Authors: John Mortimer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English playwright, novelist, and short-story writer

Author Works

Drama:

The Dock Brief, pr. 1957 (radio play and televised), pr. 1958 (staged; one act)

I Spy, pr. 1957 (radio play), pr. 1958 (televised), pr. 1959 (staged)

Call Me a Liar, pr. 1958 (radio play and televised), pr. 1968 (staged)

What Shall We Tell Caroline?, pr., pb. 1958 (one act)

Lunch Hour, pr., pb. 1960 (one act)

The Wrong Side of the Park, pr., pb. 1960

Lunch Hour, and Other Plays, pb. 1960 (includes Collect Your Hand Baggage, David and Broccoli, and Call Me a Liar)

Collect Your Hand Baggage, pb. 1960 (one act)

Two Stars for Comfort, pr., pb. 1962

A Voyage Round My Father, pr. 1963 (radio play), pr. 1970 (staged)

A Flea in Her Ear, pr. 1966 (adaptation of Georges Feydeau’s play)

The Judge, pr., pb. 1967

Cat Among the Pigeons, pr. 1969 (adaptation of Feydeau’s play)

Come as You Are: Four Short Plays, pr. 1970 (includes Mill Hill, Bermondsey, Gloucester Road, and Marble Arch)

Five Plays, pb. 1970 (includes The Dock Brief, What Shall We Tell Caroline?, I Spy, Lunch Hour, and Collect Your Hand Baggage)

The Captain of Köpenick, pr., pb. 1971 (adaptation of Carl Zuckmayer’s play)

I, Claudius, pr. 1972 (adaptation of Robert Graves’s novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God)

Collaborators, pr., pb. 1973

Heaven and Hell, pr. 1976 (2 one-act plays; The Fear of Heaven and The Prince of Darkness)

The Bells of Hell, pr. 1977 (revision of The Prince of Darkness)

The Lady from Maxim’s, pr., pb. 1977 (adaptation of Feydeau’s play)

John Mortimer’s Casebook, pr. 1982 (includes The Dock Brief, The Prince of Darkness, and Interlude)

Edwin, pr. 1982 (radio play), pr. 1984 (televised)

When That I Was, pr. 1982

Edwin, and Other Plays, pb. 1984

A Little Hotel on the Side, pr. 1984 (adaptation of Feydeau and Maurice Desvalliers’s play)

Three Boulevard Farces, pb. 1985

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, pr. 1994, pb. 1995 (adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel)

Naked Justice, pr., pb. 2001

Long Fiction:

Charade, 1947

Rumming Park, 1948

Answer Yes or No, 1950

Like Men Betrayed, 1953

The Narrowing Stream, 1954

Three Winters, 1956

Paradise Postponed, 1985

Summer’s Lease, 1988

Titmuss Regained, 1990

Dunster, 1992

Under the Hammer, 1994

Felix in the Underworld, 1997

The Sound of Trumpets, 1998

Short Fiction:

Rumpole of the Bailey, 1978

The Trials of Rumpole, 1979

Regina Rumpole, 1981

Rumpole’s Return, 1981

Rumpole and the Golden Thread, 1983

The First Rumpole Omnibus, 1983

The Second Rumpole Omnibus, 1987

Rumpole à la Carte, 1990

Rumpole on Trial, 1992

The Best of Rumpole, 1993

Murder Most Medical, 1995

Rumpole and the Angel of Death, 1995

The Third Rumpole Omnibus, 1997

Rumpole Rests His Case, 2001

Screenplays:

Ferry to Hong Kong, 1959 (with Lewis Gilbert and Vernon Harris)

The Innocents, 1961 (with Truman Capote and William Archibald)

Guns of Darkness, 1962

I Thank a Fool, 1962 (with others)

Lunch Hour, 1962 (adaptation of his play)

The Running Man, 1963

Bunny Lake Is Missing, 1964 (with Penelope Mortimer)

A Flea in Her Ear, 1967 (adaptation of his play)

John and Mary, 1969

Teleplays:

David and Broccoli, 1960

Desmond, 1968

Rumpole of the Bailey, 1975, 1978, 1979

Rumpole’s Return, 1980

Brideshead Revisited, 1981 (adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel)

A Voyage Round My Father, 1982

Paradise Postponed, 1986

Titmuss Regained, 1991

Nonfiction:

No Moaning at the Bar, 1957 (as Geoffrey Lincoln)

With Love and Lizards, 1957 (with Penelope Mortimer)

Clinging to the Wreckage: A Part of Life, 1982

In Character, 1983

Character Parts, 1986

Murderers and Other Friends: Another Part of Life, 1994

The Summer of a Dormouse, 2000

Biography

John Clifford Mortimer first attracted attention on the English stage in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s as a writer of one-act and full-length comedies of manners and farces that traced what he called “the tottering course of British middle-class attitudes in decline.” He gained his widest audience, however, on television, notably with an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited and with the teleplays he fashioned from his own Rumpole of the Bailey stories, his novels Paradise Postponed and Titmuss Regained, and his autobiographical play A Voyage Round My Father.{$I[AN]9810001011}{$I[A]Mortimer, John}{$S[A]Lincoln, Geoffrey;Mortimer, John}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Mortimer, John}{$I[tim]1923;Mortimer, John}

He was the only child of Clifford and Kathleen Mortimer. His father was a barrister who wrote a standard reference work on probate law and who continued to practice long after he went blind. In the play A Voyage Round My Father and in his autobiography, Clinging to the Wreckage, Mortimer wrote of his relationship with his quick-tempered father. His experiences from 1937 to 1940 at Harrow School in Middlesex and from 1940 to 1942 at Brasenose College, Oxford, are reflected in the play as well and treated in detail in the autobiography. During this period, he developed his left-wing sympathies, his dislike for the English upper classes, and his generally anti-establishment views, all of which are central to Paradise Postponed and Titmuss Regained.

Because of his bad eyesight, Mortimer did no military service in World War II; instead he worked as an assistant director and scriptwriter with the Crown Film Units. In 1948 he was called to the bar; he became Queen’s Counsel in 1966 and Master of the Bench, Inner Temple, London, in 1975. Until 1983 he practiced law while writing novels, film scripts, plays, and journalistic pieces. Though much of his early legal work involved divorce litigation, he later became a leading figure in freedom of speech and press cases; partly through his efforts, for example, the Lord Chamberlain’s stage censorship powers were abolished in 1968, and in 1970 he successfully defended Oz magazine against charges of pornography. He married Penelope Fletcher (a novelist known first as Penelope Dimont and then as Penelope Mortimer) in 1949. After their divorce in 1972, he married Penelope Gollop.

Perhaps because of his early success with radio dramas, Mortimer’s first works for the theater were one-act plays, and he continued to write them into the 1980’s, demonstrating both their commercial and artistic viability. Though his short farces such as Mill Hill and Marble Arch are mere whimsies, The Dock Brief is a Chekhovian one-act play of enduring merit that he originally wrote for radio and then adapted for the stage in 1958. According to Mortimer, in The Dock Brief he “wanted to say something about the lawyer’s almost pathetic dependence on the criminal classes, without whom he would be unemployed.” The play also dramatizes his belief that comic drama should be “on the side of the lonely, the neglected, the unsuccessful” and “against established rules and . . . the imposing of an arbitrary code of behaviour upon individual and unpredictable human beings.” In a 1982 revival, The Dock Brief was part of a trilogy (with The Prince of Darkness and Interlude) that criticizes three social pillars: the church, medicine, and the law.

The law is also present in such later plays as Two Stars for Comfort and The Judge, and is represented as an oppressive force in both. It is important, too, in A Voyage Round My Father, Mortimer’s best and most popular work for the stage. In this autobiographical play, he fictionalizes the forces that shaped his life for more than twenty years: teachers, women, wartime experiences, friends, and–most important–his father.

Though active primarily as a dramatist for a quarter of a century, Mortimer began as a novelist, writing six novels between 1947 and 1956. The first of them is Charade, which was reissued in 1986. Set during World War II, the novel features a young man who is with a film unit that is making an army training documentary. The witty narrative develops into a mystery when a crew member dies in what may or may not be an accident. Mystery and detection motifs also are present in Paradise Postponed, Titmuss Regained, and Summer’s Lease, novels that are also social commentaries in the manner of Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, Anthony Trollope, and Evelyn Waugh, all of whom Mortimer has acknowledged as influences. In Paradise Postponed, for example, Mortimer focuses upon one family during the four decades after World War II, developing through flashbacks and dramatic set pieces a satirical narrative in which wit tempers a sometimes poignant chronicle of malaise. Titmuss Regained, its sequel, continues the story of Leslie Titmuss, who epitomizes what Mortimer believed was wrong with Margaret Thatcher’s Britain: a lack of moral purpose and of compassion for the poor. In Summer’s Lease, whose style and form recall the early novels, an English family rents a villa and becomes involved in strange circumstances surrounding the absent owner. The novel Dunster also is basically a mystery, which concludes with its hero destroying evidence of someone’s war crime. Suppression of a guilty past and forgiveness of sinners (except for Leslie Titmuss) are recurring Mortimer themes.

In the 1980’s, Mortimer stopped writing original stage works, though he continued to do translations and adaptations, including A Little Hotel on the Side, a Feydeau farce; the opera Die Fledermaus; and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. He also published collections of his newspaper interviews with public figures–In Character and Character Parts–and two autobiographical volumes, Clinging to the Wreckage: A Part of Life and Murderers and Other Friends. From the mid-1970’s to the 1990’s, he wrote more than fifty witty detective stories, which he adapted for television, about barrister Horace Rumpole, an iconoclast and nonconformist who often struggles on behalf of kindred souls. Rumpole’s international popularity has come to rival that of Sherlock Holmes. Mortimer died at home in Oxfordshire, England on January 16, 2009. He was 85.

Mortimer, in almost all of his work, reflects a Dickensian humanism, the sense that one should feel sorry for the less fortunate. His strong social conscience and concern with the lack of communication among people link him to other English playwrights who emerged in the 1950’s; yet whereas their work deals with the rising working class, he focused upon the fading middle class, and unlike Harold Pinter and N. F. Simpson, Mortimer was a traditionalist in terms of form. Nevertheless, he produced at least one major achievement for the stage, A Voyage Round My Father, which has been compared to Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944). He also brought English stage farce and television drama to new creative heights, and among his novels, Paradise Postponed is a memorable social chronicle in the manner of the grand nineteenth century novel. A painting in the National Portrait Gallery in London is official recognition of his achievements as an important twentieth century British literary and cultural figure.

BibliographyBarnes, Clive. “‘Little Hotel’ on Slight.” Review of A Little Hotel on the Side, by John Mortimer. New York Post, January 27, 1992. A review of the “racily idiomatic adaptation” of a French farce, here in Mortimer’s version called A Little Hotel on the Side. The Belasco Theater was the site for this second offering of the first season for Tony Randall’s National Actors Theater. As in all farce, “the story doesn’t matter.”Hayman, Ronald. British Theatre Since 1955: A Reassessment. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1979. Mortimer is grouped with Robert Bolt and Peter Shaffer, and all are seen as playwrights who “have repeatedly tried to move away from naturalism, [oscillating] between writing safe plays, catering for the West End audience, and dangerously serious plays, which might have alienated the public they had won.” Contains an overview of The Dock Brief, Two Stars for Comfort, and The Judge.Herbert, Rosemary. “Murder by Decree.” The Armchair Detective 29 (Fall, 1987): 340-349. Provides insight into Mortimer’s approach to writing detection and the development not only of Rumpole but also of the supportive cast of characters.Honan, William H. “The Funny Side of Social Issues.” The New York Times, May 12, 1990, p. A13. Honan profiles Mortimer in midtown Manhattan, promoting Titmuss Regained. He finds that Mortimer admires Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens and shares their intent “not only to expose human foible but to elucidate the social issues raised by his story.” Provides a good conversational biography, starting with the 1958 radio play The Dock Brief.Lord, Graham. John Mortimer–The Devil’s Advocate: The Unauthorized Biography. London: Orion, 2005. An inclusive biographical study, but emphasizes the negative about Mortimer’s personal life, perhaps because he withdrew his support for Lord’s project.Mortimer, John. Interview by Rosemary Herbert. Paris Review 30 (Winter, 1988): 96-128. A far-ranging interview covering the span of Mortimer’s writing career and the impact his legal work has had on it.Mortimer, John. “The Man Who Put Rumpole on the Case.” Interview by Mel Gussow. The New York Times, April 12, 1995, p. C16. An interview with Mortimer that is partly biographical but also deals with the origins of Rumpole stories.Parker, Ian. “Son of Rumpole.” The New Yorker, March 20, 1995, 78-86. Based on several visits with Mortimer, this article is an informal review of his life and career that is filled with anecdotes.Rusinko, Susan. British Drama, 1950 to the Present: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Chronicles the major movements and important dramatists emerging from Britain in the mid-to late twentieth century, providing a context for the life and works of Mortimer.Stevens, Andrea. “The Smile Button for Tragedy.” The New York Times, January 26, 1992, p. B47. A brief but informative look at A Little Hotel on the Side. Mortimer says, and Stevens quotes, that “[f]arce is tragedy played at about 120 revolutions a minute.” Interviewed by telephone, Mortimer remarks that “all these pompous middle-class men and well-upholstered women [in his work]–underneath they are selfish little children.”Strauss, Gerald H. “John Mortimer.” In British Dramatists Since World War II, edited by Stanley Weintraub. Vol. 13 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1982. Traces the life of Mortimer, focusing on the development of his stage craft.Taylor, John Russell. The Angry Theatre: New British Drama. Rev. ed. New York: Hill & Wang, 1969. A separate chapter provides a good long discussion of Mortimer’s traditional influences and place among more experimental peers, but with the same subject, “more often than not the failure of communication, the confinement to and sometimes the liberation from private dream-worlds.” Treats The Dock Brief, The Wrong Side of the Park, Two Stars for Comfort, and about a dozen shorter plays.
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