Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561
A Voyage Round My Father is an autobiographical memory play comprised of chronological episodes spanning two decades. A reflective narrator links past and present and is a unifying force, participating in the action (as man and boy) and stepping out of it to address the audience. The narrator reveals a symbiotic yet strangely distant and unemotional relationship between the son and his father, a blind barrister. As the title suggests, the son never gets as close to his father as he desired, partly as a result of the blindness, but also because the older man regarded life as a game and built an impenetrable emotional barrier between himself and everyone else, even the wife upon whom he totally depended. Despite his father’s coldness and self-absorption, Mortimer intends A Voyage Round My Father as a loving tribute.
The play starts with the old man having his adult son describe the family garden. After the son as narrator gives the audience some background, the action reverts to the past, with youthful initiation episodes at home and school. When the son must decide upon a profession, the old barrister, who regards the law contemptuously, encourages his boy to choose it, primarily because it will give him spare time for writing. In the second act, the young man is working in a wartime propaganda film unit in lieu of military service; there he falls in love with a married woman. After her divorce, by which time he is a barrister, they marry, but since his income from divorce cases is inadequate, he works part-time for a legal aid society and starts writing plays.
Having been instructed by his father on the nuances of cross-examinations, the son finally wins a major domestic case, though the victor did not deserve to prevail. The son thinks he has become like his father, of whom he says: “He had no message. I think he had no belief. He was the advocate who can take the side that comes to him first and always discover words to anger his opponent.” In the last scene, the garden deteriorates as the father dies, and the play concludes with the narrator telling the audience: “I’d been told of all the things you’re meant to feel. Sudden freedom, growing up, the end of dependence, the step into the sunlight when no one is taller than you and you’re in no one else’s shadow. I know what I felt. Lonely.” In his 1982 memoir, Mortimer says that after he wrote the play, “a man who had filled so much of my life seemed to have left me and become someone for other people to read about and perform.”
Many American memory plays are products of their authors’ imaginations, with autobiographical elements presented in highly stylized ways, and Oedipal or other psychological concerns the thematic centerpieces. Mortimer’s play, in contrast, is largely reportorial, a kind of personal essay in dramatic form. Further, while he has altered some details, situations and events faithfully represent the past. An atypical work for him in subject matter, its form also departs from the traditional pattern of his other stage works. A Voyage Round My Father, which unequivocally demonstrates his mastery of the full-length serious play, was a critical success, had a 1971 London run of 501 performances, was adapted for television in 1982, and has been subsequently revived.