"The Strong are Lonely" - A Tract for the Times

(Review from KES Magazine, SPRING 1966.)

IN these days of instant entertainment, and especially at a season when the leading personalities in the drama of current political reality were being paraded nightly before our very hearths, it may have seemed foolhardy to demand the attention of an audience for nearly two hours in something less than fireside comfort to a performance of a twenty-year-old Swiss play about the fate of Jesuit settlements in South America in the mid-eighteenth century. But for anyone who saw this play it hardly needs to be pointed out that here was no mere historical narrative. One might even detect a subtle irony in the fate which sandwiched a general election between the first and second nights of this production. For the conflict which forms the central theme of this play lies between two totalitarian systems, neither of which could have seen much good in our pragmatic modern democracy. And we are forced to admit that, for all its cruelty and distortion of values, an age of authority and absolutism rouses deep echoes in our human nature, which make it a peculiarly favourable setting for powerful dramatic argument.

The historical setting enables the playwright to present the forces of human and divine power in their most unyielding aspect through the medium of the imperious Spanish temperament. Their stark conflict is built into a tragedy on Aristotelian lines. The manifestations of tortured loyalty are followed through in character after character. Natural justice is shown at odds with the logic of temporal power. The idealist's pursuit of spiritual ends by worldly means leads only to disillusion and catastrophe. Finally the playwright turns his dying hero into a prophet, voicing his own solution of the tragic dilemma: "The kingdom of God is within you-that is the truth."

It is hardly surprising to find a play published in the year after the end of the second world war devoted to such a theme, and it must have been his own recent experience that led the playwright to this personal intrusion in the final scene. But the descent from drama to homily certainly weakens the play's conclusion. Moreover, in his determination to sanctify his message the playwright seems to have overlooked the need to create a more coherent sequence of events leading up to the death of the Father Provincial. The result is that we feel a gap, or at least a strain, in the chain of tragic inevitability, and the final scene comes less as a climax than as in arbitrary and disappointing betrayal of much that has gone before. Deathbed scenes are treacherous material, dramatically tedious and, in a rationalistic age, ill-suited for conveying visionary aura. We can only wish that the playwright had kept his dying hero off the stage, entrusting any necessary account of his martyrdom to some appropriate "messenger." Then we would have been spared the disintegration of the Father Provincial's finely-wrought character into a commonplace sermon, and been left to face the situation he faced more honestly for ourselves.

 

Cornelis (J. R. Baxter) Father Provincial (A. J. Robinson) Father Clark (D. D. Speight)

To say so much of the play before mentioning the performers may seem disproportionate, if not actually discourteous. But the reviewer has felt it necessary not only to unburden himself of the sense of dissatisfaction left by the final scene but, more importantly, to sketch an interpretation of the whole drama against which the effectiveness of the individual performances can be measured. Interpretations will, of course, differ. But it may be hoped that this one, based as it is largely upon the impression left by the performance under review, will provide a fair criterion of success on the production's own terms.

It was apparent from the start that austerity was to be the keynote of this production. The spare white set, black and white habits of Jesuits and Indians in the opening procession, the subdued monochrome of the plainchant-all these created an atmosphere in which mere histrionics must immediately appear false and exaggerated, and true feeling could only be expressed by the most economical of gestures or modulations of the voice. This demand, implicit in the very nature of the play, was a harsh discipline for amateur actors, and not all proved equal to it. But it was a measure of shrewd casting that among those who most nearly succeeded the three or four leading actors were outstanding. Perhaps most memorable was A. J. Robinson's sensitive study of the Father Provincial. In dignified carriage and ascetic features he was naturally suited to the part; but he added to these advantages a fine impression of burning conviction under a gentle exterior, and conveyed to a remarkable degree the spiritual and mental anguish both of the exercise and of the surrender of his lonely authority. Never at any moment did he yield to the easy temptation to play the sanctimonious priest. Possibly he allowed himself to betray, by nervous movements of hands and face, more of his inner tension than a seasoned Jesuit might have done; but this was a small matter beside the general excellence of his interpretation. It was the greater pity that such a creation had to be sacrificed to the playwright's misjudgement in the final scene. But even this aberration was handled with such refined devotion that we were almost persuaded of the therapeutic value of mortal wounds and the supernatural significance of deathbed utterances.

As the other `strong man' of the play J. A. Ramsden's Don Pedro was no second fiddle to this performance. The first and most dramatic posing of the central dilemma at the end of the First Act depended above all on his ability to sustain tension and authority throughout the long and sometimes dangerously thin `enquiry', and finally, having established the moral vindication of the Jesuit cause, to demonstrate without loss of integrity the irrelevance of the whole proceedings in the face of the realities of power. This was certainly the most powerfully conceived and best written part of the play, and Ramsden's impeccably civilized and humane but wholly worldly Don Pedro was the perfect match for the intense idealism of the Father Provincial. As he confronted the Father Provincial with the fait accompli of his mission and sketched its cold practical justification a gulf of blank incomprehension yawned between the two men, each possessed by his allegiance to a higher power, and linked now only by the tenuous bond of fine Spanish breeding. The vividness of this moment of estrangement owed much to clear and convincing characterisation throughout the preceding scene.

Among the supporting parts R. M. Price's Querini was as convincing in manner as in appearance, and in both exploited fully the sinister ambiguity of the part. His meticulously cool and impassive delivery precisely fitted his role as the agent of an external fate, relentlessly driving the Father Provincial to his knees. Beneath the exquisite silk glove undoubtedly lay a fist of iron, and beneath the courtly sophistication of his disguise could be sensed a man whose spiritual idealism was tempered rather than corrupted by worldly wisdom. Nonetheless, our human sympathies recoiled from this disquietingly impersonal calculator of spiritual profit and loss, and many questions raised by this sombre scene remained unanswered at the end.

Of a very different kind but equally effective was J. R. Baxter's whole-hearted study of the trader, Cornelis. Blowing like a gale of healthy materialism through the clinical calm of the Jesuit retreat he made this blaspheming Dutch Calvinist memorably his own, and provided an admirable foil to the tensions of the First Act. It is perhaps a fault in the play that the expectations roused by this early outburst of earthy humour are never later fulfilled. But without Cornelis the play would be heavy going indeed, and we were grateful to Baxter for giving us such an attractively full-blooded performance.

The remaining parts offered little reward for anything more than competent and disciplined acting. Most significant was that of Oros, whose too literal zest for the divine "kingdom" reflects and magnifies the fatal flaw in the Father Provincial's idealism. D. J. Roberts brought to the part a suitable energy and soldierly bearing, but lacked something in effective management of gesture. His companions, J. R. Beale (Father Liebermann) and D. D. Speight (Father Clark), performed conscientiously, but could make little of their flat and mechanical lines.

Of Don Pedro's attendants, C. J. Beck's Arago was a nice study in the seamier side of diplomatic life, which served well to underline the greater nobility of Don Pedro's worldly philosophy. As Villano J. D. Everatt perhaps overstressed the comic elements in his part, but with his dogged professional acceptance of distasteful duty succeeded in representing yet another dimension of loyalty at that ironic inquisition.

As the only witnesses with a possibly genuine case against the Jesuits it seemed at first unfair that Bustillos (S. A. Hoyland) and Catalde (J. H. Taylor) should have given so villainous an impression as to damn their cause outright. But such were the demands of the drama, and the actors provided only what was required. Painful echoes of Rhodesia hung about their words, but we could not look for a more balanced discussion of the settler problem here: this was one thing that this play was emphatically not about.

Among the Indians, R. M. Dixon and J. R. A. Cook did their best to make some dramatic sense of the appalling lines given to Candia and Naguacu. They may reasonably hope never to be burdened with such ungrateful parts again. In high drama the inarticulate are best served by silence-as was again proved by the impossible riot scene in Act Il. By contrast, the opening procession of priests and Indians was a moving spectacle, as were the Indians mute and kneeling before the Father Provincial after their calamitous outcry. One might perhaps criticise the production for emphasising the inherent weakness at this point by allowing the stage to become absurdly crowded with these incongruous forms, and subjecting them to too close a scrutiny under brighter lighting than their disguise could properly bear. The body of priests, on the other hand, was skilfully handled, and their disciplined movement in procession and round the Father Provincial's deathbed created no sense of spatial restriction. Their dignified rendering of the plainchant, led with musicianly skill by M. R. Ainsworth, their remotely placed Cantor, would surely have done credit to many a monastery choir.

 

Villano (J. D. Everatt) Arago (C. J. Beck) Don Pedro (J. A. Ramsden)

The difficulties of production in the School Hall are patent, and this above all in a play written, with much specific detail, for a conventional curtained stage. On the whole this production succeeded in avoiding any sense of inappositeness, and exploited the spaces around the stage to good effect. But it must be admitted that the sequence of events in Act 11 was not clarified by the diversity of exits and entrances, and in particular the curious placing and incongruous timing of the `noises off.' Tomtoms were beaten spasmodically, and rather too loud, backstage, while sporadic shots rang out unnervingly behind the audience, and figures rushed on and off through our midst. Again, although it was clearly not possible for all the actors to face all the audience all the time, one felt that some further concessions to the common prejudice against prolonged back views might have been possible. As it was dramatic impact seemed sometimes to be lost in favour of three-dimensional realism. But this was purely a visual matter: the standard of audibility was high throughout, and we are aware that this was no accident.

Finally, then, it must be said that the efforts of all concerned-and not least those unseen genii who ruled the elements of light and darkness with complete efficiency; those who achieved such startling transformations with greasepaint and powder; and those whose strenuous and imaginative labours had produced so economically effective a setting and costumes to match-combined to produce no meagre performance, nor one for which excuses need to be found. Its moments of weakness were more than offset by episodes in which tension and credibility were splendidly maintained; and at the end no one could doubt that, whatever its dramatic or moral acceptability, the playwright's message had been honestly and clearly delivered.

R.A.B.

Note:-We are grateful to J. M. Sanderson, secretary of the Photographic Society, for allowing us to use his photographs to illustrate this review.

More photos, courtesy of David Speight:

?, Father Provincial (A. J. Robinson), Oros (D. J. Roberts), Father Clark (D. D. Speight),? (John Wragg)

?,? (James Ellis),?,? (Richard Bramwell),?, Father Clark (D. D. Speight),? (John Wragg)

More photos, courtesy of John Sanderson:

Cornelis (J. R. Baxter), Don Pedro (J. A. Ramsden)

Father Provincial (A. J. Robinson), Don Pedro (J. A. Ramsden)