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Monday 17th December 2007

Buy Theatre Tickets from Ticketmaster Written by Sarah Vernon

Did you know that the late playwright Christopher Fry was born Christopher Harris in Bristol one hundred years ago tomorrow (18 December)? He was educated at Bedford Modern School in Bedford between 1918 and 1926. His appearance in the civic pageant saw him described in the local press as 'a lively and comely lad of tender years [who] performed a hornpipe'.

At 18 he became a schoolteacher at Hazelwood Prep School and took his mother's maiden name of Fry. He found an outlet for his love of theatre by starting up the Tonbridge Wells Repertory Players in 1932, holding the post of director until 1935. It was here that he directed the premiere of Village Wooing by George Bernard Shaw. In 1938 he wrote The Boy with the Cart about the life of the Sussex saint St Cuthman and, in 1939, The Tower, a specially commissioned piece for a festival in Tewkesbury.

'In my plays I want to look at life – at the commonplace of existence – as if we had just turned a corner and run into it for the first time.' The mystical quality Christopher Fry, who died in June, 2005, brought to his verse plays has enabled the commonplace to be seen in startlingly fresh lights and he has been too much neglected. He brings the same air to his translations of Jean Anouilh or Hippolyte Giraudoux especially in the former's L'Invitation au Chateau which opened as Ring Round the Moon.

He continued to teach until 1939 when he was invited to become artistic director of the Oxford Playhouse. The Second World War put paid to any plans and, as a Quaker and pacifist, he joined the Pioneer Corps. For four years Fry's time was spent putting out fires and dealing with the aftermath of bomb damage on the Liverpool docks. 'I had this problem that if ever there was a just war then this was it. But I would not go bang bang.'

The war over, he joined the Arts Theatre as resident dramatist and came to public notice in 1946 with a play about the widow of Ephesus, A Phoenix Too Frequent. But he did not achieve true fame until The Lady's Not for Burning in 1948. The story of a medieval witch hunt, the play opened at the Arts and transferred to the Globe (now the Gielgud) Theatre in 1949. Fry was disappointed that the original Thomas Mendip, Alec Clunes – father of Martin – who ran the Arts between 1942 and 1953, did not go with it: 'I think that Alec Clunes was an extremely under-rated actor. I dedicated The Lady to him and I really wanted him to take over the leading role … in the West End.' Producers H M Tennant would not take Clunes, bringing in Gielgud to play Mendip and direct, and Pamela Browne for Jennet, the accused woman. This production also marked an early and charismatic performance from Richard Burton and proved to be the launch pad to greater things for the Welshman.

The 1950s brought further success for Fry: he had three of his plays on in the West End at the start of the decade: Venus Observed which had been commissioned by Olivier, Ring Round the Moon in which Paul Scofield had great success as a pair of twins, one good one bad, and The Boy with the Cart, also with Richard Burton. Fry's pacifist beliefs were evident in A Sleep of Prisoners 'where each of four men is seen through the sleeping thoughts of others, and each, in his own dream, speaks as at heart he is, not as he believes himself to be'. It was written to be performed in churches and was first produced at St Thomas' in Regent Street in 1951. It later toured for two years with Denholm Eliott and Stanley Baker.

After The Dark is Light Enough in 1954, in which Edith Evans appeared, he returned to translating, namely The Lark from Anouilh's L'Alouette, a powerful piece about Joan of Arc, and Tiger at the Gates from Giraudoux's La Guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu about Helen of Troy. Both were produced in 1955.

In 1956 John Osborne's Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court marked a change in direction for British theatre with 'kitchen sink drama' and other more natural forms beginning to hold sway. Fry found himself going out of favour. Proof of this was the fact that his next play, Curtmantle, was produced in the Netherlands at the Stadsschouwburg, Tilburg, and was not a great success when a British production from the RSC hit London in 1961.

He spent a year working on the screenplay for Ben Hur (1958): '…all they said they wanted was for me to write the scenes from the crucifixion onwards until the end. It was supposed to be six weeks in all but turned out to be a year … they wanted me to rewrite the whole film.' He also collaborated on the screenplay for Barabbas in 1962.

The 'free love' decade was not a hugely productive time. Apart from Judith, another Giraudoux translation in 1962, Fry was absent from the scene. In 1970 Nottingham Playhouse produced A Yard of Sun but this had only a week's run at the Old Vic.

During the next ten years he concentrated on further translations, including Ibsen's Peer Gynt and Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac which were done by Chichester Festival Theatre. He also wrote several television plays, an autobiography, Can You Find Me: A Family History, and found his work popular abroad. The late 1970s saw a revival of The Lady's Not For Burning at the Old Vic with Eileen Atkins as Jennet.

We heard and saw little of Fry or his work in the last twenty years of his life; many thought he was no longer alive. But towards the end, there was a resurgence of interest. The Lion's Part Theatre Company toured churches around the country with A Sleep of Prisoners – Fry was their patron – and the National Theatre staged a reading of The Lady's Not For Burning in 2001 as one of the 100 best plays of the 20th century. The reading included actors Alex Jennings, Sally Dexter, Prunella Scales and Sam West.

Sam West went on to direct The Lady's Not For Burning at Chichester Festival's Minerva Theatre in 2002 with Nancy Carroll and Benjamin Whitrow. The 94 year old playwright hosted the read-through at his Sussex home.

'Do you think 93 is too old to be writing plays? Bernard Shaw was still at it at 92 but I think perhaps I now hold the record,' he told The Stage in 2001. His last play, A Ringing of Bells, was written as a millennium piece for his old school, Bedford Modern.

In April this year, the Finborough Theatre staged The Lady's Not For Burning, a production which went down well with R&V critic Claire Ingrams. She described the play as 'an extraordinary verse-drama from a period of British theatre that is too often dismissed as the twilight hour of drawing-room comedy, ripe for destruction by the mighty realism of the kitchen sink. Here is a playwright looking linguistically to the past, for sure, with language that is Elizabethan in its love of metaphor, rollicking, overblown, sometimes over-written, but more often witty and energetic'….

Claire found herself fully engaged by Fry's 'romping delight in words', which 'concealed a shrewd, sly, earthy view of the world that is completely modern'. Is it not time, therefore, that theatre companies staged more of Christopher Fry's work?

Sarah Vernon © 2007

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