George Orwell: theatre critic. Three exclusive reviews (1940-1941)

George Orwell, theatre critic.

Three reviews, published at to coincide with the inaugural George Orwell Day, 23.01.13. Till The Day I Die, Cornelius and Blithe Spirit

Copyright © the estate of the late Sonia Brownell Orwell. By permission of A M Heath & Co Ltd. Rights reserved.

Till The Day I Die, Threshold Theatre Club
Time and Tide, 17 August 1940

Perhaps it is not too late to say something about Cifford Odets’s striking play, Till The Day I Die, which is not, strictly speaking, a new play, but may soon become one from the point of view of the London theatre-goer. It has been running at the Threshold for a fortnight or thereabouts, but with luck it may get a chance in the West End before long.

It is a play about Berlin in 1933 or 1934, a typical and probably quite truthful tale of the early days of the Nazi terror. The hero, a young Jewish violinist and underground Communist worker, is suddenly arrested when he is in the company of his girl, who, however, manages to escape arrest by passing herself off as a prostitute.

He is taken to the secret police headquarters, tortured, offered bribes, then released for a little while, then re-arrested, tortured and cajoled again, always with the idea of turning him into an informer. He manages to endure the tortures and hold his tongue, but the Gestapo have a much cleverer trick up their sleeves. They tell him that they will put it about in the right quarters that he is an informer. 

He is kept under semi-arrest, dressed in smart clothes, taken about in the company of police officers, until one by one his comrades come to the conclusion that the accusation is true, and he is blacklisted as a stool-pigeon. At one blow this cuts him off from every friend he has ever had, though his girl, forbidden by the Party to speak to him, continues obstinately to believe in him. At his first arrest he has said that he will never know any peace again “till the day I die”, and it turns out to be true. Under the influence of torture, loneliness, fear and drugs he can feel his mind giving way. Sooner or later the Gestapo will break him down and he will become an informer. So he shoots himself, just in time, and perhaps regains his good name by doing so.

It is ironical that this play should come, evidently, from Communist sources. No Communist writer would sign it at this moment – indeed any play on approximately the same subject would have to have the moral that Nazism is no worse than “capitalist democracy” and even a little better. That does not invalidate the play, but it might be urged against it that, as a social document, it is a few years out of date. It belongs to the early period when Hitler had not fully won over the German people – there were still five million unemployed – and like nearly all “anti-Fascist” literature prior to 1939 it makes the mistake of representing Nazism as an obvious sham. No one in the play is genuinely pro-Hitler, except a woman who is all but an imbecile. The Brownshirt major who is set on to interrogate the young Jew is himself a Jew in disguise and commits suicide after shooting his unspeakable captain. But the captain himself, when he happens to be alone, is tormented by the horrors he has to commit. Two young Brownshirts go into ecstasies of excitement on reading a very dull “Red” pamphlet. The general impression given is of a regime so shaky that it could not possibly have survived.

The picture of the underground struggle is also, in all probability, out of date. All the usual paraphernalia is there – the meetings in secret cellars, the code-taps on the door, the girls who pose as prostitutes, the leaflets which are printed on tissue paper to be scattered by the wind. Quite possibly we shall be doing the same ourselves before long. But how much of that kind of thing can have survived in Germany, after seven years of the Gestapo, ending up in the Russo-German pact?

It is uncertain whether the author makes his characters talk in the stale phraseology of a Marxist pamphlet (“Dawn of the proletarian future” etc) because he himself likes it, or because he is drawing from the life. Certainly there are people who do talk like that, and that kind of faith can be as moving as any other. Scene V of the play is deeply touching. It has the atmosphere that sometimes belongs to illegal societies, the atmosphere of a persecuted religious sect. There is only one piece of physical brutality in the whole play, but it happens early on and the memory of it haunts all the other scenes. This is when the Brownshirt captain makes the Jew lay his fingers on the table and then suddenly smashes them to a pulp with a rifle butt. A little too horrible, perhaps, but not more horrible than other things that are enacted on the stage (the gouging-out of Gloucester’s eyes in King Lear, for instance), and Heaven knows how many such things have happened in real life in the last seven years. The acting is good, not brilliant perhaps, but at a high general level which is all the more striking because nearly all the actors are under twenty years old.

If the Government are really subsidizing plays for propaganda purposes (it is widely rumoured that they have subsidized another play which recently moved in from the suburbs) they could hardly choose a better one than this. At present the state of the commercial theatre is desperate, for who is going to risk £20,000 on starting a play when next week the air-raids may begin and half London be evacuated? Yet the theatre must continue, the people need it and the Government will find that they need it too, and no doubt it will end with some kind of subsidy. It might not be a bad start to subsidise some of these little theatres, like the Torch, the Threshold and the Neighbourhood, which have sprung up in the last few years, most of them a threepenny busride from Piccadilly, where a first production costs fifty or a hundred pounds and all manner of plays can be tried out before risking them in the West End. ENDS

Cornelius, Westminster
Time and Tide, 7 September 1940

It is always pleasant to awake from a nightmare, even when it is an air-raid siren that wakes you. We are in the middle of a war at this moment, but at any rate we are not in the middle of a slump. Bombs are dropping and men are dying, but the dole-queues are shorter and the suicides fewer. Mr Priestley’s play, only five years old and already a period-piece, describes a world that is as dead as the dodo but which, till only yesterday, seemed as eternal as the pyramids. It is the world of money, of slumps, booms and “inexorable” economic laws, in which solid business-men turn into cringing bankrupts, old clerks are shot into the street after thirty years’ service and speculators take one glance at the ticker-tape and then put their heads in the gas oven. And although it is perfectly possible that we shall all be blown to pieces within the next few weeks, it is actually a relief to get this glimpse of the vanished ‘thirties and reflect that, whatever comes out of the present war, the horrors that Mr Priestley is describing can never happen again in just that way.

Cornelius, the central figure of the play, is the junior partner in a small firm of aluminium importers. It was a fairly prosperous firm until the value of the pound slumped to twelve and sixpence, after which, needless to say, nothing has gone right. At the moment when the play opens things are already desperate. A creditors’ meeting has been arranged for later in the week, and the senior partner of the firm has gone north in a forlorn hope of scraping together enough orders to induce the bank to grant another overdraft. Meanwhile, the Income Tax people are sniffing after a small legacy which Cornelius received earlier in the year, and the office is invaded every ten minutes by starving wretches trying to sell carpets, stationery and tooth-paste. It is the familiar atmosphere of the slump. All hangs on the mission of Mr Murrison, the senior partner, which everyone professes to believe in while secretly knowing it to be hopeless. And even before the creditors’ meeting a sort of chill has been cast over the office by a mysterious telegram from Murrison, announcing that two men are following him wherever he goes.

What gives the play something of the quality of tragedy, and what cuts 1935 so completely off from 1940, is that no one grasps that this kind of desperate commercial struggle, with hordes of hungry competitors scrambling round an ever-shrinking market, is not part of the order of nature. This is the case even with Cornelius, who is mentally in a different class from the others. If there were one person capable of pointing out that this kind of thing is a by-product of private capitalism, which is due to disappear in the near future, the bankruptcy of the firm would hardly matter. As it is, all concerned see things simply in terms of “success” and “failure” and feel their ruin to be at least partly their own fault. The firm is a small one and most of the people in it have been together a long time. Even at the best of times, of course, their life was not ideal. Much of the work is dull, the office is dark and shabby, the office-boy chafes against doing “kid’s work”, Cornelius, secretly uninterested in business, daydreams about the lost cities of Peru, and the plain and dowdy typist is hopelessly in love with Cornelius. Still, the atmosphere of the firm has been that of a family; its collapse means the end of a world. And of course it is going to collapse – that has been obvious since the first moment of the play.

Murrison returns just as the assembled creditors, presided over by a bank manager “with a face like a rat trap”, are doing their worst. Just for a moment it seems that he may have brought salvation. But the mysterious telegram was not a practical joke, as everyone had assumed at the time. He has gone mad. Ten days later, in a lucid interval, he shoots himself. The play ends with the final dissolution of the firm. Cornelius has fallen in love with his temporary secretary, who, however, is engaged to be married to an odious young go-getter with a curl on his forehead. Cornelius, alone in the dismantled office, is about to shoot himself with Murrison’s pistol, then, brought to himself by the tune of a barrel-organ outside, breaks the window with a dictionary and sets out to find the lost cities of Peru.

Much of the play is unspeakably dreary, but considering the subject one cannot accuse Mr Priestley of piling on the horrors unnecessarily. Actually, most of the characters end in rather better circumstances than they probably would have done in the conditions of the slump. The old accountant has a son-in-law with a haberdasher’s shop and has saved enough money to go into partnership with him. The office-boy has the chance of a job in a wireless shop. The pretty typist is going to be married and the plain one feels confident of getting another job. The tragedy lies simply in the failure of human beings to imagine any other social system than the one they have been bred in. Similar things were happening all through the early thirties, when small firms were being eliminated as ruthlessly as weeds, and it was right to record them. The fact that Mr Priestley, who could so easily have been a cheer-up writer, chose to write plays which people at the time rejected as “depressing” (or “looking on the black side”) is a mark of his integrity. He is probably only too glad that this play – not as a play, but as a social document – is already out of date.

There are one or two very good character-touches in the play. The part played by Mr Robert Wilton – a fat man of the commercial traveller type, who is obviously as much at home in a creditors’ meeting as most of us would be in a railway carriage – is a subtle little sketch. The acting is good all round, if not individually brilliant. One incident which was not actually a part of the play is perhaps worth recording as a scrap of social history. About half-way through the performance on Tuesday night (the 27th) the air-raid sirens sounded. Mr Stephen Murray, acting the part of Cornelius, stepped forward and said that the lights would be turned on to allow any of the audience who wished to go out. Not more than three or four people did so, and the play proceeded normally. After only a week of bombing an air raid has ceased to be a serious interruption. So perhaps the prospects of the London theatre are rather brighter than they appeared a few weeks ago. ENDS

Blithe Spirit, Piccadilly
Time and Tide, 12 July 1941

I do not know when Mr Coward wrote this play, but it is the best thing he has done for a long time past. If one had to say what it is “about” one might describe it as a skit on spiritualism which succeeds by accepting the claims of the spiritualists instead of by rejecting them, but the description given it on the programme, as “an improbable farce in three acts”, fits it well enough. It is improbable all the way through, but with so light a touch that it strains one’s credulity less than many plays which are attempting to be strictly realistic.

In the first act Charles Condoman (Cecil Parker), a successful literary man of the kind who utters “daring” epigrams and perhaps has a certain tendency to use them more than once, is arranging to hold a spiritualist séance, more or less as a joke, and in the intervals is bickering with his second wife, Ruth (Miss Fay Compton), chiefly on the subject of his first wife, Elvira, who has been dead seven years. As a result of the séance Elvira “materializes”, but she is only visible and audible to Charles himself. Worse still, having once “materialised”, she cannot be got rid of, and her ghostly presence in the house has to be gradually accepted by everyone. The quarrels between the two women, one of whom can neither see nor hear the other and often addresses her retorts to the wrong corner of the room, are perhaps the best thing in the play. I do not want to give away its denouement, which is simple but ingenious.

Although the play has no purpose, except to amuse, I do not believe any satire on spiritualism could be more devastating. After all, what is the use of proving with a wealth of instances that every medium is caught cheating sooner or later? Some of the phenomena might still be genuine. But suppose one simply accepts the whole thing as truthful! It is then that the fundamental uninterestingness of what the spiritualists have to say, the futility of spending one’s life in this world in trying to get in touch with the next, and then spending eternity in the next world in trying to get in touch with this one, comes out.

Mr Coward makes full use of the vulgarity and banality of life beyond the veil, as it appears in Psychic News, etc. Elvira, a young woman of the type who is never happy unless a gramophone is playing and cocktails are close at hand, is fully at home in the spirit world, describing Joan of Arc as “rather fun”, Jenghis Khan as “such a nice old gentleman” and the parlour conjuring tricks performed by Merlin, Cagliostro and others as “a dreadful bore”. But the best conceived character in the play is the medium, Madame Arcati (Miss Margaret Rutherford). Instead of being mysterious and oriental she is bluff and hearty, an outdoor woman and keen bicyclist who spurs tired sitters on with phrases from the hockey field and goes in and out of trances as resiliently as a jack-in-the-box.

The acting of the very small cast is good all through, though it must be admitted that some of the parts are a good deal more rewarding than others. The best performance was given by Miss Kay Hammond as the ghostly first wife. Miss Fay Compton’s part was less attractive and no doubt harder to act, but she carried it off skilfully, Mr Cecil Parker, in a red velvet dinner jacket, was just the right blend of hardened worldling and pompous ass that a successful literary man of his type ought to be. ENDS

Copyright © the estate of the late Sonia Brownell Orwell. By permission of A M Heath & Co Ltd. Rights reserved.


2 thoughts on “George Orwell: theatre critic. Three exclusive reviews (1940-1941)

  1. Three things emerge from this theatrical criticism by Orwell.

    Firstly, that rolled into one, the three themes of the plays that Orwell reviews herewith can be rolled into one muse and then called Nineteen Eighty-Four. How much is borrowed in culture.

    Secondly, that Orwell was indeed a theatrical enthusiast. Animal Farm would make a good play. Is the pure English straightjacket that Cyril Connolly tells us became a crusade at Eton the one thing that prevents Orwell from writing effective theatrical dialogue? People do not actually adhere to plain English when they converse and recognising that is a flaw in Orwell’s literary approach. People are just not that sterile and flat in conversation. People do see the world in a romantic kaleidoscopic state. Culture should reflect that. But Orwell has declared against over embellished grammar and is somewhat then stuck in the journalistic mud by his edict. That may be why, unlike the most effective approach of his friend Dylan Thomas with Under Milk Wood, Orwell could not present Animal Farm in such a poetic way, viz as a play for radio, with which he was more than familiar at the BBC. We may lament that Orwell made his rules for writing so hard and fast and public. He was only closing doors. Dylan Thomas proved him wrong in one go. Side by side Under Milk Wood is A Level against the O Level of Animal Farm. That’s how they came to me in the school reading curriculum too, appropriately. There’s nothing wrong with playing around with a few good surplus adjectives and adverbs. I give you my main witness for this prosecution, William Shakespeare.

    Lastly, he patronises Noel Coward. Coward is a writer who successfully combined heart and soul emotion with stuff upper line and lip in a way that Orwell never achieved. Try watching ‘In Which We Serve’ without marveling at the economy of grammar that combines with the empathy of heart-break in the diction of the screenplay. Coward is a giant. So is Orwell. Orwell does himself a disservice in his tendency to play Jack too much.

    In summary may I observe how easy it is to criticise and to be paid well to do it too? Dylan Thomas, Priestley and Coward achieved success that the high class journalist, Orwell, could never aspire to in a certain muse.

    I commend all ans sundry to Jeremy Lewis – Cyril Connolly, A Life. It tells us how Orwell painted himself into a corner of lit crit rule making from which he alone was then unable to escape. Shame. We could have seen better from Orwell if he had not taken his high ground stance so early.


  2. ODETS: IF the Jewish violinist has been successfully presented to his comrades as an informer, THEN why should he commit suicide from fear of becoming an informer? He and the Nazis both know he’ll be privt to no information.

    PRIESTLEY: Cornelius uses a dictionary to break the window. In 1984, Julia throws a Newspeak dictionary at the telescreen with Goldstein on-screen. One wonders why.

    COWARD: Here in America we had a famed, longtime University of Alabama football coach: Paul “Bear’ Bryant. Doing a TV commercial for the telephone company late in life, gruff old Bear urged viewers to phone their mothers, ending gently: “I wish I could call mine.” But if Bear really could call her, via a seance, would GO think this “futile”?

    George Steven Swan


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