Bloody philosophes. The French Revolution was not the most monstrous of its kind. In World War II Hitler beheaded more people with portable guillotines in Vienna than the tumbrels delivered in Paris. But it survives as a lasting emblem of the fall of reason. That the society of Voltaire and Diderot could descend into the mindless savagery of the Reign of Terror prefigured Freud’s gloomy conclusion that civilization is a thin veneer painted over atavistic brutality. In the shattering drama, Danton’s Death, the point is made more trenchantly when the hero declares that sanity itself is a fragile construction, a bubble that bursts when the true nightmare of life reveals itself. This was essentially the world view of Georg Büchner — we see it reinforced in his better-known Woyzeck (largely thanks to Alban Berg's operatic adaptation as Wozzeck), in which the schizophrenia of a common soldier is played upon by the equally mad but socially acceptable devices of his superiors.
Good enough for God? Church attendance has been declining in Britain, and in the rest of Europe, for almost two generations, so a play about the irrelevance of God hardly touches a burning nerve. When Canadian-born playwright Drew Pautz chose this theme for Love the Sinner, mounted on the National’s tiny Cottesloe stage, most reviewers showed indifference. The play’s themes were called muddled, and as often happens, the artist was blamed for the critic’s refusal to think. Pautz has updated a respectable genre, the drama of ideas, which fostered another argument about God and human affairs, Shaw’s Saint Joan. Shaw could count upon solid religious conformity as a backstop for his secular ripostes. Today, the orthodoxy has swung so far in the other direction that Love the Sinner includes a major character whose attitude is “God? Are you kidding? Put that Bible down right now.”
Not out or proud. In his mid-twenties Tennessee Williams went to a playwriting workshop in Iowa and produced a nearly three-hour-long drama that was caustically received by his tutor and fellow students. Chagrined, he consigned it to the bottom drawer while mining many of its motifs for his acknowledged masterpieces, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. Nothing more was heard of Spring Storm (1937) until twenty years after Williams’s piteous accidental death in 1983. Salvaged from his archived papers, the play was given a reading in New York and a couple of regional stagings, to no great acclaim. Critics called it intriguing juvenilia.
The observer effect. After the play Betrayal, from 1981, I lost track of Harold Pinter. London productions of his plays have the zing of authentic English irony, etched menace, and pithy delivery that doesn’t come across with American accents. One could see Pinter as an actor as late as 1995 when he appeared in the West End in a revival of an earlier work, The Hothouse. Pinter is as strange and threatening on stage as on paper, although a witty anecdote circulated around that production. Supposedly his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, phoned up the management and said, “The whole run has been so successful, Harold and I were thinking that you should have the Comedy Theatre renamed the Pinter Theater,” to which the manager replied, “Or he could just rename himself Harold Comedy.”
The long nights are already on the wane, but one leaves the theatre with a glow on the horizon, and a newspaper can be read outdoors well after nine o’clock.Fresh off the plane (i.e., as grungy as five-day-old socks) I tried not to go groggy at the National Theatre’s production of Shaw’s Major Barbara. Putting on a play by Shaw is like sticking your head out of a foxhole to see who shoots. Nobody could be more fusty and out of favour (perhaps the two Barries, James and Philip), but the London critics were mostly happy and none were snarky.