A Voyage Round My Father is John Mortimer’s memoir of growing up in a middle-class English household dominated by a dictatorial blind father. Autobiographical though the work is, its playwright-raisonneur mainly is objective about the people and experiences he recalls. Unlike the narrators of such similar (American) plays as Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944) and Robert Anderson’s I Never Sang for My Father (pr., pb. 1968), the son of A Voyage Round My Father is not striving for psychological purgation.
Whereas Williams’s and Anderson’s narrators are haunted by the past, Mortimer’s merely retells it. The title of the play, however, calls attention to the peculiarly distant and unemotional relationship between son and father. The boy never could get as close to the older man as he wanted, and not only because of the father’s blindness. Rather, because the father treated life as a game, he created an impenetrable emotional barrier between himself and everyone else. It is easy to understand how the onset of blindness in his middle years and his refusal to acknowledge the affliction could have led to his desire for social isolation and a retreat to the sanctuary of his garden. Even his long-suffering wife, on whom he is totally dependent, seems to be nothing more to him than his servant. She selflessly caters to all of his whims and demands but gets no sign of warmth, affection, or even appreciation in return. Further, though the father gives his son advice over the years about such matters as education, sex, careers, the law, and marriage, he presents everything in a tone of annoyance, contempt, or satiric disparagement. The son, therefore, never can be wholly certain as to how seriously the father intends his advice to be taken.
Despite all of this, in the last lines of the play—when the son shares with the audience his reactions to his father’s death—Mortimer makes clear that he wants the work to be considered an act of love, something he felt compelled to write. This passage and the episode in which the two men are walking arm in arm across the countryside are the most revealing in the play. They reveal that notwithstanding the father’s coldness toward his family and his self-absorption to the point that he forecloses any meaningful involvement with others, the father-son relationship was a symbiotic one. At the same time, the son’s life with his father was a voyage round him and not with him because the son always had to give his father a wide berth and stay a safe distance from him.
In addition to its primary thematic concern, the play explores other social matters. For example, Mortimer takes critical aim at English preparatory school education and dramatizes the ineptness of its leadership and instruction. He also treats the legal establishment and the practice of law with irreverence, dismissing the belief that there is much of a moral or ethical foundation to the profession and suggesting that it is out of touch with society. Mortimer focuses his analytical and critical skills upon the family, the law, and education, and he dramatizes the decline of these three pillars of English society between the 1930’s and the 1960’s.