(Patricia) Ann Jellicoe

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John Russell Taylor

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1907

[The Sport of My Mad Mother] was a complete commercial disaster; from the critics it received slightly more approval than from playgoers, but on the whole not very much. Even so, one or two critics recognized that Ann Jellicoe was trying, not yet with complete success admittedly, to do something quite new in the English theatre: to make her play primarily something which happened in front of its audience and made its effect as a totality, rather than a piece of neatly carpentered literary craftsmanship which would 'read well' and work only by way of its dialogue's appeal to the mind.

The script of The Sport of My Mad Mother, in fact, makes very little sense just read cold: it is simply the short score from which a full orchestral sound can be conjured by a skilled musician, or the scenario for a ballet waiting for a composer to write the music and a choreographer to stage it; it is, not surprisingly considering the circumstances of its writing, 'director's theatre' to the nth degree, clearly seen by the author mainly as an aide-mémoire in the transference of her initial conception from the stage of her own mind to a real, physical stage. Consequently when staged it makes extraordinary demands on the playgoer schooled in the traditional techniques of the English stage: he expects the play he sees to be, in effect, written mainly for the ear, with the eye required to act on its own just once in a while, when it may note a bit of business and aid the mind to deduce some logical significance for it. But here is a play which assaults (the word is used advisedly) both eye and ear, and makes very little appeal to the intellect at all.

It is about a group of teddy-boys, whose behaviour throughout is instinct with a purely arbitrary spirit of violence, one or two outsiders who become involved mysteriously with them (Caldaro, a young American; Dodo, a retarded 13-year-old) and Greta, their spiritual leader, a legendary figure of destruction and in the end, when she gives birth to a child, of creation too, who corresponds presumably to Kali, the Indian goddess of creation and destruction who is the 'mad mother' of the title ('All creation is the sport of my mad mother Kali'). Much of the dialogue, most of it, in fact, is almost entirely incantatory in effect, with a minimum of analysable sense; just enough to create the atmosphere of menace and violence always on the point of being unleashed, without ever defining the nature and purpose (if any) of either too exactly. Quite a lot of the 'dialogue' indeed, is merely sound—cries and ejaculations, repeated monosyllables shorn of any associative effect and used entirely for their tonal qualities. On the page it looks as intimidating and uncommunicative as the hieroglyphs of some unknown tongue; in the theatre it all surges over and around one, a strange, disturbing pattern of sights and sounds which produces a corresponding series of emotional reactions from which gradually a total picture of a violent, instinctive way of life emerges: it is about people who are for the most part inarticulate and uncommunicative, and instead of trying to externalize their emotions and reactions in necessarily stilted and artificial words it creates in the theatre a sort of symbolic equivalent of the mental climate in which they live and thrusts us willy-nilly into it.

But it can do this only so long as we abandon ourselves to the experience instead of stopping to question it. As soon as we...

(This entire section contains 1907 words.)

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deliberately extract ourselves from participation in what is happening and ask what any particular line or sectionmeans, we are lost and the play is lost to us. In an interview in the New Theatre Magazine, published by members of the drama faculty of Bristol University, Ann Jellicoe herself put all this very clearly:

I think the word 'meaning' shows exactly what is wrong with people's attitudes. If they were to ask 'What is the play about?' it would be a better approach. This is a new kind of play, which demands a new approach. Most playgoers today are not used to taking anything direct in the theatre. What they do is transform it into words and put it through their brain.

                                              (pp. 65-7)

You see, so many plays tell you what is happening the whole time. People don't act angry; they tell you they're angry. Now, my play is about incoherent people—people who have no power of expression, of analysing their emotions. They don't know why they're afraid; they don't even know that they are afraid. So they have to compensate for their fear by attacking someone else; they're insecure and frustrated, and they have to compensate for that by being big, and violent. And all this is directly shown, instead of being explained; if you're content to watch it without thinking all the time 'What is the meaning?' so that you don't even see or hear, you're so busy thinking—then you will get what it's about.

The Sport of My Mad Mother might well appeal to a variety of people for a variety of reasons, but the Girl Guides Association is about the last body one would expect to find its attitudes, its tone or its style palatable. Yet shortly after it was produced Ann Jellicoe was commissioned by them to write a show for staging …, the only conditions being that it should be 'of interest to youth', have a 'positive ending', make room for some foreign guides, and have a cast of about 800 girls, 100 boys, and possibly some adults. (The most likely explanation of the commission seems to be that they had heard she wrote 'interesting plays about teenagers'.) Her imagination fired by the possibilities inherent in the form of presentation, she decided to accept the commission and produce something personal which at the same time satisfied all these conditions. The result, The Rising Generation, was rejected out of hand by the committee, even after complete rewriting and conventionalization, but the original text was later published in Ark, the magazine of the Royal College of Art.

From this it emerges as by far the most interesting and imaginative work ever written in the simple but spectacular form of the youth pageant (though that, admittedly, is not saying very much). It is a story about intolerance and totalitarian rule, told in parable form, though a parable, surely, little calculated to appeal to the Girl Guide ideal: it postulates a conspiracy by the monstrous regiment of women, headed by Mother, 'an enormous woman half-masked with a padded headdress and shoes', to dominate the world and exterminate men. Men are banished and expunged from history; girls at school have to repeat religiously 'Shakespeare was a woman. Milton was a woman. The Black Prince was a woman. Robin Hood, she was a woman. King John was a woman. Newton was a woman'; while their teacher firmly indoctrinates them: 'Men are black. Men are thick. Men are tall. Men are strong. Men will tear you, beat you, eat you. When you're older, you will know.' But finally the girls get together with the boys to rebel against the tyrannical domination of Mother, and though she puts into operation her final threat, the Bomb, they survive and as the show ends the whole vast arena is transformed into a flying saucer to carry them all to a new life somewhere in space. Throughout, the piece not only says something, and says it clearly enough to 'appeal to youth', but it also uses the wide open spaces of the Empire Pool [where it was to be performed] and its resources brilliantly: the spotlit pursuit of the boy Stephen, the triumphal progress of Mother, her opponents held at bay by a battalion of charladies with flaming mops, and the great final transformation could hardly fail to make their effect. It was perhaps too much to expect the Girl Guides Association to see the singular merits of The Rising Generation, but by refusing it they rejected the most interesting work they are ever likely to receive in response to a commission, and incidentally deprived the 7,000 Guides who fill the Empire Pool every night when such a show is on of a strikingly effective piece of spectacular entertainment, to put it no higher.

If The Rising Generation suggests in some ways a re-handling of themes from The Sport of My Mad Mother in a rather different context, Ann Jellicoe's next play, The Knack,… shows a complete departure in subject-matter, allied with a remarkable consistency in form and style. (pp. 67-9)

[The Knack] is a comedy about, as far as can be seen, normally intelligent, articulate people caught at precisely the point where the image of rational, intelligent man breaks down just because they are completely ruled by their emotions, their fears and insecurities. The subject of these feelings, naturally enough, is sex—where else is the normally civilized man more subject to non-civilized, indeed anti-civilized, influences? (p. 70)

Whole sections of the text make no noticeable sense in themselves, because it is always what is going on, and what the audience apprehends from participating in what is going on, that counts. Often the dialogue is simply a series of disjointed non sequiturs or uncomprehending repetitions, and in one key scene, where Colin and Tom gradually draw Nancy into their fantasy that the bed in the room is actually a piano, of 'pings' and 'plongs' variously distributed and extending virtually uninterrupted over some three pages of the script. The most remarkable quality of the play, in fact, is the sheer drive of the action, physical and emotional, right through its three acts in one unbroken movement; in the theatre not only does the play not demand rationization on the part of its audience but, unlike The Sport of My Mad Mother, which is by comparison sometimes uncertain and immature (the last act in particular fails to cap the previous two conclusively), it positively forbids it: the spectator is carried along irresistibly by the verve and ebullience of the play, and at the end, even if he does not know what, stage by stage, it means, he certainly knows vividly what it is about.

In the five years between The Sport of My Mad Mother and The Knack Ann Jellicoe has matured and developed extraordinarily as a dramatist while continuing obstinately to plough her solitary furrow…. Her plays are quite unlike anyone else's, and even in a generation of dramatists distinguished above all else for their sure grasp of practical theatre her work stands out by virtue of its complete command of theatrical effect. Her plays are difficult to stage, undeniably, since they depend so completely on their theatrical qualities and the sensitivity and accuracy with which the director can cover the bare framework of mere words with the intricately organized architecture fully drawn out in the creator's head. But once staged, and staged well, they infinitely repay the trouble; one only hopes it will not be another five years before she chooses again to face some director with such a challenge. (p. 71)

John Russell Taylor, "Presented at Court: Ann Jellicoe," in his Anger and After: A Guide to the New British Drama (© 1962 by John Russell Taylor; reprinted by permission of A D Peters & Co Ltd), Methuen & Co Ltd, 1962, pp. 65-71.


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