1 FEBRUARY 1963, Page 15


The Hermit Eye


Next Time Fit Sing To Yon. (New Arts.) The Knickers. (Lyric, Hammersmith.) Tutu title of James Saunders's latest play sounds like a guarantee that his next will be better, or at any rate more in keeping with what is ex- pected. Next Time I'll Sing To You, he seems to promise; but in fact the words were one of the utterances of Jimmy Mason, the hermit of Great Canfield, Essex, who is the central character of the play. Mason barricaded himself in a hovel around the turn of the century and didn't die till 1942. He was then eighty-four and in all those years he had spoken to almost no one apart from his brother Tommy, who brought h;m food but whom he suspected of trying to poison him.

The method of the play is refusal. The author refuses to treat his hero in the manner to which heroes are accustomed; he refuses to see him as significant, moving, unique or even par- ticularly interesting (it was the very opposite, one feels, which inspired Saunders—the idea that a man should do something so odd, so un- comfortable, so important to himself, and yet be quite insignificant). He refuses to allow Mason any high motives for his retirement from the world; instead he rootles around in his early life to find implications that he was probably mad, or worse. He refuses to allow any of the obvious possibilities or any of the usual values inherent in a scene; he allows none of the drama of a hermit living in complete seclusion in a twentieth-century village. none of the ex- citement of a love scene in a meadow, none of the importance of a single human life.

These refusals force a deliberately fragmented style on his play. He can't allow any scene to run its full course and impose its own weight and values on the play around it. So no scene is ever completed and every serious speech has to be undercut with a joke or interrupted by a snatch of pastiche music hall. To improve the contrast, the serious speeches themselves turn imperceptibly into parodies. In the gaps the actors chat to the audience, complain about the play or indulge in a bit of ping-pong with old philo- sophical chestnuts like 'Can this cigarette be said to exist?' Much of this is enjoyable, but basically it remains high-class messing about.

The best parts of the play come from the author's refusal to treat any scene from the usual perspective. The love scene in the meadow, during which Jimmy Mason was conceived in 1857. is described in a passage of magnificent purple prose from the point of view of two remote participants—a nightingale which watches the event with jaundiced eye from a near-by tree, and a mosquito which sinks its proboscis deep into the exposed and temporarily defence- less buttock of Mason Senior. This is brilliantly done and is entirely relevant to the play's theme —the place of man in the universe.

So, to be fair, is almost everything else in the play, style included. The vaguely Pirandellian element (the clash between the rest of the cast and the actor playing the hermit) is entirely appropriate. The actor identifies himself com- pletely with the hermit and wanders around begging the others to treat him seriously, which neither they, living some time after and in an- other place, nor the universe are able to do. Equally the style is, in a way, right. Naturalism treats its characters as though they are, for these two hours at least, the most important beings in the world; so James Saunders goes, with some point, to the violently opposite ex- treme. But the refusal to allow any solid centre to the play finally creates nothing but impatience —impatience with this play and, since the author can write so well when he wants to, im- patience for his next one.

Carl Sternheim's The Knickers, written in 1911, is about the amorous intrigues and atti- tudes of a bourgeois husband and wife and two violently unsympathetic lovers. It comes draped with prefaces by the author, Eric Bentley and others, all to the effect that the play bursts convention apart and shows how the individual can and must become himself, however brutal the results. To add to the weightiness the directors lower a swastika at the end, but, since every character in the play seems overwritten to extinction, no serious attitude or idea emerges from the performance. But there are some very funny lines, worthy almost of the modern accolade of `satirical.' May I go to church?' asks the young wife at one point. 'It's almost an emergency.'