Christopher Fry

Christopher Fry (1907-2005) was a British playwright. From about 1945 to 1955 fryhe was considered the foremost dramatist of theater in Britain.  He created religious dramas in verse, á la the Elizabethan plays.  (T.  S. Eliot was his mentor).  His works were optimistic and featured happy endings.  A quiet wittiness, a sense of wonder and a struggle with moral choices were core elements.  The plays included The Lady’s Not for Burning; Venus Observed; A Sleep with Prisoners; The Dark is Light Enough; and A Ringing of Bells. In addition, he wrote the screenplays for Ben-Hur (with others); Barabbas; and The Bible. For television, among others, he wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; The Brontës of Haworth; and The Best of Enemies.  He was also known for his translations of the plays of Anouilh, Giradoux, Rostand and Ibsen.  Actors who appeared in his works included Olivier, Gielgud, Burton, Evans, Scofield and Plummer.  He won New York Drama Critics Circle Awards in 1952 and 1956; was nominated for a Tony Award in 1956; and was given the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1962.

Fry became a Quaker as a teenager. He actually changed his name to Fry because that was his mother’s maiden name, and he thought she was related to Elizabeth Fry.  In World War Two, due to his pacifism, he became a conscientious objector and spent the conflict cleaning up sewers in London’s East End that had been damaged from the bombings.  (He had approached Eliot, asking him, “….what I could do in wartime that didn’t mean shooting people. He suggested the fire service, but I told him that I had no head for heights. Eliot said, ‘You must specialize in basements’.”) For Ben-Hur Fry inserted the dialogue, (Sextus to Messala:) “He teaches that God is near, in every man”. He said that he wanted to evoke in his plays, “a world in which we are poised on the edge of eternity, a world which has deeps and shadows of mystery, and God is anything but a sleeping partner.”

I had not been familiar with Christopher Fry’s work so I listened to the John Gielgud radioplay of The Lady’s Not for Burning. It was a delight: funny, nimble language. As Harold Hobson noted, “He (could) make words dance”.

April 2017


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