The Ornament of Action: Text and Performance in Restoration Comedy by Peter Holland; Metafictional Characters in Modern Drama by June Schlueter - review by Jeremy Treglown

Jeremy Treglown

Theatre and Metatheatre

The Ornament of Action: Text and Performance in Restoration Comedy


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Metafictional Characters in Modern Drama


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Harold Pinter’s two most recent plays have both been supplied with a part-ironic kind of self-definition by their casting. No Man’s Land is an allusive work, full of references to literature outside itself, integrated with a deftness that makes Stoppard, by contrast, look like The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations; but the strongest reference is the one not mentioned in the dialogue, to David Storey’s Home, with its melancholy, self-fabricating, genteel old men locked in an old people’s home with two obscene old women. It was in Home, of course, that Richardson and Gielgud did their first geriatric duo, an act repeated in No Man’s Land.

If Pinter’s play is a cosmopolitan, hard-eyed, witty view of the idea more lachrymosely treated by Storey, it is a comparison the casting invites. And both plays took off in their first productions, not only because these excellent actors were in them, but because of the audience’s awareness of what the same actors had been: here were Hotspur and Hal, as it were, in their pitiful dotage – quantum mutatus ab illo times two.

Betrayal involves a different kind of alertness to the theatrical past, but a related one. It is, in the first place, a reply to some of Pinter’s own earlier work. The story, as nobody failed to notice, is for once laid on the line, and is quite simple. But the play has another kind of genealogy, brought into focus by the casting of Michael Gambon, the emotionally helpless vet of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests. Betrayal, one realised, is an Ayckbourn play – a bleakly hilarious, in the end naturalistic, farcical tragedy about middle-class marriage. And Pinter makes his familiar material new this time, not through mystery and latent violence but, like Ayckbourn, by doing a painfully ironic juggling-trick with his narrative time. Without Gambon, the point might have been missed.

Purely theatrical aspects like these of the nature of a dramatic text are Peter Holland’s concern in this important book on Restoration comedy. He shows very clearly how effective a piece of casting could be: how, for example, the long partnership of Charles Hart and Nell Gwyn in a succession of ‘gay couple’ roles inevitably imposed its own sense of genre on widely disparate plays; how Anne Bracegirdle’s playing her first non-virtuous role made a cynical, pessimistic point of its own in The Maid’s Last Prayer, about moral survival in contemporary society; and how the audience’s response to Heartwell, the decayed rake in The Old Bachelor, would have been intensified by the cast. ing of the no-longer-young Betterton, partly because of his well-remembered youthful performances in rake-hero roles, but also because of the application of his tragic skills to Heartwell’s grand selfdramatising.

Actors, and the networks of expectation and association connected with them, aren’t, Holland reminds us, the only kind of theatrical ‘metatext’. Staging and setting are similarly crucial and he is very good here, too. He shows that comedy and tragedy differed in their relative spatial proximity to the audience, the action of tragedy moving further and further up-stage as one layer after another of elaborate scenery was moved to reveal the one behind; while comedy, with its smaller number of settings, stayed close to the forestage, allowing rake-heroes like Dorimant to establish contact with the audience in an intimate way that helped to reinforce their uneasy attractiveness.

The book is full of interest on the individual settings themselves, and how they too provide a sub-text, the alternation of locality in The Country Wife, for example, between Horner’s lodgings and Pinchwife’s, which underline the play’s thematic antitheses.

What all this helps Holland to do, for the first time on such a scale in the scholarship of Restoration drama, is to turn theatre history into an effective critical and interpretative means of studying the plays, rather than a separate kind of cultural-historical pursuit unconnected with value-judgements.

There are things he doesn’t talk about. The Restoration was a period of intensive reworking by dramatists of previous plays – Davenant’s Macbeth, Dryden’s All For Love – and since adaptation is a lasting aspect of the theatre’s control over its products, it would have been worth dropping the restriction to comedy in order to discuss it.

There are also various problems resulting from the use of what is sometimes scanty evidence about stage conditions. The first chapter, in particular, works too hard to generalise from insubstantial material about the composition of audiences and how often and with what expectations they went to the theatre. Barring the discovery of lost documents, these are matters we are going to have to put up with knowing little about, just as we put up with having few details about how actors in this period acted, what business they introduced and so on.

To conclude the gripes, there are too many mistakes of grammar and (though one hesitates to say it in a magazine) of proof-reading for an academic book published by a university press. There’s a particularly catastrophic clutch of mislineations on page 15, for example, enlivened by a reference to ‘Pepys’ dairy’ (one imagines him merrily goosing the milkmaids in a Home Counties Talbothays). And an appendix listing Restoration promptbooks still extant contains several items for which, bewilderingly, no location is given. How can Holland know they are extant, if he doesn’t know where?

These are minor criticisms, though, of a book which, despite some of the common birthmarks of a thesis (shifts of approach from chapter to chapter; anxiety to milk every point; dreary prose style) represents a formidable contribution not only to our understanding of the drama of the period, but to our awareness of how it can most usefully be approached.

Holland ends with Congreve, of whom he has had much of value to say throughout his book – some of it, paradoxically, of a bibliographical, textual-critical kind. It is well known that Congreve altered his plays for their collected publication in the Works of 1710, but less well-known that the changes – which survive in some modern popular editions – include a serious genteeling and smoothening-out of his complex sexual situations. He bowdlerised, and he cut ‘blasphemies’. Holland thinks Congreve was genuinely afraid of being prosecuted, after the attacks made on him by Jeremy Collier, the Restoration Mary Whitehouse. He lists major cuts from The Double Dealer, for example, including the following exchange:

Lady Plyant … Well, remember for this, your Right Hand shall be swathed down again to Night – and I thought to have always allow’d you that Liberty –
Sir Paul Nay but Madam, I shall offend again if you don’t allow me that to reach –
Lady Plyant Drink the less you Sot, and do’t before you come to Bed.

All this time after the removal of the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship, it’s hard to remember how destructive the Colliers and Whitehouses can be. It is a pointer to the interest of Holland’s book on this subject, as on the others he deals with, that one finds oneself ending where one began, with reflections about the theatre of our own time.

Even at 129 pages of large type (plus bibliography), June Schlueter’s book seems an over-long exposition of an aspect of that increasingly threadbare critical text, metafiction. The idea (new readers start here:) is that fiction, including dramatic fiction is best when it is about itself, nothing more or less, and that this existential self-scrutiny is a peculiarly satisfying metaphor for what books like Ms Schlueter’s tend to call ‘the human condition’, or ‘the predicament of modern man’.

An essential part of this condition or predicament is supposed to be that for those who are in it, i.e. everybody, ‘external’ reality has, whether or not we’ve noticed the fact, ceased to exist. Stoppard’s early plays explore the implications of this for art itself, but his later work, like Professional Foul, has begun to engage with some of the more unchallengeably real problems of, for example, Soviet dissidents in a way that is more moving and less glib than a play like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

This isn’t to say that metafiction and metatheatre can’t be complex and deeply satisfying. On the contrary, the very dominance of the modes in the estimation of many critics (though not so many writers and general readers) is to some extent a reflection of valuable qualities in the best examples, more valuable than mere seminar mileage. But they are qualities that can only be described with a range of response that this tunnel-visioned book excludes. Given her premises, Ms Schlueter offers a good, clear account of how her chosen plays (by Pirandello, Genet, Beckett, Weiss, Albee, Stoppard and Handke) fit them. Students unfamiliar with metatheatrical ideas will certainly understand them by the end of the book, if not very much sooner. But the discussion is narrow, repetitive and cliched. Typically underwhelming is her comment that Genet’s The Maids ‘presents the audience with an ongoing dialectic between reality and illusion on several levels’. And in general, her tendency to imply that all the dramatists she discusses are saying more or less the same thing must lead to the conclusion that either they aren’t so interesting after all, or their interest lies in other qualities, more peculiar to them as individuals. But then, if the philosophical assumptions Ms Schlueter has nibbled are fully digested, we can’t be sure that these writers or their work exist at all, so perhaps there’s not much point in trying to see what might be distinctive about them if they did.

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