Homage to Orwell, unsung theatre critic.

To coincide with the launch of the inaugural George Orwell Day [21-01-2013], the estate has kindly let me reprint a sample selection of three theatre reviews that Orwell wrote for Time and Tide magazine, Dominic Cavendish writes.

It’s hard to know how to “celebrate” the anniversary of Orwell’s death in 1950 – or even if one should; the choice of January for “Orwell Day” is much bleaker than his birthday (25th June) would be but perhaps it’s apt that a sudden flurry of Orwellian activity should occur when the country is shivering, knee-deep in snow. Maybe a few reviews of his will serve to lift spirits – they certainly hail from a dark wartime period when even Orwell, you feel, must have been grateful for some escapism.

It’s often overlooked that among his many other journalistic activities, Orwell was a theatre critic for a while, predominantly running on and off from 18 May 1940, when he reviewed Bernard Shaw’s In Good King Charles’s Golden Days (New Theatre) to the time he joined the BBC; he rounds off with a damning notice for WO Somin’s Close Quarters at the Apollo in August 1941, which left him perplexed and irritated at the deployment of just two actors in a busily populated melodrama.

It’s equally little known, I suspect, that Orwell in his youth tried his hand at writing plays and that may be one reason why his drama criticism shows a surprising measure of acuity and confidence in pronouncing about theatre. He was no Kenneth Tynan but his writings about the stage stand the test of time remarkably well.

In general, one could say that he displays the recurrent tendency of the literary-minded critic – alongside the ingrained bias of his quarter of the 20th-century – towards describing plot at some length, arguing in abstract about authorial intentions and dominant themes – and confining the details and descriptions of set and performances to a few brief paragraphs. Yet what can be a hazard of the job, and a terrible weakness if not watched, counts for very little in Orwell’s case because, as always, he has so much to say for himself.

There’s a characteristic clarity and conversational directness about his approach that somehow sets you beside him in the theatre, even if the productions themselves are a little hard to picture. It’s typical too of Orwell that far from landing himself a “cushy” number – as theatre reviewing is often painted – he braved the stalls during a period that coincided with the Blitz. Not so much a case of “kill for a ticket” as “take the ticket, and risk being killed”. As a document of those days alone, his reviews – as one sees from his description of an air-raid during the premiere of JB Priestley’s Cornelius – are immensely valuable and the all-engulfing national drama of the war lends his perspective added sharpness.

I would be interested to know what others make of these short pieces but here are some observations to be starting with, simply on the basis of the selection I’ve chosen (and I’ve avoided the Shaw, partly because it’s not a very accomplished review but mainly because Orwell’s more expert analysis of Shaw’s writing, his 1943 talk on Arms and the Man, is better known). Aside from the simple joys of his writing style, I think one should point out:

His discussion of Clifford Odets’s Till the Day I Die throws up an intriguing pointer to the health of what would be called “the London fringe” only from the 1960s. Completely ahead of his time, Orwell calls for public subsidy of small young companies working in the margins of the capital. It’s interesting that the play should deal with the terrors of life in Berlin in the early 1930s under the Nazis before they had become a threat that was taken thoroughly seriously – as with his remarks about Priestley’s Cornelius, Orwell is highly sensitive to the way in which world-events, and a more general shift in popular consciousness, could date a play very rapidly in this period.

What stands out most is the unusual act of explicit violence that occurs in a work presented in an age of censorship – “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.” Orwell defends what latterly has been described as “in-yer-face theatre” with exactly the right counter-blow to bourgeois hysteria – that it’s all there, and worse, in King Lear. And he has the intelligence to credit an audience, hardly innocent of such atrocities, with the ability to withstand this kind of visceral re-enactment. Is it fanciful too to wonder whether Odets’s engagement with torture fed into his early inspiration for Nineteen Eighty-Four? Consider those lines: “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.”

Moving on to Cornelius – this stands out for me because the play has only recently been revived after more than 70 years in an excellent production starring Alan Cox at the Finborough. What’s interesting about the review is the way it straightaway announces that the play is already a period piece, because in describing a doomed small business, it taps into the anxieties, dreads and financial collapses of the 1930s, a mood Orwell himself had brilliantly encapsulated in Coming Up For Air.

“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.”

What seems at once endearing and wrong-headed about his comments and criticism is his gloriously optimistic assumption that the play might be more plausible if any of the characters – resilient-despairing office-worker Cornelius particularly –  acknowledged that their calamity was a consequence of a remediable economic condition: “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 [my italics], the bankruptcy of the firm would hardly matter.” For such a statement to be more than a flip aside, Orwell must have thought some kind of revolution was in the air, that the world could be a better place, post-war, assuming that victory was secured. But as the recent revival showed, the play is as pertinent as ever and our scope for imagining a future beyond capitalism yet more limited.

Lastly to Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit – Orwell was at the premiere! What’s impressive is that Orwell never stoops to humourlessness and when occasion demands, he demonstrates that he’s got it in him to make serious points with a light-heartedness of expression that sums up Fleet Street at its best. It’s very Clive James, that topsy-turvy idea of his that Coward’s scathing critique lies precisely in ostensibly giving spiritualism some sort of credibility – ie rather than pointing out that the spirit world is a fraud, the play operates by supposing that the spirit world is a fraudulent as our own: “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.” Genius, George – and I imagine rattled off at a rate that would shame most members of today’s Critics Circle.

It’s a pity that other duties – and more compelling artistic projects – took Orwell away from theatreland, but we should acknowledge the debt, however seemingly slight, we owe him in this field. Talking of debts, I am indebted as ever to Peter Davison for essentially setting me off on this trail in the first place; without his exhaustive Complete Works collection, this fascinating review material would be beyond reach almost entirely.

Dominic Cavendish, theatre critic for the Daily Telegraph


One thought on “Homage to Orwell, unsung theatre critic.

  1. Dominic is right in lamenting Orwell’s loss to theatreland, but then the great man would have made the football results sing (note: Must get round to slicing Orwell’s ill-judged assault on competitive sport). I also loved Orwell’s aside on “private capitalism. which is due to disappear in the near future”. Reminded me of the bedsit Bolsheviks in the late Sixties who told us not to make plans for the weekend because of the revolution. Also liked Orwell’s praise for Priestley’s integrity in not becoming a “cheer-up writer” (how good it that?). The same could be said of Orwell himself and Animal Farm/1984. I’ve never found them the least bit depressing, pessimistic or negative. How can positive energy be negative (note: Must get round to making a Catford argument about Orwell’s innate spiritualism. Has anyone ever unearthed the evidence from Jacintha Whatsername?)?


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