when shelagh delaney’s The Lion in Love was first produced a few months ago at the Belgrade, it was widely condemned for not being “a play”. Jeremy Brooks, for example, in the New Statesman, advised Miss Delaney to spend “five years of her young life” and “find out what this mysterious thing called dramatic form really is”. She had, it was agreed, merely thrown haphazardly together a few slices of Salford life.
The Lion in Love was not the only play, recently, to get this kind of criticism. Mervyn Jones, reviewing Progress to the Park, suggested to Joan Littlevvood that she should stop calling her productions plays, and go on to develop a new form of her own. Billy Liar was described as a slice of life flavoured with farce. And The Happy Haven was written off as a tedious and tasteless joke.
Coupled with the attack on the form of the new plays was an attack on the content. The Lion in Love, it was said, had nothing constructive to say, Billy Liar wasn’t “serious”. Just as earlier in the year The Lily White Boys had been described as having “no centre” and “no positives”.
One after another, the most exciting plays in our theatre are running up against basic critical assumptions. I believe it’s time we examined some of these assumptions a little more closely.
What, for example, does Jeremy Brooks mean by “dramatic form?” Since it’s a “mysterious thing”, it’s clearly rather difficult to pin down— the use of such a vague phrase suggests an almost mystical concept. However, a week later, Jeremy Brooks returned to the subject. “Attempts to impose unity on this play,” he wrote, “have in the past succeeded only in levelling the whole thing down to a flat, motiveless charade.”
“This play” was The Winter’s Tale. “Whatever can have possessed Shakespeare,” asked Mr. Brooks, “to graft on to this trunk of tragedy those frail standardised boughs of comedy?”
The Winter’s Tale is, on its own terms, a precise dramatic statement. Its unity lies in Shakespeare’s grasp of the twin poles of death and hatred,