John Mortimer Mortimer, John (Clifford) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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, 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.∗

Walter Allen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Roger Pippett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Lewis Funke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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George Wellwarth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Russell Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dorothy E. Litt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Stanley Reynolds

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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....

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David Pannick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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William Boyd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Lord Goodman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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V. S. Pritchett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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