Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.
Present Laughter – Footnotes
The Footnotes to our episode on Present Laughter include thoughts on the real Garry Essendine, and the morality of the amorous liaisons that they all prosecute.
The real Garry Essendine
One of the features that enriches Present Laughter is the equivocal nature of Garry himself. There is a persistent suggestion that there is more to him than the extravagant showman that he is playing most of the time. His wannabe lovers would like to think that they will bring out his true character hidden beneath the showy exterior; a man who will be honest and sensitive, and most of all, faithfully loving to them. As Joanna puts it: “I want you to be what I believe you really are, friendly and genuine, someone to be trusted. I want you to do me the honour of stopping your eternal performance for a little, ring down the curtain, take off your make-up and relax.”
And Daphne similarly confuses when he is acting and when he is not. Although she claims to “know when you’re acting and when you’re not”, she pointedly gets it completely backwards, believing that “it was the real you” when he first makes love to her, and that he is acting when he tells her he does not want her to come to Africa with him.
Of course it is Liz who knows him best: “He’s not nearly as flamboyant as he pretends to be.” She and we know that Garry is always much more in control than he lets on, aware of the stakes he is playing with and what is required to sustain both his pleasures and his position. There is a sense of his potential vulnerability when ironically having complained about his lack of peace from the demands of all around him, he is unhappy when he finds himself alone on the eve of his departure to Africa. And he is certainly dependent on Liz for practical and emotional support – Coward is partially playing with this by conjuring Garry’s surname as an anagram of ‘neediness’.
Garry himself proclaims that he has a clear-eyed view of himself and his behaviour: “I always have believed that there’s far too much damned nonsense talked about sex…To me the whole business is over-rated, and always has been. I enjoy it for what it’s worth, and what is more, I fully intend to go on doing so for as long as anybody’s interested. And when the time comes that they’re not – I shall be perfectly content to settle down with an apple and a good book!” His great speech perfectly captures the contradictions of his character: it is overly-dramatic, it contains some truth, and it is deluded – it is virtually impossible to imagine Garry settling for the apple and a good book!
Garry is determined that his persistent philandering does not “do any harm to anybody”, but Liz is less sure: “You do harm to yourself and to the few, the very few who really mind about you.” There is an ongoing debate through the play as to the morality of casual sexual relationships, what Liz neatly labels “casual scampering”, though judging by the behaviour and views of most of the characters, and the final results, it is far from a serious moral contest. For Liz, Garry’s “buccaneering” is “rather undignified”, and most injudicious only when it really threatens to unsettle the professional team that keeps the whole Garry Essendine show on the road.
Both of Garry’s seductresses, Daphne and Joanna, are happy to settle for what Joanna calls the “fun of love” without the “pangs of love” or strings attached. “It’s an adult point of view”, one which Daphne is also content to go along with: “I don’t wan’t to marry you or anything like that…I’ll just be there when you want me, when you’re tired and lonely and want someone to put their arms around you.”
Henry and Joanna’s marriage appears to accommodate his multiple affairs, and Garry’s valet Fred prefers to conduct a non-exclusive, long-term relationship with Doris the dancer at the club he frequents in Tottenham Court Road. (Although touchingly we learn that she will be coming to see him off at the quayside when he departs for the tour of Africa). Garry professes to be outraged by all of these “immoral” attitudes, a stance which is clearly pretentious and hypocritical, as confirmed by his big speech reaffirming his determination to continue to pursue his pleasures “for as long as anybody’s interested.” It is hard not to hear Coward’s own voice behind Garry’s final proclamation on the matter: “I’m an artist, am I not? Surely I may be allowed a little licence!”
Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.
Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …