Fry, Christopher 1907-
FRY, Christopher 1907-
Born Christopher Fry Harris, December 18, 1907, in Bristol, England; son of Charles John (an architect) and Emma Marguerite Fry (Hammond) Harris; married Phyllis Marjorie Hart, December 3, 1936 (died, 1987); children: one son. Education: Attended Bedford Modern School, Bedford, England, 1918-26. Religion: Church of England.
Home—The Toft, East Dean, near Chichester, West Sussex PO18 0JA, England. Agent—ACTAC Ltd., 16 Cadogan Ln., London SW1, England.
Playwright, screenwriter, translator, critic. Bedford Froebel Kindergarten, teacher, 1926-27; Citizen House, Bath, England, actor and office worker, 1927; Hazelwood Preparatory School, Limpsfield, Surrey, England, schoolmaster, 1928-31; secretary to H. Rodney Bennett, 1931-32; Tunbridge Wells Repertory Players, founding director, 1932-35, 1940, 1944-46; Dr. Barnardo's Homes, lecturer and editor of school magazine, 1934-39; Oxford Playhouse, director, 1940; Arts Theatre Club, London, England, director, 1945, staff dramatist, 1947. Visiting director, Oxford Playhouse, 1945-46, Arts Theatre Club, 1947. Military service: Pioneer Corps, 1940-44.
Dramatists Guild, Garrick Club.
Shaw Prize Fund award, 1948, for The Lady's Not for Burning; William Foyle Poetry Prize, 1951, for Venus Observed; New York Drama Critics Circle Award, 1951, for The Lady's Not for Burning, 1952, for Venus Observed, and 1956, for Tiger at the Gates; Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, 1962; Heinemann Award, Royal Society of Literature, 1962, for Curtmantle; D.A., 1966, and Honorary Fellow, 1988, Manchester Polytechnic, 1966; Writers Guild Best British Television Dramatization award nomination, 1971, for "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall"; Doctor of Letters, Lambeth and Oxford University, 1987, De Monfort University and University of Sussex, both in 1994; Fellow and recipient of Benson Silver medal, Royal Society of Literature, 2000.
(With Monte Crick and F. Eyton) She Shall Have Music, first produced in London, England, 1934.
Open Door, first produced in London, England, 1936.
The Boy with a Cart: Cuthman, Saint of Sussex, (first produced in Coleman's Hatch, Sussex, England, 1938; produced in the West End at Lyric Theatre, January 16, 1950), Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1939, 2nd edition, Muller (London, England), 1956.
(Author of libretto) Robert of Sicily: Opera for Children, first produced in 1938.
The Tower (pageant), first produced at Tewkesbury Festival, Tewkesbury, England, July 18, 1939.
Thursday's Child: A Pageant (first produced in London, 1939), Girl's Friendly Press (London, England), 1939.
(Author of libretto) Seven at a Stroke: A Play for Children, first produced in 1939.
A Phoenix Too Frequent (first produced in London at Mercury Theatre, April 25, 1946; produced on Broadway, 1950), Hollis & Carter (London, England), 1946, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1949.
The Firstborn (broadcast on radio, 1947; first produced at Gateway Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland, September 6, 1948), Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1946, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1958.
The Lady's Not for Burning (first produced in London at Arts Theatre, March 10, 1948; produced in the West End, May 11, 1949, produced on Broadway at Royale Theatre, November 8, 1950), Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1949, revised edition, 1973.
Thor, with Angels (first produced at Chapter House, Canterbury, England, June, 1948; produced in the West End at Lyric Theatre, September 27, 1951), H. J. Goulden, 1948, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1949.
Venus Observed (first produced in London at St. James Theatre, January 18, 1950; produced on Broadway at Century Theatre, February 13, 1952), Oxford University Press, 1950.
A Sleep of Prisoners (first produced in Oxford, England, at University Church, April 23, 1951; produced in London at St. Thomas's Church, May 15, 1951), Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1951, 2nd edition, 1965.
The Dark Is Light Enough: A Winter Comedy (first produced in the West End at Aldwych Theatre, April, 30, 1954; produced on Broadway at ANTA Theatre, February 23, 1955) Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1954.
Curtmantle (first produced in Dutch in Tilburg, Netherlands, at Stadsschouwburg, March 1, 1961, produced on the West End at Aldwych Theatre, October 6, 1962), Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1961.
A Yard of Sun: A Summer Comedy (first produced at Nottingham Playhouse, Nottingham, England, July 11, 1970; produced on the West End at Old Vic Theatre, August 10, 1970), Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1970.
One Thing More, or Caedmon Construed (first produced at Chelmsford Cathedral, England, 1986; broadcast on radio, 1986), Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1985, Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1987.
A Ringing of Bells, (first produced in a staged reading at the National Theatre in London, 2001), Samuel French (New York, NY), 2001.
Also author of the play "Youth of the Peregrines," produced at Tunbridge Wells with premiere production of George Bernard Shaw's "Village Wooing." Author of radio plays for "Children's Hour" series, 1939-40, and of "Rhineland Journey," 1948.
SCREENPLAYS AND TELEPLAYS
The Canary, British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC-TV), 1950.
The Queen Is Crowned (documentary), Universal, 1953.
(With Denis Cannan) The Beggar's Opera, British Lion, 1953.
Ben Hur, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1959.
Barabbas, Columbia Broadcasting Systems, 1961.
(With Jonathan Griffin, Ivo Perilli, and Vittorio Bonicelli) The Bible: In the Beginning, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1966.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, BBC-TV, 1968.
The Brontes of Haworth (four teleplays), BBC-TV, 1973.
The Best of Enemies, BBC-TV, 1976.
Sister Dora, BBC-TV, 1977.
Star over Bethlehem, BBC-TV, 1981.
TRANSLATOR AND ADAPTER
Ring round the Moon: A Charade with Music (adapted from L'Invitation au Chateau by Jean Anouilh; first produced in the West End at Globe Theatre, January 26, 1950), Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1950.
Jean Giraudoux, Tiger at the Gates (first produced in the West End at Apollo Theatre, October 3, 1955), Methuen, 1955, 2nd edition, 1961, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1956; (produced as The Trojan War Will Not Take Place), London, 1983, Methuen (London, England), 1983.
Jean Anouilh, The Lark (first produced in the West End at Lyric Theatre, May 11, 1955; produced on Broadway at Longacre Theatre, November 17, 1955), Methuen, 1955 (London, England), Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1956.
Duel of Angels (adapted from Pour Lucrece by Jean Giraudoux; first produced in the West End at Apollo Theatre, April 22, 1958; produced on Broadway at Helen Hayes Theatre, April 19, 1960), Methuen (London, England), 1958, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1959.
Jean Giraudoux, Judith (first produced in the West End at Her Majesty's Theatre, June 20, 1962), Methuen (London, England), 1962.
Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, The Boy and the Magic, Dobson (London, England), 1964, Putnam (New York, NY), 1965.
Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt (first produced at Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester, England, May 13, 1970), Oxford University Press (Oxford University Press), 1970, revised edition, 1989.
Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac (first produced at Chichester Festival Theatre, May 14, 1975), Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1975, reprinted, with an introduction by Fry, 1996.
Three Plays: The Firstborn; Thor, with Angels; A Sleep of Prisoners, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1960.
(Translator) Jean Giraudoux, Plays (contains Judith, Tiger at the Gates, and Duel of Angels), Methuen (London, England), 1963.
Plays (contains Thor, with Angels and The Lady's Not for Burning), Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1969.
Plays (contains The Boy with a Cart: Cuthman, Saint of Sussex; The Firstborn; and Venus Observed), Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1970.
Plays (contains A Sleep of Prisoners, The Dark Is Light Enough, and Curtmantle), Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1971.
Selected Plays (contains The Boy with a Cart: Cuthman, Saint of Sussex; A Phoenix Too Frequent; The Lady's Not for Burning; A Sleep of Prisoners; and Curtmantle), Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1985.
(Contributor) An Experience of Critics and the Approach to Dramatic Criticism, edited by Kaye Webb, Perpetua, 1952, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1953.
(Author of libretto) Crown of the Year (cantata), first produced in 1958.
(Contributor) The Modern Theatre, edited by Robert W. Corrigan, Macmillan (London, England), 1964.
The Boat That Mooed (juvenile fiction), Macmillan (London, England), 1965.
(Contributor) The Drama Bedside Book, edited by H. F. Rubinstein, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1966.
(With Jonathan Griffin) The Bible: Original Screenplay, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1966.
The Brontes of Haworth, two volumes, Davis-Poynter (London, England), 1975.
Root and Sky: Poetry from the Plays of Christopher Fry, edited by Charles E. Wadsworth and Jean G. Wadsworth, Godine (Boston, MA), 1975.
Can You Find Me: A Family History, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1978.
(Adaptor) Paradise Lost (first produced in Chicago, 1978), Schott (Mainz, German), 1978.
Death Is a Kind of Love (lecture; drawings by Charles E. Wadsworth), Tidal Press (Cranberry Isles, ME), 1979.
(Author of introduction) Charlie Hammond's Sketch Book, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1980.
Genius, Talent, and Failure (lecture), King's College (Cambridge, England), 1987.
(Author of foreword) A Sprinkle of Nutmeg: Letters to Christopher Fry, 1943-45, by Phyl Fry, Enitharmon Press (London, England), 1992.
The Early Days (lecture), Society for Theatre Research (London, England), 1997.
British playwright, screenwriter, translator, and critic Christopher Fry is perhaps best known for his elegant verse plays, which emerged in the 1940s and 1950s as a sharp contrast to the naturalism and realism popular since the late nineteenth century. When Fry's blank-verse comedy The Lady's Not for Burning first appeared on stage in London during the 1950s, it became an immediate sensation. According to Harold Hobson in Drama: "It is difficult to exaggerate the sense of freshness and excitement that swept through the theatrical world when The Lady's Not for Burning, with the extraordinary brilliance of the fancies, the conceits, and the imagination of its dialogue, the originality of its verse-form, and the joyous medieval paradox of its story seemed to shatter the by then somnolent reign of naturalism on the British stage." Derek Stanford recalled in Christopher Fry: An Appreciation: "Without the creaking machinery of any cranked-up manifesto, the plays of Fry appeared on the stage, receiving a progressive succession of applause. For the first time for several centuries, we were made to realise that here was a poet addressing the audience from the boards with that immediacy of effect which had seemed to have deserted the muse as far as its dramatic office was concerned.… Like a man who is conscious of no impediment, and does not anticipate embarrassing rebuffs, Fry spoke out with a power natural to him. He was heard—with surprise, with pleasure, and relief."
Fry's style attracted as many detractors as devotees; some thought his rapidly moving, glittering language masked weak plots and shallow characterizations. In a Times Literary Supplement review of The Lady's Not for Burning, a critic found the play "without the comparatively pedestrian power of developing character and situation," and added: "It is surprising how rich a play may be in fine speeches and yet be a bad play because the speeches alter nothing." But Stanford determined that "so readily magniloquent and rich, in fact, is Fry that in an age of verbal paucity his own Elizabethan munificence of diction appears to our 'austerity' reviewers as suspect. None of these critics, it is true, has been able to deny the impact of his language, but have rather tended to minimise its import by treating it as the playwright's sole talent." A 2002 London production of The Lady's Not for Burning prompted Guardian reviewer Lyn Gardner to remark: "The real surprise is that the verse turns out to be such an affable and accessible form and that the language is so exciting. Relax into it," she continued, "and it is like having your mind stroked by a velvet glove."
The Lady's Not for Burning, directed by and starring John Gielgud, was the first installment of a series of four comedies, each corresponding to a different season. The series continued with Venus Observed (autumn), The Dark Is Light Enough (winter), and concluded, twenty-two years after its commencement, with A Yard of Sun (summer). While the other plays, especially Venus Observed, received critical acclaim, none surpassed The Lady's Not for Burning in popularity. The Lady's Not for Burning is set in a somewhat fantastic medieval world, and primarily concerns two characters: Thomas, an embittered ex-soldier who wishes to die, and Jennet, a wealthy young orphan who loves life, but has been sentenced to burn on a trumped-up witchcraft charge so that the town may inherit her property. The play intertwines irony and comedy, with a dense mayor, his practical wife, and their two quarrelling sons all playing clownish roles. Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Audrey Williamson described the play as "a lyric of spring: it has an April shimmer, like the dust of pollination shot by sunlight." Williamson continued: "There is a kind of golden haze about it that is penetrated by the occasional bawdiness of the humor: for Fry has combined the robustness of the Elizabethans with touches of the cheerful blasphemy that mingled with piety in the medieval morality play. But the sense of the abundance, mystery, and poetry of life is unimpaired."
Venus Observed involves an emotionally remote and aging duke who intends to choose a wife from his many ex-lovers. But in the process he becomes infatuated with the young woman his son also loves. The role of the elderly man was played by Laurence Olivier in London and Rex Harrison in New York; Theatre Arts contributor L. N. Roditte wrote of the character: "The Duke is a hero of considerable magnitude; his story, though mild and witty, has an element of tragedy.… [Fry] has created an extraordinary part that other great actors will want to play." Although Venus Observed was well received by the public and critics, Fry's style again received criticism. According to Saturday Review contributor John Mason Brown: "Mr. Fry is blessed with one of the most delightful talents now contributing to the theatre. He has a wit, nimble and original; an agile and unpredictable mind, as playful as it is probing; and a love of language which can only be described as a lust." But Brown continued by explaining that Fry "is an anachronism, if you will; a fellow who has wandered from one Elizabethan age into another," and concluded: "Mr. Fry concentrates on all the sensuous splendors of the flesh, ignoring the skeleton of sustained ideas or dramatic structure." New Republic contributor Harold Clurman, however, felt differently: "Let no one say that Fry's work consists of playful, euphonious words and no more. The meaning is clear to anyone who will pay attention.… And the meaning … is historically or (socially) revealing. Fry's plays are poems of resignation in which tragic substance is flattened into lovely ornament."
The Dark Is Light Enough delves into the past, this time using the background of revolutions on the Hungarian border in 1848. The heroine, Countess Rosmarin, is an elderly lady who attempts to rescue her ex-son-in-law, an army deserter, from execution. While the play ends with the Countess's death, "the viewer senses a summer radiance on which winter has set its feathered touch, light and cold as the snowflakes descending outside the window," explained Williamson. In Ariel, Stanley Wiersma also described the conclusion as a positive one: "The Countess … finds warmth enough in the winter of our discontent, goodness enough in a wicked world, life enough in death." Chicago Sunday Tribune contributor F. E. Faverty noted a conflict between the plot and dialogue, however. "In spite of the heavy themes, the dialogue is light and sparkling," he wrote. "There is a quotable epigram on every page. Nonetheless, one's final impression is that there is too much talk and too little action." But Williamson admired the interplay: "Fry adapts his verse to his theme, conveying wisdom and a new verbal austerity," she continued. "It makes for a play of dramatic tension and fascination."
Fry's abhorrence of violence is an important part of The Dark Is Light Enough. Wiersma identified the play's themes as "violence as self-assertion, violence as loyalty to the state, violence as loyalty to God, and, finally, violence to be endured but not to be inflicted," and explains that the playwright sees such violence as "an infection with its own irrational necessities. The violence in the situation and within the people is moving toward a duel; who fights it or against whom is beside the point." Fry's answer to violence is love: love that endures pain but refuses to inflict it. Emil Roy, in his monograph on Fry, found this treatment unique: "Unlike most of his contemporaries, Fry has not given man's meanness, animality, and evil a central position in his work. If men are selfish, egoistic, and blind to love, it belongs to his more enlightened, self-controlled, and discerning characters to bring their understanding and tolerance to bear upon the pain and anguish that results."
A Yard of Sun ends the quartet; it deals with the return of two absent members of an Italian family: the black sheep and a betrayed friend. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer called the characters and situation "stereotyped" and claimed they "receive a thick coating of Fry's Christmas-tree versification which serves to convert clichés into fanciful imagery and camouflage the fact that no issue is being squarely faced." But according to Williamson, the play contains "a concentrated glow of language, pared to a new, more austere structure. The Italianate characterization is vivid and varied, and the story line taut and gripping." And a Newsweek reviewer wrote that A Yard of Sun "shimmers with poetry and affirms Fry's belief in a basically mystical Christian benevolence."
Yet Fry did not begin his career with The Lady's Not for Burning, nor did he confine his art to this quartet of plays. He had a moderate success in 1946 with the one-act A Phoenix Too Frequent, which, as a writer for Contemporary Dramatists reported, "was taken from the ancient tale of the young Roman widow romantically committed to a fast to the death in her husband's tomb until she and an equally romantic young soldier agree to substitute the husband's body for the corpse the soldier was guarding with his life." The critic continued: "With the lightest of touches, the widow decides for life, and youth and love supplant social convention and death, a joyful illustration of the life force at work." The playwright followed Phoenix with The Firstborn, a drama about the life of Moses which poignantly depicted the emotional toll inflicted on the famed Biblical patriarch in having to call down plagues upon the Egyptian people who had raised him. Fry eventually took his flair for writing Biblical characters to Hollywood, working on the screenplays for such epics as Ben Hur, Barabbas, and The Bible. As Manchester Guardian Weekly critic W. J. Weatherby noted, however, "When all the film work was done, he did not allow himself to be sucked further into the Hollywood dream world, but broke away and came home to England to begin again on his play about Henry [II, Curtmantle.]" Fry has also translated the plays of several French playwrights, including Jean Anouilh and Edmond Rostand, and written scripts for several BBC television dramas, including The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and The Brontes of Haworth.
Fry also received critical acclaim for his 1951 drama, A Sleep of Prisoners. This play uses the dreams of soldiers being held prisoner in a church to illustrate several Old Testament stories which are "chosen to illustrate facets of the idea of violence," according to Contemporary Dramatists. A writer for Contemporary Poets praised Fry's A Sleep of Prisoners as "perhaps his most entirely successful piece."
In 2001, at the age of ninety-three, Fry published a dramatic tribute to the preceding one hundred years entitled A Ringing of Bells. Discussing a staged reading of this piece in London's National Theatre, Spectator writer Morley noted that "it managed in forty minutes to cover with wondrous poetic lyricism everything crucial about the twentieth century, from the first world war to the Big Bang theory of Stephen Hawking."
Overall, Stanford viewed Fry as a joyous freethinker in a narrow world: "In a universe often viewed as mechanic, he has posited the principle of mystery; in an age of necessitarian ethics, he has stood unequivocally for ideas of free-will. In theatre technique, he has gaily ignored the sacrosanct conventions of naturalistic drama; and in terms of speech he has brought back poetry onto the stage with undoctored abandon." Roy explained: "Fry has occasionally seemed wordy, sentimental, and lacking in conventional kinds of conflict, but he has more than compensated with vital and compassionate characters, the courage to deal with contemporary human conflicts and issues, and some of the most vital language in the theater today." And Williamson wrote: "In Fry's hands the English theater turned, for an elegantly creative period, away from prosaic reality and explored both the poetry and the mystery of life."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 23, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Contemporary Dramatists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Contemporary Poets, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 13: British Dramatists since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1982.
Leeming, Glenda, Poetic Drama, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1989.
Leeming, Glenda, Christopher Fry, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1990.
Roy, Emil, Christopher Fry, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1968.
Sangal, Mahendra Pratap, Christopher Fry and T. S. Eliot, Brij Prakashan, 1968.
Stanford, Derek, Christopher Fry: An Appreciation, Peter Nevill (London, England), 1951.
Wiersma, Stanley, More Than the Ear Discovers: God in the Plays of Christopher Fry, Loyola University Press (Chicago, IL), 1983.
Wiersma, Stanley, Christopher Fry: A Critical Essay, Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI), 1970.
Ariel, October, 1975.
Back Stage West, February 14, 2002, T. H. McCulloh, review of The Lady's Not for Burning, p. 15.
Drama, spring, 1979.
Guardian (London, England), December 8, 1997, p. T12; May 30, 2002, Lyn Gardner, review of The Lady's Not for Burning, p. 20.
Literary Half-Yearly, July, 1971.
Los Angeles Times, July 19, 2001, Michael Phillips, review of The Lady's Not for Burning, p. F39; February 14, 2002, Philip Brandes, review of The Lady's Not for Burning, p. E47.
Manchester Guardian Weekly, November 10, 1959, article by W. J. Weatherby, p. 14.
New Republic, August 20, 1951; March 3, 1952; December 2, 1978.
Newsweek, July 27, 1970.
New York Times Book Review, January 21, 1979.
New York Times Magazine, March 12, 1950.
Parabola, fall, 1995, p. 61.
Plays and Players, December, 1987.
Poetry, August, 1995, p. 280.
Saturday Review, March 1, 1952; March 21, 1953.
Spectator, July 7, 2001, Sheridan Morley, review of A Ringing of Bells, p. 38.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), June 2, 2002, John Gross, "Antidote to Depression: Theatre," p. 9.
Theatre Arts, September, 1950.
Times Literary Supplement, April 2, 1949; August 21, 1970; October 20, 1978.
Tulane Drama Review, March, 1960.*