Tuesday 25 May 2010

The Play's The Thing

On Sunday it was Love Oxford - an annual event where many of the churches from across the city gather together for one massive service in South Parks. It's always brilliant, and this year was no exception - although for the first time I'd volunteered to steward. Just the sort of weather you want to be adding layers, in the form of a fluorescent yellow jacket. And a mic-headset thingummy, which I never quite understood.

Anyway, once the service we over we all sat in the sun (or, in my case, the shade) for a picnic - and because I'd brought a book (Three Plays by A.A. Milne) and my housemates hadn't, we decided to do a play reading for ourselves! Well, Mel and Lois and I did; our other housemate Liz moved far away from us and pretended she didn't know us.

I don't know if you ever read plays, either out loud or in the normal way, but I think it's one of the great neglected areas of fiction. It's very unlikely that anybody is going to put these plays back on the stage, and so it's great fun to read them. With an author like A.A. Milne, as well, there are added advantages to reading instead of watching - his stage directions are often very funny, and purely for the benefit of the reader. Since Milne was one of my first author-obsessions, I got very used to reading plays (he wrote a lot, and was famous for them long before Mr. Winnie-the-Pooh came along) but I know a lot of people would never even consider it.

The play we read was one of Milne's most popular, and P.G. Wodehouse said it was his favourite play (even when saying he'd like Milne to trip over and break his neck... they had a bit of a public falling-out after the Berlin Broadcasts) - it's called The Dover Road. Leonard and Anne are running away to France together; Leonard abandoning his wife Eustacia in the process. Their car breaks down, and they are forced to come to 'a sort of hotel', run by Latimer. It quickly emerges that Latimer intends to keep them prisoner there for a week, in order that they can think things through before acting impetuously - and see each other in a new light. Little known to them, another couple have already been there for a week... Eustacia and her runaway partner Nicholas.

Yes, the scenario is a little contrived, but who cares about that - The Dover Road is a very funny play about the benign meddling of Latimer and the various mismatched pairings under his roof. For just a taste, here's Anne complaining about Leonard's failure to get her safely to France (the ellipses are all in the original) :
What made you ever think that you could take anybody to the South of France? Without any practice at all? . . . Now, if you had been taking an aunt to Hammersmith - well, you might have lost a bus or two . . . and your hat might have blown off . . . and you would probably have found yourselves at Hampstead the first two or three times . . . and your aunt would have stood up the whole way . . . but still you might have got there eventually. I mean, it would be worth trying - if your aunt was very anxious to get to Hammersmith. But the South of France! My dear Leonard! it's so audacious of you.
I can't find The Dover Road online, although quite a few of A.A. Milne's plays can be read here. Otherwise, next time you're in a secondhand bookshop, go and have a look in the Plays section - there's quite often a volume of AAM's work there.

And, to go back to the first question - do you read plays? And if not, is it because you have tried and failed to enjoy it, or just never thought about it? Answers on a postcard... or, if you prefer, in the comments box...(!)


  1. A bit contrived but very humorous I am sure!

  2. I used to do a lot of theatre, and still would if I had more time, so I've read quite a few plays in the last few years. I've always been fond of stage directions, especially the ones that sort of seem like a secret joke between the playwright and the actors/crew, like A.A. Milne's. I read his play Mr. Pim Passes By a couple of years ago, and loved it thoroughly. Come to think of it, it was probably on your recommendation. Thanks for that one.

  3. I used to read lots of plays. In fact, when I was a teenager and in my school's drama club, I think I read almost as many plays as I did novels! And I took several courses in college that focused on plays. But at some point I got out of the habit. I'm not even sure why. I read Night of the Iguana earlier this year, and that was the first play I had read in at least 5 years! I plan to read the Cherry Orchard soon for the Classics Circuit.

    I am lucky now to live in an excellent city for theater, so I see a lot of plays, but you're right that there are some that are less likely to be staged. And they are fun to read. I love that you and your friends read it out loud! What fun!

  4. Aww, that's adorable! I used to read a lot of plays as well, I took acting, playwrighting, theatre history, etc in university but have stopped reading them in the last few years. Looking back over my yearly reading lists, I do feel greatly enriched by them though, everything from the Greeks to Eugene O'Neill, it's a lot of great literature that tends to get overlooked.

  5. I also somehow got out of the habit of reading plays and haven't in years. I just don't think of them when considering something to read.

  6. Yes and No. Yes I used to read plays as a teenager and No I don't read them any more.

    I will say that, judging by your exceprt from the Milne play, I think we may not always share the same taste in humour

  7. What a lovely bunch you are, I love the idea of reading a play with friends! And my choice for lounging is always in the shade as well.

  8. I have read out like this - although - it can get pretty funny if somebody gets something slightly wrong - the meaning can get changed and I seem to remember much amusment being caused. Anyway, sounds like a fun afternoon. What is more - is there any genre that AAM did not write?!

  9. Arguably,it was Lois' superb rendition of Eustacia that made it so hilarious :) I'm not sure if I would enjoy reading a play to myself as much as having it read to me or watching it. Which I guess is the point, really. Otherwise it would be a book.

  10. I used to read lots of plays as a teenager - mainly because I had exhausted all the fiction I knew I liked in our library, so moved on to the play section. Coincidentally we are currently reading through the 2000 Oberammergau Passion Play in our housegroup - one of the group saw it that year & has a copy of the text. It is proving a very good experience.

  11. Mystica - I can allow contrivance for whimsical things!

    Anna - yes, 'like a secret joke' is exactly how I feel about AAM's stage directions, well put. And I love Mr. Pim Passes By, glad you liked it! Milne later turned it into a novel, called Mr. Pim (and, confusingly, then later republished as Mr. Pim Passes By) which is worth a look.

    Teresa - It was great fun! I wish I could get to more plays in London, but it's always so difficult to (a) find out what's on, and (b) book tickets! All theatres in London use ridiculous booking methods, so you can't just ask for (say) the cheapest ticket on any night.

    Carolyn - :-) We did feel a *little* self-conscious...

    Kristen - give some a try!

    Peter - sense of humour is such an odd thing to explain, isn't it? I can't imagine anyone *not* finding that funny, but there you are... if Diary of a Nobody failed on you, then I should expect other things to as well!

    Darlene - I was quite surprised they were up for it! I've done it before with Shakespeare, but then there were 35 parts between 3, rather than 7 parts...!!

    Hannah - good question! I can't think of one... with children's books, novels, plays, poetry, sketches, autobiography, pacifist literature...! He never wrote a biography (other than autobiog)...

    Mel - Lois was rather superb. If these plays were on stage now, I probably wouldn't read them, but I do enjoy it as another form of literature. Makes a nice change from prose.

    Gill - I'm glad that so many people here have enjoyed plays, I was expecting nobody to read them!

  12. I think The Dover Road is a great play. I cannot understand why nobody performs Milne’s plays these days, which is why I agreed to direct an amateur production in Dorchester on Thames, just a few miles south of Oxford. From 27th to 30th June. More information can be found at www.dads.orgs.uk and tickets are available at tickets@dads.org.uk. If you are able to come I would be interested to hear what you think of our interpretation of the play, especially the little twist we’ve added to the relationship between Latimer and Dominic.
    Incidentally, half of our Wednesday night proceeds will be split with the Oxford Spires Rotary Club to help raise funds for shelter boxes. They also organise the World Pooh Sticks Championship raising funds for the RNLI.

    1. Thanks so much for mentioning this, Mark. I quail a little at what might that twist might be (and I'm hoping desperately that I'm wrong in my guess!) but it's wonderful that people are performing this brilliant play. I will definitely try to come.


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