them, talks to Sarah Hem
Scottish theatres celebrate James Bridie’s centenary this year. His son Ronald Mavor introduces three of the plays on view, while James Cairncross, starring in one of ming about the playwright.
James Bridie was a man of the theatre in more ways than one. Trained professionally as a doctor. he lived a double life for many years. delighting in the discrepancy between Bridie the playwright and Osborne Henry Mavor the doctor. At the same time he managed to achieve an extraordinary amount for Scottish theatre — including founding the Glasgow Citizens‘ Theatre — and it is partly in respect of this that several Scottish theatres are currently mounting or planning productions of his plays to mark the centenary ofhis birth.
ActorJames Cairncross. (appearing in one ofthe current productions). remembers his first meeting with Bridie in 194-1. ‘At a coffee break in rehearsals we went to Lambs opposite the old Athenaeum in Glasgow. Bridie was there and he was simply delightful. He made me welcome. He told me a delightful but quite unrepeatable story.‘
Bridie could. however. exhibit a caustic wit. In her wonderfully
readable book about him. Winifred Bannister reproduces a startling letter to Flora Robson. in which Bridie rails against her performance of Lady Macbeth. finishing in flourishing form: ‘Your deliverv of the death‘s picture line was I unpardonable. Everybody was terribly bad. except Laughton who was only bad. But you have no RIGH'I'to be bad . . .‘
Within an hour of posting the letter he had thought better of it. however. and posted a generous apology. He could equally spring to the defence of actors. (‘airncross recalls his reaction when the diminutive Gwen Frangcon Davies. playing Lady Macbeth in (,iielgud‘s‘wartime production of Macbeth received bad notices: ‘Bridie wrotea indignant letter to The Times saying: you don‘t understand — all Scotsmen are dominated by these terrifying little women. That‘s exactly what Lady Macbeth should be.‘
As an actor. however. (‘airncross experienced nothing of the sharp edge ofBridie‘s tongue. Ile appeared in several premieres of Bridie‘s plays. rehearsals for which were diligently attended by the playwright. ‘l le was a marvellous author in that he came to rehearsals and was altogether helpful. But he would never interfere. He didn‘t take rehearsals himself and any notes you got were through the
One of a series of Bridie‘s cartoons depicting medical personalities. to be
There are half a dozen Bridie plays whose titles are the name of their principle character — seven if you include Colonel Wotlzerspoon in which play no character of that name appears: or eight ifyou include A Sleeping Clergyman. The Clergyman is God. an elderly gentleman with a long white beard who sleeps throughout. The plays are Mary Read, Lancelot, John Knox. Mr Bolfry, DrAnge/us and Mr Gillie. The last three all date from the happy period of my father‘s close association with Alastair Sim and they make a neat group. It is good that two of them are to be presented in Scotland in this. his centenary year.
Bridie was always a moral playwright — coming as he did from a Free Church grandfather and a
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shown in the autumn exhibition on Bridie at
the National Library of Scotland.
free-thinking engineer father. Mr Bolfry is. indeed. no less than the Devil himself. erupting into a Highland manse during the last war. Dr Angelus is the celebrated Glasgow murderer Dr Pritchard thinly disguised. Mr Gillie. on the other hand. is a thoroughly good man. Though. by the world‘s standards. he is an unsuccessful schoolmaster in the dismal mining town ofC‘rult. he is an animator and encourager ofwhatever he finds good and true and beautiful in his pupils. His swans. as it happens. all turn out to be only geese. and he is run over by the pantechnicon which is removing all his goods from the house after he has got the sack. But the Ultimate Judge recognises his goodness. He has tried to set his students free from the contrictions of
their drab lives and the Judge remarks that it is the brief time between the door of the cage and the jaws of the cat that makes life worth while.
The three plays. then. represent the broadest moral range. And James Bridie. in his other persona of Dr Mavor. had seen a good deal of the Devil and all his works. serving with the RAMC in two wars. and working in general practice and in hospitals. But he never despaired of his fellow men. or failed to observe their courage. their generosity. their humanity even under the most terrible stress. He would not have approved of the professional. and profitable. despair of most of his bright young successors in the dramatic art. Indeed. one could well claim that the whole corpus of nearly forty plays which he wrote after coming back from the First World War in 191‘) represents an attempt to understand and forgive the world for its bestialities. AsT. Eliot asked: 'After such knowledge. what forgiveness'."
In Mr Bolfry the Devil is wicked and eloquent and even persuasive as he preaches his sermon from a text of William Blake and praises the Pride of the Eye and the Lust ofthe Flesh. ‘1 tell you that all you have and all you know is your Self. Honour your Selfand set him free; for the soul and the body are one. and their only home is the World. and their only life is the Flesh. and their only friend is the Devil.‘ The minister. Mr McCrimmon. drives him out into the night. but he is finally exorcised by the simple faith of the minister‘s wife and then it is as if a bad dream had passed with the rising sun of a summer‘s dawn.
In Dr Angelus we have another persuasive devil. a man who. like not a few Bridie characters. feels himself to be superior to his fellows and to be unreasonably confined by the respectable rules of his society. He has. he thinks. a right to be free of his social chains. even if it means disposing of his nearest and dearest. He is a thoroughly bad man. but it takes some time for even his closest colleague to wake up to the fact. .‘vlrs McCrimmon. the minister‘s wife from Bolfry. could have put him right about the persistent presence of Evil in the world. a force to be resisted.
Ofcourse it is unfashionablc nowadays to talk about the Devil; and it is not at all good for a playwright to venture into the unfashionablc. It is safer for a playwright to agree with the common belief that some day the psychiatrists and the sociologists will have all the answers and nobody will behave wickedly ever again.
Another question presents itself. What. after all. is the function of the artist'.’ Is it not to find a form. a shape. a model. an image that is not life-as-we-know-it from the alarm clock. through breakfast. the daily routine. supper and the telly. but offers us a wider perspective v a broader sense ofwhat it may all be about?
In these three plays I think Bridie did just that. I think he has been underrated these thirty-seven years since his death in 1951 . He has been perceived to be a witty. inventive. funny and entertaining writer. That much has always been granted him. I think he is also a deeply serious writer; and this aspect of his work has yet to be discovered.
8 The List 24 June - 7 July 1988