For nearly a decade, Christopher Fry was one of Britain's leading playwrights. His plays were staged on both sides of the Atlantic, attracting the leading actors of the day, including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Pamela Brown and Edith Evans. In a prosaic age he chose to write in poetry, the language, he insisted, "by which man explores his own amazement". He was part of that revival of poetic, and even religious, drama which also saw T.S. Eliot turn to the stage in 1935 with Murder in the Cathedral.
Fry's own explanation for the success of poetry in the theatre in the 1940s and early 1950s was that it was a reaction against what he called " 'surface realism', with its sparse, spare, cut-and-dried language". The world, he suggested, "seems rather cut down a bit - we have all felt that since the war - and poetry provides something people look and wish for, a richness and reaffirmation". Perhaps that was one reason why he was commissioned to write a play for the Festival of Britain in 1951, itself designed to celebrate release from the pinched realities of wartime. The Radio Times declared his work as "proof that we have discovered that realism in the theatre is not enough".
The point, though, was finally not so much that verse side-stepped realism as that it offered a more generous definition of the real. As he himself insisted, "poetry is the language of reality". Emily Dickinson had confessed that in her own poetry she told the truth, but told it "slant". Fry dealt in metaphor, compelling image, indirection.
Yet there was nothing stealthy about his verse. Eliot, in The Family Reunion (1938) and The Cocktail Party (1950), might seek to accommodate it to the everyday, reconfigure it in the direction of daily prose so that it was almost subliminal. Not so Fry. His verse drew attention to itself. He revelled in the musicality, the compelling crystalline brilliance of words. In A Phoenix Too Frequent (1946), a wife mourns her husband: "My husband, you have left a wake in my soul. /You cut the glassy water with a diamond keel." Yet, since the same woman is about to betray that husband, Fry plays with the ambiguities and ironies at the heart of language.
He was born Christopher Harris in 1907, his mother having just stepped ashore at Bristol from a steamship that had barely made its way to port after battling a storm in the Bay of Biscay. He was the second of two boys. Later, he adopted the name Fry from his maternal grandmother who may or may not have been a Quaker, although, since the family coat of arms showed the bloody head of a Moor impaled on a sword, this must have been a rather curious branch of the faith. Certainly religion was to inform much of his work and prove an inspiration for a number of his plays.
By 1907, his parents were already 15 years into a marriage that had had rather more downs than ups. Pursuing success, they had emigrated to Australia only to return disillusioned. His father had then abandoned his trade as a builder and turned Anglican lay reader, a step up spiritually, no doubt, but a step down financially. Indeed, for much of his early life Christopher Fry would be accustomed to what were then called straitened circumstances, not least because when his father died, three years later, at the age of 42, he left no will because there was nothing left to will. Mother and boys moved in with his paternal grandparents.
Fry was raised during the First World War and served in the second though, recalling no doubt his proto-Quaker background, in a non-combatant corps. In 1916 he saw a Zeppelin shot down and bodies brought back from the front for burial. No wonder, perhaps, that soldiers tend to put in an appearance in a number of his plays. He attended Bedford Modern School, where he did poorly in English, though he wrote his first play at the age of 11 and his first verse drama at 14. At 18, he wrote Youth and the Peregrines, which eventually reached the stage in 1934. Meanwhile, he taught himself to play the piano and began to compose songs.
After a brief spell of teaching, he turned to the theatre, acting and working as an administrator until, in 1934, he became director of the semi-professional Tunbridge Wells Repertory Theatre, persuading a biddable George Bernard Shaw to allow him to stage the premiere of A Village Wooing, in which Fry himself appeared as actor. He was shrewd enough to pair it with one of his own works, the play he had written at 18. It got him noticed. The following year he was commissioned to write a play for Dr Barnardo's Homes (Open Door, about the charity's founder) and a musical comedy, She Shall Have Music, which opened at the Savoy Theatre.
In 1936, he married Phyllis Hart, a journalist. In 1938 came Thursday's Child and The Boy with a Coat, the latter written for a local church festival. At a time when there was a vogue for religious drama - albeit mostly amateur - he quickly received another commission. The result was The Tower, a production seen by T.S. Eliot, which made its way to the West End in 1939. This sounds like a catalogue of successes. It was not. In 1938 the Frys had literally no money until a small bequest rescued them.
The Second World War now intervened and Fry, a pacifist who none the less recognised the necessity to fight Hitler, served out his time in England. He had wanted to join the fire brigade, but was afraid of heights. In later years he liked to recall Eliot's response: "You must specialise in basements." He wrote songs and sketches to amuse his fellow soldiers, among whom was a man who would later act in one of his plays - Michael Gough. He was discharged in 1944 following a breakdown and returned to the Oxford Playhouse where he had briefly been artistic director. Here, he completed The Firstborn, broadcast by the BBC in 1947 and performed at the Edinburgh Festival the following year.
More importantly, he was invited to contribute to a planned season of poetic dramas to be staged at a small theatre in London. The result was A Phoenix Too Frequent, a play which rescued him from his relative obscurity, indeed which marked the beginning of a period in which he was celebrated not only in England, though his first venture in America was less than impressive. The British production opened in April 1946 at the Mercury Theatre, and was swiftly revived seven months later with Paul Scofield. On Broadway, however, it ran for only five performances.
He was luckier with The Lady's Not For Burning, which ran for 151 performances in New York and whose title became so well known that Margaret Thatcher thought it worth parodying when she suggested in 1980 that the lady was not for turning. He featured on the cover of Time magazine. He wrote the play in 1947, in the middle of one of the coldest winters on record, a fact which, he insisted, accounted for what seemed to him, though not others, as flaws in the last act. The Frys' flat lost all power and they had to fetch water from a nearby Tube station. The play opened in London in March 1948, with Jack Hawkins directing. A year later it returned to the West End with John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Pamela Brown and Claire Bloom. In 1950 it became his first play to be televised.
Also in 1948 he wrote Thor, With Angels, specially commissioned for the Canterbury Festival, but his next West End play, Venus Observed, opened two years later with Laurence Olivier, Denholm Elliott and Rachel Kempson. It, too, crossed the Atlantic, where it starred Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer, but this time the run was more modest. It lasted 86 performances.
Olivier sent Fry a 30-page letter, reporting on the New York production, so long, indeed, that the American actress Ruth Gordon suggested that they should give it a title and stage it. But, then, the play itself contained an elaborate joke, a sentence over 43 lines long, a dig at critics who had reproved him for over-elaboration. Olivier gently suggested that some of his lines were, in fact, difficult to deliver and some of his vocabulary somewhat daunting - "too verbally rich for the modern ear". The audience on occasion felt daunted, so that it felt like "playing in a hospital for croup. Be a bit easier on them, cocky," Olivier advised. "Exercise is good for them but they've paid for entertainment. If you could act some of your own roles," he suggested, "you would find out so much that would cause you some constructive pondering."
It was typical of Fry that in later years he took great pleasure in reading aloud from this letter. He was, after all, a comic playwright and brought to his life no less than his work a sense not only of humour but self-deprecating irony. He once explained that ideas first presented themselves to him as tragedy but that, in the writing, they transmuted into comedy. There is a great deal of Christopher Fry in that remark.
Even as Venus Observed was in rehearsal Ring Round the Moon (1950), Fry's translation of Jean Anouilh's L'Invitation au château, was in production and translation (of Jean Giraudoux, Henrik Ibsen and Edmond Rostand) would become another interest, along with film work, which included a significant contribution to the screenplay of Ben-Hur (1959). In 1951 came A Sleep of Prisoners, his Festival of Britain play, performed in churches around the country, and followed the same year by The Dark is Light Enough, written specially for Edith Evans. There were to be other plays - Curtmantle (1965), A Yard of Sun (1970) and One More Thing (1986) - but Fry's popularity had now faded.
His best-known plays had been staged between 1946 and 1954. The sudden change in British drama, represented by John Osborne, Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and others, precipitated a personal crisis for Fry. He later confessed to having lost confidence, blaming himself for a failure of nerve from which, as far as theatre was concerned, he never really recovered. When he wrote A Ringing of Bells, to mark the Millennium, it was his first stage play in a London theatre for some 40 years.
Christopher Fry believed that the role of the writer was to make sense of the world he inhabited, for himself and for others. He was, he confessed, frightened of writing, and never produced anything that was not commissioned. He claimed once to have bought a donkey because its struggle to express itself made him seem eloquent by contrast. Yet he always felt a vocation for the theatre and believed that his plays were simply waiting for him to catch up with them. For him, poetry was a language in which, as he said, heaven and earth could be captured in a single word.
It would be tempting to apply F. Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that American writers lack a second act to this most British of authors, were it not for the fact that Fry wholly lacked Fitzgerald's self-pitying elevation of personal pique into national principle. The fact is that, not merely was Fry already approaching 50 when he wrote Curtmantle, but he continued to write for television and film and never lost his commitment to theatre or to the transforming power of poetry.
Kit Fry could sometimes seem a man from another age. He was modest, polite, humane, unassuming, yet in his work he aspired to an eloquence and a captivating humour that once made his a compelling voice, a voice, indeed, which still sounds out in plays whose moment only seems to have passed. Indeed, in 1999, in a poll of writers, directors, actors and reviewers, organised by the Royal National Theatre, The Lady's Not For Burning was voted one of the hundred best plays of the 20th century.
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