Sunday, 20 August 2017

Good & A Nightingale Sang... - C P Taylor

C P Taylor was a Glaswegian Jewish Marxist autodidact playwright who lived and worked in Newcastle and who died ridiculously young in 1981. He was only in his early fifties yet had written some 80 plays for stage, TV and radio, in just 20 years.

Good is his masterpiece, a last-minute breakthrough onto the national stage when the RSC staged it  in London just three months before Taylor's death. It is an examination of the axiom generally attributed to Edmund Burke: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Halder is a good man, a university professor who supports his scatterbrained wife and dutifully visits his senile mother in the nursing home. But this is Germany 1933 and the Nazis are on the rise. Halder is dismissive, even mildly subversive. He has a Jewish friend, the psychiatrist Maurice, and a taste for 'degenerate' American-style jazz.

No doubt influenced by his mother's distressing condition, Halder has written a book which can be read as advocating euthanasia. This attracts the attention of Nazi racial purists. They make overtures to Halder, gradually drawing him into their circle. He initially resists, but as time goes on his qualms are overridden by the need to earn a living. His mother is now back living with him, his wife is even more hopeless about the house, and Haldane has started an affair with one of his female students. The Nazis understand these things. They are supportive, even seductive. Slowly, Halder starts to distance himself from his friend Maurice...

Taylor had made himself a master of open staging through his association with studio theatres like the Traverse in Glasgow and the Live Theatre Company in Newcastle. He also worked in community drama, and thus was able to handle large casts and overlapping scenes. Good is a fine example of both disciplines. Halder is onstage almost all the time, accompanied by a live jazz band (a very Taylorean device). The other characters effectively come to him. Very unusually, several scenes overlap, with Haldane switching in and out of conversations with different people in different locations and even at significantly different times. Only a writer at the height of his game could pull this off and it takes a very special actor to accomplish it onstage. The late great Alan Howard, a consummate stage actor and the best Hamlet I have ever seen, created the role in London and New York.

If Good is Taylor's take on Brechtian Epic Theatre, the other play in this Methuen edition deploys many of the same techniques on a more domestic scale. And a Nightingale Sang... (1977) is the story of the working class Stott family of Newcastle, from the day World War II broke out (September 3 1939) to VE Day (May 8 1945). Although the action primarily takes place in the family home, it instantly moves elsewhere (chiefly the bench in Eldon Square where lame spinster Helen meets her married lover Norman for illicit purposes). There are times when two things are happening simultaneously, as when Eric is waiting nervously in the parlour while the women are upstairs with Joyce, trying to persuade her to come down and be proposed to. George Stott, the father, bangs away on the upright piano - all the popular songs - while Mam Peggy consoles herself with Catholicism and Peggy's father Andie wanders from one daughter's house to the other, starting with his dead whippet in a bag and ending up hiding from the amorous widow who wants to marry him.

It's a dialect play - a dialect I have always known and liked, though I daresay it limited the play's chances in the South back in Taylor's lifetime. We are now used to the device of setting a scene (and, better, underscoring the action) with period popular music, but it should be noted that A Nightingale Sang... preceded Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven by a full year. There is much more breaking down of the fourth wall in Nightingale than in Good, and appropriately so, given that so much of what we hear is Helen's personal inner life. The final scene, in which she dances, not with faithless Norman who has scurried home to mother and wife in the Midlands, but with Joyce's rapscallion hubbie Eric, features both soliloquy and music - the Nightingale finally does dance - and it is heartbreaking.

Not being active in the business these days, I have no real way of assessing where Taylor's reputation stands today. Wherever, it should be higher. I have other plays of his about the house, collected while he was still alive and writing. I must look them out.

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