John Whiting Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Born in Salisbury, Wiltshire, England, John Robert Whiting was the son of an army officer who later became a lawyer. Whiting was educated at Taunton, a public school at Somerset, where he was considered an unremarkable student. When the time came to choose a career, a university education was not even considered an option because his academic standing, as well as his interest, was too low. On the advice of his father and his headmaster, Whiting decided to train to be an actor. As a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Whiting was painfully self-conscious and shy, and thus his work suffered in the beginning. While on vacation from school, he was cast in a small part in a provincial theater, and he returned to the academy with much more skill, self-confidence, and determination. He completed his training in 1937 with a positive report of his abilities and chances as an actor. Although acting jobs were scarce, Whiting survived with occasional jobs in radio plays until World War II interrupted his career.

Originally, Whiting registered as a conscientious objector. Shortly after he registered, however, he changed his mind, having been exposed to pacifist groups that he regarded as collections of snobs and aggressive intellectuals. Whiting was also torn by the conflict between loyalty to his father’s soldiering tradition and loyalty to his own feeling of repugnance toward war. Finally, Whiting became a reluctant soldier. When he registered in the army, he requested an infantry regiment because his father had been an infantry officer, but...

(The entire section is 635 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Robert Whiting, while virtually unknown to general audiences, is recognized by serious critics as a major force in twentieth century drama. He was born in Salisbury, England, on November 15, 1917, the son of a retired army officer turned lawyer. An indifferent student who later claimed that he had never passed an examination, Whiting left his upper-middle-class schooling at age seventeen to train as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. With the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted in the Royal Artillery. After marrying actress Jackie Mawson in 1940, he returned to acting at the end of the war, joining John Gielgud’s company in 1951.

In spite of this lengthy association with the theater, Whiting exhibited no interest in writing plays until a casual conversation with a friend in 1946 inspired him to make the attempt. During the following five years he wrote four plays—half of his entire canon of stage drama—as well as four radio plays for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). His first stage play was A Penny for a Song, a comedy set during the Napoleonic Wars. Directed by Peter Brook, it was performed in March, 1951. A vivid, theatrical play, it traces the rise and fall of Sir Timothy Humpage as he attempts to preserve happiness and a sense of purpose—illusions for Whiting—at the expense of self-deception. “We find reality unbearable. . . . And so we escape, childlike, into the illusion,” one of the characters says. In September of 1951, Whiting’s second stage play, Saint’s Day, was performed at the Arts Theatre Club. It closed after three weeks amid hostile popular criticism and audience rejection, a pattern which was to continue during most of Whiting’s life. With a central theme of self-destruction, the play sets forth in bleak terms the tragedy of the elderly poet Paul Southman, who had isolated himself and his family from the local community. In this dense, dark play, Southman learns, “We are here—all of us—to die. Nothing more than that.”


(The entire section is 830 words.)