In the first act of Rodney Ackland's Before the Party (adapted from a 1934 short story of the same title by Somerset Maugham), the doorknob breaks.
Ackland is one of those writers from an era where playwriting was dismissed in terms of its 'carpentry'. They were thought to be soullessly crafted according to abstract rules, not forged in the fires of artistic commitment. The plays were considered to be - and perhaps they were - created within the confines of the well-made play, the pièce bien faite, that set of rules for play construction set out in the mid-nineteenth century by those French boulevardiers, Eugène Scribe and Victorien Sardou. The broad shape of the well-made play is a situation brought into crisis by a secret or a challenge which grows in complexity until everything is brought out in the open by the scène à faire (the obligatory scene, as it is appallingly translated) in which everyone learns the truth about everything. (The only genre in which that really works is the Agatha Christie-style whodunit in which everyone is brought together to learn the truth of the murder.)
So it's interesting to find a moment where the plot is genuinely enhanced by carpentry. In Terence Rattigan's 1939 After the Dance , there's a door that sticks: "Turn it hard. Try and surprise it, if you know what I mean." This isn't key to the plot, but it's a means of intensifying a key scene - one of the best scenes in C20 theatre - in which a young woman explains to another, older, woman that she is about to steal her husband. The other woman says she doesn't mind - the whole relationship has been a kind of bohemian joke - but through the scene we come to realise she minds very deeply. As the scene concludes, the younger woman is being ushered out and we realise the older is on the brink of tears. So when the door sticks, it's a kind of third-act jeopardy, a heart-in-mouth ratcheting up of the tension at the last minute. Rattigan handles it quite perfectly. In Before the Party the doorknob breaking doesn't significantly change the shape of the act, but it becomes another, amusingly absurd, obstacle in a scene all about an upper-middle class family attempting smoothly to prepare for a social engagement. It disrupts the regularity of the family rhythm just as the revelations do but unlike the revealed secrets the doorknob remains banal and prevents the story becoming high tragedy: this is a play about foolish people with foolish values being made to look like fools. The doorknob's precarity - in whose hand will it come away? - reveals the precarity of all the social relations based on appearance, reputation and manners.
The title Before the Party describes both acts: in the first, the Skinner family are preparing for a garden party thrown by some leading locals; this is particularly important because the father of the family, Aubrey, wants to stand as Conservative candidate in the forthcoming (1945) election. They are buffetted by two successive revelations; Harold, the daughter Laura's husband, has died eight months before the play begins. Everyone believes he died of fever while in Africa, but it is discovered by someone who knew him out there that he committed suicide. This is scandal enough, but Laura is forced to confess that Harold's drinking got so out of control that at a moment of intense rage she killed him and let it appear to be suicide. In the second act, we are before another party: the Skinners have returned from the rained-off party and some of the guests are coming to dinner. But it's the war; they have insufficient rations and anyway the cook has been summarily dismissed for being a Nazi. Laura's mother has already persuaded herself that the murder is a figment of her daughter's imagination and has palmed the deed off on a black servant. Throughout the play Laura has been reprimanded by her mother for no longer wearing black and indeed for her new relationship with commercial traveller David, who has distasteful but convenient contacts in the black market. When they discover that David may in fact be heir to Blakiston Hall and the future Lord Wraysbury, they change their view of this exemplary young man. The play ends with the family rushing the receive their guests.
The carpentry is there in the title. Before the Party describes the ticking-clock structure of each act; there is insufficient time to react calmly to each bit of news, which creates the hysteria. Indeed these framing social occasions are part of the standard carpentry of mid-century theatre. Terence Rattigan wrote Before Dawn, After Lydia, After the Dance and key scenes in French Without Tears, Love in Idleness, The Winslow Boy, and Separate Tables are given their urgency (or laughter) by the onset of a social occasion. But carpentry is a belittling term, intended to indicate that these plays were purely a matter of expert construction, without passion, without art, without politics, without engagement in the world around it. In fact, these plays use the structures of the well-made play as a kind of knowing choreography through which art and the world can move. Before the Party is a typical Rodney Ackland play, in that it is a brutal, black-hearted satire of bourgeois attitudes, just like The Dark River (come on National Theatre, revive that) or Absolute Hell. On a profound level, the play is deeply unsympathetic to most of its characters; as the play ends, the youngest sister, Susan, a child, declares 'I don't think there's any excuse for grown-up people's behaviour [...] I hate them all. They make me sick' (Plays Two, London: Oberon, 2001, p. 327) and it is very clear that this is Ackland's view too. The play has been given a good production by Matthew Dunster at the Almeida. The acting is all pretty good but all very different: Michael Thomas as the patriarch gives a rather light comic performance while Michelle Terry as the spiteful moralist older sister is, as always, completely truthful and precise. Katherine Parkinson as Laura lands her spiky retorts with great wit and power and switches to emotional distress with deftness while June Watson's nanny is a comic type. The set by Anna Fleischle is kind of in inverted commas, suggesting a too-good-to-be-true pink bedroom (perhaps a sly reference to Ackland's The Pink Room?) which suggests fantasy, naivety and innocence, in which the sordid realities must unfold. It is, however, quite horrible to look at.
Meanwhile at the Old Vic, Terence Rattigan's near-contemporary The Winslow Boy has been given a superb revival by Lindsay Posner. I have in the past quietly wondered if this is the play that most justifies the carpentry charge. It all hangs on the brilliantly written final scene of the first half, in which Sir Robert Morton interrogates Ronnie Winslow. It is beautifully constructed: the high-powered barrister taking the boy through his testimony with increasing intensity until the boy appears to slip up and to admit his guilt; Sir Robert's is furious and denounces the boy, who bursts into tears; the family are outraged and Sir Robert turns to go and asks for the papers to be sent to his chambers. 'But surely you won't need them now,' asks the bewildered clerk. 'Oh yes, the boy is plainly innocent,' replies Sir Robert. 'I accept the brief'. It is a brilliant curtain line which, when I saw it in the mid-90s, forced me to my feet applauding before I even realised what I was doing. It is, in that sense, a claptrap in the old sense - a mechanism that forces you to clap - but the suspicion has always lingered with me that maybe it is claptrap in the more recent sense too. Why does Sir Robert denounce the boy so ferociously when we know he has made up his mind about the boy's innocence by that point? Is the scene just there to produce the curtain line?
Lindsay Posner's production is a subtle but thorough re-examination of this play. The simplest decision, which turns out to be the most pervasively transformative, is to cast the biggest stars as Ronnie Winslow's parents. Henry Goodman and Deborah Findlay are fine actors and famous too. Peter Sullivan plays the flashier part of Sir Robert and he's a splendid actor but less well-known. What this does is rebalance the entire play to draw the eye to the family story and not simply to the theatrics of Sir Robert's late entrance in the play. In particular it brings out Act Three very sharply. This is the act which usually suffers from following the Sir Robert interrogation and deals unheroically with the family's disarray, its emotional and financial resources depleted by the ongoing trial. What the act is asking is a profound set of questions about whether justice is an absolute good that must outweigh other pragmatic considerations. Should justice be done, though the heavens fall? Or, as the play asks it, is it worth proving the boy's innocence, if the rest of the family suffers as a result? Ultimately, the play does seem to come down on the Kantian side of things, though Rattigan is alive to the complexities. Sir Robert behaves like an actor-manager, in a sense rather as a play-carpenter is supposed to, working his rhetorical tricks, building the flourishes, playing the part in the court room to get the effect. But, as with Rattigan himself, the mask slips and we find there is real commitment and feeling beneath.
When the play was premiered in 1946, some saw its defence of the individual against the Admiralty's faceless bureaucracy as a comment on the emerging Welfare State and the socialism of the new Labour government. Personally, I've never been convinced by that. Rattigan wasn't party-political in that sense, and while he drifted towards the Liberals, he'd flirted with the Communisty Party just before the war. I think it was 'justice' that interested him (when Arthur Winslow hears the phrase 'Let Right Be Done' he replies 'I like that phrase, sir' and I think his reaction is also Rattigan's). Indeed, Catherine (Ronnie's older sister) is clearly pitted as a figure of the left against Sir Robert's conservatism and she is in no sense bested by him. But clearly the play can look like a conservative statement that pits the individual (hooray) against the state (boo). But interestingly when I saw The Winslow Boy this time, it seemed clearer to me that the play is a defence of a notion of human rights and justice and it seemed that there's consistency there between Sir Robert and Catherine. The debate emerges through the play's subtle formal organisation which allows the characters to breathe and for the various encounters to build up, dialectically, the antithetical positions that have to be weighed, emotionally and ethically. (Of course, the carpentry is more pronounced here because Rattigan has also written the play, to some extent, in the theatrical style of the period he's writing about; so it's a four-act play with servants and a Knight of the realm.) The movement through the first act: the boy coming in through the garden door and then hiding in the garden; the family arriving through church; the long scene with Catherine's fiancé and Arthur, mother and Catherine in the next room and the comedy of Arthur's attempted signal; then Catherine meeting Ronnie and spiriting him upstairs; finally the toast to the engagement disrupted by news about Ronnie. It's a very careful and elaborate piece of stagecraft but it rather cleverly isolates Arthur from the family and places Ronnie at the centre of a structure of deception which establish a complex series of feelings and associations which help the debate be more emotionally embodied in the play later on. In other words, the carpentry is where the art and the politics and the feeling come from.
The Winslow Boy is a better play than Before the Party, I'd say. Ackland's satire can sometimes be so savage that the play seems a little thin. Ackland was a great admirer of Chekhov but he doesn't quite create the ambivalence and richness of character than Chekhov does. Perhaps he is constrained by the source material; Maugham's story is rather intrusively narrated to emphasise how critical the portraits are. For me the most remarkable moments are also the most uncomfortable: the cook is dismissed for being a Nazi but in the same conversation the family reflect on the deviousness of the Jews, expressing precisely the opinions that they apparently deprecate in their cook. Later in the play, similar racism is allowed to let Laura off the hook, with some pretty nasty remarks about indigenous Africans. These moments were met with icy silence in the theatre where I went. I suspect the audience didn't quite know whether Ackland was sharing in the racism; I don't think he was, but what's interesting is how far he is prepared to push the audience's uncertainty.
I wrote something about Rodney Ackland for John Bull's British and Irish Dramatists since World War II (4 Vols) Bruccoli Clark Layman, 2000-2005. It has what I think is the most accurate and detailed list of his plays and screenplays ever assembled and a fairly substantial essay on his work. Though now I come to think of it, I have no idea if it was ever published. I certainly wasn't sent a copy, so I'll publish it here. Oh and I find that in working on that, I wrote some summaries of lesser-known Ackland plays. You can read those here.