'A thoroughly entertaining failure': the return of Muriel Spark's mega-flop


On Tuesday 2 October 1962, a play by Muriel Spark was premiered at the New Arts Theatre Club in London. It was called Doctors of Philosophy and its cast included Fenella Fielding and Kathleen Breck. In fact, the play has six central parts for women; the remaining three characters are men who, in a typically Sparkian flourish, are all called Charlie. Despite the fact that Spark wrote a number of audio dramas, and that many of her novels have been adapted for the stage and screen – most famously The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – it was her one and only original work for the stage.

At the time, Spark’s fame was flaring. She had just published Miss Jean Brodie. She was working on another of her most celebrated books, The Girls of Slender Means. But Doctors of Philosophy received mixed reviews. Kenneth Tynan, writing in the Observer, thought it like “a late Eliot play extensively rewritten by an adolescent Iris Murdoch”. He did not mean it as a compliment. “No doubt it has a shape,” he wrote, “and even, perhaps, a purpose; let me discreetly say that they are not evident.”

The Times critic was even less enthused. But Tom Stoppard – then husbanding his dramatic talents by working for the chic but short-lived arts magazine Scene – provided a more thoughtful review, which nevertheless concluded Spark’s play had “undoubtedly failed”. He did, however, find it “a thoroughly entertaining failure”.

Two years later, Doctors of Philosophy had a successful run at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Sweden. It was not directed, as Martin Stannard’s biography of Spark states, by Ingmar Bergman (alas, for what an intriguing notion that would be) but by the actor and director Mimi Pollak, a close friend and perhaps lover of Greta Garbo. After that, the play sank without trace. Even among Spark aficionados, it remains largely unheard of and mostly unread.



Sly gestures … Muriel Spark in 1975. Photograph: Frank Monaco/Rex/Shutterstock

However, this year – marking the centenary of Spark’s birth in Edinburgh – the play is being given another chance. There will be a complete rehearsed read-through at the international book festival this month, directed by Marilyn Imrie. If all goes well, that will be followed by a full production at the Lyceum. David Greig, the playwright and artistic director of the theatre, shares none of the early critics’ disappointment. He came to the play without expectations, after Willy Maley, professor of English at Glasgow University, sent him a copy.

“I didn’t have much hope for it,” says Greig, “but within four or five lines, I was laughing out loud. It starts as an almost Wildean thing and then suddenly it takes an unexpectedly Pirandello-esque turn. Sentence after sentence is perfectly weighted. And I thought, ‘These sentences need to be heard on the stage.’”

The play takes place in a sitting room with french windows – certainly a sly gesture by Spark towards the conventions of drawing-room drama, which she goes on to severely dent. We encounter Charlie, an academic, and his wife Catherine, who also has a PhD but works as a school teacher, having renounced the chance of an academic career for family life.

Her friend Leonora is staying – a don on summer vacation. Leonora wants a child, and in the middle of the night appears in her nightclothes to ask Charlie to give her one; in the morning, she denies it. Other characters turn up – the eccentrically attired Annie; Catherine’s daughter Daphne and her fiance, Charlie; and Charlie the lorry driver. Love goes wrong and then right. There’s a dunking in a canal. The play has a strong vein of farce.

Perhaps the most intriguing character, though, is Mrs S, a rather splendid cleaning lady. Alert, knowing and remarkably well-informed about the editions of WB Yeats’s poems, she might remind us of another Mrs S – the author herself. Later, in act two, Mrs S will describe herself as polishing reality, a very Sparkian kind of occupation.

Novelist Ali Smith, who is giving a centenary lecture on Spark at the Edinburgh book festival, thinks the play is partly “a satire on London social class. There they all are with their qualifications, and here is this wild, knowledgeable anarchist of a working-class woman.”

Strong elements of farce … Doctors of Philosophy.



Strong elements of farce … Doctors of Philosophy. Photograph: David Sim for the Observer

But the most pressing concern of the play announces itself on the first page – the idea of reality, that reality that Mrs S so busily polishes. “I do think Leonora ought to take a look at reality,” says Catherine. The idea that “the real” is something friable and deceptive flows through Spark’s fiction. In Doctors of Philosophy, the drawing-room set itself is flimsy and will literally bend – the theatrical illusion will end up cracked.

Stoppard, in his review, pointed out that Spark’s prose fiction also dealt with “a world of everyday reality made brittle by the admission of the unreal”. In her first novel, The Comforters, the character Caroline Rose, a writer, starts to believe that she can hear a typewriter and a voice narrating the events of her life – in precisely the same words as the novel the reader is holding. The reader enters a hall of mirrors. It is possible that the entire book is something impossible: a delusion of one of its characters.

Smith has written of the radicalism of The Comforters. It came out in 1957, a time when “angry young men were all the rage in literary Britain. Writers such as John Wain, Colin Wilson, John Braine and John Osborne honed a documentary-realist art that, by its fusion of kitchen-sink realism, fury and mundanity, proclaimed itself authentic.” By defiantly proclaiming itself unreal, inauthentic, The Comforters was swimming against the tide.

The same prevailing tone of masculine, realist drama continued to pervade the London theatre scene in 1962. The playfulness of Doctors of Philosophy was, as Maley puts it, “out of kilter”. Spark, in her novels, is at times gleefully happy to show us what levers and pulleys she is manipulating to create her fictional world. So it is in Doctors of Philosophy: she will reveal the literal, material reality of the machinery behind the illusionistic set. The work also shows her dealing in ideas about surveillance, eavesdropping and blackmail; in arch social commentary; and in the idea of performance itself – especially how femininity is performed by its various women characters. All are concerns that she pursues in different ways in her prose fiction.

Overshadowing … The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar Warehouse in London this year.



Overshadowing … The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar Warehouse in London this year. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Smith suggests that part of the problem with its early reception may have been a reluctance among critics to “allow people who have gained a reputation in one art form to do well in another”. Even a brief glance through Scene brings ample evidence of the casual sexism of the time, too. One feels, for example, for the 21-year-old actor Susannah York, interviewed in the magazine, as she protests: “I don’t want to be a bosom, just a bosom, or just a pretty face. I want to be the lot.”

But Smith speculates that Stoppard carefully absorbed the mechanics of Spark’s drama for his own purposes. At the time, he had already started working on The Real Inspector Hound (though it would not be completed and premiered till 1968, after his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). Both these early Stoppards are also interested in the nature of “the real”; both, in their way, are farcical subversions of dramatic tropes. He was clearly deeply interested in Spark’s foray into theatre. He also interviewed her for Scene, under the Waugh-inspired pseudonym William Boot, and returned to ponder Doctors in a subsequent review of a play by another novelist, Edna O’Brien.

Maley, who edited the Edinburgh Companion to Muriel Spark, believes the play has suffered from the sheer, overshadowing stature of her most famous works. In fact, he argues, there are a number of Spark works that are unjustly neglected – including many of her 22 novels, her radio plays, her poems and her early critical and biographical works.

It’s possible that Doctors of Philosophy will still end up a curiosity – a footnote to Spark’s extraordinary achievements as a novelist, just as Stoppard’s only novel is something of a footnote to his reputation as a dramatist. Stoppard clearly felt her handling of the dramatic form was inexpert; there’s also a possibility that the kind of satire that reads as knife-sharp on the page of a novel might seem “clumsily populist” on stage, as one contributor to Maley’s Companion suggests.

We will know for sure only when the play is given a full performance. Two things are certain: first, the play is killingly funny, full of stiletto-sharp lines. And second, in its deep interest in the roles women play and how they are expected to perform them, it is a work of our time. In this, as in so many of her concerns, she was utterly prescient. As Maley says: “Muriel Spark is our contemporary.”

The rehearsed reading of Doctors of Philosophy is at the Edinburgh international book festival on 19 August. Ali Smith’s lecture, Spark and Time, also at the festival, is on 21 August.



Source link

LEAVE A REPLY