b. 1907 – d. 2005
Christopher Fry was an English poet and playwright. He is best known for his verse dramas, notably The Lady’s Not for Burning. He was, with T.S. Eliot, the leading figure in the revival of poetic drama that took place in Britain in the late 1940s.
Christopher Fry remembered – by Hugh Whitemore
Since I’m a dramatist and not a critic I won’t attempt any sort of objective evaluation of Christopher’s work. When, as a young teenager, I began to take an interest in the theatre, he was the leading dramatist of the day. His plays were hugely popular. The public flocked to see The Lady’s Not for Burning and Venus Observed. Critics and audiences alike were dazzled and delighted by his punning verse and flights of silken fancy. Olivier, Gielgud and Scofield all acted in his plays. When he went to Broadway, such was his success that his face adorned the front cover of Time magazine. The formidable American critic George Jean Nathan wrote that the English tongue had been ‘set free by the hand of an unafraid and imaginative artist’. A few months later, T.S. Eliot’s producer E. Martin Browne celebrated Christopher’s phenomenal success: ‘He is still in his forties,’ he wrote, ‘He has obviously a great future.’
But after the production of The Dark Is Light Enough in 1954, his plays disappeared from the West End. The fact that his work is dismissed and neglected today seems to me entirely unimportant. Plays are essentially ephemeral (they only really exist when they are performed) and playwrights write for an audience of their contemporaries. If their work survives then that is a bonus for their descendants, but nothing more. Christopher’s work is out of step with the emotional attitudes of today. It is too rooted in England (possibly an England that is gone for ever) to find favour in our so-called multi-cultural society. Peter Brook, the great theatre director, wrote, ‘Fry finds his poetry in the England that still has echoes of the middle ages in its villages, the England of Canterbury, Ely and Oxford. The melancholy of Venus Observed is that of the Elgar cello concerto and Brideshead Revisited.’
The plays were also enormous fun. His wonderful translation of Anouilh, Ring Round the Moon, is full of the most felicitous and witty dialogue. Here, for example, Hugo, a young man-about-town, discusses the amorous misfortunes of his twin brother, Frederic, with the butler, Joshua:
HUGO: My brother slept all night under her window?
JOSHUA: Yes, Mr. Hugo – under both her windows. For five
nights now Mr. Frederic has gone to bed in a rhododendron
bush: you know, sir, the one on the south side of the west
wing, beside that statue they call Calliope, a classical
character, sir. Every morning the housemaid has found his bed unrumpled, and the gardener has found the rhododendrons rumpled. Well, it gives them a jolt, Mr Hugo, as who wouldn’t it?
As a man Christopher was enchanting. Small and neat, with a gently mellifluous voice (which betrayed his early experience as an actor), he looked like a handsome, slightly tweedy schoolmaster (who taught English, perhaps, in a minor public school). He had a courteous manner which was as out of date as his plays, but so delightful. He seemed to harbour no resentment that his plays were seldom performed. His spirit of enthusiasm was still vigorously alive. Some years ago he took a photograph of the pond in his home village of East Dean and submitted it in a competition. He won first prize and his photograph was printed as a postcard. Christopher was immensely proud of this and sent me off to the village shop to buy copies in bulk.
Our last meeting was at a lunch celebrating his 95th birthday. ‘Forgive me,’ he said, as we took our seats, ‘I tend to nod off from time to time’ – and indeed he did, just for a minute or so, picking up the conversation at the point where he briefly left it. A few weeks before the lunch I rang up to check his age: was it 94 or 95? ‘Ninety-four and a half,’ he said, proudly emphasising the ‘half’.Christopher delivered a lecture on death at Chichester Cathedral in 1977. In it he said, ‘As we grow older we may often regret the times when we have undervalued the gift of life, wasted it, mishandled it, obscured the light by our stupidity; but there is no worth in regret unless we can create from it a more intense realisation of what life means.’ I suspect that Christopher never undervalued the gift of life: the essence of his work was (and is) a celebration of being alive. The value of his plays is in their humanity and their spiritual grace. His poetry is part of a truly English tradition. His plays spring from our landscape and our history. Look beneath his glittering words and you will find a deep truth about us and our brief passage through life. What more can any writer hope to achieve? Let Christopher have the last word: a line from the closing moments of his first significant play, The Boy with a Cart:
Our birth and death we may touch understanding
As a moth brushes a window with its wing.