Plays and Other Dramatic Writings by W.H. Auden, 1928-1938 
edited by Edward Mendelson.
Faber, 680 pp., £25, July 1989, 0 571 15115 9
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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.

In the first published version of Dogskin this is modified into an appeal to the villagers to ‘mourn rather for yourselves, for your inability to make up your minds.’ In the authors’ second, preferred version, performed by the Group Theatre in January 1936, these injunctions are followed, not by the strange punitive transformations of the complacent villagers into animals, but by the restoration of the status quo in the fireworks and celebrations of a society wedding. Francis himself does not depart, as in the first version, leading the village youths to start the revolution, but is stabbed by a crazed old woman, and buttoned back up in his dog suit for disposal. (The dog it was that died.) When the village bobby enters to restore order, he is easily duped into letting the crime be brushed under the carpet. It is a witheringly cynical view of the world, but then cynicism, as Diogenes might have told us (Greek kunos: a dog), is a suitable dogged response to a dog-day world.

‘Greek tragedy and the detective story have one characteristic in common in which they both differ from modern tragedy, namely, the characters are not changed in or by their actions’ because their actions are fated or ‘the decisive event, the murder, has already occurred.’ This remark, in ‘The Guilty Vicarage’, is worth thinking about. Always alert to the new idea, Auden seems to have discovered the possibilities of a Brechtian theatre of estrangement early in his German travels. These plays seek by pastiche, parody, a deliberate travesty of established attitudes and discourses, to blow open the familiar expectations of realist dramaturgy. With Isherwood, he created a series of hybrids which turned the theatrical conventions back upon themselves, bringing them into confusion and discredit. In deconstructing the forms of drama, the plays deconstruct, too, the systems of power and authority upon which they are founded and which they express.

In these plays it is the traditional plots themselves which constitute the primal crime, leading their agonised and agonistic victims to an uncomprehended but apparently inevitable destiny. The narratives of contemporary British society were felt to be ludicrous anachronisms, frozen routines and discourses needing ludic disassembly. These plays run the gamut of the self-conscious genres, from Paid on Both Sides (subtitled ‘A Charade’) and Enemies of a Bishop (‘A Morality in Four Acts’) through to the most portentously earnest and last of the plays, On the Frontier (1938), which as if in an act of final disowning is subtitled ‘A Melodrama in Three Acts’. The taxonomy of The Dance of Death, unclassified on its title page, though indicated within, was endorsed by Harold Hobson in 1933 as ‘that most frivolous of entertainments, the musical comedy’, here transformed into an instrument for serious drama, ‘as though one were to see No, No, Nanette taken, without incongruity, as the mouthpiece for a 20th-century Contrat Social’.

‘Charade’ is a precise term for Paid on Both Sides. The hero’s crisis here is not primarily personal (though it brings personal suffering and death) but the repetition of a conventional, absurd role. This is a life which is simply going through the motions, doggedly repeating its lines. John Nower’s fate appears determined in advance by the blood feud he inherits. His only destiny is to revenge his father’s murder and so perpetuate the feud. The strange fusion of Anglo-Saxon attitudes and up-to-date allusion (cars and gangsters and bullets), the anachronisms and linguistic collisions, all reveal a stratified consciousness living belatedly in forms of language not its own.

Isherwood wrote, famously, in 1937 of the ‘saga-world’ evoked in this play as also ‘a schoolboy world’; ‘the two worlds are so inextricably confused that it is impossible to say whether the characters are really epic heroes or only members of a school OTC.’ Each discourse problematises the other, and the capriciousness of language and event renders suspect scenario and mise-en-scène alike. The sense of a doom that cannot be broken arises from a pattern of necessity shared by Greek tragedy, saga and detective fiction. But at the same time, the artifice of such a supposedly ‘natural’ order of things is under investigation by the dramatist. The play won’t let us believe that events originate in a pre-ordained order of things where necessity is justice. These events are riddled with factitious inevitability, arbitrarily designated inescapable.

Occasionally, at moments of historical opportunity, the subject of such a world suspects that he is not identical with his part:

We pass our days
Speak, man to men, easy, learning to point
To jump before ladies, to show our scars:
But no
We were mistaken, these faces are not ours.

Such scars recall the self-destructive baffled fury of Coriolanus, required to suck up to the plebs in some jejune and obsolete ritual of supplication. Throughout the play, Auden reworks Shakespearean rhetoric to suggest a world where all discourses are second-hand. One character speaks of rejecting this pointless feud in a language of clotted allusiveness which reinstates her at once in the discourse she is trying to reject. Her mundane prose (‘I am sick of this feud. What do we want to go on killing each other for?’) is dragged back into an orotund pentameter which is the garbled recollection of lines from six or seven Shakespeare plays. A similar moment occurs in The Ascent of F6, where Ransom steels himself for the final climb with a blank verse bombast which is a masterly pastiche of the self-pitying, self-admiring hyperbole of a Lear or Othello:

O senseless hurricanes,
That waste yourselves upon the unvexed rock,
Find some employment proper to your powers.

‘Always the following wind of history/Of others’ wisdom makes a buoyant air,’ Nower observes at one point. To step outside such sonorous patriarchal discourses is to

come suddenly on pockets where
Is nothing loud but us; where voices seem
Abrupt, untrained, competing with no lie
Our fathers shouted once.

Both plays, however, effect such a décalage, sidestepping their own inherited conventions, in which ‘doom’ and ‘fate’ seem spontaneous, natural processes, in trial scenes which expose the ideological trickery behind the idea that plot is Ananke.

In Paid the praxis is shockingly interrupted by a knockabout Father Christmas, a Lord of textual Misrule who addresses the audience directly, thanks them for coming, asks them to tell their friends to bring their kiddies, and beseeches them in pantomime fashion to keep his appearance a secret, so as not to spoil the fun for future audiences. When he blows his whistle and yells ‘All change,’ the play is thrust back into the urgent anxious world where characters are always late for their appointments, and men really get killed. We ‘have seen the story to its end’ in the renewal of the blood feud. But by baring the theatrical device, Auden derails tragedy into charade, heroic doom into wilful dementia. We have been reminded that we are spectators at a spectacle, not witnesses to a fate. As for the play, we are expected to infer, so for history. The carnivalesque irruption reveals this whole society as a charade, in which every subject is really in fancy dress, playing a scripted part, and hamming it up in the process.

Dogskin sets out to dissolve the ground on which we stand, as British subjects – to disperse the ‘darling scenery’ and the narratives of Englishness. Alan Norman’s peregrinations with his faithful dog through a comic Mitteleuropa, far from reinforcing our sense of innate British superiority, instead reveal the truth about our own scene: class struggle, violence, exploitation. Alan’s infatuation with the film star Louise Vipond is drunkenly transferred, in a slapstick ventriloquial routine, to a tailor’s dummy, figuring forth, in the words of the Chorus, ‘the general love’ for a fantasy object which promises the inadequate self-transfiguration and release. It is the source of Fascism’s charm as much as of the film star’s glamour, giving ‘to the coward now his hour of power’.

In the Westland lunatic asylum, everything the broadcast voice of the Leader promises is given a positive charge by the prefix ‘Westland’. In the Nineveh hotel, a singer gives a positive value to every noun by prefixing the epithet ‘British’. The discursive dog is let out of the bag, and the cur tales curtailed, at the end when, at the village fête, two journalists distinguish things which merely ‘occur’ from things which ‘happen’. The latter are significant events. What determines their significance is not any ‘intrinsic’ value but their role as signifiers in an ideological discourse:

The Press has no use for the incident you believe yourselves to have just witnessed. It has no place in our scale of values. Long-lost Baronets do not disguise themselves as dogs; or at any rate, only for erotic reasons. The behaviour of Sir Francis Crewe falls into no artistic category which we recognise: therefore it cannot be represented in our picture of the day’s events.

   And since all events are recorded by the Press, what the Press does not record cannot be an event.

‘Where is Francis?’ had raised a question that wouldn’t go away for Auden: the importance, or the impotence, of being frank. Discussing Peer Gynt in The Dyer’s Hand, he wrote that ‘both the dreamer and the madman are in earnest; neither is capable of play-acting.’ The dreamer is ‘like the movie-goer who writes abusive letters to the actor he has seen playing a villain; the madman is like the actor who believes the same thing about himself, namely, that he is identical with his role.’ But while, in a play, ‘all actions are mock actions,’ Auden was never quite sure how earnestly he should take the world of historical agency and event.

He knew the importunities of being earnest. In 1950 he wrote, in Partisan Review, of Wilde’s political views: ‘they are about as valuable as those of most literary men, i.e., his criticisms of the existing state of affairs are often just, if a bit obvious, his practical suggestions merely silly. The nature of the literary profession, the influence of which, if any, is spiritual not material, renders men of letters incapable of understanding the role of power in society and their social position, which, like that of the gypsies, is interstitial, prevents their having a subjective understanding of social and economic conditions.’ But this is the most glacial year of the Cold War and, East and West, writers are being held accountable for their writing before one tribunal or another. Auden’s former bedfellow, Guy Burgess, was about to quit the scene of one particularly well-concealed crime. Even the title of Auden’s article protests too much, playing on both sides of that larger dramatic and historical arena: ‘A Playboy of the Western World, St Oscar, the Homintern Martyr’. Auden’s own drama in the Thirties, drawing on the authority of the Communist Manifesto, had claimed for the interstitial position, ‘on the frontier’, an insight into the duplicities of power and the deep divisions it created in the subject who is both carrier and receiver, agent and sufferer of its discourses.

The subject, in Auden’s plays, is constructed out of these delusive discourses. Michael Ransom in F6 had acknowledged somewhat abstractly that he, too, was implicated in ‘the web of guilt that prisons every upright person’, that like all the others he is ‘swept and driven by the possessive incompetent fury and the disbelief’. But he had originally believed his mountaineering passion to contain ‘no knowledge, no communication, no possession; nothing that a bishop could justify, a stockbroker purchase or an elderly scientist devote years to explaining’. It is, however, precisely in these intimate and ostensibly disinterested passions that the subject is most subtly compromised. Rivalry with his brother Sir James (now Colonial Secretary) for love of the Mother compels him to the climb, though he knows his achievement will be exploited in the interests of imperial policy. It is his desire to be followed and admired that spurs him on, breaking up and multiplying the mother’s gaze among the close circle of his friends and the wider world the play represents by the news media and its consumers. And it is his, and the play’s, unexpected sympathy for the supposedly despised father-figure, the press-baron Lord Stagmantle, that finally eggs him on. ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ suggests that the best victim in detective fiction is ‘the negative Father or Mother Image’. In a shrewd letter to Rupert Doone, the original producer of F6, Yeats detected the nexus formed in the play by the Oedipal struggle and the politics of imperialism: ‘My only complaint is of the final appearance of the Mother as demon. Why not let the white garment fall to show the mother, or demon, as Britannia. That I think would be good theatre – a snow white Britannia.’

Ransom’s own fate is no different from that of the choric dreamers Mr and Mrs A, whose fantasy life is fabricated out of Ransom’s deeds by wireless and popular press. Mrs A in her opening remarks suspects that

A slick and unctuous Time
Has sold us yet another shop-soiled day,
Patently rusty, not even in a gaudy box.

It takes Ransom a suspiciously long time to grasp that the sole purpose of his heroic self-sacrifice, and of his friends’ deaths, is to supply the wrapping. As Sir James Ransom tells us, ‘a fairy tale ... is significant according to the number of people who believe in it.’ Mrs A’s final assessment of Ransom takes her, briefly, beyond illusion: ‘I have dreamed of a thread-bare barnstorming actor, and he was a national symbol.’ ‘Human beings,’ The Age of Anxiety was to record, ‘are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have first pretended to be it; and they can be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane who know they are acting and the mad who do not.’ For the threadbare Ransom, the only ransom from inauthenticity seems to lie in death.

In Auden’s and Isherwood’s last play, On the Frontier, ‘sanity’ is defined by its characters simply as subscription to the narratives that sweep through and sweep up the citizens of the opposed states of Ostnia and Westland (a division demarcated by a frontier down the middle of the stage, which divides the Vrodny and Thorvald households, each dominated by nationalistically inflected news bulletins). Lovers reach to each other across that divide, but ‘tradition and breeding count’ – ‘You can’t wipe out the history of a thousand years.’ At the end the lovers, from separate hospital beds, transcend in a dying fantasia their ‘tiny separate lives’ to find ‘the common thought that linked us in a dream’. But for all its wishful thinking, it is a pathetic tableau, inscribed under the sign of the death-wish, speaking of ‘the lucky guarded future’ where

Others like us shall meet, the frontier gone,
And find the real world happy.

In the transcript of a lecture on the future of poetic drama which he gave in Paris in 1938, printed here, Auden observes that our modern conception of character recognises ‘how enormously the social structure and the cultural power of an age contribute to dictate individual characters and the kind of liberty which is permitted [them]. Psychologists generally have shown that not only are we conscious and unique, but that we all bear with us an unconscious in which we are very much like each other ... and there the dramatist has another field of interest ... not only are people unique, but they are also alike and also less free than they thought.’ Alikeness and unfreedom meet in a shared discursive unconscious. The earnest young hero of On the Frontier had originally seen himself as ‘the sane and innocent student/Aloof among practical and violent madmen’, only to realise by the end of the play that he was wrong, that we are all equally transfixed on this frontier:

We cannot choose our world,
Our time, our class. None are innocent, none.
Causes of violence run so deep in all our lives
It touches every act.
Certain it is for all we do
We shall pay dearly.

The histrionics here seem forced and Cornelian, as if the hero were screwing himself up to the affirmation that

This struggle
Was my struggle. Even if I would I could not stand apart.

But Eric at least is one of the sane who knows he’s acting (even hamming it up a bit), whereas Valerian, the urbane industrialist, who relies for his security on the barbarity of a militarist regime and believes himself to be a man without illusions, never realises how much he is deceiving himself. Talk of mobilisation, he says, is merely an instrument of social control, for ‘we live in an age of bluff. The boys shout until they are hoarse, and the politicians hunt for a formula under the conference-table. A lot of noise to cover up an enormous cold funk.’ Nobody wants war, neither industrialists nor politicians nor military men. Up to the last, the Westland Leader likewise believes he can make the broadcast that will pull both sides back from the brink. But war rumbles into place, not at the level of conscious decisions, but with a momentum impelled by that vaster unconscious where we are all alike. All these characters seem to share the unconscious motivation of the declining middle class pilloried at the start of The Dance of Death, whose ‘members dream of a new life, but secretly desire the old, for there is death inside them.’ If everything else was a charade, one can’t help feeling that for Auden, in the Thirties, death at least was in earnest.

In the end, the murder for which Auden would not forgive England was that of (his own) innocence. Within the camp ironies and wicked pastiches lies the frustrated naivety of a child who loathes the grown-ups for concealing and then disclosing that there is no Father Christmas. They had given him such infantile things to believe in, and when he came to put away childish things he had nothing but a cynical dogskin left to keep him from the cold. Where was Sherlock? Certainly, in these plays, it is the bankruptcy, the superannuation, the imperial nudity, the refusal to be frank or earnest, which demands our anger and contempt. These people are not real, he seems to say; they are caricatures from a defunct narrative, yet they go on running the show, shaping the lives of others, inadvertently dragging us to war, with all the impudence of an outrageous cliché. In the end, Auden knew in his bones, something was going to fall like rain, and it wouldn’t be flowers. In New Year Letter on 1 January 1940, he saw that low dishonest decade called to trial for an unsolved murder:

The situation of our time
Surrounds us like a baffling crime.
There lies the body half-undressed,
We all had reason to detest,
And all are suspects and involved
Until the mystery is solved.

The crime is now being addressed by ‘one inspector dressed in brown’, who ‘makes the murderer whom he pleases’. Throughout the Thirties the dog had refused to bark. Adolf Hitler, the real Inspector Hound, would ensure that the penalty was paid on both sides.

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