No Crying Matter

Men Should Weep is not worthy of the talents of the National. The Rivals, however, is blessed relief

Theatre

Men Should Weep at the Lyttelton is a harrowing play about the misery of life in a 1930s Glasgow slum tenement. Scene after scene portrays the unrelenting horror of extreme poverty, overcrowding, sickness, unemployment and the brutalisation of the dispossessed, even of the bravest and best. Yet in a scene towards the end, I was suddenly reminded of Oscar Wilde’s remark about Dickens: “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” 

Maggie, the heroic but almost defeated mother, crushed by yet another disaster, is talking to her kind sister Lily. “It looks to me, Lily,” she says, “there’s nae end tae trouble. Nae end tae having the heart tore oot o ye.”

“I don’t suppose there is,” replies Lily. “It’s jist life, Maggie. (Pause) Life! Ye don’t ken the hauf o’ it…and neither dae I. Come oan, gie me your coat.”

This was presumably one of the great moments of truth of the play, led up to throughout the action by one heart being torn out after another, yet I hardly felt a thing, except a fleeting temptation to giggle at one or two mawkish banalities. Even the truths about the exploitation of working-class women fail to arouse the sympathy they deserve. And for most of the rest of the play, I was almost completely unmoved by the characters in their torments. They seemed unreal. They lacked felt life. 

This was strange because there is something profoundly moving about the bitter lot of so many people in this country, within living memory. Men and women should indeed weep, but somehow one couldn’t at this. The author, Ena Lamont Stuart, who had a huge success with this play in 1947 and who was passionately concerned about the deprivation in Glasgow slums, is full of interesting observations and stories and has produced cleverly intertwined plot predicaments and well-constructed group scenes. But her characters are somewhat one dimensional and in the end she lacks that mysterious ingredient called talent. She cannot write lines worthy of her ideas and feelings, or worthy of good actors. 

Perhaps the actors bear some of the responsibility, good though they are. Many of them in the big cast seemed to be, at least some of the time ,struggling with the strong Glaswegian accent, with the result that they tended to shout in a forced and unconvincing monotone. Ena Lamont Stuart wrote that she loved Glasgow speech: “It is marvellously rhythmic; it lends itself to pathos and humour. ‘Aw naw!’ on a high doh can be a cry of despair, an octave lower a keen of deepest sympathy.” But such vocal range and subtlety was in short supply in this production. 

Bunny Christie’s design was, as usual, magnificent. Most of the set consists of the interior of a miserable family kitchen — the only living room — but the rest is glimpses of the bottom part of the rooms above, and views to each side, as if the back of a congested doll’s house had been left open, giving a powerful sense of the total lack of privacy in such a building. We see the bedstead and legs of a man who regularly beats up his pregnant wife, while everyone downstairs can hear, and the constant dramas on the tenement staircase. However, the squalor is not truly squalid, somehow. There was an almost Vermeer-like beauty about a collection of pewter and white china on a shelf above the sink which undermined the sense of relentlessly ugly deprivation and perhaps contributed to the general feeling of unreality.

Whatever the play’s shortcomings, it is nonetheless worth seeing, particularly for young people, as a reliable historical documentary of unrelieved poverty at that time and of the terrible trap in which women, particularly, were caught. But as a piece of theatre, Men Should Weep is not worthy of the talents of the National Theatre. 

 
Peter Bowles and Penelope Keith in “The Rivals”

Sheridan’s The Rivals at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, was a great relief after this. It is very long, with plenty of longueurs, and its characters are pure stereotypes but in large parts it is a delight. The play is so very accomplished and the language and wit so extremely sophisticated, that it is hard to believe that Sheridan was only 23 when it was first staged in London in 1775. It is a very elegant satire on contemporary manners and affectations, and introduces the immortal Mrs Malaprop. One of her best absurdities is to forgive some errant young lovers by saying, “We will not anticipate the past! Our retrospection will be all to the future.” This is second only to the comment that the hero is “a very pineapple of politeness”.

The plot is a nonsense of tricks and hidden identities, in which a rich and beautiful young woman is adored by a rich and handsome young man, and in the end marries him. But since that would be much too dull for a capricious heroine like Lydia Languish, whose mind has been quite turned by the habit of reading books, particularly romantic novels from Bath lending libraries, the hero Jack Absolute complicates things for her by assuming a false identity. This leads to various delicious moments of farce, with extravagant characters like Jack’s tyrannical father Sir Anthony Absolute, and Sir Lucius O’ Trigger, the amorous Irish buffoon. 

There are two unmissable performances in this production: Peter Bowles as Sir Anthony Absolute and Penelope Keith as Mrs Malaprop, inspired foils for each other, who appear together a great deal in their conspiracy to force the young people to get married, whether they like it or not, little realising that they would like it very much. Both bring to their roles all the essential gifts  of great comic actors — perfect timing, exquisite diction, and yet a way of speaking Sheridan’s convoluted lines entirely naturally. They also have total control over the moment and the audience. These are gifts which are impossible to analyse and impossible to miss. They also bring a degree of real feeling and unexpected depths to entirely stock characters: Bowles and Keith steal the show with an immensely pleasurable masterclass in virtuoso comic acting.