The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

A Voyage Round My Father opens in a family garden. A father, blind and in his sixties, asks his grown son to describe the flowers and earwig traps. The son, turning to the audience, recalls that his father was a barrister who went to the London law courts but returned each day “to the safety of the dahlias, the ritual of the evening earwig hunt,” hiding among the flowers from the few visitors who came to call. The action reverts to the past, and the son as a young boy enters with a young girl who teaches him to whistle, the first of two such initiation scenes. The next retrospective vignette shows the father on a ladder pruning trees. The adult son relates: “He hit his head on the branch of a tree and the retinas left the balls of his eyes.” Though the father became blind, nobody referred to the affliction because he “had a great disinclination to mention anything unpleasant.” This concern is ironic, though, because the father is an iconoclastic curmudgeon who is insensitive to his doting wife and cold to his admiring son.

When the time arrives for the boy to go away to school, the father is discouraging: “All education’s perfectly useless. But it fills in the time!” Schoolmasters, he says, have “second rate minds” and life is “a closed book” to them. At school, the boy has a headmaster who wants to be called Noah (and tells the boys they are animals) and teachers who suffer from World War I shell shock and battle fatigue. Among the boy’s classmates is Reigate, and they exchange fantasy portraits of their parents who, “it was obvious, needed a quick coating of romance.” When Reigate visits the boy’s home, he is surprised that the parents get along and that the mother is sober. While there, the boys put on a play (“something to keep you from thinking of your great unhappiness,” Reigate tells the bewildered mother) about two World War I subalterns.

The next dramatic interlude, the leave-taking ceremonies at the school, has “Noah” warning the boys about the dangers of sex but so obtusely that they are not at all enlightened. In a subsequent discussion with his son, the father says of sex: “The whole business has been over-estimated by the poets.” By now a mature young man (he “lights a cigarette with careless expertise”), the son is encouraged to go into law—so he will have spare time for writing, according to his father. The law, he says, does not require brilliance, only common sense...

(The entire section is 1011 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

A Voyage Round My Father comprises a series of episodes that are unified by the reflective narrator who bridges past and present and by the chronological order in which they are presented. It is a memory play whose narrator recalls the past of which he was a part. In the course of the two acts, he participates in the retrospective action (as boy and as man) and frequently steps out of it to speak directly to the audience. Despite the fact that this inclusive drama of two lives covers so many years, the play is not at all diffuse. Instead of being divided into separate scenes, the episodes flow into one another and move back and forth between past and present, with the son/narrator providing a distinctive point of view and functioning as the unifying force.

The memory play, which A Voyage Round My Father is, is more common to the American theater than to the English stage; two examples are Williams’s The Glass Menagerie and Anderson’s I Never Sang for My Father. These American dramas, however, are fundamentally products of their playwrights’ imaginations, and autobiographical elements are highly stylized. John Mortimer’s work, though, is only slightly fictionalized autobiography. In short, it is a personal essay in dramatic form. Mortimer has changed some details, but the two acts of the play are composed mainly of situations and events that directly parallel the past as he has recorded it in his autobiography,...

(The entire section is 513 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Hayman, Ronald. British Theatre Since 1955: A Reassessment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Morley, Sheridan. “Brisk Business at the Bar.” Times (London), January 4, 1982.

Mortimer, John. Character Parts. London: Viking, 1986.

Mortimer, John. Clinging to the Wreckage: A Part of Life. New Haven, Conn.: Tichnor and Fields, 1982.

Mortimer, John. Murderers and Other Friends: Another Part of Life. New York: Viking, 1994.

Smith, Christopher. “John Mortimer.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.

Taylor, John Russell. The Angry Theatre: New British Drama. Rev. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969.

Wardle, Irving. Review in The Times (London), November 27, 1970.