The Burning Glass. By Charles Morgan. . (Apollo.) CHARLES MORGAN'S new play presents us with a familiar twentieth-century situation : the scientist with a conscience. When Christopher Terriford discovers how to create from the sky a burning glass which Will effectively burn up any part of an enemy country, his reaction, oddly enough, is to be appalled. What is to be done with this new force which may possibly have beneficial applications as well as harmful ones ? Terriford is better placed than most scientists to find a solution to the problem ; his mother has been taken in her youth to New College and Worcester balls by Mon- tague Winthrop, now Prime Minister, and she finds time in the intervals of oracular apprehension about the burning glass to summon the Downing Street reserves to the rescue. Laurence Naismith plays the grand old man with a Gladstonian beard and a Churchillian decisiveness. He is a mine of aphorisms but his intervention does not Prevent the enemy ' from kidnapping Terriford, though it does do something to • get him back. It is Tony Lack, Terriford's Chief assistant, who has been the unwitting means of betraying him to Tamas Domokos (' Gerry ' ) Hardlip to whom'Robert Speaight gives a convincing air of efficient villainy. Unfortunately for the enemy,' however, Terriford's wife has been left in Possession of the secret and its knowledge enables the Prime Minister to apply pressure Which ends with the restoration of her hus- band. Meanwhile, the 'unreliable Tony kwhose position is complicated by his being in love with his chief's wife) has learnt the formula for setting the burning glass machine and finally commits suicide to Prevent himself (being what he is) from Flying it away. Terriford, reunited to his . aroilY, decides to stick to his first decision about the burning glass : to give the State the use of it in war, but to keep the secret to himself and his wife. This play then makes some claim to be `onsidered as a play of ideas—at least it sets b,t311,..t to deal with a moral problem—but ideas are actually presented to us ? A scientist discovers a terribly destructive force, so terribly destructive that he decides "°t to disclose the secret of its operation to iloYone. On the other hand, he is willing to ,,e1. (presumably) good man, the Prime iIl) Mister of his country, have the use of it Ithethothe purpose of undoing ' the enemy,'
er side ' (why not the Russians
r tj.te Corrununists ? The identification is CeetlY obvious), who are presumably bad. whothi, s solution presupposes that he knows Is bad and who is good in this compli- cated world, and of this on a political level there is no discussion. The ' other side ' Puts in an appearance in the form of a plea for s acreDar wine, women and senior common-room u4aos, and very well Robert Speaight ate tes kt. Only it is not to the 'point. We eattliliar with the god that failed, but no is made for him here. It is a far cry the prefabricated huts and Midland ;Lertts of a world where such issues are Nivt scientists. As between Monty .n tnrop and Tamas Domokos Hardlip
there is no question of hesitation. The pre- supposition is social : the one took your mother out to dances, the other was educated half in Buda and half in Pesth. To whom would you give the secret of the burning glass, chum ? How fortunate that the villain is a gentleman of mixed origins. The play is not about a clash between ideol- ogies. It is not about the scientific con- science (since Terriford's solution depends on a series of undiscussed assumptions and the real issues are neglected). It is not about personal relationships : Tony Lack 's love for Mary Terriford is not used in the plot apart from a suggestion that it symbolises what is good in him, and his suicide seems insufficiently motivated and cowardly. In fact, all the characters except Hardlip devote themselves to proclaiming the un- spoken assumptions of the English upper classes, consequently there is no genuine clash of values and the play fails because the real questions are never asked. Scientist and Prime Minister have their enemies and their ideals in common, and all that is left the audience is the doubtful pleasure of a play, parts of which are successful on the thriller level.
The unsuitability of this to the play's pretensions is rubbed in by dialogue which gives the hearer an uneasy sensation of being about to turn into blank verse, but never quite makes it. Faith Brook as Mary Terriford and Michael Gough as Tony Lack have great difficult' in coping at all. Mr. Gough pronounces his words as if he were reading them, and Miss Brook is too often defeated by the Sibylline character of what she has to say. Only Mr. Speaight and Mr. Naismith get away with it, the former largely because his speeches make little attempt to communichte the incommunic- able and the latter because he can take refuge in a kind of Parliamentary rhetoric suited to his character. Michael Goodliffe as Terriford achieves some effect by a policy of starry-eyed inactivity which makes the quotations with which the play is studded seem more natural on his lips. Admittedly the actors are not given much help by the author. There is almost a complete lack of characterisation in the play. The Prime Minister is an impressive lay figure on which to hang fine sentiments, but none of the other characters are even faintly established. Their behaviour is wildly improbable (would Terriford's wife and mother have done nothing to prevent him from falling into so obvious a trap ?) and they pass across the stage like the very faintest of ghosts leaving even less impression on the audience than the banal utterances for which they are the vehicle. Even on the thriller level they are abstractions.
For it is not on merely technical grounds that this play is vulnerable. Here is an attempt to present as a solution to a con- temporary moral problem a set of social terms which are purely saccidental and, in any case, do not represent moral values. Nothing relevant is said about the original dilemma. Nothing relevant is said about human nature. Communism versus Demo- cracy, Science versus Nationalism, Indi- vidualism versus the State—none of these issues are raised. What purports to be a play of ideas conveys a country-house
ethic of the necessity for having the right chaps in the right places. No wonder the audience feels cheated. This solution solves nothing, excites no question, stimulates no reaction. It is not even dramatic.
This is not what the theatre is for.