- Plays and Other Dramatic Writings by W.H. Auden, 1928-1938 edited by Edward Mendelson
Faber, 680 pp, £25.00, July 1989, ISBN 0 571 15115 9
The Helensburgh and Gareloch Times for 1 July 1931 reports that, at the Larchfield School Speech Day, ‘the boys entertained the company with two little plays, and their clever acting and clear enunciation won the approval of their audience. The first play, Sherlock Holmes chez Duhamel, was written by Mr Auden for performance by Form V. It was a representation of a visit of Sherlock Holmes to France, and showed the attitude of the French towards his methods of deduction.’ The report passes over the play in silence, preferring the scenes from The Wind in the Willows performed by Forms I and II, to conclude with a sentence that reads like a spoof news item by Auden himself: ‘The company afterwards adjourned to the lawn, where tea was served, and the boys gave a clever display of Swedish drill.’
Auden’s detective play has disappeared more thoroughly than Sir Francis Crewe, heir to the estate of Pressan Ambo in The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), subtitled ‘Where is Francis?’ At least, those septuagenarian old boys who have been helping with enquiries have no information on it, though I can’t help feeling the play is still holding out in Scotland, somewhere in a Helensburgh attic. Tantalisingly, Holmes himself turns up in that prayer to the detectives which comes shortly after Auden’s own ‘Address for a Prize Day’ in The Orators, which he was writing at the time. This corpus non habemus hints at a permanent link in Auden’s thought – between the function of the detective and that of the political dramatist.
Auden suggested in the essay ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ that ‘the interest in the detective story is the dialectic of innocence and guilt’ which it shares with Aristotle’s ideal tragedy, passing through stages of Concealment and Manifestation where the innocent seem guilty and the guilty seem innocent until ‘the real guilt is brought to consciousness.’ It exhibits, too, the classic Aristotelian unities, and peripeteia, ‘a double reversal from apparent guilt to innocence and from apparent innocence to guilt’.
These plays, brilliantly collated, comprehensively annotated and in some cases (as, for example, that other lost play, The Fronny) reconstructed by the patient detective work of Edward Mendelson, repeatedly exemplify this association. The Enemies of a Bishop (1929), published here for the first time, ends with Robert Bicknell shooting his Spectre, a crime the village policeman greets with typical equanimity:
Policeman: Ee’s dead. ’Oo is ’e?
Robert: My spectre. I had one.
Policeman: That’s unusual. I’ope you’re coming
quietly, Mr Bicknell?
The Dance of Death (1933) closes with Karl Marx’s entry like ‘the ’tecs and their narks’ to pronounce verdict on a Dancer liquidated by ‘the instruments of production’ and his own culpability.
The peripeteias of Paid on Both Sides (1929) and The Ascent of F6 (1936) involve elaborate criminal trials, in which, Oedipus-fashion, the guilt is gradually brought to consciousness. In F6, as the ‘Guilty’ sentence is to be pronounced on Ransom, the Chorus warns that beneath the innocent surface ‘there is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.’ The dramatist’s job is to uncover this ‘wicked secret’, the ‘private reason’ behind the heroisms. The Chorus leaders of Dogskin likewise speak of uncovering a crime:
When the green field comes off like a lid
Revealing what was much better hid.
The ideal location for such a crime, according to ‘The Guilty Vicarage’, is a greenfield site in rural England exactly like Pressan Ambo, ‘the closely knit geographical group (the old world village)’, an apparently ‘innocent society in a state of grace’, but one where ‘all its members are potentially suspect.’ In Dogskin, the English village is not only the scene of the crime but its real author, for
Here too corruption spreads its peculiar and emphatic odours
And Life lurks, evil, out of its epoch.
It’s never exactly clear in this drama what precisely will be revealed when the field comes off like a lid, nor what the crime is for which we shall all be punished. Perhaps the most urgent offence is the sense of a life lived ‘out of its epoch’. A great deal of Auden’s indignation at Britain in the Thirties seems to be at the expense of its anachronism, its archaism, its inability to face up to the real world of contemporary history. In the words of Francis Crewe, these people are terrified by their new, modern freedom: ‘ “Anything,” you cry, “anything for the old feeling of security and harmony; if nature won’t give it, give us a dictator, an authority who will take the responsibility of thinking and planning off our shoulders.” Well, it is too late ... Fear of growth is making you ill.’
For Auden in the Thirties it was always later than you think. Belatedness is at the heart of his drama, written during the dog days of an empire that refused to ‘make action urgent and its nature clear’. In The Chase (1934), another antecedent of Dogskin newly published here, a Brechtian dramaturgy projects the blame for such loss of nerve on to the theatre audience, for
If we end tonight with the apparent triumph of
reaction and folly; there is an alternative ending.
And the choice is your own.