This review appeared in the Journal of D.H. Lawrence Studies, January 2017
The Theatre of D.H. Lawrence: Dramatic Modernist and Theatrical Innovator by James Moran, Professor of Modern English literature and Drama at the University of Nottingham
London: Bloomsbury, Methuen/Drama Critical Companions, 2015. 245 pp.
The book kicks off chirpily enough with a quotation from Geoff Dyer’s autobiographical para-biography of D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, about Dyer’s own relationship to theatre: ‘Not being interested in the theatre provides me with more happiness than all the things I am interested in put together.’ Fair ’nuff. Lots of literary people are un- or anti-theatrical, even those who, like Dyer, are cinephiles. But the thesis of this book is that you miss out much of what is great, not just about Lawrence’s oeuvre as a whole, but his oeuvre outside of drama, if you don’t read him as a theatrical writer.
We know that he was a theatrical man – a great mimic, actor of skits, declaimer to pupils and friends and enemies, and even (Moran suggests) performer of his arguments with Frieda (making one wonder whether the plates and punches flew as fast when they lacked an audience). Moran and his theatre-practitioner guest contributors all assert that he was also an important dramatist, and a theatrical writer more broadly conceived. The book makes one marvel, again, at how multi-dimensional a writer Lawrence is. Take any one of a sackful of nouns: theatre, God, sex, torture, class, consciousness, painting, race, children, fascism, humour, birds, beasts, flowers – and you not only have enough material for a book on ‘it’ and him, but to provide a new perspective on all of Lawrence as seen through the lens of that thing. Of the list above, theatre is perhaps one that most needed a new book devoted to it; this is the first in decades. And, in a new millennium in which there has been a revival of productions of Lawrence’s plays (the book came out fractionally too soon to mention Ben Powers’s 2015-16 National Theatre Husbands and Sons), it comes at a good time.
It is part of Methuen’s series ‘Drama Critical Companions’, and is addressed to a broader readership than just Lawrencians. This is apparent in its rehearsal of the familiar defences against the 1970s criticisms of Lawrence. As it happens, as time passes I’m decreasingly convinced that this defence needs to be made. A younger generation, as my students exemplify, come to Lawrence as to a blank sheet. If anyone wants to present him a feminist, let them do so. If anyone wants to accuse him of any number of political sins, let them do that too. But the terms of praise and blame should be our own, not those determined by a revolution in consciousness that is now four decades old. Still, Moran provides excellent fodder, from the dramatic canon, for a feminist case. He points out that between 1909 and 1913 56% of Lawrence’s named dramatic roles are female – good by the standards of any time. The Fight for Barbara and The Merry-Go-Round have equal male and female parts; otherwise, women dominate, as they do the plays’ titles.
In Moran’s meticulous chronicle of Lawrence’s attempts to get his plays performed (and, very secondarily, into print), he makes clear what bad luck Lawrence actually had. Hueffer wanted to help, but ended up losing two of his manuscripts. The Irish Marxist Douglas Goldring favoured Touch and Go, until they fell out over politics. Virginia Mackenzie wanted to produce Lawrence at Nottingham’s Grand Theatre, but that theatre folded. The flurry of British and Swedish productions of a Lawrence play in the late thirties was actually of The Daughter-in-Law as rewritten (as My Son’s My Son) by novelist Walter Greenwood, with a more resolved conclusion which was praised above Lawrence’s. Ultimately, Lawrence had the misfortune to be writing in the teens rather than the sixties, when, notwithstanding the parallel development of theatrical modernism, naturalism finally broke its way out of the novel and onto the English stage. The Fight for Barbara premiered eleven years after Look Back in Anger, but the latter was clearly influenced by the former, from the plot right down to the protagonist’s name.
As a result of his failures, Moran argues, Lawrence channeled his theatrical energies into prose, at the levels of plot (The Daughter-in-Law becoming ‘Fanny and Annie’), plot elements (performances within the fiction), and narrative mode. Like Dickens, who also wrote unsuccessful plays at the beginning of his career, he had a great sense of dialogue and the histrionic. He absorbed, into his novels as well as his plays, influences from ‘theatre’ including Eastwood sensation drama, Italian puppet theatre, eurhythmics, Shakespeare (Morel’s mother is not called Gertrude for nothing), Chekhov, Synge, Ibsen, Wagnerian opera, and Native American ritual (though one wonders why, if the last is included, Anglican ritual is not). Lawrence is argued both to be hallucinatory (or Pre-Raphaelite) in his heightened realism, and to anticipate elements of the Beckettian modern in, for example, his depiction of Lady Chatterley. Lawrence’s parallels to Joyce, often denied by critics of both authors, but especially visible when their relationship to theatre is considered, is rightly stressed.
Moran also presents a striking thesis on the difference between serious theatre and opera, which stimulate profound eroticism in his characters (Frieda and Lawrence themselves saw Shaw’s Man and Superman on the eve of their elopement), and cinema and music hall, which stimulate superficial lust, such as Will Brangwen inflicts on the factory girl in The Rainbow. The book also stresses Lawrence’s innovation in presenting the working classes seriously: ‘As Owen Jones has argued, British popular and political discourses in the early twenty-first century have often seen the poor being marginalized and dismissed as cartoonish and feckless. By contrast, in Lawrence’s dramatic work, we find an attempt to represent the detailed nuances of working-class life, and to make an unsentimental version of that life central of the public forum of the theatre stage.’ This element is stressed by the other contributors. Theatre director Peter Gill’s father was a Welsh docker; Nottingham playwright Stephen Lowe’s father was an itinerant labourer; Nottinghamshire screenwriter William Ivory’s parents were also working class, whilst Iranian theatre historian Soubadeh Ananisarab argues that ‘many of the new minorities of the UK have come to occupy the economic and geographical positions once inhabited by the particular section of the white working-class whose daily worries and concerns so interested Lawrence.’ Their contributions richly testify to the positive influence of Lawrence on their lives and, in the broadest sense of the term, their politics. They deepen this already-rich book beyond the academic to the sensual world of live theatre, of which Lawrence so strongly wanted to be a part.