7 MARCH 1970, Page 21


A merry old soul


Happiness is not granted to everyone, or not at any rate in such full measure, as it was to Kenneth Tynan when, 'one May evening in 1956 at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square', he underwent an experience which (given some modification in language) seems to have been closely akin to Saul's on the road to Damascus: It was as though, in the tiptoe hush of a polite assembly, someone had deafeningly burped ... The salient thing about Jimmy Porter was that we—the under- thirty generation in Britain—recognised him on sight ... For the first time the theatre was speaking to us in our own language, on our own terms.' Later generations have been less fortunate. It is not so much that things have changed, as that they haven't. The theatre still speaks to us in terms which have grown no less strident and no less portentous, though considerably smugger, with time. So that, as countless earnest, aggrieved, by now often quite elderly but still instantly recog- nisable heroes have, from that day to this, tirelessly carried on burping, it is difficult to conceive of a drearier, or a more conven- tional, sound.

Imagine, then, how the heart warms to Bernard Link, theatre critic and hero of David Mercer's new play (After Haggerty which opened last week at the Aldwych) when a kind friend asks him: 'Been at the theatre?"Yes', says Bernard scowling hor- ribly and indicating, with a vicious jab at his typewriter, the unutterable dejection which that experience tends so often to evoke. 'Crap?' Crap.' It is this despondency which makes After Haggerty such a pleasant change. Not that the play itself is especially original—on the contrary, its troubles (Volt, t'party and t'folks up North, interspersed with dollops of what Mr Mercer once called 'class talk') are exceedingly familiar. But there is, even in that terse and sombre ex- change quoted above, a note of genuine feel- ing markedly absent from the mixture of fervour and facetiousness with which, in the past, this author has cried doom on England.

He is still crying it, of course, but in tones which carry rather more conviction. For Mr Mercer is not simply a sincere old soul, he is also a merry one: the salient thing about Bernard Link—and it makes him, in my ex- perience, almost unique among heroes of his age, views and background—is that he is not wholly earnest. Considering the staple tradi- tion of English drama in the past two hun- dred years, this may not seem in cold blood particularly startling; but to anyone ac- customed to the atmosphere of dim, religious gloom in which, for the past fourteen years, crises of conscience such as Mr Link's have generally been acted out, it gives even the most rudimentary joke in After Haggerty ('Did the kids call you Missing at school?') an impact positively impious.

This Link is. after all, the latest in a long chain of anxious youths who, like Mr Mercer, have been growing since the begin- ning of the 'sixties steadily older, richer and more humorous. Meanwhile, their careers have become correspondingly less melo- dramatic: first there was Colin (Birth of a Private Man) who, in the course of an event- ful life, marched, sat down and was twice imprisoned before resigning from the Corn- 'Waft of 100 whereupon, somewhat un- hinged by grief, he ended suicidally in a hail of bullets on the Berlin Wall; then there was Peter (Ride a Cock Horse) who finished up also a trifle dotty, only this time in homelier surroundings—wearing SS uniform and hid- ing in a cupboard; and now Bernard, who contents himself with simply touring the familiar trouble spots—Hungary, Berlin, Cuba, Prague all projected on the back-cloth —in a mood of melancholy, and largely silent, resignation.

This unaccustomed reticence seems to mark not only an engaging diffidence in Bernard Link, but a new discretion in his author: for anyone examining the heroes of Mr Mercer's earlier plays must have noticed that their woes are not essentially different from the vague malaise which has beset so many stern young men on the English stage this century: 'It's nothing to do with con- crete success. I suppose it's some sort of spiritual lack. Whoops, hark at me!' (Nicholas having one of his 'broody fits' in Dear Octopus 1938). Indeed, this kind of sentimentality coupled with the inevitable nervous apology (and Mr Mercer's works are studded with disclaimers of this sort—'1'm embarrassing myself', 'no doubt rather pom- pous of me', 'you reek of self pity') may be readily traced, whether backward through Sherriff and Rattigan. Coward and Maugham to Barrie and Galsworthy, or forward to Osborne, Wesker and their many socialist realist successors.

The history of recent, English, 'serious' drama may. in short, be seen as a hopeless attempt to reconcile the vehemence of its emotions with the triteness of its language—a predicament which concerns the playwright, rather than his characters, and which is as obvious in Mr Mercer as in the hysteria of, say. The Vortex or The Sacred Flame. The fact that, since 1956, all heroes have stepped smartly to the left may make their misfor- tunes more respectable, but not for the most part less frivolous: indeed, if anything, it makes them more so, since to create a stock character only to have him gunned down on the Berlin Wall argues an alarmingly meagre, not to say callous, attitude to a situation which calls for a rather more complex emo- tional response than is generally available, at any rate to our domestic playwrights.

Hence the many charms of After Haggerty in which at last Mr Mercer has ceased lab- ouring to extract heroic tragedy from what is basically a comic plight: for the kind of dialogue, alternating between flat banality and rant, which has in the past so obstinately refused to yield serious returns on grander topics, will suit nicely for the fears, miseries and frustrations of a theatre critic. Hence, too, the brilliance of Frank Finlay's Bernard Link: a marvellously morose creation in whom the theatrical guilts and frenzies of the last punishing decade are at once contained and distilled again with a subtly disconcert- ing irony. His Link is matched by a perform- ance, from Leslie Sands, in which for once that ominously familiar figure—the hero's labouring parent from up North—looms with a wholly conscious nastiness: Mr Sands' glowering aged Link is a miracle of intransi- gence, intolerance and meddlesome vanity. The play contains also a pair of insou- ciantly charming portraits, by David Wood and John White, as Bernard's trendy decora- tors; and an intermittently powerful, if some- what shrill, performance by Billy Dixon as an unwanted, interfering and intolerably bossy American harpie, the last of many crosses wished on Bernard by the unseen Haggerty. Perhaps only Mr Finlay could declare his love for this lady quite so baldly—'You touch me'—and yet without the least trace of pomposity; and though all the characters in this play are, at one time or another, a bit touched—and nearly all share the weakness of Lord Lundy who 'from his earliest years Was far too freely moved to tears'—it is un- commonly pleasant to find a play which speaks to us. as once the theatre did to Mr Tynan. 'in our own language, on our own terms.' Indeed, the play's only serious flaw —apart from its inordinate and quite un- called-for length—is the unseen Haggerty, a dismal guerrillero, much given to lame practical jokes, who is treated by his com- rades with a reverence explicable only by reference to Mr Mercer's own, perhaps as yet not entirely comfortable, relationship to his turbulent past. Still, Haggerty is a small price to pay for the wit which gleams, how- ever fitfully, throughout this modest comedy. The production is set handsomely by Alan "Fagg and admirably directed by David Jones; cut by half, and with Haggerty excised, it would be remarkably snappy, and an un- usually truthful, piece of work.