Many of Willis Hall’s plays (including those he coauthored with Keith Waterhouse ) concern the discrepancy between the real world and the world that people invent for themselves. Again and again one comes on figures who have created their own drama about the world and their own part in it, only to find that reality is an entirely different drama that proceeds indifferent to its characters. This theme lends itself to a variety of treatments. In a play such as Billy Liar, it can create a pathetic character whose imagination defends him from the world and masks his lack of courage, and who, when he sees beyond the veil of his own private fictions, knows that he is alone and insignificant. It can also produce the lighthearted farce of a play such as Who’s Who, in which the distortions of reality create a complex series of mixups and mistaken identities culminating in comic disclosures, admissions, embarrassments, and reconciliations. In many of the plays, the imagination is a kind of obstacle to a character’s growth, for it substitutes the satisfying (and effortless) vision of distant success and security for any real development.
The Long and the Short and the Tall
The Long and the Short and the Tall, Hall’s first major success, is a realistic war drama about a small unit of British soldiers in the Malayan jungle, set during the Japanese advance on Singapore in 1942. It seems at first to have little to do with the themes or subjects of Hall’s subsequent work, but much of the play’s conflict grows out of the soldiers’ storybook ideas about war, their visions of themselves as heroic and moral men defending the side of good—visions that are denied by the reality of the war as it quickly closes in on them. This theme is suggested in an early scene. As the men rest in a deserted store-hut in which nearly all the action takes place, Private Evans sits reading the serial story in an issue of Ladies Companion and Home (his mother sends it to him each week), a romantic tale about a second lieutenant who must leave his girl behind when he is posted overseas. The story takes its hero through a variety of exciting and fantastic adventures, the last installment having left him in the hands of some Bedouins who have bound and suspended him above a roaring fire. Evans is puzzled, though, because the current issue finds the hero inexplicably escaped from the Bedouins and enjoying a honeymoon in Brighton with the girl he had left behind, who has waited faithfully for him. The events of the play contradict everything about this kind of story. The petulant Private Bamforth quickly questions the fidelity of Evans’s own girl, taunting him with the suggestion that by now she has probably found a variety of substitutes for him. Bamforth also rejects the heroic ideal of the magazine story by describing his plans for a fast exit in the event of a Japanese invasion. Often, Bamforth’s remarks have a disturbing edge of reality to them that deflates the Ladies Companion and Home image of war, and this is one reason that he is often at odds with his comrades, who still cling to that image. At the play’s conclusion, that image is finally destroyed. Far from effecting any miraculous escape, the men are surrounded by the Japanese and killed, except for Corporal Johnstone, who is wounded and surrenders.
The romantic view of the war is attacked in the second act of the play by Sergeant Mitchem, in his speech on women. The context of that speech is important. The unit has captured a Japanese soldier, separated from his patrol, who has wandered into the hut, and in the initial struggle several of the men find that they are unable to kill the soldier when called on to do so, largely because they realize for the first time that war involves killing men very much like themselves. “He’s human at least,” Private Macleish later explains to Mitchem after the captured soldier has shown them a picture of his family. For Mitchem, however, the point is obvious: “What do you want for your money? Dracula?” He is annoyed by the naïve assumptions about war that the men have brought with them to battle, and he lays the blame on “bints,” on women, who give a man a heroic image of himself in uniform as he heads gallantly off to war. “Few weeks after that,” Mitchem concludes, “he’s on his back with his feet in the air and a hole as big as your fist in his belly. And he’s nothing.” This remark might just as easily have come from Bamforth’s mouth, for he shares with Mitchem an unflinching sense of the truth that lies covered by the men’s self-deceiving fictions.
The Long and the Short and the Tall examines the nature of war, the ways in which it changes the moral relations between men, the almost unbearable demands that it makes on the human conscience. Hall demonstrated, in this play, his skill with dialogue and pace; he also demonstrated a subtlety in his handling of theme that often goes overlooked. At its heart, the play is a study of the fundamental human tendency to believe and act according to the stories we tell ourselves about life and the problems that arise when these stories are contradicted by the sometimes harsh facts of the world.
In Billy Fisher, the main character of Billy Liar, this storytelling tendency is taken to an extreme. Billy is a conscious fabricator who deceives his family, his friends, his employers, and perhaps most of all himself, for reasons so obscure that one is tempted to agree with his friend Arthur in saying that Billy’s condition is pathological.
Billy Liar is set in the industrial North of England, and the play’s action describes the affairs of the Fishers, a lower-middle-class household whose father, Geoffrey Fisher, has recently lifted his family above his own working-class background through his success as a garage owner. The father is plainly expecting something of the same initiative from Billy, his nineteen-year-old son, but as one meets him in the opening moments of the play, he seems an unlikely successor to his father. He has risen late from bed and comes downstairs in his pajamas and an old raincoat. Billy is also pressured by his mother, Alice, and by her mother, Florence Boothroyd, who is living in the Fisher household and who habitually directs her remarks to the sideboard. The house is decorated in poor taste, and this contributes to the tense and oppressive atmosphere in which Billy is almost constantly derided by his father for being lazy and also for mismanaging his affairs. In some sense, it is understandable that Billy retreats into the worlds created by his imagination.
Billy is in a bad position from the very start of the play. His job with Shadrack and Duxbury, Funeral Furnishers, is in jeopardy because he has been absent on days when he was supposed to have been at work (including the day on which the play takes place). He has also apparently been taking money from the firm and has failed to mail the company’s Christmas calendars as requested. The calendars are crammed into a cupboard that Billy uses for his “private” things, but which he opens for Arthur when Arthur asks him about the calendars. In the cupboard, also, is a letter from Alice Fisher to the host of a radio show called “Housewives’ Choice,” asking him to play an old favorite for her. She concludes the letter with a postscript saying that her son also writes songs but that he probably will amount to little in that line because he lacks the training. She ends with a remark about the family being just “ordinary folk,” and on reading this Billy abruptly tosses the letter back into the cupboard, denying the limitations his mother seems to be putting on...
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