A Voyage Round My Father

by John Mortimer

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The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1011

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 and “relatively clean finger nails.” The father, says the son, regards the law as “a small mechanical toy which might occupy half an hour on a rainy afternoon.” However, the father is an eminently successful barrister, even after he becomes blind; a vignette shows the blind man performing his singular courtroom act in a divorce case. The next scene has the father and son walking arm in arm, the son describing the countryside (painting verbal pictures for his father) and telling him that Misses Baker and Cox, local bookshop owners, may get him a war job helping to make government propaganda films. The act ends with the men coming upon these two women sunbathing—and embracing and kissing. The father, blind to this sight, has the last word in the act (“We saw a good deal—of the monstrous persistence of Nature.”) but is unaware of the unwitting irony of his comment.

The second act begins on a film production set, where the son’s primary responsibilities are to fetch snacks for the crew...

(This entire section contains 1011 words.)

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and to maintain silence during takes. When he fails at this role, he is moved to the writer’s department, where he meets Elizabeth, a scriptwriter who is supporting her husband and children. The son confesses that he is quitting films to enter the law, and by the next scene the son has been at the bar for nine months, Elizabeth has been divorced from her husband, and the two are planning to wed. The father tries to dissuade his son for economic reasons and then attempts the same approach with Elizabeth, but he meets his match with her. The son announces: “In that case his advocacy failed. In time he became reconciled to me as a husband for his daughter-in-law.”

Financial problems soon bear down upon the son; busy though he is with divorce cases, he sees little money, for a clerk in the firm (his father’s) collects the fees and dispenses payments in a quixotically parsimonious manner. Thus the son goes to the Free Legal Centre to make extra money and at the same time starts to write plays, though the father warns him to “hold hard on the law” and instructs him on the importance of timing in cross-examinations. The ensuing episode has the son in court attempting to emulate his father, but he fails laughably. In the next scene, however, the family celebrates his success in a major domestic case. Elizabeth questions its propriety, since the victor did not deserve to win, but the son says, “I won.” She concludes that he is getting more like his father every day, a man who plays games and makes jokes but takes nothing seriously. The son says to the audience about his father, “He had no message . . . no belief. He was the advocate who can take the side that comes to him first and always discover words to anger his opponent.” After an interlude in which the father regales his grandchildren with stories, the last episode of the play focuses upon the deterioration of the garden in tandem with the dying of the father. The play ends with the son speaking to 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.”

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

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, Clinging to the Wreckage: A Part of Life (1982). Although the main characters of the play—the father, the son, and the mother—are unnamed, there is no suggestion of universality or Everyman about any of them: They are the Mortimers as the playwright sees them.

The staging is not entirely realistic. The fluidity of the action, with various episodes flowing into one another, also precludes a fully representational setting. Therefore, Mortimer’s text calls for a bare stage with a table, some chairs, and a bench. There also are bits of foliage to suggest a garden and flowerpots inverted on sticks to serve as the earwig traps about which the father had such a fixation. Changes of lighting help to convey different places, as does the son as narrator. At the start of the second act, the episode on the propaganda film set, Mortimer calls for an unusual juxtaposition of make-believe and reality. He wants a projection on a backdrop to suggest the sky, a radar installation, and an observation post, and he also asks that the backstage theater personnel come onstage to act as film technicians and cameramen.

Finally, the second act opens with a character singing an obscene ditty, and occasionally elsewhere in the play either the father sings or music from a radio is heard in the background. Mortimer has said that in the theater it is easier to establish a period or time with music than in any other way. In such other works as the stage play Collaborators (pr., pb. 1973) and the television serial Paradise Postponed (1986), he uses music for the same purpose.


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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.


Critical Essays