Friday 16 March 2012

Dear Octopus - Dodie Smith

When I was reading Dodie Smith's first volume of autobiography, Look Back With Love, the title which cropped up most (and most intrigued me) was her play Dear Octopus (1938).  She didn't write much about its creation or production, since obviously she didn't write the play during her first eleven years, but she makes allusions now and then.  My attention was grabbed by the mention of family reunions, John Gielguid, and that curious title.  Actually, I'll instantly put you out of your misery, lest you think this is a play set in an aquarium.  The title derives from the speech Nicholas gives at his parents' Golden Wedding Anniversary:
"To the family - that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to."
Despite being an only child, Dodie Smith seems very able at portraying sibling relationships within large families.  (Indeed, one character claims to be 'crazy about large families', and their husband caustically remarks 'That's because you're an only child.')  Rose and Cassandra always seemed very believable in I Capture the Castle (albeit Thomas rather less so) and Dear Octopus is no different.  The size of the cast, and the various familial and marital relationships, was rather dizzying - but, of course, it would have been rather easier to identify everyone when seeing it on the stage, rather than reading the play.  We discussed reading plays a couple of years ago, and it seems that I am in a minority - although it has to be said that I do prefer reading plays with small casts, rather than the mammoth ensemble of Dear Octopus.

The situation is a tried and tested catalyst for all manner of action: a family reunion.  I don't think there's much point in me going into specifics, but it involves all the expected angles.  A daughter returns after a seven year absence, holding a secret; a sister-in-law holds resentment about a long-ago rejection; siblings compete and misunderstand each other; children try to understand the adult world; the gathering draws further attention to one family member who has recently died.  And, naturally, there is a romance plot threaded through - which culminates rather too neatly, perhaps, but everyone likes a bit of feel-good theatre.

There is plenty in Dear Octopus which does remind one of the insouciance of much of I Capture the Castle - and, indeed, Cassandra's faux-sophistication.  Like this, for example:
MARGERY: Ken'll carry on with anyone who crooks their little finger at him.
HILDA: Don't you mind?
MARGERY: Not in the least.  It's a safety valve.
Young love and young marriages are treated quite flippantly at times, although elsewhere the oncoming war (they must have known it was oncoming?) does crash through this flippancy:
LAUREL: Your father's picture.  He was exactly your age when he was killed. (Suddenly.)  Oh, darling, darling--
HUGH: What?
LAUREL: Sometimes I wish we were quite middle-aged.
HUGH: Good lord, why?
LAUREL: So that you wouldn't have to go if there's another war.
HUGH: It'll take a damn good cause to get me to war.
LAUREL: Oh, you all say that.
But the focal point is not budding romance - it is the security and trust of a fifty-year long marriage.  There is a lovely sense through that the anniversary couple in question (Charles and Dora) can cope with the antics of their family because of the depth of their bond.  For a young(ish) unmarried woman, Smith conveys this very well, and very calmly.

Dear Octopus doesn't reinvent the wheel.  There are a lot of plays in a similar mould, and even with a similar tone, but Smith's construction and balance throughout is so well done that this seems like an exemplar within its crowded genre.  Perhaps it won't overly excite the reader, or transform any lives, but it does its job rather well.  I don't know how often the play is revived now, but you do get a chance to see it, grab the opportunity.  Otherwise, I recommend you track down a copy, and have an entertaining afternoon...


  1. How wonderful to find you writing about this one. I read it when I found it on the shelf doing some tidying up at my library a few years ago, and really enjoyed it. I agree with everything you mentioned here -- the large family is well drawn and it has a light touch. I could imagine the scene when the grownups take over the table in the nursery -- would love to see this one on stage.

  2. First of all, may I say how sad I am at the lack of quality literature set in aquariums? Or, really, any literature? I feel like we are missing out.

    I am one of those people who adores reading about large families, probably because they are completely foreign to me. I also love that this is centered on what sounds like a very strong marriage, those being another of my favourite things to read about.

    I've ordered copies of both Look Back with Love and The New Moon With the Old so I think I might have to have a bit of a Dodie Smith celebration week later this year, reading those two, my very worn copy of I Capture the Castle, and, since my library has it, Dear Octopus.


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