Stanley, by British playwright Pam Gems, is about the life of Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), one of the most renowned British artists of the twentieth century. The play, which was first produced in London in 1996, is available and still in print in an edition published by Nick Hern Books that same year. The play covers about thirty-five years in Spencer's life, from the early days of his initially happy marriage to fellow artist Hilda Carline, to his last days spent in a solitary pursuit of his art. The focus of the play is on Spencer's tortured relationships with Hilda and another artist, Patricia Preece. Spencer became infatuated with Preece and divorced Hilda in order to marry her; the triangular emotional involvement proved disastrous for all concerned. In her play, Gems presents Spencer as a visionary artist who loves to share his ideas about God, art, creativity, and sex, but who is also selfish, childish, and egotistical—a man who is willing to damage other people's lives in order to fulfill his own needs and desires. The play was nominated for an Antoinette Perry (Tony) award in 1997.
English dramatist and novelist Pam Gems was born August 1, 1925, in Bransgore, Hampshire, England; the daughter of Jim and Elsie Mabel (Annetts) Price. After attending Brockenhurst County Grammar School, she served in the
WRENS (Women's Royal Naval Service) during World War II. After the war, Gems attended the University of Manchester, and she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949. In the same year, she married Peter Gems, and the couple had four children.
Gems worked at a variety of jobs in the early part of her life, including as a charwoman, chambermaid, street vendor, antique dealer, clerk-typist, mannequin and furniture designer, sheetmetal worker, shop assistant, hatcheck girl, cashier, and factory worker. From 1950 to 1953, she was a research assistant for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
Gems did not start writing plays until she was in her forties and had raised her children. Her earliest plays were written for a feminist collective, Almost Free Theatre, in London. In 1976, she first reached a wider audience when her play Dead Fish, about four girls who share a London apartment, was produced at the Edinburgh Festival. The play, retitled Dusa, Fish, Stas, and Vi, then had a successful run in London. The following year, Gems's play, Queen Christina, about a seventeenth century Swedish queen, was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Since then Gems has written many successful plays, many of which focus on feminist themes such as the need for women to discover their own authentic place in a male-dominated society. Some of her best known plays include Piaf (1978), based on the life of the singer Edith Piaf, Loving Women (1976), Aunt Mary (1982), The Danton Affair (1986), Deborah's Daughter (1994), Stanley (1996), which won the 1997 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Play, and Marlene (1996), which was based on the life of the movie star Marlene Dietrich. Gems's most recent play is The Snow Palace; it was produced in Chicago in 2000.
Gems has also written two novels, Mrs. Frampton (1989) and its sequel, Bon Voyage, Mrs. Frampton (1990).
Act 1, Scenes 1-3
The first scene of Stanley begins in the studio of English artist Stanley Spencer, where he is working on a painting. The music of Bach plays on a gramophone. The date is the mid-1920s. Hilda, Stanley's wife, enters and tries to talk to Stanley, but he is absorbed in his work. She gets him to talk about his ideas about painting, and he says its purpose is to reveal the world through love. He also recalls some of the horrors of World War I, in which he fought. After they recall when they first met and the attraction they felt toward each other, Stanley says he expects the painting he is working on to silence his critics, and Hilda assures him he is brilliant.
In scene 2, at a London studio, Hilda and Stanley sit around talking and drinking with Dudley (Stanley's agent), and their artist friends, Gwen and Henry. They are soon joined by the artist Augustus John, Dorothy Hepworth, and her friend, Patricia Preece. John and Stanley indulge in some horseplay, and then the conversation turns to art. Stanley expresses his theories about painting from the heart not the head, and mentions his painting, "The Apple Gatherers," which took him a year to finish. He shares some childhood memories of growing up in a happy home. As everyone starts to leave, Patricia, who is a lesbian and lives with Dorothy, gazes at Stanley, sizing him up and expressing her interest.
Scene 3 takes place in Stanley's bedroom. Hilda undresses and gets into bed with Stanley, assuring him that nothing will ever come between them, but Stanley says she does not deserve his complete love and devotion. He reveals his attraction towards Patricia and criticizes Hilda, accusing her of not liking his ideas about art.
Stanley goes to nearby Moor Thatch, where Patricia and Dorothy live. Patricia poses for Stanley, who sketches her. She says that she and Dorothy are both painters but are unable to sell their work. Stanley makes a sexual advance to her. After he leaves, Dorothy and Patricia quarrel. Patricia throws things at her and they fight, with Dorothy pinning Patricia's arm. After they are reconciled, Dorothy tells her not to flirt with Stanley; Patricia reveals that she has contempt for him but plans to use him to her advantage.
Act 1, Scenes 4-6
Hilda enters scene 4 with a baby in a pram, but Stanley does not take much notice. He also reveals that he took the violets Hilda gave him to Patricia. They quarrel.
Across on the other side of the stage, Patricia reveals her dislike of Hilda to Dorothy, because Hilda told Augustus John she thought Patricia was a narcissist. She undresses in readiness for Stanley, who is coming to paint her.
Hilda feeds the baby, but Stanley says he cannot work with the baby in the room. He feels neglected by Hilda.
Stanley crosses to Patricia's side of the stage and paints her, saying he will buy her gifts. He is infatuated with her. Back with Hilda, he continues to complain that she is neglecting him. He feels he has a right to her attention. As Elsie the maid and Hilda admire the baby, Stanley escapes.
Scene 5 takes place at a party at Stanley's newly bought house, Lindworth, in the village of Cookham. Patricia is dressed as Narcissus, Dorothy as Oscar Wilde, Stanley as Hilda and Hilda as Stanley. Stanley puts up some paintings for display. He explains one painting to Patricia, who shows no interest, but eventually says, as the others praise his work, that it is a work of genius. She is insincere, but Stanley is pleased by her compliment.
Patricia confronts Dudley, who has been unable to mount a show for her. She says he had better do so, or she will have to marry Stanley, although she speaks of him in derogatory terms. After the guests have left, Stanley goes to see Patricia, looking at her through a window. He tells Hilda he must paint Patricia, and adds that he thinks she is pursuing him, and that he is pursuing her. He and Hilda look at each other, alarmed.
In scene 6, Patricia complains to Dorothy that she does not have enough money to buy the clothes she needs. She says that Stanley can be useful to her because he knows so many people and has influence. She plans to marry him.
Act 1, Scenes 7-9
In scene 7, Patricia accompanies Stanley to a shop, where he buys her expensive silk lingerie and black stockings. He then gives her a necklace.
In scene 8, Hilda poses for Stanley and warns him that he is making a fool of himself over Patricia and that she may not be what she seems. He says he can feel spiritually close to more than one woman, and Hilda gives him permission to go to London with Patricia.
In scene 9, Stanley and Patricia are in a field on a hillside. Stanley is sketching and talks about how he loves the spring. She suggests that he put his house in her name. It appears that they have agreed to marry, although Patricia does not welcome his sexual advances.
With a distressed Hilda on one side of the stage and Patricia on the other, Stanley crosses back and forth between them. Stanley accuses Hilda of deserting him, but she points out that it is the other way round. She is lonely without him. He replies that he deserves to have Patricia; he paints himself and Patricia nude. Hilda protests at how little money he is offering her, but he tells her he wants no further connection with her.
After Stanley and Patricia marry, she says she will get him all the women he wants; she and Dorothy will go to St. Ives, Cornwall, while he remains at home and can see Hilda, who still loves him. Patricia and Dorothy set off for Cornwall, leaving Stanley bewildered.
Act 2, Scenes 1-3
Arriving at Stanley's house in scene 1, Hilda is surprised to find that Stanley is still there and Patricia is in Cornwall with Dorothy. Stanley shows her portraits of himself and Patricia nude, saying that Dudley thinks they will not sell. He and Hilda say they have missed each other, and they make love.
Scene 2 takes place on the beach at St. Ives, where Patricia and Dorothy are painting seascapes. Patricia talks of her plan to get more income by renting out Stanley's house, which is now in her name. She talks of taking a foreign vacation, but Dorothy is uncomfortable with the idea of living off Stanley. Patricia says the money is hers and she is doing it to help Dorothy. She reveals that she has not allowed Stanley to touch her; all she does is sit for him.
In scene 3, Hilda and Stanley eat in the garden and speculate over whether their lovemaking constitutes adultery. Hilda says even if it does, she does not care. Stanley leads her to believe that they can be together again; she does not understand the full situation, thinking that Stanley and Patricia have split up. Then Stanley explains that Patricia will allow him to have two women. Hilda is angry at being invited back as a mistress.
Act 2, Scenes 4-6
At Augustus John's studio in scene 4, Stanley says he should be allowed to have two women. John humors him, and then Stanley criticizes him for doing portrait-painting just because it brings in money. He adds that he misses Hilda.
Scene 5 takes place at Hilda's family home in Hampstead, London. Hilda's mother, Mrs. Carline, reproaches Stanley for divorcing Hilda. She tells him that the present situation involving two women cannot go on, and that he should say goodbye to Hilda and their two daughters for good. Mrs. Carline invites them to join her in silent prayer, after which she leaves. Stanley asks Hilda to return to live with him and accept the fact that he needs more than one woman. He says he has never not wanted her; she softens but is still not reconciled to the situation.
In scene 6, Stanley arrives at Gwen's house. He is worried about money, since Dudley cannot sell his work because it is too erotic and shocks people. Stanley says that Patricia has rented his house out and only allows him in the studio. Dudley and Henry enter. Stanley tries to justify himself, but Henry criticizes him, and Stanley lunges at him. But then Henry makes it clear he admires Stanley's work, at which Stanley breaks down and cries.
Act 2, Scenes 7-9
Hilda visits Dorothy at the cottage in Cornwall in scene 7, but Patricia interrupts them. She asks Hilda if she will come back to Cookham. Hilda says she will if Patricia divorces Stanley. Patricia refuses, and also says she will not give the house back to Hilda. Patricia asks again if Hilda will come back, since the situation puts her, Patricia, in a bad light. No one in the village will speak to her. Hilda says that Patricia is using Stanley as a means of paying her debts. Hilda leaves, her silence an indication that she is refusing Patricia's terms.
In scene 8, Hilda is in a mental institution. Dudley visits, and she inquires after Stanley's health. She is worried about him because of his debts. She writes a check to Stanley for five thousand pounds and signs it Mrs. Perkins. Dudley is baffled.
In scene 9, Stanley visits Hilda in the hospital. It is now after World War II, and Stanley has been working in Glasgow. Stanley wants her to come and live with him. He plans to get a divorce from Patricia and remarry Hilda. Hilda says she needs to get better before she can make a decision.
Act 2, Scenes 10-12
In scene 10, Stanley paints while Hilda observes. She complains that Patricia stole Stanley from her; he says he misses her, but she replies that it is too late for them to be together. She says she will have nothing to do with Patricia and cannot bear the idea of Stanley's divorce from her, since that would imply that he she had been a wife to him.
Stanley visits Patricia in scene 11, but Dorothy says she will not see him. Stanley has come seeking her agreement to an annulment of their marriage, but Dorothy says Patricia will not agree to it. Patricia enters and she and Stanley have a fierce argument in which they both finally say in highly uncomplimentary terms what they think of each other. She spits at him and hands him some of the bills she has incurred for her work and tells him he must pay them. After Stanley leaves, Patricia cries and Dorothy comforts her.
In scene 12, Hilda is in the hospital with breast cancer, awaiting surgery. Stanley says it will be all right and that he will be there.
Act 2, Scenes 13-14
In scene 13, which is wordless, Stanley sits at Hilda's bedside. They smile at each other and he holds her hand.
Scene 14 begins on the streets of Cookham, where local people congratulate Stanley on his knighthood. He is now Sir Stanley Spencer. A reporter interviews Patricia, who says that Stanley's work is either vulgar or deranged. Dorothy, on the other hand, gives the reporter a positive evaluation of Stanley's work. The play ends with a monologue by Stanley, alone on stage as he works. He talks appreciatively to Hilda, who has been dead for some years. He tells her she is the only person he can really talk to and that she is there in his imagination. He talks about his work, saying that an artist is a mediator between God and man.
Mrs. Carline is Hilda's mother. She is a very religious woman who tries to resolve the awkward situation between Hilda and Stanley. Stanley is not impressed by her conventional religious beliefs, which differ from his own views about religion.
Elsie is maid to the Spencers. Stanley finds her sexually attractive and likes to watch her as she works.
Gwen is an artist. She is very supportive of Stanley and his work. She is based on the artist Gwen Raverat, formerly Gwen Darwin, the granddaughter of the naturalist, Charles Darwin.
Henry is an artist friend of Stanley's. He is a spirited character who is always ready for an argument about art. He admires Stanley's work. Henry is based on the real-life artist, Henry Lamb.
Dorothy Hepworth is a painter who has had little success in selling her paintings. She is a lesbian and lives with Patricia Preece, with whom she has a stormy relationship. Dorothy is a more reasonable and likeable woman than Patricia. She shows some friendliness to Hilda and feels uncomfortable about Patricia's plan for the two of them to live off Stanley's money. Dorothy is based on a real-life artist of the same name, who lived from 1898 to 1978. Hepworth met Patricia Preece in 1917 when they were both students at the Slade School of Art in London.
Augustus John is a painter and friend of Stanley's. He calls Stanley "Cookham," a reference to Stanley's attachment to the village in which he lives, and they have some good-natured arguments. John has a reputation for lechery; he befriends Patricia and tries to seduce her. Augustus John was a renowned British painter who lived from 1878 to 1961.
Patricia Preece is an upper-class woman who aspires to be a successful painter. She is a lesbian and lives with fellow artist Dorothy Hepworth. Patricia is a vain, superficial, manipulative, narcissistic woman. She cynically plays on Stanley's desire for her while using him as a means of paying her bills and advancing her career. She has no interest in his art and urges him to paint landscapes, which he does not like to do, simply because it is an easy way for him to make money, which she thinks will be of benefit to her. When she and Stanley marry, she immediately goes off to live with Dorothy, and she never allows Stanley to make love to her. She tricks him into putting his house in her name and then evicts him. She also refuses him a divorce. In real life, Patricia Preece (1900-1971) met Dorothy when they were art students in London. Patricia's art received some attention between the two world wars, although much of it may have been Dorothy's work sold under Patricia's name.
Hilda Spencer is Stanley's wife. She is completely in love with Stanley and remains loyal to him. In the first scene of the play, it is clear that she knows how to get along with Stanley. She shows interest in him, asking him questions about himself, and listening to what he says. As a fellow artist, she understands and appreciates his work. She also understands him personally more than anyone else does, and she tolerates his weaknesses, even making excuses for his bad behavior. She seems willing to take a subordinate role in their relationship and is quite self-sacrificial. It is as if she feels she does not deserve to have happiness with Stanley, or that she has no rights in the relationship. At one point, she even says that Stanley must go with Patricia if that is what he wants to do. But later in their marriage, she is pushed to her limit by Stanley's rejection of her and his involvement with Patricia, which hurts her deeply. She also seems to acquire a determination that she lacked before, telling Stanley (in act 1, scene 8), that he has no right to push her out of the way. After the divorce, Hilda goes into a decline. Her health deteriorates; she does not have enough money to live on, and she feels that the world is a cold, lonely place. She tells Stanley that what he is doing is murder. Eventually Hilda's health breaks down and she is admitted to a mental hospital with delusions. When Stanley tries to be reconciled with her, she refuses to return to live with him unless he has nothing to do with Patricia. Only when she is ill with breast cancer do she and Stanley fully reconcile, but by then it is almost too late, since she dies shortly after. In reality, Stanley Spencer met Hilda Carline in 1919, when she was an art student. They married in 1925, and she bore him two children.
Stanley Spencer is an artist known for the religious content of his paintings and also for their eroticism. He believes that art must be motivated by love and passion, and that the erotic is the key to understanding religion. He also has a deep, childlike appreciation of nature. However, although he is an immensely gifted artist, Stanley is an egotistical, self-centered man who is unable to maintain mature, happy relationships with the women in his life. He feels that other people are there to serve his own needs, and he is particularly hard on his devoted wife, Hilda. He expects constant support and encouragement from her, thinking it is her job to inspire him and listen to him as he explains his ideas about art. But he reserves the right to criticize her, complaining that since she gave birth to children, she is no longer attractive to him. He also resents the attention she gives the children, which he feels should be given to him instead. In fact, he takes very little notice of his own children, so wrapped up is he in his artistic visions. Because Stanley is frustrated by the deterioration in his relationship with Hilda, he becomes infatuated with Patricia, whom he finds sexually attractive. But he turns out to be a poor judge of character, and is unable to see that Patricia is manipulating him and is interested only in cheating him out of his money and his house. Even while he is involved with Patricia, Stanley wants to continue sexual relations with Hilda, on the grounds that whatever he wants, he should be allowed to have because it will feed his artistic genius. After he finally has an acrimonious split with Patricia, he is reconciled to Hilda and wants to remarry her, but she refuses. Stanley lives on for nine years after Hilda's death in 1950. These are years in which the quality of his art is finally recognized by the public, and he receives a knighthood. He retains his deep attachment to Hilda, carrying on imaginary conversations with her. In the final scene, he is alone, talking to Hilda about his work. He seems happy, despite the failure of his closest relationships. He claims not to be lonely or to feel sorrow. It is his art that is the most important thing for him, and he tells Hilda about his belief that the artist is the mediator between God and man.
Dudley Tooth is Stanley's art dealer. He reports that he has difficulty in selling Stanley's controversial erotic work. He also agrees to help Patricia's career, but she complains that he has not come through on his promise.
God, Sex, and the Creative Imagination
Stanley has a very high-minded approach to his art. He has a strongly developed religious sense, and he believes that the artist is a mediator between God and man. He sees his art as being produced for the glory of God. At several points in the play, he reflects on the nature of his art and the source of his creative imagination. He places great store on the innocent purity of perception he associates with childhood, and he also sees love as playing an essential role in art. The painter must be able "to reveal the nature of the world. Through love," he tells Hilda in act 1 scene 1. He also insists several times that art should come from the heart, even though that may be more difficult than painting from the mind. He means he does not have an intellectual approach to his work; he prefers to cultivate feeling and passion. For Stanley, creative imagination is God speaking and creating through him; he seems almost to regard the paintings as a cooperative venture between himself and God. Stanley also sees no division between the spiritual and the sensual aspects of life. He states bluntly that he is "convinced that the erotic is the essence of religion." He believes he can access the spiritual through the physical, and this accounts for his interest in painting nude women and his need to satisfy his sexual desires with more than one woman. He regards sexual fulfillment as necessary for his creativity to flourish, since it makes him feel more fully alive. Just as he acknowledges no distinction between the spiritual and the sexual, he sees no division between the divine and the mundane realms. It is this religious vision that enables him to create paintings in which Biblical figures such as Christ and the Apostles appear in the village of Cookham, as when the apostles are presented watching some local boys playing hopscotch. This suggests that the divine can be found anywhere, even in the most mundane of settings.
Selfishness and Narcissism versus Self-Sacrificial Love
Stanley is a self-centered individual. He puts his own needs above those of others; he has convinced himself that because he is a prominent artist, he deserves to have others cater to his needs so that he can continue to produce the best art he is capable of. Many examples can be cited from the play. In act 1, scene 4, when he is feeling frustrated with Hilda because he thinks she is giving too much attention to the babies and not enough to him, he says, "If I'm to work I have to feel right, and people have to see to it that I'm all right and not feeling riled or fed up." Stanley can rarely see beyond his own desires. When he complains that he does not want to pay alimony to Hilda, like a child he exclaims, "You're stopping me from doing what I want!" an attitude he repeats in act 2, scene 3, when he insists to Hilda that he needs to have two women: "This is what I want, it's what I need."
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Find some reproductions of paintings by Stanley Spencer. Print them out from the Internet or make copies from books, and use your printouts in a class presentation about the painter's work. Describe your own response to these paintings. Do you like them? Why, or why not? Which paintings do you prefer? What was the artist trying to convey in the paintings?
- Research the topic of narcissism. How did the condition get its name? How would you recognize a narcissistic personality? How is the condition defined and how is it treated? Write an essay in which you discuss your findings.
- Many artists and poets, including Spencer, William Blake (Songs of Innocence and of Experience), William Wordsworth ("Ode: Intimations of Immortality") and Dylan Thomas ("Fern Hill") have idealized childhood. Write an essay in which you examine these paintings and poems and explain why such creative artists value childhood so highly. Why do they look back so nostalgically at childhood? Is the child's way of seeing the world something to be emulated or outgrown? In what sense is this so? What is lost in the transition to adulthood?
- In the play, Stanley speaks frequently about the sources of his creativity. Investigate creativity in art, literature and science. What have other writers, artists and composers said about their own creative process? How do great works get written? What conditions favor creativity? What is the secret of it? What is the difference between, say, the creativity of Mozart and that of Vincent van Gogh? Does suffering help or hinder creativity? Conduct a class presentation on the topic.
Patricia, the woman Stanley become infatuated with, is even more narcissistic. (Narcissism refers to an excessive concern with one's self and a belief in one's own importance.) She is thoroughly vain and feels she has a right to have everything she wants, even if it means cynically manipulating Stanley. Attention is brought to her narcissism when she reports to Dorothy the visit she paid to Sigmund Freud in London. Freud appears to have diagnosed her as a narcissistic personality and given her a book to read about the condition. Patricia describes the symptoms to Dorothy, which include manipulating others, but she does not take the diagnosis seriously. She cannot see her own faults because she is too full of her own sense of entitlement.
Set against the two narcissistic personalities, Stanley and Patricia, are the long-suffering Hilda, and, to a lesser extent, Dorothy. Hilda genuinely loves Stanley and is self-sacrificial in her attitudes. She is willing to put up with Stanley's bad behavior, and she never withdraws her love. Readers may feel, however, that just as Stanley and Patricia are too selfish, Hilda is too selfless. She is unable to stand up for herself and so allows her narcissistic husband to be emotionally abusive.
Dorothy, who appears to be a down-to-earth woman with some common sense, also seems willing to put up with Patricia's selfishness, even though she finds her partner's behavior confusing and upsetting. Indeed, none of these four major characters is able to find a balance in his or her personality that would enable them to forge successful, fulfilling relationships.
The play's dynamic revolves around Stanley's relationships with two women, each of whom represents something different to him. This is represented on stage by the split scenes in which Hilda is on one side of the stage and Patricia is on the other. Stanley crosses from one to the other, showing by his physical movement the restlessness of his personality, drawn to one woman for the ways in which she meets his needs and then to another to supply the needs the first woman cannot fulfill.
This first happens in act 1, scenes 3 and 4. In the latter, there is a contrast between what the two women are doing: Hilda pays attention to the baby and ignores Stanley, and he immediately crosses the stage, where Patricia lies naked and Stanley sketches her. After Patricia invites him to give her gifts, speaking of diamonds and sapphires, Stanley crosses the stage once more back to Hilda, where the two quarrel as Hilda holds "a battered enamel pisspot"; the contrast between the alluring glamour of Patricia and the domesticity represented by Hilda is sharp.
The same contrast is apparent in act 1, scene 9, in which Hilda sits at the side of the stage, in hat and coat, with her handbag, while Stanley makes a sexual advance to Patricia. Then just after Hilda speaks, on the other side of the stage Patricia undresses slowly in preparation for Stanley to sketch her. This alternation between Patricia and Hilda continues throughout the scene, as Hilda pleads for Stanley to return while Patricia continues her heartless manipulation of the painter. The split in Stanley's personality, his attempt to create a kind of psychic wholeness by having intimate relationships with two women, is therefore visually represented in the positioning of the three characters within single scenes.
Wordlessness and Monologue
The play includes one unusual device: an entirely wordless scene (act 2, scene 13), that makes its point by gesture and symbolism. Hilda is in her hospital bed and Stanley sits by her side. He holds her hand and after a long moment in which they are motionless, she turns her head slowly towards him and smiles at him. This demonstrates without words that Hilda, for all that she has had to endure at Stanley's hands, retains her love for him. She seems endlessly forgiving, almost to the point of becoming a martyr. He smiles at her, indicating how he still values and needs her, despite his appalling behavior toward her. When the lights change, Stanley is in a black overcoat, a suitably somber attire, as if he is at a funeral. Indeed, this is the last time he sees Hilda, who is in fact on her death bed. The bed is then taken away, and Stanley gets his pram and sets up his outdoor easel. The pram is a poignant symbol. Stanley never took much interest in his children, preferring to pursue his vision as an artist, so the fact that the pram contains his working tools is appropriate to the character. The pram also conveys the idea that Stanley remains a child at heart, unable to establish rewarding adult relationships. It is fitting that the play ends with his long monologue, in which he talks to the dead Hilda. Since Stanley is a narcissistic personality, the subject of his conversation is always himself, so it is appropriate that the dramatist shows him at the end, essentially talking to himself, and apparently quite happy to do so.
Life of Stanley Spencer
The British painter Stanley Spencer was born in the village of Cookham-on-Thames in 1891. Growing up in a large family, he had a happy childhood, as the several references to childhood in Stanley confirm. His father was an organist and music teacher. Spencer attended the Slade School of Art from 1908 to 1912, where he acquired the nickname "Cookham" because of his love for his home village. (In the play, Augustus John refers to Stanley as "Cookham.") During World War I he served as a medical orderly at a war hospital near Bristol, England, and later in an infantry battalion in the Balkans.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1920s: Britain is still recovering from World War I, in which nearly a million of its citizens died. Veterans must deal with the psychological trauma suffered on the battlefield. Such stress is referred to as shell shock. Some recover quickly; others still feel the effects many years later.
1950s: World War II veterans are dealing with shell shock, which is now referred to as battle fatigue or combat fatigue. Britain recovers from World War II; rationing ends and a prosperous consumer society emerges.
Today: Britain fights wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Veterans receive more support in dealing with the mental trauma that follows exposure to combat. The condition is now referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder.
- 1920s: Divorce in Britain is based on fault; one person must be declared the guilty party. Grounds for divorce include adultery.
1950s: A Royal Commission is set up in 1951 to propose possible changes in the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1937. Changing social attitudes lead to demands that divorce should be permitted if the marriage has broken down, regardless of whether there has been adultery or cruelty. However, the Commission, mindful of marriage as a cornerstone of social stability, does not recommend any radical change in divorce laws.
Today: The divorce rate is much higher than it was in the 1950s, Divorce is now granted if the marriage is declared to have broken down irretrievably. Some social scientists, as well as politicians, regard the high divorce rate as part of a crisis in society, since divorce destabilizes families.
- 1920s: Censorship for reasons of obscenity is still governed by the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. D. H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928) is banned for obscenity.
1950s: The British public remains conservative regarding matters of censorship. Spencer is threatened with prosecution for obscenity. However, attitudes are gradually changing; in 1960, after a famous trial, publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover is allowed. Because of the controversy, it soon tops the bestseller lists.
Today: The Obscene Publications Act determines what materials may be published in Britain. Because of this, there is concern over the availability of pornography, especially child pornography, on the Internet. However, courts have shown little interest in legislation that would restrict access to the Internet.
Spencer married fellow artist Hilda Carline in 1925, and they had two daughters, Shirin and Unity. During the 1920s, Spencer painted murals based on his wartime experiences and had his first one-man exhibition. In 1927, he finished one of his most famous works, "The Resurrection," set in Cookham churchyard. Figures are shown rising from their tombs, God the Father and Christ are represented, as are Spencer himself and Hilda. (This is the painting Stanley discusses with Hilda in act 1, scene 1 of the play, saying that he will put her in the painting, sniffing a daisy—which he did.) It was paintings such as this that established Spencer as an original painter of genius, whose religious vision expressed itself through the ordinary sights of Cookham village.
The erotic nature of some of Spencer's art, including paintings such as "Nude, Patricia Preece" (he married Preece in 1937, just four days after divorcing Hilda) aroused controversy, In the 1940s, his work fell out of favor, and he was forced to paint landscapes to make a living. In 1950, Spencer was threatened with prosecution for obscenity after some of his private drawings found their way into the hands of Sir Alfred Munnings, a former president of the Royal Academy. Alarmed, Spencer destroyed some of his works and wrapped up one painting, "Leg of Mutton Nude," which showed himself and Patricia nude alongside a leg of mutton, and placed it under his bed. That same year, his former wife Hilda died after a three-year battle with breast cancer.
In the 1950s Spencer's reputation recovered, and in 1955, London's Tate Gallery mounted a retrospective exhibition of his work. In June 1959, he was knighted, henceforth to be known as Sir Stanley Spencer. He died in December of the same year.
For some years after his death, Spencer was regarded as a rather solitary figure, outside the mainstream of art history. In 1964, for example, William Gaunt in A Concise History of English Painting, described him in this way: "As a religious painter and mural decorator he is like no one else, a visionary as much on his own as Blake with whom in some respects he may be compared." However, in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a reevaluation of Spencer's work. Major exhibitions were held in Britain, and Spencer's paintings became known in the United States and Europe. Instead of being regarded as an outsider, he was discussed in the same category as international artists such as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and Marc Chagall. In 1997, a year after Stanley was written, there was an exhibition of sixty of Spencer's works at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, DC.
Britain's Female Playwrights
When she wrote Stanley in 1996, Gems was working in a cultural environment that was much more supportive of female playwrights than it had been at the beginning of her career. Until the late 1950s there were almost no female playwrights working in the British theater. It was not until the late 1960s, when the feminist movement gathered momentum, that opportunities for women playwrights emerged. At first these feminist writers were associated with fringe theater companies such as Portable Theatre, The Brighton Combination, and later, Monstrous Regiment. Gems was part of this first wave of feminist theater, writing plays such as The Amiable Courtship of Miz Venus and Wild Bill and After Birthday, both of which were produced by the feminist collective, Almost Free, in 1973.
Feminist playwrights of the 1970s attempted to create a new kind of theatrical experience, rejecting much of traditional theatrical forms which they claimed represented only the male experience of life. They wrote for female actors in a style and on topics that were relevant for women's lives. Some feminist groups, such as The Women's Theatre Group, refused to have any men in the cast.
By the 1990s, when Gems wrote Stanley—not an explicitly feminist play but one that does focus on the lives of two rather different women in the mid-twentieth century—there were many more women active in the theater in many different capacities as writers, directors, and designers. Women writers were also successful in television. Feminist playwrights showed a concern for social issues such as AIDS-awareness and domestic violence.
A notable trend in the 1990s, due in part to generous and flexible funding by the British Arts Council, was for a new wave of feminist playwrights to pursue experimental work, including dance, mime, and multi-media, that did not rely on the traditional written script. Representative companies included The Hairy Marys, a physical theater and dance company in London, and Anna O, a feminist group that explored issues such as gender and power in interdisciplinary forms. At the same time, more work by women was produced in mainstream theater, including Churchill's The Skriker (1994).
Stanley received appreciative reviews when it was first produced in England by the National Theatre in February 1996. In the Spectator, Sheridan Morley calls it a "gem of a play … endlessly fascinating." He praises the production and remarks upon "the conflations of sacred and profane that inform all of Stanley's self-justificatory speeches." However, John Simon, writing in New York, and reviewing the play when it was presented at New York's Circle in the Square in 1997, notes reservations about the play itself, questioning why it won awards in Britain since, in his view, it does not rise above the "boulevard level." This lack of enthusiasm about the play itself is echoed by David Sheward in Back Stage, who calls Stanley "muddy and overlong…. the play does not give us a reason to care about Stanley, his work, or his sordid triangular relationships." A more positive view is taken by Nancy Franklin in the New Yorker. Franklin praises the portrayal of Spencer as "emotionally agile," which encourages the audience to "accept his feelings as real … Ridiculous (and destructive) as he is, you can't help thinking that he's on to something vital and important." According to Franklin, the play shows that the childlike quality of the character is a vital part of his creativity, suggesting that "genius does have something to do with never fully growing up."
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English. In this essay, he discusses Gems's play Stanley and the title character's need to uphold his religious vision and recapture his boyhood feelings about Cookham. Aubrey also explores how these needs led in part to Stanley's involvement with Patricia Preece.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Gems's Piaf (1978) presents incidents from the life of the famous singer Edith Piaf, as well as renditions of some of her most popular songs. The play undermines the glamorous public image of Piaf in favor of a more sordid reality in which prostitution, violence, and drugs dominate. Piaf is shown as unable to cope with the contradiction between her public and private self. The play can be found in Three Plays: Piaf, Camille, and Loving Women, published by Penguin (revised ed., 1986).
- Like Gems, much of British playwright Caryl Churchill's work emphasizes feminist themes. Her play Cloud Nine, first performed in 1979, puts the spotlight on colonial and gender oppression. Set partly in Africa in the nineteenth century and partly in London a hundred years later, the play presents themes including women's liberation, gay liberation, and the sexual revolution. The play can be found in Churchill: Plays One (1985).
- Vincent in Brixton (2003), by Nicholas Wright, won the Olivier Award for Best Play and had a successful run in London's West End and on Broadway. The play is a dramatization of the time that Vincent Van Gogh spent in Brixton, London, in the 1870s, a period before he became a painter. Vincent develops a rapport with a widow twice his age, which blossoms into a full-blown love affair, only to be curtailed by the arrival of his young sister, a fierce puritan.
- Clever as Paint: The Rossettis in Love (1998), by Kim Morrissey, is a play about the pre-Raphaelite painting circle of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife Lizzie Siddal, and his protégé William Morris. After Siddal's suicide, Rossetti buried his love poems in her coffin. Seven years later he dug them up again, publishing them to please his new lover and model, Janey Morris (wife of William Morris). This witty play offers insight into art, grief, inspiration, and despair.
- Proof (2001), a play by David Auburn, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. Set in Chicago, it explores the link between madness and genius as revealed in the life of a recently deceased mathematician. The story is in part based on the life of John Forbes Nash Jr., a gifted mathematician who suffered from schizophrenia and was the subject of the popular film A Beautiful Mind (1998).
- The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art (2007), by Roger Lipsey, focuses on the works of painters such Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and Henri Matisse, among others. Letters, diaries, and interviews provide insights into the artists' views, and show how these artists differed from Spencer in their conception of the spiritual in art.
The artistic genius, be he painter, poet, or composer, is rarely the best of men or the most reasonable of men. Such individuals are revered not because they are paragons of virtue or embodiments of bourgeois moral values but because they have extraordinary gifts. Obsessed by their artistic calling, to which all other aspects of life must be subordinated, they are not always easy people for others to know or get along with. So it is with the artist Stanley Spencer in Pam Gems's play, Stanley. Stanley is presented as self-centered, egotistical, selfish, narcissistic, and childish—a man who thinks that he should be allowed to have whatever he wants simply because he wants it. But the tendency to judge or condemn Stanley for his obvious inadequacies is withheld because he is clearly a man inspired by a vision. This is apparent not only in the text of the play but also in stage productions, such as the one at New York's Circle in the Square in 1997, in which reproductions of Spencer's paintings are incorporated into the set.
The playwright wastes no time in introducing the audience to the spiritual underpinnings of Stanley's work. In act 1, scene 1, Stanley tells Hilda about an experience he had on the battlefield during World War I. As he was making a difficult march up to the front—a reference to the historical Spencer's service in the British infantry in Macedonia—he heard someone moaning, and just when he was thinking that he could not bear anymore of the chaos of war, suddenly everything changed for him: "it was as if the stars turned warm. As if the snow had little flames, licking up round me, so I felt … it's all right … everything is as it should be!" This description has many of the hallmarks of the visions or experiences reported by mystics and others throughout history who have received sudden, unexpected moments of spiritual illumination. In such elevated moments, in spite of all the suffering of humanity and the apparent chaos and injustice of life, everything seems perfect. There is an order to life that underlies and permeates the apparent chaos. There is nothing to strive for, nothing to achieve, and somehow the whole world seems glorified. Stanley says as he continues the description that "it was as if I was in a great big church of the world … like lights streaming down from clerestory windows … on me… I was in the middle of it … I was it."
Trying to maintain or recapture that spiritual vision of life is at the heart of Stanley's artistic enterprise. His recipe for fulfillment in life is to "Carry that blinding moment of worship inside you like the ark of the covenant." He also knows that such moments may be few and far between, and he looks to two very different aspects of his life to help nourish his spiritual aspirations. First, his memories of his happy childhood in Cookham, when he felt deeply connected to his surroundings. He alludes to this several times in the play, taking pleasure in recalling for Gwen the serene family life he knew when he was a boy and the sensual delight he remembers in such ordinary day-to-day moments: "Oh, the feel of everything … wet ivy by the door, cold lino, the iron latch on the privy in winter … and the smells! Our old dog coming in with a wet coat … barley soup." Like William Blake, another artist to whom he is often compared, Stanley has a deep reverence for the innocent perception of the child. As he explains to Hilda, "How it was … before sex. Just that clear child's eye. I miss that." The second aspect of life to which Stanley looks for creativity and spiritual fulfillment is sex. Whether it is making suggestive remarks to the maid Elsie or lewd proposals to Patricia or talking to Hilda, Stanley has an almost obsessive, if high-minded, interest in sex. As he says to Hilda, "The whole of my life in art has been a slow realization of the mystery of sex! It's the key to everything!" For Stanley, it is sex, the erotic imagination, that seems to deeply satisfy his need to fuse the spiritual and the sensual, to find the divine in human flesh.
It is these two things together, the serene feelings he associated with childhood and youth in Cookham, and the persistent desire for erotic intensity, that help to explain the extraordinary tangle Stanley gets into with the two women in his life—Hilda, his first wife and Patricia, his second. In her dramatization of this unhappy situation, the playwright presents quite an accurate portrait of the historical figure of Stanley Spencer and the turbulence of his intimate relationships. He first met Hilda Carline in 1919, and his letters to her over the next few years made his feelings plain: "You are the most secret & greatest joy of my life, you are like redemption to me," he wrote in the spring of 1923. After they married in 1925, they were initially happy, as the first scene of Stanley shows. But within a few years, Spencer began to get irritated with his wife and complain that she was not interested in his art or his ideas. Sometimes, when he was expounding his views on some matter of great importance to him, Hilda's attention would wander and she would even fall asleep while he was talking. Spencer was also annoyed that Hilda, who was herself an artist of some talent, had given up painting and taken up gardening instead, an activity in which he had no interest.
Spencer's dissatisfaction with his wife was accentuated after he became infatuated with Patricia Preece. He had meet Preece at a cafeé in Cookham in 1929, and when the Spencers moved back to Cookham from Hampshire in 1932, Spencer began to see Preece frequently, a fact he did not hide from his wife. Spencer saw in Preece everything he found lacking in Hilda. She was attractive, charming, sophisticated, stylish, and sexy. It appeared at first that she was enthusiastic about his art. In addition, Preece aroused in Spencer the same kind of feelings that he associated with his youth and early manhood in Cookham, and which he regarded as vitally important for his artistic vision. Preece therefore appeared to offer him the chance to regain his sense of purpose regarding his art, and for a while he was ecstatic about the prospect. His feelings in this regard are suggested in act 1, scene 9 of Stanley, in which Stanley and Patricia are in a field of marguerites on a hillside in Cookham. Stanley tells her, "I wanted to bring you here. Among the marguerites. They're the first things I remember. I remember touching them. The petals. The foxy smell … ooooh!" His 1935 painting, "Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill," shows Preece sitting among the wildflowers on the hill, and he later wrote about how he regarded Preece as "exquisitely the thing. She was the exact incarnation of the infant memory of those flowers. It was a thing I never believed could have happened" (quoted in Kenneth Pople's Stanley Spencer: A Biography). It must have seemed to Spencer like a convenient and welcome bonus that he also found Preece extremely sexually alluring. She provided fuel for his erotic imagination, and he would encourage her to wear flimsy underwear and other sexy attire. His intense desire for her and fascination with her physical form is captured in the remark Stanley makes in the play: "I'd like to be an ant crawling all over you." The stage direction that follows his remark is significant: Stanley "shudders with excitement" while Patricia laughs. Whatever Spencer might have wished, Patricia Preece neither understood his art nor had any deep feelings for him personally, either romantic or sexual. As the play accurately shows, she would tease him and manipulate him while planning to take advantage of him materially. Preece and her lover Dorothy Hepworth—who was the more accomplished artist of the two—were struggling financially, and Preece feared that they might sink into poverty. She saw in Spencer an opportunity to improve her financial situation and also advance her own artistic career by getting him to use his influence to help her and Dorothy sell more of their work.
Spencer's attempt to maintain sexual relationships with both Hilda and Preece was doomed to failure. Although he divorced Hilda and married Preece in 1937, it is unlikely that the second marriage was ever consummated. Preece had no objection to Spencer continuing a sexual relationship with Hilda, but Hilda, understandably, was not so enthusiastic about such an arrangement. Within a couple of years, Spencer had decided that divorcing Hilda had been a mistake, and he spent many years trying to be reconciled with her, even suggesting in 1942 that they remarry. But Hilda could not contemplate such a move; the stress brought on by the divorce had worn her down, and later that year she was admitted to a mental hospital suffering from delusions. She remained in the hospital for nine months. Long since disillusioned with Preece, Spencer continued to seek a reunion with Hilda until her death in 1950.
Although the Stanley of the play does not reflect on how his own behavior helped to bring such chaos to his close relationships, Spencer in real life appears to have done so. As his biographer Pople describes it, in later life Spencer "questioned whether he had been capable of a committed love in the everyday sense. Unable to yield to those compromises which make normal relationships supportable, he felt that despite his natural wishes he had been compelled to betray many who were close and dear to him."
This is a harsh verdict for someone to make about his or her own life, but anyone who reads or sees Stanley will feel that there is some truth to it, especially in regard to his behavior toward Hilda. Stanley's compulsive need to consume everything and everyone into himself may have been a key to his artistic genius, but it did not make for happiness in personal relationships.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Stanley, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following excerpt, the critic gives a critical analysis of Gem's work.
Pam Gems is, according to Janet E. Gardner in Feminist Writers, "one of the handful of British feminist dramatists who has been successful in the mainstream theater." In such plays as Dusa, Fish, Stas, and Vi, Queen Christina, Piaf, and Marlene, Gems has written works with feminist themes and wide audience appeal. Rodelle Weintraub in the Dictionary of Literary Biography writes: "Gems has produced a considerable canon which examines the human condition, especially the plight of women in western society. For a theater which has traditionally had few roles for women and even fewer roles for realistic women rather than stereotypes derived from male fears and fantasies, Gems has produced a great many nonstereotypic roles…. She has forcefully examined the roles western society has imposed not only upon actresses but upon all women and, in the tradition of Bernard Shaw, has done so with humor, understanding, extraordinary insight, and her own razor-sharp scalpel."
Gems only began her career as a playwright after raising four children. In her forties, she became involved with England's fringe theater movement, writing plays for the feminist collective, Almost Free. These early plays were produced by the collective at lunchtime performances. In 1976 Gems's play Dead Fish won her attention at the Edinburgh Festival. The play was soon moved to London, where it enjoyed a long and successful run under the title Dusa, Fish, Stas, and Vi. The story focuses on four women brought together by economic pressures and mistreatment by the men in their lives. Gardner believes that Dusa, Fish, Stas, and Vi "is ultimately about solidarity and the strength women find in their friendships."
The following year, Gems's Queen Christina was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. With a cast of thirty-two actors and a complex, episodic plot, Queen Christina tells the story of a seventeenth-century Swedish monarch. "Raised as a boy to prepare her for leadership of her country," Gardner explained, "the boisterous and frankly sexual Christina grows up to find herself discontented with the limitations of women's roles." Christina alternates between male and female roles in an attempt to find a sense of self. When she is offered the kingdom of Naples, she takes up masculine values again, but when this leads to her having to kill her lover, she "rejects the whole male ethos, setting herself against domination in all its forms, master/servant as well as man/woman," reported a writer for Contemporary Dramatists. "Finally, when she is too old to bear children, she discovers the value of maternal instincts and affirms her biological nature." The Contemporary Dramatists writer noted that Queen Christina "struck a new note" for Gems and "established her central themes."
One of Gems's greatest successes has been her dramatization of the sensational and tragic life of Edith Piaf, the Parisian chanteuse known as the "little sparrow." Piaf recounts the singer's rise from brothel-born cabaret artist to international star, and her subsequent physical decline and early death. According to Richard Christiansen of the Chicago Tribune, "the play's brief segments … do not attempt to deal with Piaf's childhood as a rickety street urchin. But they do cover the course of her sensation-filled adult life." Those events include "her early involvement with thieves and murderers," friendships and love affairs with celebrities, a disastrous marriage, and then a happy marriage to Theo Sarapo, "who adored her and cared for her in her last enfeebling illness."
Reviewing Piaf for Newsweek, Jack Kroll said that "Gems's writing has power and velocity; ‘Piaf’ leaps at us right from the gutter…. Like tabloid sheets roaring out of a press, the scenes snapshoot Piaf's chaotic and feverish life." Christiansen, too, admired the strength of Gems's work, noting that "the vitality in Gems' writing" makes the play's familiar ingredients of tragedy "work so effectively."
Some other critics voiced reservations about Gems's play. After crediting Gems with capturing the "central, perhaps inexplicable mystery of Piaf's magic," Frank Rich of the New York Times argued that "instead of raising substantive issues about Piaf, the evening's cartoonish archetypes call the playwright's craft into question." Rich also termed Piaf a "rather frail play," and New Yorker's Brendan Gill labelled it "rudimentary" and "inept." Another New York Times critic, Mel Gussow, saw "serious defects" in Piaf. Reviewing the London Warehouse Theatre production, which played an extended engagement before capacity crowds, Gussow noted that "the script often stumbles, plunging into bathos." Despite her frailties, Piaf was a strong, independent person, and Gems has remarked, according to Christensen, that she views "her play partly as a feminist document celebrating an extraordinary woman."
Gems offered theatergoers new versions of two stories, The Blue Angel and Camille, both of which had previously been made into classic films starring Marlene Dietrich. Perhaps that led to her play Marlene, based on the star's life. In Marlene, the aging actress is in Paris, waiting to go on stage for a performance in what will be her final tour. Her dialogue and actions reveal her life story and complex psyche. A celebrity of immense fame, she complains and browbeats her servants, yet also spreads her mink on the floor, kneels on it, and starts to scrub her dressing room. References to concentration camps and Hitler—including a servant made mute by the horrors of the Dachau death camp—give Marlene a dark quality. Finally, in the show's last half-hour, the Dietrich character sings seven of the songs that made the actress famous. Much like Piaf, Gem's Marlene "makes Dietrich into a metaphor for the chasm between on stage illusion and backstage reality," commented reviewer David A. Rosenberg in Back Stage.
Gems offered another slice of biography in her play Stanley, based on the life and work of British painter Sir Stanley Spencer. Spencer was a visionary artist who saw his native English village as an earthly paradise, and used it as a setting for scenes from the life of Christ. "Gems empathetically shows Spencer as an emotionally infantile genius," reported Jack Kroll in Newsweek. Spencer left his down-to-earth wife to pursue a doomed love for a narcissistic lesbian painter. Spencer saw himself as a mouthpiece for God and accordingly considered himself to be outside the norms of society. From this story, "three major themes gradually emerge and intertwine: God, art and love," stated Joseph J. Feeney in America. And yet, "this is not an esoteric tale of religious fervor, or a somber concert or art lecture disguised as a play," assured Elyse Sommer in CurtainUp.com. Rather, the drama "focuses on the messy and complicated love life of the man Stanley Spencer who happened to be a gifted painter but a wacky, immature loser in his personal relationships."
"Although involved in and helped by the feminist movement," Weintraub reflected, "Gems rejects some of the movement's hostility toward men. She feels that women, despite the damage they suffer and their sexual oppression, need men, and children need two parents. While recognizing the need for feminist theater, she insists that ‘an all-woman theatre wouldn't work. It would be chauvinistic and boring.’"
Source: Gale, "(Iris) Pam(ela) Gems," in Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2002.
Joseph J. Feeney
In the following review of a 1996 Royal National Theatre production of Stanley (performed in London), Feeney discusses the play's intertwined themes of God, art, and love, as well as the relationships between men and women and the artist's need to work constantly. He comments that the play is also a celebration of the physicality of art.
Sir Stanley Spencer: painter of genius, visionary of angels, willful child. He saw God in the villagers of his native Cookhamon-Thames and divorced his wife to marry a money-grubber. He painted a 17-foot "Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta" and painted erotic nudes with himself as onlooker. He was almost prosecuted for obscenity in 1950 and knighted in 1958. He makes a lively subject for Pam Gems's new play, Stanley.
Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) seems a curious hero, especially for a feminist play-wright. Yet Pain (for Pamela) Gems, born in 1925 and known for her poignant Piaf (London 1978, New York 1981), was drawn by "admiration and a wish to celebrate" Spencer's "English genius" as expressed in his warm light and color, misshapen forms, Christian iconography and shocking nudes. She also enjoyed the challenge of using biographical data as both "springboard" and "lure." The challenge was well met: Stanley, which opened on Feb. 1 at the Royal National Theatre, was by summer one of London's rarest tickets and manifestly the best new play of 1996.
It begins as Spencer, brilliantly played by Antony Sher, works on an enormous canvas while listening to Bach. His wife enters—Hilda Carline, artist and mother of their children—and they discourse on light, love and the Great War. Scenes change quickly—there are 23—and Stanley meets the painters Patricia Preece and her lover, Dorothy Hepworth. Self-centered as usual, Stanley finds Patricia appealing; she thinks him useful for her career. He gives her daisies (picked by Hilda!), paints her nude, abandons Hilda for her and finds that Patricia still prefers Dorothy to him. Never quite seeing what went wrong, Stanley escapes to his painting. Scene by scene runs his life: he returns to Hilda, Patricia refuses a divorce, Hilda dies, Stanley is knighted. Three major themes gradually emerge and intertwine: God, art and love.
The weave of God and art is sometimes touching, sometimes ludicrous. At his best, Spencer sees God-on-earth in the Cookham villagers, and his "Visitation" portrays a milkmaid and a butcher's daughter. His Christ has "His body flung onto the grass … holding the grass in rapture." Art's very purpose is to "fill space for the glory of God." While painting, though, Stanley thinks "God's at his elbow, telling him what to rub out" and wants—like Michelangelo—to decorate a whole church and make "every wall, every space … a cathedral of me." And so he does—a chapel in Burghclere, Hampshire. But his egotism is also disarming. In a closing monologue he tells his dead Hilda:
"It makes me feel closer to Heaven with you there. Specially after work, when I'm tired. I see this great picture of God and all His angels sitting on these beautiful three-dimensional clouds and on His left hand sits Bach and on His right hand Stanley! I'm only joking, of course."
Stanley also weaves together God and love. Hilda tells Stanley, "We're married. One flesh … It's sacred, and we're sacred." Stanley finds Hilda "the most wonderful gift from heaven" and wants "to paint an altar-piece" of her. Infatuated with Patricia Preece, he thinks "it's perfectly possible for me to have a strong spiritual closeness to more than one woman." But he finally admits marrying Patricia for "social vanity," without any "spiritual relationship."
Art, finally, is interwoven with love. He finds Hilda attractive because she is a painter, with Patricia, he paints "the land-scapes of your legs." His is paintings-angular, muted in color, looking (said The Times in 1927) "as if a Pre-Raphaelite had shaken hands with a Cubist"—are often rapturous studies of women. And all art is about "love" and "passion," designed to reveal the nature of the world. Through love."
As a play, Stanley is far more than this seriocomic weave of art, God and love. It is about the relationships of men and women, about grasping for money, about an artist's need to work constantly. And it celebrates the physicality of art and the artist, as when Spencer describes an English spring: "the first hints, shallots poking through, broad beans showing knobby fists, snowdrops, pussy willow, crocus, then the daffs, the first bluebell, blackbirds starting up five o'clock in the bloody morning … and then … oh then … chickweed, scarlet pimpernel, dandelion, flags, campion, clover, ragged robin, cow parsley."
But above all, Stanley about the person of Stanley Spencer. The Sunday Times called it the "haunting portrayal of a difficult, childishly selfish man," the Independent, "the potty, painful comedy of his complicated marital arrangements." Stanley, as seen by Pam Gems, is genius and child, visionary and sensualist, innocent and egoist, pure artist and sexual gymnast, a man of painterly clarity and human confusion. But his art finally prevails, eloquently celebrated by Dorothy Hepworth: "Rightly acclaimed as one of England's greatest painters," he is "uniquely gifted … There is a sort of unique human clumsiness about his work—it's deliberate of course. He paints people trapped, as it were, in their own flesh, pinned down to this earth, and yet they seek to soar and he makes that seem so very possible … Everything is celebrated and revered with a balance that speaks of the most tender spiritual equality … I particularly draw your attention to Sir Stanley's colours … without the shout of a colourist, they nonetheless show the most infinite variety of subtlety and tone. Very English."
At play's end, after talking to his dear, dead Hilda about God and art and love, Stanley slowly shuffles offstage wheeling his canvas and paint on the chassis of an old pram. The image catches him well: chastened adult, still a child, always a painter. As he leaves, the theater walls—covered with his paintings—shine with light. And the music of Bach swells.
Source: Joseph J. Feeney, "Stanley," in America, Vol. 175, No. 15, November 16, 1996, p. 16.
Franklin, Nancy, "Stars over Russia: Three Bored Sisters, and One Bumptious Artist," in the New Yorker, Vol. LXXIII, No. 3, March 10, 1997, p. 97.
Gaunt, William, A Concise History of English Painting, Frederick A. Praeger, 1964, p. 210.
Gems, Pam, Stanley, Nick Hern Books, 1996.
Glew, Adrian, ed., Stanley Spencer: Letters and Writings, Tate Publishing, 2001, p. 121.
Morley, Sheridan, "Morally Bankrupt," in the Spectator, Vol. 276, No. 8743, February 10, 1996, p. 43.
Pople, Kenneth, Stanley Spencer: A Biography, Collins, 1991, pp. 329, 461.
Sheward, David, Review of Stanley, in Back Stage, Vol. 38, No. 9, February 28, 1997, p. 60.
Simon, John, "Wild at Art," in New York, Vol. 30, No. 8, March 3, 1997, p. 55.
Godiwala, Dimple, Queer Mythologies: The Original Stage Plays of Pam Gems, Intellect Books, 2006, pp. 91-95.
Godiwala discusses Stanley in terms of a crisis in masculinity; Patricia, because of her independence, represents a more masculine figure; her cold rationality contrasts with Stanley's feminine feeling and passion. Patricia possesses the power and exposes Stanley's effeminacy.
Goodman, Lizbeth, Feminist Stages: Interviews with Women in Contemporary British Theatre, Routledge, 1996, pp. 24-31.
Gems discusses why gender matters in the theater, how the position of women in the theater has changed over her lifetime, and her personal definition of feminism. She also makes some comments about Stanley.
Hauser, Kitty, Stanley Spencer, Princeton University Press, 2001.
This is a concise guide to Spencer's life and art. Hauser shows how Spencer's artistic imagination was rooted in specific places and people, and how he transformed his experiences in the process of creating his paintings.
Innes, Christopher, Modern British Drama: The Twentieth Century, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 239-49.
Innes discusses nine of Gems's most important plays, including Stanley. He argues that, although art and creativity are important themes, the focus is really on women and how they are portrayed.
Wandor, Michelene, Carry on Understudies: Theatre and Sexual Politics, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986, pp. 161-66.
!This is a discussion of the plays Gems wrote during the 1970s and 1980s; Wandor explores how Gems depicts women, and the different forms of feminism she made use of in these plays.
Stanley ★½ 1972 (PG)
Seminole Vietnam veteran Robinson uses rattlesnakes as his personal weapon of revenge against most of mankind. Thoroughly wretched effort in the gross-pets vein of “Willard” and “Ben.” 108m/C VHS, DVD . Chris Robinson, Alex Rocco, Susan Carroll; D: William Grefe.