The Late Middle Classes
By Simon Gray
Directed by David Leveaux
Secrets and lies. Simon Gray had a late-career flop in 1999 with The Late Middle Classes, a comic drama which closed out of town before reaching the West End. It’s not hard to see why. Delicate musings about pedophilia don’t mix well with japery at the post-war middle class and its lawn-tennis-with-drinks-at-five airs. Every character is ready to explode with repressed impulses that are either nasty, immoral, or illegal. The resulting brew sits uneasily between art and entertainment. What audience, exactly, was it intended to find?
A current one, apparently. The London critics were admiring of the Donmar Warehouse’s revival, perhaps because the space of sixty years has softened the memory of short rations and the demoralized mood of the time. A rocky road has become nostalgia lane. But coming to the play as a cultural outsider, I wondered how this poison pen letter to stiff upper lipness managed to please. The central character is Holliday, a sensitive boy entering his teens who has a musical gift (he’s portrayed by three child actors in rotation). A grand piano sits stage left, and he plays it often, sometimes with his doting Austrian piano teacher, Mr. Brownlow (an abrasive Robert Glenister) at his side, sometimes as an adult recalling the events of the story. The boy’s parents, Celia and Charles, function as the equivalent of George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? They enter as apparently sane, decent people living out the rituals of a settled marriage. They complain that the war has changed everything and wish that things could go back to the way they were. A bored Celia plays tennis but is home in time to mix drinks and fix dinner when a cryptic Charles arrives home from his medical practice to put his feet up.
By the end, however, psychic eruptions have spewed all over the house, releasing past hurt, betrayal, lost ideals, and of course, sex. The star turn, as in Who’s Afraid?, is the wife’s, here portrayed with suitable manic desperation by Helen McCrory, an icy knife blade of an actress. But where Edward Albee achieved a masterpiece by never losing focus on the arc of destruction, Gray wants to have a social satire mixed in, along with a coming-of-age story. The piano teacher, it turns out, has hidden desires for Holliday, who himself is hiding his discovery of masturbation, nudist magazines, and long hours alone in his bedroom. In the very slow first half all these strands are deftly woven together, but skill doesn’t save them from being ill-assorted. Peter Sullivan as Charles is comically laconic, to the point that he has the audience in guffaws (forced to have the dreaded father-son talk, he hems and haws for five minutes before blurting out “masturbation!” in panicked tones, after which Celia blithely says, “See? That wasn’t so hard.”). Gray’s satire on bourgeois propriety, for which he has no pity, brings out his best writing. Tennessee Williams might have managed to mix zaniness with poetic sexual awakening – he does just that in Spring Storm, playing across the river at the National Theatre – but Gray makes the mistake of using a mallet for his satire and coy suggestiveness about the piano teacher’s repressed sexuality. Isn’t that a form of propriety?
One critic proffered that Brownlow was a veiled portrayal of Benjamin Britten, who never acted on his pedophilia but used his beloved boys as muses. Brownlow uses the same excuse when his attentions to Holliday become inappropriate, but his aged refugee mother, played with irritating pseudo-senility by Eleanor Bron, mutters endlessly about the polizei at the door and her son being forced to move from town to town, so our doubts remain that his impulses were really sublimated.
The boy also knows more than he is telling. He has already learned to lie about masturbation by claiming that he has gone upstairs to pray. When he swears that his piano teacher never touched him, Gray creates deliberate ambiguity. The father, Charles, explodes, forbids Brownlow to come near his son again, and hushes up everything so that Holliday can go off to Winchester school “with a clean slate.” He clearly believes that sexual advances took place, and Gray has him blame his son with outraged disgust – in the late (but hardly lamented) middle classes, being artistic and homosexual are identical. As an ironic twist, the adult Holliday is played by the same actor who plays his father. He returns to the very old Brownlow’s house on a whim. The piano teacher says, “Are you here to punish me? To forgive?”
His visitor is evasive. “I remember everything clearly except the music,” he says, asking the old man to play a bagatelle he wrote to his beloved muse/pupil. Brownlow refuses, and Holliday leaves. Like his father he has become a doctor, taken a mistress, and turned his back on art. In Gray’s contrivance, nobody learns anything. The middle classes are still with us. The only thing that makes them late is their slowness to catch on to self-awareness. A play that could have been about awakening turns into a fable where everyone goes back to sleep again, leaving the dozing piano teacher to daydream about a little boy in short pants playing softly at the keyboard.