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Interview with Christopher Fry

16 MAY 1989

   The quiet village of East Dean nestles in a valley in West Sussex, and it was here I came to meet Christopher Fry. I had read some of his plays as an undergraduate, and the prospect of meeting someone who had written something deemed worthy of study in those far-off days filled me with diffidence. To my surprise, I discovered that he too felt diffident at the prospect of talking to someone much more knowledgeable about Arthurian legend than he considered himself to be. Once we had set each other at ease, we spent an enjoyable morning together, talking about his career as a playwright and his use of Merlin in Thor, with Angels (London: Oxford University Press, 1949).
   Although he does not consider it one of his better plays, nor his use of Arthurian legend more than peripheral, Fry did tell me that he had been invited to write another play and was thinking about the voyage of Lancelot and Galahad on the barge during their quest for the Holy Grail. Although he expressed doubts that he would ever get round to it, I offered him what encouragement I could. The situation certainly has great dramatic potential, and I can think of no one more fitting to deal with it. Like the Grail questers themselves, I remain hopeful.

RT: The figure of Merlin appears in Thor, with Angels. Why did you choose to include him in a play about the Jutish settlers in 596, perhaps as much as a century and a half after the events one ordinarily associates with Merlin?

CF: I did it partly because I had a thought at the back of my mind that I would like to do an Arthurian play, and that I could use Merlin as a kind of trial trip to see what happened, but more particularly, I think, because it was going to be a play about Christianity coming to Kent. There had already been Christianity in the country, and it gave us the story of Joseph of Arimathea. Merlin, I thought, might make the link between the two periods of Christianity, and at the same time serve as a commentator, an outside eye representing a different kind of paganism from that of the Jutes. This, as far as I can remember after forty-one years, was what I had in mind at the time. Also, I did enjoy his presence as a relief from all those terrible, unexciting Jutish people.

RT: Stolid English people, I suppose. Simple savages?

CF: Yes. As a child, when I began to learn the history of those early times, I thought them fairly stuffy. What I did was perfectly fair, of course. If Merlin was shut away as tradition maintains, then he could perfectly well have emerged in the sixth century from his retreat or his tower.

RT: Merlin is, as you mention, a different kind of pagan from the Jutes. What kind of paganism was he supposed to represent?

CF: He represents the paganism of Celtic magic and Morgan le Fay, as opposed to Odin and the Northern gods.

RT: Did you particularly want Merlin, or might any Arthurian figure have served: Morgan le Fay, for example?

CF: I don't think she would have worked in the context of the story that I was trying to tell. I needed someone, like Merlin, who could serve as a link between Arthur's court at an earlier time, when Christianity was in the country, and the Jutish chieftain's court during the period of the play. It was also useful to have a figure like Merlin as a bridger of time in the play. There's a gap of time which he fills with his long speech about the evolution of the gods, and it takes us right through from one time to the next without having to bring the curtain down.

RT: Did you have any special interest in the figure of Merlin, as such, or was he chosen primarily because he was most appropriate in the context of the play?

CF: I think that he is a fascinating figure in his own right, capable of being developed in almost any direction required by the movement of the play. In some ways he is a Prospero figure, weaving his own magic. He does, moreover, emphasize the difference between the Celtic and the Jutish imagination.

RT: He does not, however, make use of his magical powers in the play?

CF: Oh no. It would not have fitted. Also, he's had his day, hasn't he? He talks of that. The magic part of him would belong to that earlier time. He was always slightly self-denigrating about being a pagan in the Christian court, almost as though he were a little uneasy about his own magic qualities. In that same long speech about the evolution of the gods, Merlin welcomes the return to sleep. At the time, I thought he might appear again, to take an even larger part in a play set in the time of King Arthur.
   I did, however, bring Merlin into Curtmantle, the play I wrote about Henry II and Beckett, though not as a character. Henry II was almost dominated by the Merlin prophecies, which he believed in strongly. I make him mention this several times in the play.

RT: What happened that you didn't write that Arthurian play?

CF: Well, partly, I think, it is because I never quite discovered the crucial pattern of the Arthurian legend. For me, something isn't there. I know that a lot is there, but the thing that ultimately says to me, this is the shape, this is the form of the thing that you want to do, I've never found. Perhaps I haven't pursued it deeply enough. Other things have come along, and I suppose that to get to where you want to get, you have to sit it out until you find the way, which I've never done. But it would be interesting to try again, particularly as the subject has come up lately. Actress Kate O'Mara's company has asked if I could do an Arthurian play for them.
   I'd be quite happy to do a short play, one that would go with A Phoenix Too Frequent. This is the story of the widow of Ephesus, and it lasts for about an hour and a quarter. I always felt that another play would make a full evening, and that an Arthurian one might be it. One episode in the Arthurian legend which I've always thought I might possibly treat as a short play is the meeting on the barge between Lancelot and Galahad. I thought there could be a splendid dialogue between the two.

RT: Given the difference in their attitudes, there certainly is the potential for intense dramatic action between the two.

CF: Yes, and yet the son wouldn't have been too much in awe of the father.

RT: It is a situation that could reveal much about, not only the legend, but human interactions between father and son, between the different generations.

CF: Yes. I was a little disappointed when I went back to Malory to read the episode again, because it wasn't doing what I wanted it to do.

RT: This is your chance to write it the way it should have been!

CF: Yes.

RT: Do you recall any of the Arthurian books you read before you wrote Thor, with Angels?

CF: Very few, I think. Some version of Malory adapted for younger readers, probably. I had read Charles Williams, because we saw quite a bit of each other at the beginning of the war. Then he died, alas, too soon, at the end of 1945.

RT: Do you feel that Williams had any influence upon your conception of Merlin?

CF: I don't think so, but I always find it very difficult to answer questions about influence, because the deepest influences are the ones you're not really aware of at all, I think.

RT: Yes, indeed. Had you read T. H. White at that time?

CF: I can't quite remember whether I'd read it by then. About it, rather.

RT: How about C. S. Lewis?

CF: I'm very uneducated about things by C. S. Lewis, I'm afraid. I don't know why. There's every reason why I should have read his books, and he was a friend of Charles Williams. At the beginning of the war, in 1940, just before I was directing at the Oxford Playhouse, the Oxford University Press moved from London to Oxford because they were expecting air raids. I used to meet with Charles Williams and Gerard Hopkins, who was Gerard Manley Hopkins' nephew. They both worked at Oxford University Press. Basil Blackwell came too, and we used to meet every Thursday at a pub in Oxford to have a beer and cheese. We had a terrible time with Charles Williams because he had a curious accent. People have described it as cockney, but I'm not sure that it really was. I remember one particular occasion when the subject turned to Paradise Lost. To the embarrassment of everybody, Charles suddenly began reciting Paradise Lost at the top of his voice in this wonderful accent, and he had to be restrained or he would have gone right through the entire work. I came across a modern novel not long ago by A. N. Wilson, about a female Anglo-Catholic publisher who used to give literary parties at the beginning of the war. Among the people who attended her parties were Lewis, Williams, and T. S. Eliot, and my name came into it too. At the beginning of the war, however, I hadn't written anything except The Boy with the Cart, which nobody had ever heard of, so he was rather premature to include me in his novel.

RT: Artistic licence, perhaps?

CF: Perhaps that's what it is. To return to your question about my reading, I think I had read Jessie Weston's book From Ritual to Romance, because I was interested in Eliot and her book had influenced The Waste Land. I first met Eliot just before the war. I wrote a play for Tewkesbury Abbey, called The Tower. It was performed in Tewkesbury in 1939, and he came down to a performance.

RT: Had you read any other works of Arthurian scholarship or history?

CF: No.

RT: Had you read Tennyson's Idylls of the King?

CF: Yes, I had done that. I think it was the Grail legend that interested me most, though, as I say, I never quite found the pattern I was looking for.

RT: Well, the Grail is many things to many people.

CF: Rightly so. I suppose this interest in the Grail was already foreshadowing the play I wanted to write, and was part of my search for the particular pattern which I thought should be there, whether it was or not.

RT: Before we leave the question of source, had you read any of the Welsh materials?

CF: I had read The Mabinogion, but not deeply.

RT: After your use of Merlin in Thor, with Angels, did you feel that the potential for working with the Arthurian legend was less promising than you had hoped? Or did other things intervene so that you never settled down to write your Arthurian play?

CF: I think that both those things are true. Other commitments intervened, and I wasn't sufficiently caught by the possibilities of the Arthurian legend to pull away from them. I just followed the course of events which went in a different direction. Partly, of course, this was because of commissioning. That always moves your life in different directions, and after Thor, with Angels Olivier commissioned a play for the opening of his management of the St. James' Theatre. I wrote Venus Observed for it, because something had to be found which would be right for his company. Then for the Festival of Britain I was commissioned by the Religious Drama Society to do a play to be performed in churches, and so I wrote A Sleep of Prisoners for that special occasion. By that time, I'd promised Edith Evans that I'd do a play for her, which led to The Dark is Light Enough, and so I was off again.

RT: Between the combination of other commitments and uncertainty about how to deal with the legend, you did not get round to the Arthurian play?

CF: Yes, that was it.

RT: Now, however, the wheel has come full circle and the commissioning is for an Arthurian play.

CF: It could be, yes, though whether you can stand up to a commissioning at the age of eighty-one, I don't know. You never know how long the play will take to write. I am reluctant to take a commissioning, because I simply don't know if I could get to the point of coming up with the required thing at the right time.
RT: When you write plays, do you work on one play at a time, or on a number of projects concurrently?

CF: One at a time is enough, indeed more than enough. It did happen to me once, however. There is talk of reviving Venus Observed in London next year, but I said that I wanted to revise it a bit first. Since it was commissioned for the opening of the St. James' Theatre, the date for delivery was fixed. I'd started on it, done most of the first act, and then couldn't see how to handle the next bit. Peter Brook had earlier asked if I'd do a translation of Jean Anouilh's L'invitation au chateau, but I said, no, because I've got to do a play for Olivier. When I got stuck, Brook came back, and said, it will do you a lot of good to do the translation. It'll loosen your mind up and you'll recover. So I did the translation as Ring Around the Moon. By then, of course, time was getting very short. I was working about seventeen hours a day to try and get the play ready for Olivier who was being very patient about it. When I finished the second act, I informed Olivier and promised to type it out that week. By then, however, the momentum was going and I'd started the third act. So I didn't type it out and send it to him. Then I received from him a parcel containing a large typewriting ribbon, far too big for my little Corona portable, and a little brush to clean the keys, and one of those round flat erasers, and a note saying, if there's anything else you want, let me know. I'm not making you nervous am I? I do hope I'm not making you nervous. It was charming. That was the nearest I came to doing two things at once.

RT: You obviously revise and rewrite your plays. This may be something that dramatists are prepared to do to a greater extent than novelists to meet the needs of the theatre itself, as well as the company. Do you customarily revise your plays?

CF: Well, revising as you go along, of course you do that. As for going back to revise, I've done small revisions of certain plays, for when they've been done on radio. I think, however, that you do take advantage of an opportunity to rewrite something, especially if you wrote for a tight deadline and know that you should have spent longer before you let it go, as has happened. There are the bits that you continue to think about in your mind. I'd like to go back and tidy up those bits that aren't satisfactory.

RT: Did this apply to Thor, with Angels at all?

CF: Oh, I still don't understand how I managed to get that play written. I came across a diary that I kept at the time, which was when The Lady's Not for Burning was being rehearsed for the first production at the Arts Theatre Club, in 1948. I'd been commissioned to do Thor, with Angels for the Canterbury Festival in June '48. The diary, which starts in January, shows that I'd no idea then of what the play might be, and this seemed to go on for quite a time. When rehearsals started for The Lady's Not for Burning, I went to them all. When did I write Thor, with Angels? Obviously I must have written it in about three weeks, just before we started rehearsing. How I dared to behave like that, I don't know. How could I have taken on the job? I must have been braver in those times, I suppose.

RT: That's the confidence of youth.

CF: Well, I wasn't so young as all that, really. In fact, I let them drop Thor, with Angels from the Selected Plays. If I did rework it, the only bits that I would be content to leave alone would be almost all the Merlin bits. A great deal of the rest of it I would like to revise.

RT: Did the publishers suggest it be dropped from the Selected Plays, or did you make the suggestion?

CF: I think we decided together that that would be the play we would let go. It's still in print, but mostly in the American acting edition.

RT: Could you tell me more about the Canterbury Festival for which Thor, with Angels was commissioned?

CF: It was a series of plays done at Canterbury Cathedral. It started, I think, in 1928, when John Masefield wrote The Coming of Christ. Then Eliot wrote Murder in the Cathedral and Williams wrote Cranmer, which was done a year or two before Thor, with Angels. They used to commission a poet to write a play each year, I remember.

RT: When you wrote the play, I presume you had in mind the religious needs of the Festival?

CF: Yes, it had to be about the Cathedral. Most of the plays chose some archbishop of Canterbury as the subject of the play, as Eliot did with Beckett, and Williams with Cranmer. Although I don't actually introduce Augustine, I do signal his approach. The length depended on what they wanted for the Festival. It was performed in the Chapter House, which is not an easy stage to work on. It had no curtain, which was one of the reasons that I used Merlin to provide the passage of time between the first part and the second part of the play.

RT: Why did you choose the Dark Ages?

CF: Most of the better-known figures had been used in earlier plays. I was stuck for an idea, working, as I mentioned, very much at the last moment. I think I found some book that put me onto the subject of Augustine and the return of Christianity to England. The play could equally well have been about something else.

RT: It enabled you to make use of your interest in Merlin as well?

CF: As it turned out, yes. I don't think I knew it when I was searching at first, but it may have been at the back of my mind, something I could have been moving towards, yes.

RT: You couldn't, of course, write a play about the Arthurian legend since it predates Canterbury's primacy in the Church in Britain?

CF: No, it couldn't be done.

RT: When you used Merlin, what aspect of that figure did you feel was most important for you to include in the story: the prophet, the mentor of the young King Arthur, or the magic worker though that is really a minor aspect of his tradition?

CF: The important thing for me was that there should be a figure from the past, from the beginnings of Christianity and the legends that surround it. Though I don't mention the Grail, I was also interested in that search, and this idea I embody in Merlin's long speech about the movement in mankind towards a spiritual end. An important theme of the play, thus, is the return, rather than the first approach, of something to England.

RT: Thank you.