by Michael Anderson, Theatre Today series, Pitman Publishing, 1976, 127 pp. £3.50 cased, £1.95 paperback.
In this brief but informative study, Michael Anderson takes a shrewd look at the later development of Osborne, Pinter and John Arden with two leading questions in mind: have these playwrights maintained the impetus of their early days and what is distinctive in the technique each has evolved over the twenty years or so since they first astonished the English theatre. It is a useful approach, for criticism does tend to get fixed in past patterns and it seems hard for ordinary readers or even playgoers to move on with the playwrights; for many, one suspects, Osborne’s career more or less closed with The entertainer, Arden’s with Serjeant Musgrave’s dance.
Osborne has wryly alluded to the critical preference for his early plays: ‘I work my drawers off and get written off twice a year for not fulfilling my early promise!’ Michael Anderson has no trouble in demonstrating that the later work of all three playwrights is as interesting as their earlier, and often more subtle and accomplished. He claims for Osborne the gain of an easier conversational structure and more exact pictures of England, one of his major themes; for Pinter more intricate and subtle image patterns (the analogy with painters’ studies of one topic is illuminating here) and for Arden the increased power that comes from a new political view of things, his ‘world picture.’ West of Suez, Old times and that hardly known and yet ragingly controversial play, The Ballygombeen bequest are placed at the summit of their authors’ achievement.
Sometimes the arguments require more backing than they can be given in so short a space. It is not clear, for instance, why the class tirades of Osborne’s early characters should represent some kind of ‘commitment’ in Osborne which ceases when the targets change and other classes are attacked: was the commitment ever to anything but the mood of such and such a character at such and such a moment? And we might need more convincing that Arden’s move from the sophisticated, ‘uncommitted’ moral position of his early plays to the partisan didacticism of his later ones involves more theatrical gain than loss.
However, these are ideas to chew on; it is the virtue of his study that he offers them in an open-handed and open-minded way which encourages thought and directs attention to some of the less exhaustively travelled regions of this continuingly fruitful domain.