Obituary: Frank Marcus
Thursday 08 August 1996
Not that he was a feminist. His plays never delved into the position of woman in modern society or anything pompous like that. They did however remind us that among the educated classes woman is apt to get the upper hand; and to keep it.
And when two women are living together? This was the provocative subject of his best-known work, The Killing of Sister George (1965). Beryl Reid and Eileen Atkins brought it to life at the Bristol Old Vic in its days as a try-out base for new West End plays, with Reid as a grotesque soap- opera actress on the wireless who is about to be fired after years of sterling service, and Atkins as her pale, round-eyed and mousey companion who keeps the home fires burning.
"Drink my bath water!" ordered the burly Reid of her sullen housemate; and we all swallowed hard. What would the censor say? His rule over the stage still had three years to run and lesbianism was never a subject we imagined he could tolerate.
It was not, however, a play "about" lesbianism. Indeed Marcus was very careful to make sure the word was not mentioned. It was about the way women exercised power, as last year's West End revival reminded us - and as Robert Aldrich's American film, with Beryl Reid again in her old part, and Coral Browne replacing Lally Bowers as the boss lady from the BBC twiddling Susannah York's nipples "as if dialling an orgasm", so absurdly misjudged it. No wonder Marcus never had anything to do with it.
Yet that is the reputation he is still stuck with, sexual exploitation. What it seemed to be in the first place at Bristol was a satire on the way The Archers and such-like programmes take a hold of the domestic listener's imagination at the ironing board to such an extent that they really seem to be existing. It also teased the idea of an actress of no great talent yet who got a lifetime's employment playing one role.
And that is what it seemed again last year at the Ambassadors. During the Lord Chamberlain's rule however it was bound to seem more sensational and so the reviewers expressed their surprise and the show became a success.
Marcus was himself a distinguished critic, notably for 10 years on the Sunday Telegraph, in succession to Alan Brien; and was to prove not only one of the wisest commentators of his day but also, with his European background and early experience in the London fringe as an actor, one of the best-informed reviewers on the whys and wherefores of success or failure in the contemporary theatre.
Goodness knows he had had plenty of experience of the hazards of dramaturgy; but then he had plenty of experience of altogether other matters since he fled as a small boy with his Jewish family to England in 1939. Yet he was never a political playwright. Nor did he wave the feminist banner, even if almost every play he wrote made it clear that the weaker sex usually ended up on top.
He was shrewd enough as a dramatist never to sound critical about that. His attitude simply came as a breath not of Shavian fresh air but of an observed fact of life. It was incorporated in his characters.
Whether there was more than one female character at root was sometimes debated, for the person he wrote about with most warmth and sympathy was a young woman, usually called Cleo. Very 1960s-ish in attitude and manners, she furnished not only the heroine of a play of that name in 1965 but also several other comedies about such breezy, bright, independent young persons who come and go as they wish and are inclined to make their menfolk look amusingly inadequate or dull.
Was she derived from Marcus's translation of Schnitzler's Reigen, best known as the film La Ronde with its succession of sexual encounters? She might not always get her way in Marcus's plays (of which several were also seen on television) but she was always viewed with sympathy and cropped up again in such plays as Studies of the Nude (Hampstead, 1967) and, his last main West End work, Notes on a Love Affair (Globe, 1972), a somewhat Pirandellian and too self-conscious comedy about his own craft.
There was, necessarily, an older or more sophisticated woman in many of the plays and she came sardonically forward in his first West End success, The Formation Dancers (Arts and Globe, 1964). It teased with elegance, lightness of touch and shrewd observation the pretensions and desires of the London middle-class intellectual set, with one drama critic seducing another's wife and one of the women getting her own back and, understandably, it never had much of a run.
It seemed however to this critic in the stalls as if a new master of intelligent, wary comedy had come on the scene because its dialogue was so smooth, dramatically productive and rich in character.
Bringing both sexes to life on stage defeats most tiro playwrights; but Marcus had been at it for 14 years since his days with the so-called International Theatre Group and the Unity Theatre. So, here was something to celebrate.
Evidently it was the author's own favourite, and it enjoyed a good revival at Hampstead in 1971, where most of his work was apt to flourish; and the same dextrous dealing in casual encounters between men and women gave pleasure on a similarly perceptive scale in Mrs Mouse, Are You Within? (Bristol Old Vic and Duke of York's, 1968), where the young pregnant heroine dithered maritally between two rather dull men, the black father having absconded. It was a suburban tragedy but viewed as comedy; and again it should have been a hit.
No wonder if later that year Frank Marcus seized the chance of a post in Fleet Street as a drama critic and held it - in spite of the ravages of Parkinson's disease and the challenge of travelling - for 10 years.
To what extent his ever affable, charming and talented wife Jackie, a former fringe actress with whom he adapted for television La Ronde in 1982 and no doubt worked closely on many other pieces, influenced his art or attitudes to women, it is hard to say.
Once he got what was in those days a secure and respected position the experienced playgoer knew that there would be little time left for creative writing of the kind which had alerted the theatrical world in The Formation Dancers and The Killing of Sister George to a new and remarkable talent.
It would be rude to say that critics are two a penny. It is just that editors seem to treat them that way. In any case Marcus had a background that gave special authority to his reviews. He had been writing in the London Magazine and Plays and Players, where some of our best critics got their training; and he had his causes, like all critics, his being the mid-European theatre of Molnar and Wedekind, and the contemporary mime Marcel Marceau.
But playwrights of Marcus's disposition and truthful quality cannot be had (or at least kept) for love or money. So, although the playgoer appreciated his wit and experience as a weekly guide mainly to the London theatre - he was hardly fit enough to get much further - his potential as a playwright was something infinitely scarcer, as any leading actress of today or yesterday will tell you when you ask her why she is not working on the stage. The parts aren't there, except in the classics.
Meanwhile let us be grateful that Marcus put so many of them in his debt. Not only Beryl Reid, whom he rescued from intimate revue, and Eileen Atkins and Lally Bowers, but also Margaret Courtenay, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Irene Worth, Maxine Audley, Joanna Dunham, Julia Foster, Jane Asher, Miriam Margolyes and who knows how many others, had he not had the call to function on both sides of the curtain?
Even with an agent as vocal and eloquent as the late Peggy Ramsay to cry his wares around the managers, he was subject to the demands of fashion - demands for left-wing plays, social realist dramas, sex plays of all sorts and effusions by angry young men. So he cannot be blamed for doing more service to the theatregoer as a guide than as a playwright.
He may be best remembered as the champion of lesbianism, but it was really as the champion of the female character in all its aspects, amatory and matronly, emotionally and egocentrically; and on those grounds he seems to have stood alone for his generation. It is just a pity that he could not stand it longer.
Frank Ulrich Marcus, playwright and critic: born Breslau, Germany 30 June 1928; Theatre Critic, Sunday Telegraph 1868-78; married 1951 Jacqueline Sylvester (died 1993; one son, two daughters); died London 5 August 1996.
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