Paul Southman, pr. 1946 (radio play), pr. 1965 (staged)
A Penny for a Song, pr. 1951, revised pr. 1962
Saint’s Day, pr. 1951
Marching Song, pr., pb. 1954
The Gates of Summer, pr. 1956
The Devils, pr., pb. 1961 (adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudun)
No Why, pb. 1961
Conditions of Agreement, pr. 1965
The Nomads, pr. 1965
The Collected Plays of John Whiting, pb. 1969 (2 volumes)
No More A-Roving, pb. 1975, pr. 1979 (radio play), pr. 1987 (staged)
Plays: One, pb. 1999
Plays: Two, pb. 2001
The Ship That Died of Shame, 1955 (with Michael Relph and Basil Dearden)
The Good Companions, 1957 (with T. J. Morrison and J. L. Hodgson)
The Captain’s Table, 1959 (with Bryan Forbes and Nicholas Phipps)
Young Cassidy, 1965
A Walk in the Desert, 1960
Eye Witness, 1949
The Stairway, 1949
Love’s Old Sweet Song, 1950
No More A-Roving, 1975
The Art of the Dramatist, and Other Pieces, 1969 (short fiction, criticism, lectures; Ronald Hayman, editor)
John Robert Whiting, while virtually unknown to general audiences, is recognized by serious critics as a major force in twentieth century drama. He was born in Salisbury, England, on November 15, 1917, the son of a retired army officer turned lawyer. An indifferent student who later claimed that he had never passed an examination, Whiting left his upper-middle-class schooling at age seventeen to train as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. With the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted in the Royal Artillery. After marrying actress Jackie Mawson in 1940, he returned to acting at the end of the war, joining John Gielgud’s company in 1951.
In spite of this lengthy association with the theater, Whiting exhibited no interest in writing plays until a casual conversation with a friend in 1946 inspired him to make the attempt. During the following five years he wrote four plays–half of his entire canon of stage drama–as well as four radio plays for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). His first stage play was A Penny for a Song, a comedy set during the Napoleonic Wars. Directed by Peter Brook, it was performed in March, 1951. A vivid, theatrical play, it traces the rise and fall of Sir Timothy Humpage as he attempts to preserve happiness and a sense of purpose–illusions for Whiting–at the expense of self-deception. “We find reality unbearable. . . . And so we escape, childlike, into the illusion,” one of the characters says. In September of 1951, Whiting’s second stage play, Saint’s Day, was performed at the Arts Theatre Club. It closed after three weeks amid hostile popular criticism and audience rejection, a pattern which was to continue during most of Whiting’s life. With a central theme of self-destruction, the play sets forth in bleak terms the tragedy of the elderly poet Paul Southman, who had isolated himself and his family from the local community. In this dense, dark play, Southman learns, “We are here–all of us–to die. Nothing more than that.”
Whiting’s next play, Marching Song, appeared in 1954. Describing it as formally austere and antitheatrical, Whiting used the figure of General Rupert Forster, who was guilty of war crimes involving the slaughter of children, to present images of death and violence, underscoring the nihilistic forces operating in the universe. Whiting wrote only one more full-length stage play in the 1950’s, a withdrawal directly resulting from negative reactions to his work. He did, however, write many screenplays.
In 1960 Whiting was invited to write The Devils, an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudun (1952). Successfully performed in 1961, the play explored the diabolic possession of a group of nuns through the influence of a charismatic priest named Grandier, who was horribly tortured. Another of Whiting’s self-destructive characters, he was a tragic figure, flawed by his refusal to accept responsibility for his actions. Epic in style, the play achieved its effects through a relentless series of visual and verbal grotesqueries, stressing that “the purpose of man [is] loneliness and death.”
Whiting’s death of cancer on June 16, 1963, abruptly ended his reestablished dramatic career. Other plays discovered among his papers and performed posthumously include Conditions of Agreement and No More A-Roving, both written in 1946.
All Whiting’s best plays, the editor Simon Trussler has suggested, are “most readily understood as parables and paradigms of human behavior.” Whiting was concerned with exploring the human soul in its abstracted, self-destructive preoccupation with the processes of dying. At the center of his plays stand tormented men who are caught in webs of unmotivated cruelty. In their isolation, they radiate hatred toward others and especially toward themselves. Southman, in Saint’s Day, and Forster, in Marching Song, commit suicide; Grandier, in The Devils, provokes others to torture him to death. The structures of Whiting’s plays are marked by density, austerity, and ambiguity; the tone is dark and pessimistic. Whiting characteristically uses potent and provocative stage pictures to frame the words of the text, as in the opening scene of The Devils, in which a corpse hangs from the gallows and a sewer worker labors in his pit.
During his lifetime, Whiting’s plays were neither popular nor the subject of much literary criticism. He allied himself with the tradition of the intellectual elite, writing plays that were obscure and difficult even for a discriminating audience. Embedded within his theater were structural and thematic references and allusions that were often part of a private mythology. In his recurrent concern with the nature of violence and the limits of personal responsibility, Whiting anticipated the work of later writers. In his use of Brechtian techniques in The Devils, he paved the way for further experimentations in the theater. Whiting’s contributions to the development of British theater were significant, although they have been underestimated. In 1965 the Arts Council of Great Britain instituted the John Whiting Award, an annual stipend given to younger British dramatists whose work is only beginning to be known.