Encore, May/June 1962, pp. 33-38
Parables in Farce
John Russell Taylor
The following analysis of Henry Livings’ work is extracted from the chapter “East End Annexe” in John Russell Taylor’s book Anger and After published this month by Methuen & Co.
Henry Livings (born 1929), the second dramatist in this Theatre Workshop annexe, still has touches of the primitive about him, but even his first play to be produced, Stop It, Whoever You Are, which was put on at the Arts in 1960, suggests a much more sophisticated talent than Kops’s, and one capable of much further development. The main justification for including Livings in this section is that he was for some time an actor at Theatre Workshop and there is evidence in his work that he learned a thing or two from the experience (he says himself that Joan Littlewood has probably been the greatest single influence on his work). In particular, his use of one of the lightest and most popular forms, farce, to convey something serious in an unexpected way seems to bear, however, faintly, the impress of Stratford training.
Stop It, Whoever You Are has proved one of the most controversial of recent additions to the new drama—as far as the critics are concerned, at least; some found it both profound and riotously funny, others determinedly found it neither. It is certainly uneven, and still rather undisciplined, but at least it implies a powerful individuality at work, and as it progresses it gradually gathers a wealth of subsidiary meanings without ever (and herein lies the author’s artfulness) departing from the farcical tones in which it began, so that by the time we reach its extraordinary final scene we suddenly discover that the apparently simple, artless North Country farce has taken on the force and intensity of a parable. The story concerns one William Perkin Warbeck, lavatory attendant in a big northern factory. Trying to keep order in the washrooms, he is beaten up by two young apprentices he accuses of being homosexuals, then he is virtually raped by a local Lolita, caught in flagrante delicto by the police and put on a charge. A little revenge he plans to spoil the moment of triumph of his detested landlord, Alderman Oglethorpe, goes astray when he soaks, by accident, his employer and one-time military commander, Captain Bootle, whom he regards highly, and then he dies. In the last scene, a séance, he is allowed to get his own back by telling his dreadful wife, from a safe distance beyond the grave, that he enjoyed the attentions of the precocious Marilyn, and in a grand finale the whole place is blown up when a leaky gas-pipe explodes.
The great pleasure to be derived from this cycle of disasters is basically that of seeing the meek at last inherit the earth. But meanwhile Warbeck’s many misfortunes are told with a robustness and gusto which command amused attention and at the same time do not work counter to the author’s serious intentions, though they may occasionally disguise them from the unwary. What Livings is actually getting at emerged more clearly, therefore, in his television play, The Arson Squad, produced later, but written earlier, than Stop It, Whoever You Are, when the disguise behind which the parable lurks is, instead, that of sober documentary drama. Chris, the floor manager, is persuaded to cover up the cause of a fire which has nearly burnt down the factory in which he works because the perpetrator, Norman, is simple-minded and if he gets the sack from this job will be virtually unemployable. It is easy for Norman’s fellow workers to cover up for him—they don’t stand to lose much anyway, provided they stick together--but for Chris it means that he must lose his reputation and his position of responsibility, since he will inevitably be blamed and unless he speaks he cannot clear himself. Then Norman leaves to go to a better job elsewhere, and Chris can speak, but by now no one is likely to believe him, and even his workmates, for whom in a sense he has sacrificed himself, do not want to be involved and will not lift a finger to help him. But is he so innocent, after all? At the last it emerges that one reason the fire was not more quickly dealt with was that he was wasting the odd few minutes flirting with a stupid typist whom he despises, even as he finds her attractive, and having come face to face with his pride (the pride, basically, which shrinks at having to admit a transgression so slight and childish) he is able to become truly humble and live again.
There is no escaping the force and conviction of Livings’s writing here, even though its form is considerably less adventurous than in Stop It, Whoever You Are; the play was, in fact, Livings tells us, written in the face of criticism that his plays were all plotless, to prove to himself the he could write a play with an ordinary plot if he wanted to, and did not write as he usually did simply from incapacity in that direction. Thus in many ways, The Arson Squad stands aside from the main life of Livings’s development, but not so Jack’s Horrible Luck, the next play to emerge in B.B.C. Television’s backwards exploration of his work. Jack’s Horrible Luck, though produced by the B.B.C. with, as usual, no indication that it was not the author’s latest work, actually dates back to 1958, and was Livings’s very first significant effort at dramatic writing. After leaving Liverpool University at the end of this second year and doing two years’ National Service in the R.A.F., Livings had been acting up and down the country, and had settled for a while at Theatre Workshop, where he appeared in, among other plays, The Quare Fellow.
The influence of Behan, though the Behan of The Hostage rather than The Quare Fellow, is to be seen in sections of Jack’s Horrible Luck, which he sold to the B.B.C. after some eighteen months hawking it around (the encouragement gained from this sale set him off, in fact, on a full-time career as a dramatist). The form here is a picaresque adventure story on the Elizabethan model, retailing the encounters of Jack, a naïve young sailor ashore for the night in Liverpool. As in the later works the tone is largely that of broad farcical comedy, with elements bordering on complete fantasy: the central sequences, in which Jack takes up with a bunch of buskers and meths drinkers, goes home with Fred, an odd and crochety busker who has invited him to share a supper of pig’s trotters and peas, and becomes involved in a wild and rowdy celebration at Fred’s lodgings, suggests something of Joyce’s Nighttown seen in the distorting mirror provided by the ‘brockel’ in The Hostage. Despite these apparent influences, the play remains richly personal, notably in the early scenes with the buskers, when Jack amicably encourages Fred to do his dance in the alley and thereby indirectly causes him to trip up and spoil his entrance.
There is also a framework suggestive of the parable-in-farce technique Livings was later to develop in Stop It, Whoever You Are: Jack’s quest for a semi-mythical café, Uncle Joe’s, which he expects to offer him an evening of complete contentment, though when he finds it, of course, it has turned in to a rexine-and-Formica coffee-bar and ‘Uncle Joe’ himself has dwindled to a timid employee with a police whistle always at the ready. The theme of the search for Uncle Joe’s is perhaps the least satisfactory part of the play, however (indeed, it is completely lost sight of for most of the time), and though we know that Jack’s longing for the external dispenser of happiness represented by Uncle Joe is doomed to disappointment, it seems rather too unsubtle to establish this right at the beginning by making his mate remark, in an attempt to keep his expectations within bounds, “Uncle Joe’s not God, you know, he’s just a man…” (As a matter of fact, the whole framework of the quest for Uncle Joe’s—all the play has in the way of ‘plot,’ that is—was not in the original script at all, but was added at the suggestion of the B.B.C.: this may explain why it does not seem always quite to fit in which the rest.) Even so, bearing in mind, as its first critics could not do, that Jack’s Horrible Luck is Livings’ very first play, its originality and promise are clear and unmistakable, even though coming apparently after Stop It, Whoever You Are, it would have seemed in some ways to represent a disappointing regression.
Livings’s next play to be produced after Jack’s Horrible Luck was Big Soft Nellie (originally titled Thacred Nit), but before we come on to that there are three plays which should be mentioned, for the record at least: The Rise and Fall of a Nignog, an as yet unproduced television play written just before Stop It, Whoever You Are, which concerns a character whose weakness compels him to accept any challenge offered to him and finally involves him, almost fatally, in a fantastic scheme to break a prisoner out of gaol; The Quick and the Dead Quick, a highly unconventional historical drama about Villon, whom Livings sees as a strikingly modern figure living in an age which offers many parallels with out own; and Jim All Alone, a dramatization of Raleigh Trevelyan’s book A Hermit Disclosed.
Big Soft Nellie carries Livings’s characteristic disregard of normal plotting much farther than Stop It, Whoever You Are; indeed, in it there is virtually no plot whatever, only a series of incidents in the back room of an electrical appliances shop. The ‘big soft Nellie’ is Stanley, a mother’s boy who is the butt of the staff (with the exception of the dreamy Benny, who is so stupid he hardly counts) and resents it. During the course of the first act Benny and then Stanley practice judo, a police sergeant is called in by Stanley’s mother for no good reason, and the other members of the staff persuade Stanley to tell a story while they laugh at him. He decides to do something to make them take notice, and so carries off the vast cabinet of the boss’s television set and then (after a long and farcical investigation of its disappearance at the beginning of the second act) returns to give himself up and proclaim himself the thief, hoping optimistically for five years’ imprisonment (for all the world like the hero in The Rise and Fall of a Nignog, who ends, after his ludicrous attempt at prison-breaking has failed, contentedly asking how long a sentence he will get, secure in the knowledge that at last someone has had to take notice). Unfortunately his best efforts are all in vain: he is given a conditional discharge, but his workmates conspire to say nothing of this misfortune in front of him, treating him instead with thedeference due to a real prisoner, ‘coming-out party’ and all, and so finally, even if he remains basically just as “soft”, he can at least stand on his own feet as a self-respecting man.
In this play, plot being reduced to the absolute minimum, we can study Livings’s individual techniques in their purest state. Beasically, like so many of the new dramatists, he seeks just to show people together, interacting, existing. He carries his interest in this—at the expense of normal dramatic construction—far farther than most, however, and in this play comes perhaps closest to an otherwise very different dramatist, Ann Jellicoe. Like her, he writes in terms of a total stage action rather than simply in words; much of what his characters say is merely a gloss on what is happening, and often an apparently completely random exchange in a sequence of non squiteurs makes sense only when we see the actors together and understand the relationship between them at that particular point. A conversation between the Sergeant and Marris, the owner of the shop, in the second act is an excellent example. The Sergeant is felicitating himself of a satisfactory conclusion, the culprit discovered and the charges dropped:
MARRIS: Do you ever get those anxieties coming on unexpectedly? No, I don’t suppose you do.
SERGEANT: Don’t you be surprised.
MARRIS: So we can expect you to grace the British Legion very shortly?
SERGEANT: Thank you. I think I’d better just talk to the staff to wind this business up. Don’t want to leave them with the idea that they’ve go away with everything.
He turns to the door where Benny and Stanley stand pale and resigned.
MARRIS: Yes, they gave me a bit of a start I’ll admit.
SERGEANT: They’d gone clean out of my mind. Why don’t they go and do something?
MARRIS: I don’t know. Perhaps they can’t think of anything suitable.
SERGEANT: Eerie, aren’t they? That’s how I imagine condemned men look, on the morning.
MARRIS: Funny how these anxieties come on unexpectedly, isn’t it?
On the page it means almost nothing, but when the actors in front of us speak the lines and at the same time we seem them together and understand what they are feeling, the shared tension, the sudden intuitive points of contact which lead Marris first to ask about the anxieties and then, out of the blue, to see when the sergeant is experiencing one, it all makes perfect sense. So, too, does the small parable behind the whole action of the play: that what the ignored want more than anything else is attention, and even a very little, not particularly deserved, will do to get things right.
Meanwhile, Livings has already completed another play, Nil Carborundum, a story of goings-on in an R.A.F. kitchen manned by unwilling National Servicemen during a nonsensical peace-time exercise, and his productivity shows no sign of diminishing. He has not yet found his audience, and as long as he continues to write in the most familiar popular forms it is doubtful whether, even when he does, he will number many critics among them. He is essentially the sort of dramatist who should come to critical approval by way of popular success rather than the other way round—a Whitehall Theatre audience would have little difficulty in taking his plays a their face value and enjoying them on those terms; the mores severe playgoer, who likes to know at once where he is and be sure that he is not wasting his time on something which may turn out, after all, not to be really ‘serious’ at all, is in a less happy situation. Nil Carborundum is scheduled for production by the London branch of the Stratford Memorial Theatre Company, which may set the seal on Livings as a serious writer; one only hopes it does not at the same time desprive him of the only audience who can simply laugh at, say, the business of the clock in Stop It, Whoever You Are without grimly stopping to ask what it means.