James Saunders

Writer of challenging and original plays
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The Independent Online

James Saunders, playwright: born London 8 January 1925; married 1951 Audrey Cross (died 1993; one son, two daughters); died Eastleach, Gloucestershire 29 January 2004.

The playwright James Saunders startled the theatre world with Next Time I'll Sing to You in 1962. No future work of Saunders quite succeeded in making the impact of that play, but he continued to write challenging and original plays into the 1990s. His last play, Retreat, was premiered at the Orange Tree Theatre in 1995.

Although his early work seemed to be influenced by the Theatre of the Absurd, Saunders had far too original a mind to belong to any particular type of theatre. Perhaps that is why he did not receive the attention he deserved. Like a versatile actor, he defied being pigeonholed and those who we cannot easily classify we sometimes tend to undervalue.

The success of Next Time I'll Sing to You (has Michael Caine appeared on the London stage since?), for which Saunders won the 1963 Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright, was followed the next year by A Scent of Flowers, which brought the young Ian McKellen to London for the first time. But after that he had to wait until the 1977 before Bodies, premiered at the Orange Tree, went via Hampstead into the West End with Dinsdale Landen in the leading role. His play Fall (1980), again written for the Orange Tree, received a second production at Hampstead, while Making it Better (1992) brought attention to Rufus Sewell.

James Saunders was born in London in 1925 and took a degree in Chemistry at Southampton University, but always intended to pursue a career as a playwright. A number of his early plays, including Next Time I'll Sing to You, were first staged at the Questors Theatre in Ealing, but from the early 1970s the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond became his playwriting home, where he became an integral part of the theatre as it grew and developed, including even a time as chairman of its board.

Indeed his interest in the development of theatre as a whole is evidenced by his involvement with the Arts Council in the 1960s and with the emergent Greater London Arts Association in the 1970s.

Saunders was a master of the short play (Games, 1971; After Liverpool, 1971; Bye Bye Blues, 1973), of adaptations (The Italian Girl, 1967, based on a novel by Iris Murdoch) and he even completed, wonderfully, Sir John Vanbrugh's unfinished A Journey to London, which formed part of a three-play Saunders season at Greenwich in 1975. In 1989 he created the English version of Vaclav Havel's Redevelopment and wrote prolifically for radio and for television, where his adaptations of D.H. Lawrence and H.E. Bates were particularly admired.

But Saunders was essentially a man of the theatre, constantly fascinated by the line between illusion and reality, between where theatre ended and real life, as it were, began. His extraordinary originality is shown in particular in two plays. In The Borage Pigeon Affair (1975), a play about the pettiness of much local politics, he had written about tattiness and squalor, selfishness and greed, ambition and ruthlessness, but he did not regard himself, or the production, or the actors as being in any way superior to those whose story they were telling. He asked that the play, the production and the actors have the same values as the characters. Let it be composed of what it is depicting. If Councillor Garnish is out for himself, so is the actor playing him. It was a breathtaking idea.

In the short play Games a group of actors are, it would seem, improvising around the trial of Lieutenant Calley and the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War. Saunders's subject was our responsibility for our actions. But he wanted to do more than write a play in which such matters were debated. He wanted to make what the play was about concrete and specific. Actors' and audiences' acceptance of what a playwright has written, however foolish it might be, seemed to him analogous with a soldier's defence that he was only obeying orders.

So he structured the play so that the audience were drawn into a debate about the issues. When an actor in the play asked, "Why does a man, an ordinary law-abiding man, go out under orders to a foreign country and kill a baby? Why?", the pause that followed was not rhetorical. It was a real question, giving the opportunity for a real response, which it always got. The audience was now in the play with the actors. When the actors sensed the time was right, they took the play back and carried on where the script continued, but the audience had been there too. They had argued with the actors, with each other and very probably with the author. The results were electrifying.

Saunders wrote

Games is about freedom, responsibility and choice, treated not as theoretical concepts but as aspects of an actual event which takes place during rehearsals and during each performance. The play is about the fact of its being put on; but this fact concerns not only the actors who have chosen to do it, but the audience - which is both an audience and a collection of individuals - who choose to accept it or reject it, to let it proceed smoothly or to interrupt it or to wreck it. But it is not enough to present an audience with the fact of choice; the possibility of using it must be put within their limits.

James Saunders did not just write for the theatre, he used theatre, the act of performance, to be a part of what he wanted to say.

Sam Walters