Audiences Embrace Mortimer’s Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Spanning two decades and dramatizing a symbiotic relationship between the playwright and his blind father, A Voyage Round My Father was an unusual work for the English stage: an autobiographical memory play.

Summary of Event

Because his plays had been regularly produced in West End theaters since 1958, John Mortimer was well known to British audiences by the time A Voyage Round My Father opened in London in 1971. He also had written a number of favorably received novels and screenplays and many radio and television dramas for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), one of which (in 1963) was an early, briefer version of A Voyage Round My Father. In addition, as a leading barrister, he frequently had argued for the defense in highly publicized freedom of speech and press cases. None of his previous literary work, however, prepared audiences for this play. Theater;drama Theater;drama Mortimer, John

Whereas his novels of the 1940’s and early 1950’s had skirted the edge of the mystery genre, most of his plays had been one-act comedies of manners and sex farces, and even the three full-length works that preceded A Voyage Round My Father were Chekhovian portraits of the middle class in decline. Only a year earlier, in a study of the contemporary English theater, John Russell Taylor Taylor, John Russell wrote that Mortimer’s “world is consistently and instantly knowable” and wondered whether he would use it “as a launching pad to the discovery of fresh worlds elsewhere.” What is more, the autobiographical memory play, long an established form in the United States, was uncommon in Great Britain. A Voyage Round My Father was an immediate critical and popular success as well as an innovative advance for Mortimer, and it endures as his major stage achievement and as a landmark work in the English theater.

When the play opened at the Greenwich Theatre near London on November 25, 1970, in a production directed by Claude Whatham Whatham, Claude and starring Mark Dignam Dignam, Mark as the father, Betty Huntley Wright Wright, Betty Huntley as the mother, and David Wood Wood, David as the grown son, The Times of London called it Mortimer’s most successful full-length play and expressed the hope that the playwright would make “future returns to his past.”

With minor revisions, the play came to London’s Haymarket Theatre on August 4, 1971, in a production directed by Ronald Eyre Eyre, Ronald and starring Alec Guinness, Guinness, Alec Leueen MacGrath, MacGrath, Leueen and Jeremy Brett. Brett, Jeremy (A 1982 television adaptation—scripted by the playwright—starred Laurence Olivier as the father, Jane Asher as the mother, and Alan Bates as their son.) The Times’ critic of the London production recalled the “splendid launching” of the play in Greenwich and again was laudatory. He also noted that A Voyage Round My Father was “far from an obvious choice for the Haymarket” and did not pander “to the plot-loving public.” Nevertheless, West End theatergoers loved the play, and it ran for 501 performances.

A Voyage Round My Father’s episodic action spans two decades and is unified by a reflective narrator who bridges past and present. Through his chronological recollection of events, he cumulatively demonstrates a symbiotic, yet peculiarly distant and unemotional, relationship between the father and son. As the title suggests, the son—as boy and man—never can get as close to his father as he desires, not only because of the father’s blindness but also because the older man treats life as a game and creates an impenetrable emotional barrier between himself and everyone else, including his wife, on whom he is totally dependent. Notwithstanding the father’s coldness, self-absorption, and lack of meaningful involvement with others, Mortimer clearly wants the play to be considered an act of love.

The story begins with the old man, blinded long ago in an accident, having his adult son describe the family garden. The son then tells the audience that his father was a barrister who went daily to London’s law courts and returned nightly to his flowers and a ritualistic earwig hunt. The action reverts to the past with the presentation of a number of youthful initiation episodes, the most fully developed of which deal with the son’s school experiences with a simpleminded headmaster and inept teachers, veterans of World War I, who are afflicted with the aftereffects of shell shock and battle fatigue. When the time comes for the son to choose a profession, the old barrister, although he regards the law with contempt, encourages his boy to follow in his footsteps, primarily so the son will have spare time for writing. At the end of the first act, as they walk arm in arm, the son informs his father that in lieu of military service (his eyesight is bad), he may get work as assistant director with a wartime propaganda film unit.

The second act opens on a film production set, where the young man is assigned to fetch snacks for the crew and maintain silence during takes. Failing at this role, he is sent to the writers’ section, where he meets Elizabeth, a scriptwriter supporting her husband and children. By the next episode, the son has been a barrister for nine months, Elizabeth has divorced her husband, and she and the son plan to marry, despite the father’s attempts to dissuade both. As the old man foresaw, financial problems bear down on the couple; busy though the son is with divorce cases, he sees little money, for a clerk collects fees and dispenses payments in a quixotically parsimonious manner.

To support his new family, the son works part-time for a legal aid society and starts to write plays, although the father warns him to “hold hard on the law” and instructs him in nuances of timing in cross-examinations. He eventually wins a major domestic case, but Elizabeth reacts equivocally, because the victor did not deserve to prevail. The son responds, “I won,” and she concludes that he is becoming more like his father every day: one who plays games, makes jokes, and takes nothing seriously. The son agrees, later telling the audience: “He had no message. I think he had no belief. He was the advocate who can take the side that comes to him first and always discover words to anger his opponent.”

The penultimate sequence in the play has the old man regaling his grandchildren with songs and stories, an atypical display of warmth and joie de vivre. The last scene describes the garden deteriorating in tandem with the dying father, and the play concludes with the son telling the audience: “I’d been told of all the things you’re meant to feel. Sudden freedom, growing up, the end of dependence, the step into the sunlight when no one is taller than you and you’re in no one else’s shadow. . . . I know what I felt. Lonely.”

A decade later, in his autobiography, Mortimer recalled anxieties he had about the work and noted that “a man who had filled so much of my life seemed to have left me and become someone for other people to read about and perform.” Mortimer has also said that publishing his autobiography meant that the first half century of his life was lost to him, that by writing about those years he “made them public property, just as I lost my father when I wrote that play about him.” As an ironic coda, Kathleen Mortimer, the playwright’s mother, died on the opening night of the play in Greenwich.

Significance

Introspective and usually autobiographical, memory plays are more common to the American theater—which can boast such examples as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938), Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (1944), Arthur Miller’s After the Fall (1964), and Robert Anderson’s I Never Sang for My Father (1968)—than to the English stage. Whereas these American dramas are basically products of their authors’ imaginations, with highly stylized autobiographical elements and with Oedipal and other psychological concerns as thematic centerpieces, Mortimer’s play, which has been described as a personal essay in dramatic form, is largely reportorial. Mortimer altered some details, but the play’s situations and events closely parallel the past as he records it in Clinging to the Wreckage: A Part of Life, Clinging to the Wreckage (Mortimer) his 1982 autobiography. The play, therefore, was a departure for Mortimer, whose previous dramas had been much more traditional in form.

That A Voyage Round My Father ran for more than a year at the Haymarket is testimony to London audiences’ willingness, following earlier stage breakthroughs by John Osborne and Harold Pinter, to embrace the unfamiliar once more. Critical and popular success notwithstanding, the play did not spawn a movement on the part of Mortimer’s contemporaries, so its impacts, both immediate and long-range, were largely on Mortimer’s career.

The 1971 success of A Voyage Round My Father definitively demonstrated Mortimer’s mastery of the full-length serious play and testified to the foresight of a 1958 Encore magazine story that had included him in a survey of eight promising new British playwrights. (A quarter of a century later, only two were figures of international stature, Mortimer and Pinter.) The success of A Voyage Round My Father, coupled with the wide popularity of the stories and teleplays starring Old Bailey barrister Horace Rumpole that he began to write soon after, encouraged Mortimer to retire from the law. He became, for the first time in his life, a full-time writer of short stories, novels, criticism, television plays, newspaper interviews, and even an opera libretto. His 1981 television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited (1945, 1959) was critically acclaimed and watched by millions not only in Great Britain and the United States but also throughout the world. When Paradise Postponed, Paradise Postponed (Mortimer) his first novel in thirty years, came out in 1985, it was widely praised as a Dickensian saga of post-World War II Great Britain. Its sequel, Titmuss Regained (1991), Titmuss Regained (Mortimer) and Summer’s Lease Summer’s Lease (Mortimer) (1988) established him as a leading novelist, and he also did successful television adaptations of the three books.

More than any of his contemporaries in drama, fiction, criticism, or journalism, Mortimer became an influential public personage, taking active leadership roles in cultural activities (such as the management of the Royal Court Theatre and the chairmanship of the Royal Society of Literature) and speaking out on such major social issues as prison, educational, and legal reform. This public persona was accorded an official imprimatur when Mortimer was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1986; a portrait of him was hung in the National Portrait Gallery in 1991.

A Voyage Round My Father stands as the centerpiece of John Mortimer’s concurrent multiple careers, which, although widely divergent, have enriched one another. All of his work is connected by common threads: a social conscience that is sometimes iconoclastic but that is less interested in destroying institutions than in reforming them; a sympathy for the underdog or outcast; and a humor that echoes such varied predecessors as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and P. G. Wodehouse. Theater;drama

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hayman, Ronald. British Theatre Since 1955: A Reassessment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. A useful book, not only for its judgments about plays but also for its discussion of the London stage milieu of the time. Hayman’s pessimism about the future of the English theater, however, has been proven to be unfounded.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Lucasta. “The Old Devil.” The Guardian. October 7, 2006. At age eighty-three, Mortimer discusses drama, politics, and his personal life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mortimer, John. “The Art of Fiction CVI: John Mortimer.” Interview by Rosemary Herbert. Paris Review 109 (Winter, 1988): 97-128. Introduced by a lengthy biographical note, this is a wide-ranging interview that is up to the high standards of the Paris Review series. While the focus is on the Rumpole stories and later novels, many of Mortimer’s responses, including some revealing autobiographical asides, relate directly to A Voyage Round My Father and to relevant aspects of his work as a dramatist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Clinging to the Wreckage: A Part of Life. New Haven, Conn.: Ticknor & Fields, 1982. Witty and engaging, Mortimer’s autobiography is frequently conversational in its tone and discursiveness. At the same time, its anecdotes provide insights into, and likely sources of, characters and events in A Voyage Round My Father and other plays and novels. As the subtitle indicates, the book does not pretend to be a full memoir, and Mortimer’s recollections are not always factually accurate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rusinko, Susan. British Drama, 1950 to the Present: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A comprehensive study of modern drama in England that includes insightful discussions of some forty playwrights. Mortimer is classified as an “establishment traditionalist” and is considered in a chapter with such men as Alan Ayckbourn, Michael Frayn, Christopher Hampton, and Anthony and Peter Shaffer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strauss, Gerald H., with Thomas J. Taylor. “John Mortimer.” In Critical Survey of Drama, edited by Carl Rollyson. 2d ed. Vol. 5. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2003. Eight-page introduction to Mortimer. Includes a brief biography, general analysis of his career and output, a full page devoted to A Voyage Round My Father, and an annotated bibliography.

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