Selected reviews (1922–1939)
276pp. £18.99. 978 1 84943 135 4
301pp. £15.99. 978 1 84943 182 8
To describe Charles Morgan’s trade, we would now more commonly say “drama critic”. Restoring the adjective and calling him instead a “dramatic” one is, in this case, apposite. For Morgan knew how to drum up a story. If he was impressed by a production, he did not just say why, but took the trouble to inflect his review with some of the play’s emotional crescendo. A representative opening sentence from a Times review reads: “One may always know that theatrical history is being made when no one, having entered the theatre, sits”. His compelling report on an adaptation of a novel by Hugh Walpole was described by James Agate as “the high watermark of the craft at the present day”.
As well as being a novelist, Morgan was The Times’s chief theatre critic from 1922 to 1939, and he wrote more than 5,000 reviews – fewer than 200 of which have been selected here by his son Roger, along with a small number of other articles, mostly columns on the London theatre for the New York Times. Bylines were rare at the time, so his name did not appear above the reviews; we learn in a foreword that the articles were identified by using Morgan’s cuttings. But they could also be set apart by their highly distinctive style. Morgan combined a fine – not to say strict – aesthetic sense with generous good will. He was critical but not closed-minded; he does not seem determined to dislike anything a priori. “Away with fixed ideas!” he cried in one review, in 1923. And as far as aesthetic concerns go, he seems to have practised the teaching well. His politics may be another story.
For Morgan had his leanings. One of the steepest was against the endowment of a National Theatre, which offended Morgan’s sense that the individual should be his or her own cultural referee. “We are, or were, a nation which . . . hates any official attempt to govern our tastes.” For him, a publicly funded theatre would smother creativity: “Experiment will be barred, controversy will be avoided, the theatre will be Shakespeare ridden, for Shakespeare is an artist who is ‘safe’”. Morgan was a great admirer of Shakespeare, but he found him mostly mistreated by the “bardolators” of the day. He could scarcely hide his contempt at a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 1936, receiving government support after an appeal. He remarked in the New York Times that it would be better to let Shakespeare “vanish from all stages on which he cannot pay his way”.
Dramatists who could stand on their own two feet at the time included Oscar Wilde, Eugene O’Neill, J. B. Priestley and W. Somerset Maugham, with Ibsen and Chekhov especially fashionable (all are noted in this collection). Morgan’s individualism, which determined that art should be free from state backing, had an aesthetic parallel: he believed a play should not rely on a political context for its impact, or bear an overt or instructive message. Of The Dog Beneath the Skin (1936) by W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, Morgan warned that the authors had “propaganda up their sleeve”. And although he claimed he was not doling out “backhanded praise”, his labelling the piece an “entertaining revue” does carry a suggestion of gritted teeth. Morgan conceded a little more to George Bernard Shaw, and even had an oblique admiration for what he called “Shavianism”. But the praise is still guarded: “when Mr Shaw is in pamphleteering mood, there is nothing to do but enjoy pamphlets”.
Thus Morgan – while experimenting with different sympathies, as a critic should – showed his colours. In 1934, he travelled to Munich, Vienna, Salzburg and Paris to report on the state of culture in mainland Europe. Again, a somewhat defensive claim – calling the series of dispatches “An Unpolitical Journey” – alerts us to the possibility of its being just the opposite. And although Morgan was fastidious in reporting on the habits of audiences and on the general intellectual atmosphere in those cities, even he could not do this without the potential implications of Nazism, which by then were quite clear, temporarily becoming his main subject. He pointed out that comparisons between the state of Germany at the time and the Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century were “essentially false”: the Romantics promoted personal love, which was deemed by the Third Reich not exactly threatening but “at any rate a waste of time”. This relegation of personal liberty and love, he feared, was one element that would help create “from Strasbourg to Vladivostok a prison of the mind”.
To judge by his Three Plays, it was this threat to the individual mind, not the submission of entire peoples, that was the greatest menace of the war. The Flashing Stream (first produced in 1936), The River Line (1952) and The Burning Glass (1953) are all concerned with a purity of mind or heart threatened by some corrupting force. In two out of three cases, this is a scientific discovery – evil in the form of knowledge. In both The Flashing Stream and The Burning Glass, a potentially transformative but deadly weapon is at a crucial stage of development; The River Line tells the story of a secret escape route through occupied France. All feature a woman in a disruptive, decisive role, as well as intellectuals nobly bearing a terrible responsibility. If the characters are often idealistic and impossibly articulate, this is a minor fault in plays that also betray a great gift for dialogue, structure and suspense. The theatre reviews alone could not have shown us this.
As we watch the critic risk his own hand at the genre, our impression of the man behind the reviews starts to form. But more prefatory material for the plays would have helped to flesh it out. Carole Bourne-Taylor introduces both these volumes with genuine but not sycophantic admiration, and she gives an eloquent summary of the essays published in the original editions of the plays. The titles of those essays alone – “The Liberties of the Mind”, “On Power over Nature” – suggest they would be a fascinating complement to the dramas. It is only a shame we could not see more of them. Similarly, the Selected Reviews would have benefited from some historical context for the theatre of the period, or at least some thematic organization. A note on censorship, for instance, could have illuminated Morgan’s visit to a private Sunday performance at the Stage Society of John van Druten’s Young Woodley, banned by the Lord Chamberlain’s office for its portrayal of a schoolboy’s love for his housemaster’s wife. As it is, we are left to pursue these contexts on our own. The emphasis this absence creates is on Morgan as a stylist; for that, at the very least, he deserves a good reputation.