bafflement, indifference, boredom, fury. One performance of The Waters of Babylon (1957), 23 of Live Like Pigs (1958), 28 of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance (1959), 22 of The Happy Haven (1960). London’s record of attention to the plays of John Arden is not a happy one. His three publicly performed plays all lost money, played to restive, half-empty houses. The critics growled: a few scented some sort of quality, hardly anybody liked the plays. In the case of The Happy Haven, two of our tiny handful of responsible critics not only echoed the general dismissal, but actively protested against the play being produced at all. The touch of the poet is still a leper’s handshake.
It is an old, old story, of course. It has happened before, and will undoubtedly happen again, although in a context where the non-u play (serious theme, uncouth characters) is receiving considerable attention, one might have hoped for more sympathy. But the public, it seems, is willing to have its nose rubbed in the raw dirt of life only so long as it can bring along its own disinfectant to soften the smell when it gets too strong. If Jimmy Porter’s criticism of Alison as a dead soul comes too close to home, then soften it by labelling him a self-pitying neurotic: you can then enjoy a guying of English Sundays and a turbulent sexual struggle, and complacently pass over the fact that the whole thing is based on a damning indictment of the complacency of British society . . . Almost anything will get by in the theatre so long as it is presented in the approved manner.
A few months after Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance was jockeyed off the stage, a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Inherit the Wind, transferred from the Pembroke Theatre, Croydon, to the West End, with critical blessing as a good play. It had a liberal theme, condemning the bigotry of the Tennessee “monkey trial” of 1925, when a schoolmaster was indicted for teaching the Darwinian theory of evolution. The play did not, in fact, run very long (69 performances), but it was approved of. The audience was right in there, rooting for the hero, and came out feeling uplifted and liberal. Splendid. So we are all liberal. We all hate intolerance. Then who is it who tags along when, say, apartheid crops up? Nobody was ever prodded into wondering why the trial took place, or whether they themselves, in those circumstances, might have been numbered among the bigots. Is the average member of that audience so very different from the average inhabitant of Dayton, Tennessee, who aided and abetted the monkey trial?
The point is that, right from the word go in a play like Inherit the Wind, you know where you are, what you are supposed to think. The schoolmaster is young, clean, upstanding, and he loves the pretty girl; his defence counsel is quizzically amiable. The girl’s disapproving father is unpleasant, the prosecuting counsel is a bigoted bible-thumper. Of course the audience is on the right side. But are they approving the person or the idea? Suppose that the schoolmaster were dirty, loudmouthed and a perverter of little boys on the side. The right to teach the Darwinian theory would remain unchanged, the trial would still be intolerable—but audience reaction would almost certainly be less clear-cut. Inherit the Wind is not a good play, and is an easy target for such criticism, but it does illuminate the way in which many far better and subtler plays enlist the audience with an easy emotional plea.