Archive for the ‘Dodie Smith’ Category

Call It a DayIt turns out that I was a bit rash on Friday when (in my review of Autumn Crocus by Dodie Smith) I comforted myself by saying that though the play was not fantastic, it was only her first and her “powers as a playwright developed far beyond this.”  Well, to be fair, they did: Dear Octopus is proof of that.  Call It A Day, on the other hand, is not.

Published in 1936 but first produced in 1935, Call It A Day follows the activities of the five members of the Hilton family over the course of one very long spring day.  The opening scene introducing the family is quite enjoyable: Dorothy and Roger Hilton wake up, are greeted by the new maid, banter over the paper, and, eventually, are interrupted by their teenage children, keen to use their parents’ washroom while the eldest daughter monopolizes the shared one.  It is a good start to the day and to the play.  After that, everything goes downhill rather quickly.

The rest of the play tracks the romantic quandaries each member of the family – save Ann, who is only fifteen – face over the course of the day.  Martin, the seventeen year old son, is captivated by the beautiful, forward new neighbour.  Catherine, the eighteen year old daughter, is hopelessly in love with the married painter who is doing her portrait.  And both Roger and Dorothy, for apparently the first time ever, are tempted to break their marriage vows – needing, it must be said, very little persuasion.

It would have been impossible to make me like Roger or Dorothy; even in the opening scene they grate a little and things get worse as the play progresses.  Martin is fine but so bland that his love scene could have easily been cut (and I do wonder why it wasn’t).  I feel very sorry for Catherine – there is no doubt that the painter lead her on, even if she is now the one pursuing him – and the most enjoyable moments of the play are when Ann is trying to comfort her heartbroken elder sister, in her own very Ann-like way:  “People often fall in love with someone who’s married.  Lots of great people have done it.  Perhaps you’re going to be great, though I can’t think what at.”  Though the sisters rarely get along (making teenage girls share a room seldom results in peace and harmony) on this one night at least they understand each other perfectly.  The sturdy Ann completely understands her sister’s infatuation and heartbreak (“You can’t shock a person whose favourite king is Charles the Second”) and does her best to run interference when their mother appears at bedtime.

Though I did enjoy all of Ann’s appearances, the play is a mess.  It is cluttered with too many storylines and with characters (namely Roger and Dorothy) whose behaviour is inexplicable.  I can’t say this is a play I’d wish to see performed.      

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Autumn Crocus Dodie SmithAutumn Crocus by Dodie Smith is no where near as good a play as Smith’s Dear Octopus but I would still love to see it performed live.  First produced in the spring of 1931, it is a three act play about a spinster school teacher who falls in love with a married hotelier while on holiday in Austria, not realising that he is married until she has already fallen in love.

Their romance is, frankly, not that interesting to read about.  It is slight and clichéd – the sort of thing that is dull on the page but can be made enjoyable on stage if the actors are compelling.  Reading the cast list for the first production, it is not difficult to see why this play – predictable as it is – was a success.  Fay Compton and Francis Lederer surely made the romantic leads far more interesting than they are on the page.

For me, the most delightful moments were provided by the supporting cast, the other guests at the alpine hotel where the play is set.  They are sadly underused in Act Two but in Acts One and Three they are wonderful.  Everyone comes in pairs: the pair of schoolteachers (the younger of whom, Fanny, falls in love), the vicar and his unmarried sister, the boisterous German tourists, and, my favourites, the young unmarried couple who take marriage so seriously that they feel they must first live together rather than rush into any sort of legal union.  Alaric and Audrey’s delight in explaining their situation to everyone around them amused me greatly, particularly when they explain their views to Mr Mayne, the vicar:

Audrey: Of course, your generation’s always so flippant about sex.  Look how you behave – rushing lightly into matrimony, peopling the world with unwanted children, thronging the divorce courts –

Mayne: I have never thronged a divorce court –

Alaric: Probably because you have never married – which is, in itself, a crime against the State.  The duty of every healthy male is to find a suitable mate – one who, by bring the necessary feminine attributes naturally omitted from his ego, will complete that ego, enabling it and its female counterpart to vibrate in plastic rhythm – united, yet individual – in dual unity with the harmonic cosmos.

Mayne: Good gracious!  I’m afraid I don’t know what any of that means.

Everyone in the hotel is aware of their unmarried state (how could they not be, with the young people constantly wanting to talk about it?) and more intrigued than outraged by it, especially Miss Mayne:

Miss Mayne: And how is the – the adventure?

Audrey: Adventure?

Miss Mayne: Yes – my brother was telling me about you.  Really, I think he expected me to be shocked, but, of course, I’m most interested in modern ideas.  Not that I get the chance of hearing many.  No one in our village ever does anything modern.

Audrey: Don’t they?

Miss Mayne: Well, not on purpose.  I mean, it’s only – well, by accident – one just rescues them, you know.  But you, of course, don’t want to be rescued.

Alaric: Well, not from ourselves.

And yet somehow Alaric and Audrey manage to be endearing rather than insufferable.  They are earnest without being particularly strident.  In the original production they were played by Jessica Tandy and Jack Hawkins, both looking very, very young.

Muriel Aked, Jack Hawkins, Jessica Tandy in the J.C. Williamson London production of Autumn Crocus (credit: National Library of Australia)

Muriel Aked, Jack Hawkins, Jessica Tandy in the J.C. Williamson London production of Autumn Crocus (credit: National Library of Australia)

All in all, it is not a particularly special play, though it is an impressive first effort.  I enjoyed the Austrian setting (there is a liberal amount of dialogue in German) and loved the supporting characters but am happy that Smith’s powers as a playwright developed far beyond this.

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Dear OctopusIt has been a long time since I’ve been as happy with a book as I was with Dear Octopus by Dodie Smith.  Simon did a good job of identifying some of its weaknesses – an overly large cast, a too-neat romance plot – in his charming review so I feel completely free to simply heap praise on it.

Produced and published in 1938, Dear Octopus is a comedy in three acts about the Randolph family, who have gathered to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of the parents, Charles and Dora.  The family is large so it takes a while to get a feel for all the different relationships; while my head spun a bit during the first act, I had it all figured out by the second.  This is one of those few situations where I could understand why seeing the play might be preferable – it is far easier to keep track of a large cast visually than on paper.  Like any family, the Randolphs have their problems: one of the granddaughters is struggling to move on after her mother’s death; a daughter hasn’t returned home in seven years; a sister-in-law harbours a life-long love of Charles; and the siblings and grandchildren all have their private squabbles and disagreements.  But this is a Dodie Smith comedy, not a Dorothy Whipple melodrama, so none of these issues are allowed to overwhelm the story.  They add depth, certainly, but Smith also treats these issues sensibly: as difficulties to be overcome, not tragedies to be allowed to derail anyone.  The strength and support of the family,“that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to”, is there to help them all. 

Dear Octopus - Fenny and NicholasI, sentimental reader that I am, enjoyed the romance between Nicholas, Charles and Dora’s youngest child, and Fenny, Dora’s companion.  There is nothing startlingly original about it but I genuinely liked Fenny, was horribly embarrassed for her when an interfering Randolph relative explains that Nicholas has no interest in marrying her, was even more embarrassed when she threw herself at other men during the party to avoid Nicholas, and was, of course, delighted when everything worked out neatly.  Nicholas was played in the original stage production by John Gielgud (who I have been thinking about since reading Harriet’s review of Gielgoodies) and appears very striking in the photos that illustrate the book.

Really though, the heart of the play – and of the family – belongs to Dora and Charles.  In their seventies now, they are not only affectionate and charming, they are genuinely happy with each other and with themselves.  When Belle, Charles’ sister-in-law, confronts him about not achieving his boyhood dreams of writing or entering politics, he is far from regretful about the path he has taken:

Charles: I think I might have had a shot at politics – but there were so many far more important things to do.

Belle: What things?

Charles: Surely you have realised that any house that contains Dora also contains a number of Little Jobs?  You would be surprised, for instance, what a very large number of shelves I have put up and an almost equally large number I have taken down.  Then there have been children to play with, dogs to take walks, gardens to plan, neighbours to visit –

Belle: And you call these things important?

Charles: I do indeed.  I call the sum total of any man’s happiness important.

Belle: Have you been happy, Charles?

Charles: So happy that I am sometimes tempted to erect a statue to myself.  I should like people to be reminded that happiness isn’t quite obsolete.

I think that is beautifully expressed.  And while Belle, also in her seventies, does her best to fight age, Dora embraces it.  For Dora, it is not about how old you are but about how much you can do.  Different ages bring different experiences and she – like her husband – has enjoyed them all:

Cynthia: You’ve never minded growing old.

Dora: No, I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed all my ages and I know your father has.  I think, perhaps, it’s a question of being interested in life.  There are so many things – people, theatres, books, wireless.  We’ve a new puppy arriving next week – really one life isn’t long enough.  Your father always says he’d like to be a Wandering Jew – provided, of course, that I was a Wandering Jewess.  I don’t think we shall ever be bored even when we’re quite old.

Cynthia: What would you call quite old, darling?

Dora: Oh, eighty-five or ninety.  Of course, when I read a book about a woman of seventy, she seems quite old, but it’s different when it’s yourself.

Cynthia: You always do seem to be just middle-age to me.

Dora: Your father says middle-age is stretching out, just as youth is.  One’s young until one’s forty and middle-aged till one’s eighty.  I dare say by the time you’re old we shall have got rid of old age altogether.  Anyway, there are nice things about every age if people realise it in time instead of in retrospect.  You should try to be your age and enjoy being it, my dear.

How could you not love Dora and Charles?

I also love their children and grandchildren, though they are less obviously wonderful.  Their squabbles and dialogue felt so natural, so much like how adult children talk when reunited; a mix of unshakable affection and undying rivalry.  Their disagreements, however silly and petty, are too sharp and too blunt to be the kind exchanged between friends: this is the way you can only talk to family.  But sibling arguments can also be resolved and forgotten with a speed that no other kind of friendship can match.  And they know their common enemy and can band together to show impressive force.

Everything ends nicely, with everyone who began at loose ends now taken care of and everyone who attempted to upset things put back in his/her place.  The writing is funny, the characters (once you figure out how to keep track of them) mostly endearing, and the story moves along at the perfect pace.  It is a delightfully fun book to spend an evening with and I know it is one of those books I will look forward to rereading.

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I think it is best to begin The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith confident with the knowledge that nothing Smith wrote could ever equal the brilliance of I Capture the Castle.  There is a reason why this tale from 1963 (along with most of her other novels) was out of print for so long; it is not a masterpiece.  It is, however, an amusing story of four eclectic siblings’ adventures in the wide world and it makes for a nice, if not particularly memorable, read.

When Rupert Carrington runs afoul of the law and has to flee the country, his four children and brand new secretary-housekeeper, Jane Minton, are left struggling to support themselves.  But there is little employment to be found in their rural surroundings and so the young Carringtons slowly begin spreading their wings, leaving the family home one by one to seek work suited to their unique tastes and talents – unique being the operative word and the element that adds so much charm to this story.

Merry, the youngest Carrington at only fourteen, sets off first.  An aspiring actress, she revels in concocting disguises for herself as she embarks on her new life but her well-planned attack on the theatrical agencies of the capital (where she is certain she will quickly become a star) does not go off quite as smoothly as planned.  Instead, she finds herself taken in by a titled, eccentric family in the country where she is safe but far from at ease as she struggles to maintain her false identity in the face of their kindness and, in one particularly awkward case, affection.  It is a truly absurd string of events and, for me, was the weakest portion of the novel though I was equally unimpressed by the final section, focusing on Richard Carrington.

Richard, the eldest sibling, is an aspiring composer.  Unlike his younger siblings, he stays at home after his father’s difficulties begin, navigating an ethically dubious affair with his father’s lover, worrying about his compositions, and generally acting as the informational hub for the family, relaying the whereabouts of each sibling to the others.  It is a useful function in terms of the story, letting the reader know how the other characters’ adventures wrapped up, but doesn’t give Richard much scope to develop as an interesting character in his own right.

The two sections of the book that make the whole thing worthwhile focus on Clare and Drew.  At twenty-one and nineteen respectively, these two are at the perfect ages to venture out into the world on their own.  Both are quite romantic, though in different ways.  Drew is an aspiring author, eager to write about the Edwardian era.  He finds himself taking up the post of companion to an elderly woman, though his duties have much less to do with talking to her about those lost long summer days before the war than with setting her household to order by taking charge of the staff and the money, both of which his employer finds too daunting to deal with herself.  I loved Drew.  He could have seemed twee and irritating but, despite his fascination with an earlier age, he is decidedly modern and though his circumstances may be extraordinary, he at least feels as though he could really exist.  Yes, he is a bit innocent (they all are, having lived quite sheltered lives) but he is capable and practical despite his romantic musings.

And Clare?  Clare, as Jane Minton observes shortly after meeting the Carringtons, is the only one of the siblings who could really be described as old-fashioned.  Her only career ambition growing up was to be a Royal mistress, ideally to a Stuart king.  Since she was born in the wrong era, she has resigned herself to having to take a less appealing position as a reader to an elderly blind man in London.  But, in a magnificent coincidence worthy of any of Clare’s favourite Ruritanian romances, the man whom she has come to work for is exiled royalty, though she does not learn that until long after she has begun a sexually-charged flirtation with his physically unattractive but charismatic grandson.  Though her morals may shock others, she at least gets exactly what she always wanted.

It is an absurd novel full of implausible encounters and extraordinary characters, but it is still quite charming and very fun to read.  I have to admit, Merry’s section bored me and I found Richard’s entanglements far from interesting but the book is well worth reading for the pleasure of following Drew and Clare’s delightful adventures.

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