Deeply influenced by the plays of T. S. Eliot , who had brought philosophical thought as well as verse to the stage, John Whiting showed that heightened prose was more viable than verse. He believed that the easiest way of communicating with an audience was direct speech. Unlike Pinter, who later exploited the colloquialisms of daily speech to the point of absurdity, Whiting combined common language with heightened intelligence and insight, and such a combination often confused his audience. Whereas Eliot never made his characters as interesting as what they said, Whiting created distinctive characters who were articulate, sensitive, and often pathetic in their extreme vulnerability.
The turning points in Whiting’s plays involve personality changes that are so basic that they are better labeled conversions. Whiting’s characters do not simply change their minds about a person or decision; they dramatically alter their views on life and death. In addition, Whiting never directly dramatizes how his characters change. The audience sees only the beginning and the end of a process, and the actual moments of decision are left obscure. Whiting chooses to dramatize conversions indirectly because to dramatize them too completely would invite didacticism or melodrama.
Whiting’s position on the morality of his characters often baffles his audiences even more than do his plots. It is futile for the audience to look for motivation or to try to identify with Whiting’s characters because they dramatize ideology in action rather than an easily identifiable human need. For example, in Marching Song, audiences resist identifying with a former army general who brutally killed children as a part of military strategy. When the general is strongly advised to commit suicide to avoid being a further embarrassment to his country, few in the audience care to share in his philosophical dilemma or try to understand Whiting’s position. Rather than simple morality, Whiting is concerned with why characters behave the way they do and how their actions affect their worlds. The intellect is Whiting’s playground, rather than the emotions, and one can best understand his plays by considering how they raise questions rather than how they stimulate emotions.
Whiting’s vision is essentially tragic. Of his six full-length plays, three end in violent death, and each death is directly or indirectly the fulfillment of self-destruction. Whiting’s characters are torn by dual motives to redeem themselves from and to damn themselves for their moral failure. Self-destruction becomes a twisted redemption that also fails. In his plays, the refusal to recognize responsibility leads to a tragic conclusion. The apocalyptic quality of much of Whiting’s work, the sense of mortality, and the fear of inconsequence suggest a world that is run by a cruel god who uses death as a practical joke. At best, this awareness of death encourages human beings to grasp at the honest, loving moments of life; at worst, it invites them to enact their own destruction—if only to prove that they have some small measure of control over their lives.
A Penny for a Song
Whiting wrote A Penny for a Song during a happy period in his life, and the farcical action and the life-loving characters dramatize an optimistic perspective on the world. Set in the garden of the country home of Sir Timothy Bellboys, the tone suggests summer ease and festivities, although the threat of war hovers just beyond the garden: Napoleon and his army are expected to invade. The central characters all have delightfully complicated strategies for survival, and their energy and enthusiasm elevate the farce. The play suggests that war threatens everyday life and therefore that simple domestic moments of peace are fragile and precious.
From the opening moments of the play, when Humpage, the sleeping family lookout, spills his cakes from his post high in a tree and a dignified visitor becomes lost while looking for an outhouse, the audience knows that in this play about war, no one will be harmed. The ineffective, bungling characters with their candid feelings and good intentions charm the audience. Although they caricature a nation of simple people under the threat of war, they invite the audience to share in the real quirks and whims of humankind. The members of this respectable group of family and friends exhibit a childlike innocence in their plans for coping with invasion, and like imaginative children, they accept one another’s fantastic schemes. Sir Timothy plans to defeat the French by impersonating Napoleon, tunneling his way to the rear of the invading troops and leading them in a retreat. The audience immediately understands that Sir Timothy does not exhibit a sound method of warfare; rather, he represents the noble human drive to take responsibility for one’s countrymen.
In the comic tradition, Whiting’s plot is based on confused messages and mistaken identities. When Sir Timothy does not receive the message that the home guard is engaging in a military exercise, he mistakes them for the French, and his potentially dangerous little war is on. Cannons fire, alarms sound, and it appears that real danger threatens these characters who are so intent on preserving life that they might hurt someone. Following the traditional comic plot, however, Whiting contrives timely revelations before serious damage is done.
The theatricality of the action—the sheer entertainment of the clownish characters and slapstick action—prevents the audience from questioning the play’s sense. The garden bustles with strangers and relatives coming, going, and getting lost. Doors and windows open and close constantly as servants and family go about their business. In the distance, Sir Timothy flies through the air in a hot-air balloon. His brother Lamprett exhibits his fire-fighting equipment, and Lamprett’s wife appears in full armorial regalia as she announces her plans to join the East Anglian Amazon Corps. Throughout the play, Humpage roosts in his tree and, amid the surrounding chaos, tries to hold on to his telescope and cakes.
Hardly a logical argument against war, the play is an affirmation of life and the human will to survive. The implausible plot staggers along as the characters refuse to let logic interfere with their plans to save one another: Whenever a character’s ideas are challenged by reasonable remarks, he or she spontaneously transforms doubt into optimism, or simply changes the subject entirely. Therefore, the conversations are often incoherent. For these characters, however, reason stems from a serious perspective, and to be serious would be to admit that Napoleon might win. In a tragic play, such as Saint’s Day, self-deception leads to self-destruction: In Whiting’s serious plays, self-deception always involves the abdication of responsibility to others, and then shame and self-inflicted punishment. In contrast, in A Penny for a Song, the characters joyfully assume responsibility for the happiness and safety...
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