Abroad in a world of love and loss

DH Lawrence's The Fight for Barbara tells a tale strikingly similar to events in his own life
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The Independent Culture

When DH Lawrence sent The Fight for Barbara to his agent, he wrote, "This comedy will amuse you fearfully," an odd thing to say about a play based on his messy, painful elopement with another man's wife. In 1912, Frieda Weekley, the wife of a philology professor at the University of Nottingham, left him and their three children to live with Lawrence (whom she later married) near Lake Garda. Barbara (played by Rebecca Hall) is not Frieda, says Thea Sharrock, whose production of the play is part of the Peter Hall season at the Theatre Royal, Bath, and her lover, Wesson (Jason Hughes), is not Lawrence. The playwright said, "Much of it is word-for-word true," but much isn't. Frieda did not hesitate to give her opinion: "She says I have gilded myself beyond recognition, and put her in rags."

The play, written in three days, did not interest Lawrence's agent, and was unseen until Argosy magazine published it in 1933, three years after Lawrence's death. It was unstaged until 1967 when, after Peter Gill reawakened interest in Lawrence's plays with his productions at the Royal Court, it was produced at the Mermaid Theatre, where it was not well received. But that version used the script in the magazine, which had been cut a great deal. The complete manuscript was not found among Lawrence's papers at the University of Nottingham until 1999.

"It's an incredibly simple story," says Sharrock of the play, which is made up of arguments between the lovers and attempts by Barbara's parents and husband to win her back. "But it has an epic theme, and there's a universal quality to it. The dialogue is superb. It's also an incredibly physical play, whether that's literally the characters moving around the stage or how they interact with one another. When Look Back in Anger, which was written nearly 50 years later, appeared, people talked about how real it was, how it put you into somebody else's world. This play has the same feeling to it."

As in John Osborne's play, the woman is from a higher social class than the man. Wesson, like Lawrence, is the son of a coal miner, Barbara the daughter of a baronet; Frieda's father was a baron. But, considering which baron he was, the character of Barbara is a great change from her original. Frieda's maiden name was Von Richthofen, and her brother Manfred would become known as the Red Baron, the German flying ace of the First World War. "By making her English," says Sharrock, "Lawrence removed the political element from the play - part of the reason Frieda didn't want to stay in England was the amount of abuse she was getting."

Although Frieda was "cross" about the liberties Lawrence had taken with their characters, she thought The Fight for Barbara was a good play. The one thing she minded was that Barbara considers leaving her lover and returning to her husband, Said Frieda: "I did not wobble."

'The Fight for Barbara' is previewing at Theatre Royal, Bath (01225 448844), and opens 8 July