Nicholas Wright's Masterclass: The art of theatre: 23 Drink

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The Independent Culture
THE FIRST excerpt revolves around a superb multi-purpose prop in the shape of the claret bottle. Hester 'uncorked it last night' in preparation for her birthday dinner. But her lover Freddie - a brash young ex-fighter pilot - forgot the date and never arrived. Twenty-four hours and one suicide-attempt later, we find Hester offering her husband - a man who drinks nothing but the best - a glass of over-oxygenated grocer's wine. 'I'm sure it's delicious,' he says manfully.

The claret encapsulates - 'bottles', if you like - Hester's story till now: her love, her despair, her making-do. It shows the gulf between the life she's been reduced to (penniless in a shabby Earl's Court bedsit) and her former grandeur. And we note the social nuance. Removing the bunged-in cork and pouring out is done by the man, assuming there's one in the room. When Hester uncorked it last night - clearly well in advance of dinner - she was letting it 'breathe'. And once she realised that Freddie had stood her up, did she do what you or I would do and polish off the bottle? Of course not: she'd (literally) rather die than drink alone. In Hester's world, everything - even tragedy - obeys the conventions.

There's no suggestion that she or Collyer will drink much of the claret, let alone get drunk. Rattigan, who was himself a heavy drinker, seems to be recording the curiously formal drinking rituals of abstemious people. 'What shall the toast be?' They sound like Japanese mandarins apeing some sweaty Western custom but not really seeing the point of it.

Real, proper drinking is evoked by a second bottle - an empty one this time, out of sight but very much on our minds. Freddie no sooner finished the whisky than he reeled off to lunch at the Ritz, there to clinch a job as a test pilot. His nerve and courage have been drunk to shreds, so he'll almost certainly crash - and that's the point. It's a typical drinker's suicide and the direct opposite of Hester's: full of bravado, half-accidental and devastatingly effective.

The search, the soaring, the thud to the ground: this is what drinking in plays is really about, and has been since Euripides' Bacchae fell under the sway of the wine-god Dionysus. Great drinking scenes convey both the transcendent ideal and the grubby letdown. In The Tempest, Caliban - inspired by his first-ever taste of alcohol - breaks into exquisite verse while flanked by two of the nastiest drunks ever put on a stage. In Moon for the Misbegotten, Josie is tanking up the alcoholic Tyrone with the aim of dragging him into bed and then blackmailing him. Drink takes infinite shapes even in this tiny excerpt. It's romantic (as in 'moonlight'), macabre ('funeral') and the cause of bitter self-disgust. It produces a warmth and friendship vastly preferable to sex: the scene ends with Tyrone lying unconscious in Josie's arms in a tableau of redemption. And it prompts an eloquent physical language in which even the subtlest tilt of the glass has meaning: this is one of the things which make the writing of drinking scenes such a delight for a playwright (like O'Neill) who knows the ropes.

Writing while drunk yourself is disapproved of, as if it were on a par with drunken driving or drunken brain-surgery. Personally I can't see what's wrong with it. Why bring only your sober, sensible self to a play? Your other selves have insights of a different kind. If you don't like them in the morning, you can always rewrite.

Next week will be the last in this series: ENDINGS

HESTER: I expect you'd like a drink, wouldn't you?

COLLYER: A good idea.

HESTER: Oh dear] I'd forgotten that Freddie had finished the whisky.

COLLYER: It doesn't matter.

HESTER: Wait a moment. Here's something. (She brings out a bottle of claret.) Claret. I'm afraid I uncorked it last night. It's from the local grocer. I don't know what your fastidious palate will make of it.

COLLYER: I'm sure it's delicious. (He opens the bottle. She gives him two glasses. He fills them.) Well? What shall the toast be?

HESTER: The future, I suppose.

COLLYER: May I say our future?

HESTER (gravely): No, Bill. Just the future. (They drink in silence.) Is it all right?

COLLYER: Very good.


by Terence Rattigan, Act III

(TYRONE picks up his tumbler and pours a big drink. She is holding out her tumbler but he ignores it.)

JOSIE: You're not polite, pouring your own first.

TYRONE: I said a drink was a grand idea - for me. Not for you. You skip this one.

JOSIE (resentfully): Oh, I do, do I? Are you giving me orders?

TYRONE: Yes. Take a big drink of moonlight instead.

JOSIE (angrily): You'll pour me a drink, if you please, Jim Tyrone, or -

TYRONE (stares at her - then shrugs his shoulders): All right, if you want to take it that way, Josie. It's your funeral] (He pours a drink into her tumbler.)

JOSIE (ashamed but defiant - stiffly): Thank you kindly. (She raises her glass - mockingly.) Here's to tonight.

(TYRONE is staring at her, a strange bitter disgust in his eyes. Suddenly he slaps at her hand, knocking the glass to the ground.)

TYRONE (his voice hard with repulsion): I've slept with drunken tramps on too many nights.


by Eugene O'Neill, Act III