Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Graham Greene - The Potting Shed - When The Atheist Religion Takes Scandal

I can't claim that I actually like this play, though it's worth listening to once or twice.   As the review in The Guardian [see below] of a far more recent production points out, the story is a good one, intriguing but the novelist Graham Greene followed an already stale theatrical convention, that of "the well-made West End play".   Before last night I wasn't aware that there was a radio production of it which apparently precedes the production mentioned in the review if the dates are correct.   The play is about the putrid family of the world-famous atheist writer who doesn't make an appearance in the play.  His best friend is already writing the funeral speech to dispose of him as the play opens.  The theme of the play presents the awfulness of the consequences of atheism as a religion.  And one which doesn't face reality any better than much of religion does (the dying worshiper of the natural order is so unaware of the world around him he doesn't understand his own property is being overrun by industrial development).  The most appealing members of the cast are the awful usefully precocious kid who spurs the action, the awful alcoholic priest whose miraculous revival of his nephew is the huge family scandal that alienated him from his family and James, the rejected son.  It's a sort of inversion of the parable of the Prodigal Son in which the black sheep of the family is rejected so utterly that his mother won't let him in to see his dying father for the last time, though all he did was live.   And how he undergoes a second resurrection when he finds out what happened. I wish Greene had put it in a form he was more skilled with handling. 

As a novelist, Graham Greene was prepared to experiment: as a dramatist, he was trapped in the conventions of the well-made West End play. That, at least, is the conclusion I draw from this rare revival of a 1958 work that, like The End of the Affair, deals with the possibility of the miraculous in modern life. But where the novel is an audacious piece of meta-fiction, the play faithfully follows the rigid format of the psychological whodunnit.

The play is driven by the desire of the middle-aged James Callifer to discover exactly what happened to him in the family potting shed as a boy. Returning home uninvited for the funeral of his rationalist father, James finds a thick veil drawn over his past. Even James's attempt to unblock his memories by seeing a shrink in Nottingham, where he works as a newspaper sub-editor, prove fruitless. Only after a trip to East Anglia to meet his whiskey-priest uncle does the truth begin to emerge: that, as a boy, James experienced a Lazarus-like resurrection from apparent death that may or may not have been the result of divine intervention.

The impact of a seeming miracle on a family of devout atheists like the Callifers, who regularly entertained Bertrand Russell to lunch, is a rich subject for drama. But what is frustrating is how long it takes Greene to get to the heart of the matter. Too much of the play depends on manufactured suspense and the exploration of relative side issues such as the debilitating effect of James's trauma on his marriage. Only when James finally gets to confront his ostracised uncle does the drama begin to bite. Greene was an expert at analysing apostasy, whether religious or political, and the portrait of the dessicated uncle and its aftermath is memorable. As James eloquently says of his uncle's rooms: "I don't need any other proof of God than the lack of Him there. I've seen the mark of His footsteps going away."

But, even if the play takes too long to come to the boil, Svetlana Dimcovic's revival builds up a sense of mounting pressure. Paul Cawley's James, jacketless in the traditional manner of sub-editors, is a model of middle-aged anguish. And there is first-rate support from Martin Wimbush as the uncle, shrewdly hiding his Scotch behind a copy of the Catholic Encyclopedia, and from Eileen Battye as James's mother who pines for an age when the doubts engendered by Darwinism had hardened into certainties. I only wish that Greene, in exploring the age-old conflict between reason and faith, had relied more on dialectical debate and rather less on long-delayed revelation.

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