting for their tippling wealthy relations to die. In London, the young man, who has never known security, takes to crime, while his father, the rectitudinous solicitor (yes, as a young man he had wanted to be an artist), prepares to take on his son's guilt and its consequences…. In his sourly efficient way [Mr. Mortimer] gives us a brisk and vivid reshuffling of the current cliches of fiction. He writes very well except when his desire for the curt image betrays him into meaninglessness….
Walter Allen, in a review of "Like Men Betrayed," in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1953 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. XLV, No. 1164, June 27, 1953, p. 785.
Like Men Betrayed [seems] emotionally thin…. The very facility of [Mr. Mortimer's] style betrays him too often, in his neat descriptive phrases, into a cleverness of invention rather than observation which challenges the reader's acceptance. Particularly in many of his passages of scornful satire the reality beneath ceases to be recognizable. However, the exciting and complicated plot, developed rather slowly at first and relying at two vital points on the coincidence of one character receiving a telephone call intended for another, compels and holds the reader's attention and interest.
"Back to the Land," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1953; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2683, July 3, 1953, p. 425.∗
Before [Kennet discovers the swindle that is to change several peoples' lives and lead Kennet himself to his death in "Like Men Betrayed"], Mr. Mortimer has introduced us to a chain-stitched cross-section of contemporary England, embroidered with a score of richly colored and contrasting characters, kind, hateful and indifferent, greedy and generous, fantastic and familiar. He has led us through dingy London boarding-houses, cozy clubrooms, solid, middle-class homes and "sad pubs that smell of the Middle Ages." He has given us a glimpse of a bleak, remote village in the shires, where men ride to hounds three times a week while their wives "try to light, with blue fingers, paraffin lamps in stone-flagged kitchens."
But, since he is a brooding philosopher as well as a magnetic story-teller, the author never for a moment lets us lose sight of Kennet and all he symbolizes as he moves, almost willingly, to his doom. A passive, sensitive, essentially lonely man, incapable of a mean act, Kennet felt that he had failed in his responsibility to the war-shocked Kit. "Had he not known himself and his limitations so well, he might have succeeded in knowing Kit better. He had been content, perhaps, to admit that the generation which opposed him baffled him—and, when the chance of resignation came, he almost welcomed it."
Perhaps the author only meant to say that Kennet's death redressed the balance—giving his son a sense of destiny.
Roger Pippett, "His Death Redressed the Balance," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1954 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 28, 1954, p. 22.
There are plenty of words in John Mortimer's two one-act plays, "What Shall We Tell Caroline?" and "The Dock Brief," But they do not really signify enough.
"What Shall We Tell Caroline?" is one of those allusive and elusive plays in which Mr. Mortimer is dealing with the ineffectualness of human beings in relationship to each other, with that troubling problem of communication. A little song toward the end of the play with the line, to the effect that we are birds in the wilderness gives the clue to what the playwright is trying to say. No one on the stage truly speaks to the others.
Arthur Loudon, a stodgy headmaster, is deeply in love with his wife, but finds it impossible to say so. Instead of endearments he snorts and bellows in his conversations with her. Tony Peters only pretends to be fond of Mrs. Loudon, yet, nevertheless, in feigning affection provides her with the tonic her husband cannot give. None of the adults has any way of communicating with 18-year-old Caroline. What shall they really tell her of life and human beings?
All this Mr. Mortimer wraps in a mixture of real and stream-of-consciousness dialogue. Not all that is spoken between his characters is actually heard by them. A good bit of it is interior reaction to situations. The mixture is not always easy to fathom and one has to dig hard for meaning. It is questionable whether the effort is worth the trouble.
In "The Dock Brief" Mr. Mortimer starts off with a touching notion—an old, unsuccessful barrister gets his first chance to defend a criminal. He hobbles into the man's cell aglow with dreams of glory. At last he will have his chance to rise in court, confound the judge, tear at the heart strings of his client he plays out the different approaches he will use, how he will summon different witnesses and deliver the crucial bit of surprise evidence that will turn an open-and-shut case into victory and liberation.
But Mr. Mortimer does not know when to turn off the word-spigot. Although there is humor and sadness of vain dreams in this play, they are inundated. A listener must fight to ward off the stupefication….
"The Dock Brief" has been done with reported success in other cities abroad. It would be interesting to know how that was accomplished.
Lewis Funke, in a review of "What Shall We Tell Caroline?" and "The Dock Brief," in The New York Times (copyright © 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 22, 1961 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theater Reviews: 1960–1966, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1961).
John Mortimer puts himself firmly on the side of the drama of protest. Like most of the current English writers, however, his protest is a severely limited one. It is not a cosmic, nihilistic protest, as in the French avant-garde drama, but a protest against the oppressiveness of society's rules. It is a protest, furthermore, that has its feet firmly and distinctly planted within the society it protests against. Mortimer is not only against—he is also for. He is for those who have been unable to cope with society: for the failures, the flotsam, the drifting scum of society; for the rejects and the defeated; for the hopeless and the numb; and for those who have chosen to conceal their hopelessness even from themselves in a desperate pretence. John Mortimer's plays are the glorification of the failure.
A failure is hardly a heroic figure. Mortimer's failures receive their stature by analogy: they are the antitheses of the organization men. The efficient compromisers are the villains of Mortimer's plays, even though they do not appear in them personally. They are condemned by contrast. Mortimer has no use for the survival-of-the-fittest doctrine, since, as he sees it, the terms of the survival are dictated by those who know they will triumph under those terms, the sum of which constitutes the society we live in.
Although he began his writing career as a novelist, Mortimer's talent definitely does not lie in the direction of the longer stage forms. The Wrong Side of the Park (1960) is interesting only as the representative of a type of play much favored by the young English writers. It is a rather clumsily told story of an incipiently schizophrenic housewife in suburban London who is saved on the brink of lunacy by her husband's sudden awakening from the torpor into which his job as a civil servant has sunk him. The interesting thing about this play is its exemplification of a syndrome that appears to afflict most of the current young English playwrights. The syndrome is the writer's need to exorcise his personal drab middle-class background by producing a work in which his origins are denigrated and ripped apart. In Mortimer's play,… we see the writer serving his apprenticeship with a play about family life in suburban, semi-detached houses where restless adolescent children rebel against their parents, usually a weak-willed and ineffectual husband married to a stronger but unpleasantly neurotic wife. (pp. 253-54)
The real value and originality of Mortimer's drama lies in his one-act plays. Like Jean Tardieu in France, Mortimer seems to have made the one-act form peculiarly his own. It is here that his failures come into their own—here that they become successes at last by alienating themselves completely from the society that has trodden them down through decreeing terms they have found impossible to honor.
The most successful of Mortimer's one-act plays … are The Dock Brief and What Shall We Tell Caroline? Both of these plays take place in Mortimer's world of the misfits and failures…. The Dock Brief and What Shall We Tell Caroline? are about unsuccessful lawyers, blundering schoolmasters, and families where the children grow up in silence and regret. The lawyer in The Dock Brief is a pathetic figure who has gone gray waiting for a "dock brief" (charity case) to show up. Now, at sixty-three years of age, he has finally been chosen to try his first case. It is a murder case, and he has no doubt at all that it will make him famous…. He spends most of the time allotted to him for interviewing his client in acting out his pipe dreams of success with the result that when the time comes to go to trial he is totally unprepared. The case is hopeless, anyway. In the second scene we learn that the lawyer has failed again. Instead of the brilliant two or three day address to the jury which was going to move strong men to tears and cause women to faint, he said nothing. No words would come; and so he just sat down again and gave up. His client is convicted, of course, but is immediately afterwards pardoned on the grounds that the incompetence of his lawyer rendered the trial an unfair one. Momentarily depressed, the lawyer cheers up again at the thought that his client, with whom he has become quite friendly, may need some little legal advice in the future. As the curtain falls, both men happily dance out of the cell whistling a gay tune. After a brief excursion into the cruel world of reality for which he is simply unfitted, Morgenhall, the lawyer, scampers back into the dream world where he fiddles away his existence with his crossword puzzles and his dreams of glory…. He simply does not have the stamina to make his way in the everyday world; and Mortimer's sympathy is entirely with him and with his kind.
In What Shall We Tell Caroline? the debonair pretender becomes a faded London roué who has been an assistant master at a small boys' boarding school on the bleak Norfolk coast for eighteen years. For eighteen years he has kept his spirits up by reminiscing about his days as a gay young blade on the Earl's Court Road. Accompanying himself on a banjo as he tells stories of lurid escapades that probably never happened, he brings a little light into the drab life of the school…. The one thing wrong with the household is that Caroline, the headmaster's daughter, has not spoken to anyone for a long time. At the end of the play she finds her voice again and announces that she is going to London. But the play is really about the aging roué who has been hiding out from the reality he constantly talks about and dreams about for eighteen years.
Mortimer's other plays, I Spy, Call Me a Liar, Lunch Hour, David and Broccoli, Collect Your Hand Baggage, and Two Stars for Comfort are all similar efforts. All of them deal with people who are unable to cope with the world and who seek refuge in their illusions. Mortimer's sympathy is entirely with these characters, for he feels that their rejection of the conditions of society—their mute rebellion as it might be called—is justified. To function in society and be a success is commendable only if we accept the conditions set up by society as correct. This there is no reason to do. The laws of society are purely arbitrary, and there is nothing wrong. Mortimer feels, in receding into an individual world of one's own. Mortimer's view of people is one of personal sympathy…. (pp. 255-57)
George Wellwarth, "John Mortimer: 'The Apotheosis of Failure'," in his The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1964 by New York University), New York University Press, 1964, pp. 253-57.
John Mortimer sees himself as a pretty traditional sort of playwright, in whom traditional influences are at work (Dickens, Chekhov, the Russian novelists), and feels that his admiration for the plays of Pinter and Simpson, the ideas of Osborne and Wesker, does not imply any very close kinship. Many of his critics, particularly those unequivocally, left of centre, have tended to agree with him, suggesting that though on a number of occasions he has been bracketed with 'new dramatists' … he is really an 'old dramatist' in disguise, writing 'in almost every respect typical Shaftesburiana', as a reviewer in Encore put it in connection with The Wrong Side of the Park.
Now there is something in this: certainly The Wrong Side of the Park in particular is nearer the sort of play which a British dramatist would be writing now if no real challenge to the supremacy of Rattigan had been heard in the theatre than almost any other new play by a writer under forty. But even here there are important differences, and when one looks more closely at Mortimer's one-act plays it rapidly becomes clear that he is after, on a more popular level, the same sort of thing as many of his contemporaries. His subject, like theirs, is more often than not the failure of communication, the confinement to and sometimes the liberation from private dream-worlds; his approach to language is not so far from that of, say, Alun Owen, involving the use of a hypersensitive ear for the way people really talk and a talent for selecting and heightening to produce a fully theatrical eloquence which yet carries the hallmark of reality….
[Mortimer] applies his exploratory techniques to the middle classes in decline rather than the working classes ascendant…. (p. 258)
[His] plays take place entirely in a seedy middle-class world of run-down private schools, draughty seaside hotels, nine-to-five offices and the shabbier corners of the courts. What Shall We Tell Caroline? and David and Broccoli are both set in schools, The Dock Brief, Two Stars for Comfort, and at least one of the sketches have law in the background, and so, in a more roundabout way, does I Spy, though it is set in a seaside hotel; most of the rest are about office workers at work or at home in faded but 'quite nice' suburbs on the wrong side of the park. The world they present is consistent in its mixture of tragedy and comedy, the mixture being a practical expression at once of Mortimer's views on what the writer should be doing in the modern world and what the dramatist specifically should be offering audiences in the theatre. (p. 259)
Mortimer's championship of 'the lonely, the neglected, the unsuccessful' is the more telling in that it is, strictly, an elevation of them and not a degradation of 'the others'—in Mortimer's plays there are no ready-made villains on whom the blame can be put ('This man would not be lonely and unsuccessful if it were not for …'); instead, the seedy and downtrodden are accepted on their own terms, as human beings, mixtures inevitably of good and bad qualities, and then without glossing over or minimizing the bad qualities, Mortimer gradually unfolds the good for our inspection.
The danger in this is obvious enough: that in showing all one's characters in the best possible light one will fall imperceptibly into the sort of sentimental whimsy favoured by Frank Capra and Robert Riskin in such thirties comedies as Mr Deeds Goes to Town, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, and You Can't Take it With You, in which each character tends to be established by some 'quaint', 'lovable' peculiarity (as though for a contemporary comedy of humours), and a fantasy world of good intentions is hopefully substituted for the real world in which, even at its most comic, everybody does not mean well. Up to now Mortimer has managed to avoid falling into this particular trap, though he is often near enough the brink for his audience to be aware of the danger. Partly it is his taste for the grotesque (Dickens is the obvious parallel here) which saves him, and partly his precise ear for the way people really talk, which enables him, by a sort of sleight of hand if nothing else, to give his plays a certain stiffening of reality whenever they look like going too soft on him. (pp. 260-61)
Mortimer is at his happiest when he does not have to explain directly, but can imply as much explanation as we are entitled to expect in the action of the play as it unrolls. For despite himself Mortimer seems to be at one with other dramatists of his generation in the belief that human behaviour cannot really be explained by some simple formula which makes everything clear; you cannot turn every play into a sort of whodunit—a why-did-he-do-it, perhaps—in which the clues are planted and then just before the curtain someone explains which was the one vital clue to explain a whole personality. Life is seldom if ever as clear-cut as that: all sorts of explanations may fit the facts, and any or all of them may be true; motives are generally so mixed that even the principals in any given event do not know quite why they are acting as they are. When, as in What Shall We Tell Caroline? or one or two of his later plays, Mortimer is content just to show us such a situation and leave us to 'explain' it how we will, the result is far more satisfactory than in his cut-and-dried pièces à thèse, since then the audience's imagination is quickened instead of deadened, and the dramatist is compelled to integrate cause (what would be explained) and effect (what is actually said and done in the present) into dialogue of a fairly uniform density, instead of letting his play disintegrate into wads of aimless, if for the instant quite entertaining, chatter among which are scattered occasional hard nodules of too clinical explanation.
Several of the later one-act plays offer good examples of this less direct technique, and so do a number of the revue sketches…. In these, obviously, the discipline of extreme brevity precludes explanation. The situations have to carry such explanation as they need as graphically and succinctly as possible—and the same applies slightly less forcibly in the one-acters for stage and television. In Lunch Hour, for example, we have what is in effect an extended sketch about a couple, a fairly respectable business-man and an office-girl, trying to find somewhere where they can make love in the lunch hour. He is not very expert, chooses a respectable boarding-house near a station and spins the landlady a story about having to talk something over quietly with his wife. But the secretary, being a simple unimaginative soul, begins to act as if what he has said is true, wants to know what was the business which was so urgent she should be summoned down from Scarborough to discuss it, and wonder if she ought to have anything to do with a man who can behave so heartlessly towards his (imaginary) loved ones. The joke is prolonged and elaborated much too far, but at least the characters are permitted simply to reveal themselves in what they say and do and the explanation ('Telling the truth is often a great concealment; we are given away by what we pretend to be') is kept for the preface to the published text.
In The Encyclopaedist …, the method is similar: an encyclopaedia salesman has three encounters with the same woman and sees three faces of her in three successive phases of her marriage, phases in which the question of knowledgeability plays an important part, hence the relevance of his encyclopaedias. And in Collect Your Hand Baggage we have another comedy of misunderstanding when Crispin, the forties bohemian surviving bravely into the sixties, decides to bestow himself as a favour on the daughter of his landlady, plain and therefore, he believes, loveless, only to find that she does not want him, has hardly noticed him, and is about to go off to Paris with someone else altogether. (This is an odd and none-too-well-balanced piece, since the role of the young people who accompany Crispin is never made clear, though they seem to have more significance than the sort of collective straight-man to him they are here required to be….) Too Late for the Mashed Potato is another television piece about the role of illusion in life, again very schematic in its demonstration of 'Lies for the sake of truth, infidelity for the sake of fidelity'; a husband revitalizes his marriage by pretending to flirt with a girl in a deserted Italian lakeside resort, and thus satisfying his wife's need for drama.
But arguably the most successful of all the later plays is Mortimer's second foray into the world of school, David and Broccoli…. Here the scene alternates between two of Mortimer's pet stalking-grounds, the old-fashioned, slightly disreputable private school in North London and a faded residential hotel cluttered with potted plants and tea-room wickerwork. The story is that of a timid, unathletic boy's fear of and animosity towards 'Broccoli' Smith, the rough, powerful, but slow-witted P.T. coach. He has his chance to get even with Broccoli when he discovers Broccoli's weakness—a passion for the elementary occultism of Everyman's Almanac of future events—and exploits it to such effect that he convinces Broccoli that the end of the world is due the very next Thursday, the day of the prize-giving, and thereby brings about a scene as a result of which Broccoli leaves under a cloud, with no other job open to him. Though the central premise of the plot is rather farfetched, the play scores by the precision with which the backgrounds are evoked and the unsentimental reality of the boys, particularly David, who is a fascinatingly accurate amalgam of overdeveloped intellect and undeveloped understanding: in his terror he sees no farther than the immediate object of his terror, and sees it as something to be disposed of at all costs. But even when Broccoli is routed and thoroughly cut down to size he feels, apparently, no particular compunction about having removed the one security in his victim's pathetic life: he is a child, yet he has vanquished a man, and that is enough. About children at least Mortimer has no illusions, and the end product, though evidently more fantasticated than What Shall We Tell Caroline? is as far away as that minor masterpiece from the sentimentality which always tends to soften unduly the sinister and grotesque elements in Mortimer's work.
As much can hardly be said for Two Stars for Comfort, his second full-length play, though it does in some respects show an advance on The Wrong Side of the Park: it is concentrated fairly and squarely on one character and the events which lead up to his belated moment of truth, and it resists the temptation to tie everything up too neatly with a cut-and-dried explanation of him and his way of life in the last five minutes. But these improvements are counterbalanced by the recurrence in exaggerated form of other faults from Mortimer's earlier work, notably the shameless reduction of minor characters (and even some major characters) to comedy-of-humours stereotypes, each tirelessly parroting variations of his or her idée fixe, and the tendency to play what is basically a rather slight and sentimental plot anecdote for considerably more than it is worth. (pp. 265-69)
The most obvious miscalculation in the play is Mortimer's apparent mistaking of this story, eminently suitable as it would be for one of his more insubstantial one-act comédies larmoyantes, for the real stuff of tragedy. Neither of the principal characters develops, they just change: Sam right at the end, when like his namesake in Call Me a Liar he is persuaded by the action of the girl he is involved with to forsake illusion and embrace reality; Ann, the girl, twice, first of all when she (predictably) succumbs to Sam's advances and the charms of a twirl of the drum-sticks, and then at the end when an unkind burlesque of her relationship with Sam staged by the other young people snaps her back, rather less explicably, to the realities of the situation. But the progression of their affair and the effect it has on them both is made the central theme of the play, a position it is far too weak to sustain. To support it Mortimer has in effect devised two contrasting choruses: the quartet of young people from Collect Your Hand Baggage, who represent presumably iconoclastic youth and vitality (though they appear rather softened and the 'bigger and more destructive part' they were intended to play is confined to their cathartic regatta-night entertainment), and the matching quartet of old regulars (the woman whose one subject of conversation is her vanished husband; the schoolmaster obsessed with local history, and so on). For the most part, in fact, these other characters are present just to fill in any gaps in the action with amusing and characterful conversation—which they do quite efficiently, though by this stage in Mortimer's work the device is becoming rather too mechanical for comfort, an over-glib way of inflating a slight inspiration to superficially imposing proportions.
Mortimer's latest full-length stage play, The Judge (1966) is more problematical. A judge at the end of his career comes to hold his last assizes in his home town, which he has never returned to during the previous forty years. Evidently he has come back to deal with some unfinished business; evidently, too, he is quietly going off his rocker. He talks darkly of past crimes he has allowed to go unpunished. He expects some sort of protest in court, some challenge of his fitness to judge, and we gather that the crime must be something he has done himself, or connived at, in his youth: it is himself first and foremost that he wants judged. And little by little, from his devious allusions, we can piece together that it was a guilty liaison with a girl living in the cathedral close, that he agreed to her having an abortion, and has been haunted by this, and the wrong he feels he then did her, ever since. Now he has come to square things, to face the accusation he feels must necessarily come from the girl, now a woman in late middle age keeping a run-down antique shop as a front for a sort of casually organized and perhaps largely amateur brothel. By half-time the judge has got a couple of his old schoolmates, now a doctor and a journalist on the local paper (and both regular visitors at 'Aunt Serena's') into such a tizzy that they are ready to start a witchhunt against Serena, whom they imagine to be the object of the judge's obscure fulminations, in order to take the heat off themselves. From this arise some rather unlikely plot manoeuvres, with Serena being not only ostracized by her regulars but set upon in the streets and chased home from the off licenses. And so, finally, to the inevitable confrontation between the judge and his past (Serena), from which, in a slightly unexpected way, he gains nought for his comfort, because not enough for his discomfort.
Basically, there is a good plot here, but in its treatment Mortimer has taken on several liabilities and then loaded things still further against himself by writing the play in the particular style he does. To begin with, it is surely important, for a plot so odd, highly charged and mysterious, that all the people involved should seem at the outset very ordinary and everyday. In particular, the judge, eaten up by a hidden obsession, should seem the model of correctness and sanity, instead of being presented as an evident nutcase from the start. Similarly, it would surely be more effective if his victim were a peacable, respectable body, keeping, perhaps, lodgings for girls studying at the local teacher-training college, instead of the garrulous old bore she is here, wildly over-characterized with endless requests that others should save her life with a ciggy and chats about the Fitzroy and the Café Flore over glasses of cheap vino. It would also help if the various twists and turns of the plot were better motivated. For example, why are the judge's schoolmates so terrorized by him? What can a judge do to clean up local morals in a town where he is holding assize if the police are not playing along with him, as here they patently are not? To remove things even further from familiar reality, the play is written for much of the time in Mortimer's most flowery and picturesque vein, with a number of long addresses straight to the audience which rely on telling us (very eloquently, to be sure) about the town and its atmosphere instead of showing us in the course of the dramatic action. Clearly at long last Mortimer has hit in this play on a plot capable of going the necessary length for a whole evening's entertainment; what a pity, then, that he has not hit on the right style to make it work.
Mortimer remains in many ways an unknown quantity among the new dramatists, if only because he appears too completely knowable. There is no noticeable development between The Dock Brief and The Judge: each successive work has shown the general expertise, the amazing skill and facility with dialogue, and the thorough practical grasp of the medium for which it was originally intended which marked the first play of all, and the most we can proffer, tentatively, by way of a subsequent discovery is that the full-length play may not be his forte and that he should eschew the temptation to point his moral too plainly. Mortimer's world is consistent and instantly recognizable, and he knows his way round it with complete certainty: the question now is will he find it in subsequent works the trap it looks now like becoming, or see it rather as a launching-pad to the discovery of fresh worlds elsewhere? His most recent work does not begin to provide the answer. (pp. 270-72)
John Russell Taylor, "In the Air: John Mortimer," in his The Angry Theatre: New British Drama (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.; in Canada by A D Peters & Co Ltd; copyright © 1962, 1969 by John Russell Taylor), revised edition, Hill and Wang, 1969, pp. 258-72.
John Mortimer is not alone among contemporary playwrights in being at his best in his one-act plays. The same is true of writers as diverse as Ionesco and Peter Shaffer but for very different reasons. With Mr. Mortimer it is not an inability to sustain the development of a character over three acts—he does that quite well with Sam Turner in Two Stars for Comfort—but his plot nearly always depends on a narrative structure very much like that of an anecdote. The pattern is a simple one and could easily be spoiled by over-elaboration. The murderer is reprieved because the barrister, so talkative in the cell, becomes too tongue-tied to defend him. The private detective who can find no evidence against the woman he is shadowing starts by dating her and ends by proposing to her. The lunch-hour lovers get so involved in arguing about the fiction the man invents for the hotel manageress that they have no time to go to bed. In his dramatization of stories like these, Mr. Mortimer does succeed, to some extent, in capturing the flavour of some of the anachronisms of the Macmillan era the half-hearted rearguard action fought by middle-aged middle-class failures trying to pretend that everything was still going to be all right. Mr. Mortimer himself has enormous affection for these incompetent barristers, helpless private detectives, shabby schoolteachers, unloved waitresses and unsuccessful seducers—so much affection, in fact that he loads his own charm on all of them. This has the advantage of making them all lovable and entertaining and the disadvantage of making them all rather too much like each other and rather mannered in their use of words. The dialogue in his four new one-act plays, Come As You Are, is less self-conscious than it is in the [one-act plays collected in Five Plays], and the language in the latest of these, Collect Your Hand Baggage, is already less artificial than in the earliest, The Dock Brief and What Shall We Tell Caroline? But it is hard to see how Mr. Mortimer got his reputation for writing realistic dialogue.
"Anecdotal Anachronisms," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3578, September 25, 1970, p. 1096.∗
John Mortimer's "A Voyage Round My Father" … is a rewarding but essentially trivial play. It is autobiographical, and Mr. Mortimer is telling the story of his father, a blind, curmudgeonly lawyer, who never let his disabilities get the better of him, but then, with his sour and easy wit, never got the better of his disabilities.
As a playwright Mr. Mortimer has always seemed to suffer from an inability to distinguish between a character and an eccentric. His portrait of his father is probably totaly truthful, but in dramatic terms it remains a caricature blandly begging for kindness. This father would be a bore if he had sight, and a rather nasty, self-opinionated bore at that. The fact that he was blind adds slightly to his interest, but not enough.
Clive Barnes, "London Season," in The New York Times (copyright © 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 27, 1971 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theater Reviews: 1971–1972, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1971, p. 116).∗
[Will Shakespeare: The Untold Story] is a fictionalized biography…. The author has created a chatty, colorful narrator, Jack Rice, a member of Shakespeare's company, to fill in the gaps in what we know of the life. Mortimer, a novelist and playwright, is delightfully imaginative as he reveals the genesis of some of Shakespeare's best lines and scenes. He has steeped himself in the period and in Shakespeareana, apocryphal as well as substantiated; he uses everything that comes to hand with intelligence, wit, and good taste. The book's charm increases in direct proportion to the amount of knowledge the reader brings to it. In the best tradition of Shakespeare-spoofery, as irreverent as Shaw's Dark Lady of the Sonnets, as inventive as Wilde's Portrait of Mr. W. H., it is at the same time as full of action and color as a novel by Jeffrey Farnol.
Dorothy E. Litt, in a review of "Will Shakespeare: The Untold Story," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, July, 1978; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1978 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 103, No. 13, July, 1978, p. 1436.
[There] is no doubt that Mortimer's Rumpole is like something out of Wodehouse in that he has become, seemingly over-night, an institution like Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. In America they even have a Rumpole Society. But Rumpole, under all that eccentricity and the oceans of wine at Pomeroy's Fleet Street wine bar, is a radical just as his maker John Mortimer is a radical. Underneath the paraphernalia Rumpole carries about—which includes his wife, She Who Must Be Obeyed; Nick, the appalling sociologist son now living happily in the even more appalling Miami, Florida; plus the sometimes very crude tricks of plots there is a continuous radical message being beamed out at us. Perhaps radical is not the best word to use. What it simply means is that Rumpole is always for the weak against the strong, for the little man against the big man and that, surprisingly enough, is a rare place to be, for most people are usually on the other side, right behind the strong against the weak every time.
Rumpole is in the genteel, upper-middle class English radical tradition and a good thing, too, because we've heard a bit too much lately from the Left-wing loonies and the braying asses on the Right. Rumpole, I suppose, when you come down to it, is a Social Democrat….
[Regina V. Rumpole] is composed of Rumpole for the Defence and Rumpole's Return. This last is novel-length and, I think, all the better for it. We are so used to Rumpole in short-story form that it takes you back a bit being confronted with an entire novel, but Mortimer actually cut his literary teeth on novels and he handles this long tale with ease.
In it the great man has been forced into retirement by the appalling Hilda, She Who Must Be Obeyed; by the dreadfully modern son, Nick, who has sunk to being head of the sociology department at a university in Miami, Florida; and by losing ten cases in a row because they were heard by the old mad Bull himself, Judge Bullingham, the curse of Rumpole's legal life.
Rumpole up against the horrors of America is everything you could wish for. Nick is married to an American girl who speaks American, saying things like "poolside" when she means by the side of the swimming pool—Rumpole calls it swimming bath and is so out of sorts with America he even puts inverted commas round "sidewalk". Not surprisingly perhaps, She Who Must Be Obeyed takes to Yankee ways, even starts, Rumpole notices, speaking American. He is in despair. Rumpole dislikes the sunshine. He is homesick for the rain outside Temple Tube station. It is perhaps some measure of Mortimer's genius that you can sit down, positively damp from just glancing out the window, with an evil English indoor gale billowing the old socks, pick up Rumpole and know just what he means about loving the rain.
A lovely little murder back in London brings him out of retirement. It is Rumpole at John Mortimer's best. (p. 1073)
Stanley Reynolds, "Rumpole SDP," in Punch (© 1981 by Punch Publications Ltd.; all rights reserved; may not be reprinted without permission), Vol. 281, December 9, 1981, pp. 1073-74.∗
Rumpole of the Bailey deserves to take his place among the great barristers of literature. Like Trollope's Chaffanbrass he knows nothing of the law…. Like Dickens's Serjeant Buzfuz he plies his trade on behalf of worthless clients by telling each new jury that never before has he approached a case with such feelings of deep emotion and heavy responsibility…. The stories written by John Mortimer about Rumpole are already classics of legal literature, at least in the same class as A. P. Herbert's Uncommon Law and Theo Mathew's Forensic Fables. (p. 789)
[Regina V. Rumpole] contains several more short tales and one longer story. It will give further satisfaction to those who know Horace Rumpole and will provide a perfect introduction for anyone who has yet to make his acquaintance.
In addition to Rumpole, the entire cast of legal London is portrayed in caricatures that are wickedly accurate…. John Mortimer's style enables him to deflate any ego with a well-aimed sentence. When Rumpole 'applied a torn-off page of the Criminal Law Review to the electric fire and lit the small cigar', the value of academic lawyers to the practitioner is effectively demonstrated.
Part of the joy of these stories is the very accurate description they present of the lower judiciary in England. If Mortimer, or anyone else, published such accounts of named judges, an action for contempt of court would be likely to ensue. Only in legal memoirs or in 'fiction' does the convention permit one to evoke the villains on the Bench. The judges before whom Rumpole appears are perverse and, often, biased; they are ignorant of the ways of the world; and they are deferential or rude to witnesses depending on the status of those who have the misfortune to give evidence before them. Only a counsel of Rumpole's experience (and lack of ambition) can afford to reply in kind to the discourtesy emanating from the Bench. The reasons for the inadequacy of those who sit in judgment are explored. Appointment to the Bench depends not on satisfying defined criteria, but on being recommended to the Lord Chancellor's Office. (pp. 789-90)
Rumpole himself remains something of an enigma. He has his failures in court, but he frequently displays remarkable powers of advocacy; he is a shrewd judge of character; and he often has judges eating out of his hand. Moreover, he exercises powers of detection that would do credit to Scotland Yard. Yet we are asked to believe that he is a hack barrister whose career has never progressed. High-class crooks should be queuing up to secure the services of such a wizard of the courts.
The world of Rumpole is partly fictitious. Although the guilty are sometimes acquitted, it is very rare for Rumpole to see the innocent convicted. Furthermore, at the end of his cases (and often well before the end, by reason of his intuition) Rumpole finds out what really happened. The adversary process of a real trial more often leaves the truth mysteriously hidden, covered over by the evasions and half-truths of competing contentions. However, if the Rumpole stories, and the advocacy of their chief protagonist, may occasionally fail to convince, they are never less than a delight. (p. 790)
David Pannick, "The Rumpole Enigma" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1981; reprinted by permission of David Pannick), in The Listener, Vol. 106, No. 2740, December 17 & 24, 1981, pp. 789-90.
In the final episode of Brideshead Revisited Charles Ryder and Julia sit on the steps in the enormous house and agree to part. They're both weeping and generally inarticulate, but one of the 'broken sentences' Charles manages to mutter between stifled sobs is 'So long to say so little'. It could serve quite nicely for the last word on this paradoxically compelling serial. Rather like [Evelyn Waugh's] book itself, I suspect that it was the first half that got us watching the second. The departure of Sebastian, leaving centre stage to Charles Ryder, consigned most of the final episodes to a level of infuriating dullness. It's foreseeable defect, but one which scriptwriter John Mortimer seemed reluctant to avoid.
There's been much talk of Mortimer's faithfulness to the text, but in changing medium—from novel to TV series—such commendable rectitude can often be technically inept if not wrongheaded. This was particularly evident in episode six, where Julia is finally led on stage. Almost the entire episode was a sepia flashback of the courtship of Rex Mottram. In the book this largely takes the form of straightforward reported speech, but there are also some pages of direct conversation—post facto reminiscence by Julia and Charles. This is a clumsy device in the novel, but on the screen it comes across as sheer thoughtlessness. The voice-over renditions of this dialogue, and the clear intimacy that the interlocuters share, effectively deprive the forthcoming Charles/Julia romance of any vestige of suspense. We know from the very outset of Julia's appearance, while we're still in the process of learning about her and Rex, that she and Charles will end up together. One minute Charles is an art student in Paris, then suddenly we're presented with a view of him on an ocean liner arm in arm with Julia. To someone who doesn't know the book such methods of moving the story on must appear bafflingly amateurish.
Mortimer, of course, is simply reproducing Waugh's own struggles with the plot, and to that extent is blameless. But, while Mortimer's adaptation is by and large unobtrusive, he can't entirely escape responsibility as he does occasionally contribute material of his own.
The most notable expansion has been of the general strike episode. The strike, and the party Charles and Boy Mulcaster go to while it's on, occupy some five and a half pages in the novel. In the serial these peripheral events took up an entire episode. The party scenes in particular had to be supplied almost entirely by Mortimer. This isn't a bad thing; in fact these scenes were amusing and entertaining. The point is that if you can take these sort of liberties with the text on one occasion, then there are no grounds for not taking them on others, and the excuse of 'scrupulous adherence' is no longer viable. (p. 23)
William Boyd, "Back to Brideshead," in New Statesman (© 1982 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 103, No. 2650, January 1, 1982, pp. 23-4.
John Mortimer's book [Clinging to the Wreckage] has a thoroughly misleading title. It is designed to enlist a little pathetic sympathy for someone carried along like a piece of flotsam without the courage or determination to strike out for the shore. It would be difficult—judging from the book itself—to find anyone less shipwrecked than John Mortimer and less likely to pursue this policy if shipwrecked. At every stage Mr. Mortimer demonstrates a firmness of intention which makes the title slightly fraudulent.
In the Wild West idiom, 'a man's gotta do what a man's gotta to do': but when and where a man has 'gotta' write an autobiography is a matter for debate. The interesting question is why Mr. Mortimer chose this moment of his life to write this book. One senses a motivation more pressing than the importunities of hopeful publishers…. [There] can be no doubt that Mr. Mortimer had a book, and an interesting book, inside him. It is unnecessary to say that his autobiography is immensely readable. He is a distinguished, if not a great dramatist; he has evolved an imaginative and immensely popular television series; he is first-class in discussion programmes on television and, presumably, radio, and is careful not to be overexposed; and he has recently developed into one of the best newspaper interviewers in the country. He writes book reviews which are usually more entertaining than the books he is reviewing. It follows that what he has to say about his life must be of interest. The book has received, in almost all quarters, unqualified and well-deserved praise for its readability. But I must confess it leaves me dissatisfied.
I can claim to be a friend of John Mortimer, although not a close friend. I have never mixed in his circles. But I know and have seen enough of him to doubt whether the book presents a full picture. Since he is an honest man, it certainly presents a true picture so far as it goes, and I am not even sure that the author is conscious of what he has left out. John Mortimer is an interesting and exciting original—a rare commodity in this country today. He is amiable (the word 'Pickwickian' struggles to emerge but he is worthy of a less cloying adjective), witty, warm-hearted, generous and humane, it is sad to say that these qualities do not emerge from the book with any great clarity. The book presents, and was clearly intended to present, the picture of a cool, dispassionate and largely uncommitted observer. Mr. Mortimer may see himself in this light, but few other people will so see him. For someone like him, it would have taken quite a feat of dissembling to achieve this result….
[Although] he espouses unconventional causes he represents the essential upper-middle-class Englishman, pursuing some erratic notions. (p. 11)
The book is episodic and was obviously written at some speed. The great autobiographies of the world depend, I think, on the attention to detail with which they are written: this book is self-indulgent in that there is detail only of those matters which have retained his interest. We gather that he was—but is probably no longer—a supporter of the Labour Party. Politics are clearly not for him, although he would seem to be natural material for the SDP. The book is marred by a certain calculated crudity in some of his descriptions of his emotional life and by one absolutely nauseating jest. This does not imply any genuine coarseness of character so much as the determination to maintain an emotional nonchalance lest the reader should suspect that events have made a deeper and sharper impact than the author likes to admit.
It is in relation to his legal career that the book is most disappointing, and for two disparate reasons. Legal memoirs are in special need of detailed recollection. What the Judge actually said to the impertinent advocate and what exactly was the response; how the late F. E. Smith insulted the Judge with sufficient forensic skill to avoid evil consequences; how Marshal Hall demonstrated the pistol and how his clerk brought in an air cushion for him to sit on. It is details such as these which grip the interest, and in such details the book is notably lacking. The two main interests in his life I share. The theatre, to which he has made such a distinguished contribution, has been a love of mine, incredibly enough, for sixty years or more…. John Mortimer adds little of novelty in his account of his theatrical life. We do not smell grease-paint from the pages and the occasional reference to a distinguished theatrical figure is insufficient to make the book a significant one about the stage. His prominence in the law arises through his participation in a number of cases to defend the 'book' and the 'writer' against intolerable outside interference. Here he has justifiably acquired a reputation as a freedom fighter, but this, alas, does not make him a legal progressive. (pp. 11-12)
I enjoyed reading [John Mortimer's] book and recommend it warmly to those who want something to wile away the odd hour, but I have a feeling that we will one day get a more profound account of his life from this very remarkable man. That book may be less readable and sell fewer copies, but it will tell us more about the author than he is at present prepared to divulge. (p. 12)
Lord Goodman, "Aversion Theory" (appears here by permission of the London Review of Books and the author), in London Review of Books, May 20 to June 2, 1982, pp. 11-12.
The debt of autobiography to the antics of extraordinary fathers as they appear to their sons is native to English comedy. In "Clinging to the Wreckage" …, Mr. John Mortimer, who is equally distinguished as a lawyer and as a playwright, draws on this powerful source. His discursive narrative is often as hilarious, if not as innocent, as early Wodehouse; it is also often touching, warm, and wise. When he is combative, he is also tolerant of his bizarre of dubious characters. He is as tender with his pugnacious father as he is cheerfully candid about himself. The title of the book is dead right: both parties, in their differing ways, had to cling to wreckage; they did not sink, but, with dogged good humor, they clung. The stoical father's case was more desperate than the son's. A formidable barrister, the father went blind in middle age yet tapped his way to court and argued his cases to the end of his life. He was determined not to be a pitiable figure. On the contrary, he was alert; he used his blindness resourcefully…. A father who on his deathbed can cry out "I'm always angry when I'm dying" is a man of parts.
So is the son, in another way. He is myopic, which enables him to see things in a cheering mist. He wanted to be a poet and novelist, and turned to the law to earn his bread and butter. Very slowly, distracted eventually by a large family, he found his way to the theatre and films—scriptwriting…. The difficulty of reconciling a literary mind and the practices of advocacy often crops up in this book. (p. 166)
[As] a barrister-would-be-writer Mr. Mortimer faced a dilemma: "The writer cannot help exposing himself, however indecently. Every performance he gives, although cloaked in fiction, reveals his secret identity." The distinction seems to have puzzled judges in the well-known English obscenity cases of the last twenty years—such as the attempt to ban the novel "Last Exit to Brooklyn," in which Mr. Mortimer appeared for the defense…. In his own passionate hostility to censorship, however, Mr. Mortimer found himself in a dangerous situation as a lawyer. He had come, he says, to believe in the truth of what he was saying. He was failing to suspend disbelief.
All that he has to say about the peculiar habits of British law is amusing, and particularly the shoptalk, though it must be said that lawyers' conversation often degenerates into anecdotage. (pp. 166, 69)
After the usual public-school roughhouse at Harrow, which demanded dandified clothes, Mr. Mortimer caught Byronic notions, but at first the only girls who could attract him were boyish. At Oxford, he was the puzzled heterosexual when homosexuality was the fashion…. He came down during the war to dismal London to live among pacifists who had noncombatant jobs, and began his struggles to get his start at the bar, wrote a novel, and floated from pubs to bed-sitters in the gray period when sex seemed to come in like the first sight of scampi on restaurant menus, happily "off-ration."… Mr. Mortimer writes well of this drab bohemia. Then, suddenly, the would-be Byron turns into the family man with a vengeance. The young hack in the divorce courts and the rising dramatist becomes, perhaps by contagion, a co-respondent himself and marries a talented young novelist with four daughters. It seems that the lonely child longed for a real, ready-made family, to which he could adoringly add. (p. 170)
The marriage lasted for years. Why it broke up (though without acrimony) is not clear. There is no reason that it should be. Mr. Mortimer's narrative simply dodges into impressionistic scenes. One suspects that the classic farces of Feydeau, so intricately boxed together—and which he has translated—came to replace the cult of Byron's blend of puritan romanticism and robust common sense. In Feydeau, farce is Greek tragedy turned upside down. But, pausing for an introspective moment, Mr. Mortimer writes of the stunning sense of loneliness he felt when his father died; then of a "flight" like Gauguin's, from family life to an emotional Tahiti and in search of an adolescence he had "never enjoyed." Had he been under an arresting spell in his father's company? We must make what we can of this part of Mr. Mortimer's plea in the court of private life. (pp. 170-71)
V. S. Pritchett, "John Mortimer" (© 1982 by V. S. Pritchett; reprinted by permission of Literistic, Ltd.), in The New Yorker, Vol. LVIII, No. 36, October 25, 1982, pp. 166. 169-71.