A Sleep of Prisoners
Having complained about John Drinkwater’s verse drama, I cannot say the same about Christopher Fry’s, which is often very funny, and more often dark in tone and substance and, like Shakespeare’s best work, feels so familiar, as if it were a part of our very make-up, which it probably is.
Trinity Players did a dramatic reading of Fry’s The Boy With a Cart in Holy Trinity Church here in Stratford three or four years ago, which was a great success and confirmed for me (I had a very small speaking part) what a joy Fry’s work can be. He had a good ear.
And although he had a great success with The Lady’s Not for Burning (which I think is a retelling of an older piece), which made his name, and probably a great deal of money, his best play, for me, is A Sleep of Prisoners, first performed at the Festival of Britain in 1951.
I remember, as a four-year-old, being taken to the Festival of Britain. I remember the noise and joy of it all, the buildings and the colourful frock my mother was wearing, and her newly permed hair and bright red lipstick, and my father in his grey flannels and tweed jacket and trilby hat, and the constant cigarette, and his neat moustache and the smile beneath it. My eleven-year-old sister must have been there too but I can’t remember. Maybe she wasn’t? And me, I remember me in a blue suit my mother had made, with white ankle socks and pumps. It was a good day.
And I still have a double page pulled from the programme of that Festival production of A Sleep of Prisoners, but I can’t imagine my parents going to see it and dragging me along to the centre of London from the Festival site, but then maybe they did. They never talked of it if they did.
But there we are. The play was produced at St. Thomas’s Church, Regent Street, on the 15th May, 1951, starring a very young Denholm Elliott, Stanley Baker, Hugh Pryse and Leonard White, and directed by Hugh Goldie, with another actor, Peter Vaughan, stage managing.
The action centres on four POWs locked in a church in enemy territory overnight. As the blurb says in my copy of the play:
“ …the men find that both personal and general conflicts become more explosive in confinement. One soldier loses his temper and half strangles his friend [and as the play continues each]…prisoner demonstrates his inner response to the events, extending himself, his companions and the problems they face onto a spiritual plane…”, almost into the world of Dylan Thomas, whose Under Milk Wood, came a year or so later.
The following short extract gives some idea:
MEADOWS…Any of you boys awake? Takes a bit of getting used to, sleeping in a looming great church. How you doing? I can’t rest easy for the night of me…Sleeping like great roots, every Jack of them. How many draughts are sifting under the doors. Pwhee-ooo. And the breathing: and breathing: heavy and deep: Breathing: heavy and deep. Sighing the life out of you. All the night.
DAVID. I don’t have to stay here! I’m a king.
The play lasts for around eighty minutes (no interval)and has great pace even when read. I’m sure it must have been an influence, not only on Thomas, but on Willis Hall the writer of the hugely popular play, The Long and the Short and the Tall, which uses a similar idea.
In his preface to the programme of that 1951 performance Fry writes:
“ A playwright’s view of the contemporary theatre is one with his view of the contemporary world, and his view of the contemporary world is one with his view of all time. He is exploring for the truth of the human creature, his truth in comedy or his truth in tragedy, because over and above the drama of his actions and conflicts and everyday predicaments is the fundamental drama of his ever existing at all.”
There is both hope and despair, and exhaustion, in that statement with the war just six years in the past, and an uncertain future. It’s all there in that short and meaningful little play that, just five years later, was swamped by the advance of the angry young men of the theatre and literature in general who’d had enough of the likes of Fry and Drinkwater, and Rattigan.
Fry outlasted them all, dying in 2005 at the age of 97, still working almost to the end.
He may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s worth taking a sip with a chocolate digestive on the side.