The opening of Muriel Spark’s only play, Doctors of Philosophy, is sufficiently and deceptively familiar to mislead readers and spectators, but it quickly swerves away to transport them into the distinctive landscape and mindscape inhabited by Spark’s characters, a territory where nothing is quite straightforward and where the dialogue has resonances deeper than the actual statements.
The setting is precise. The stage directions inform us that ‘the Delfonts live in a house overlooking the Regent’s Canal’, and further that ‘the whole play takes place in the living room and on the adjoining terrace’. Nothing seemingly challenging, uncomfortable, exotic or avant-garde there. The audience can relax in the expectation of an undemanding comedy of manners, for this seems quintessentially bourgeois territory. The structure is the conventional three-play format, neatly divided into scenes, and people on stage are members of the extended Delfont family, locked into each others’ company. They talk and talk, entertainingly enough, sometimes woundingly, sometimes bafflingly, but there is on the surface little to threaten any disturbance. Works by Noel Coward or Terence Rattigan could well be being acted out in neighbouring property on the same street, an impression heightened when a woman called Catherine ‘enters from the terrace, through the French windows’. It would be easy to anticipate her asking ‘Anyone for tennis?’ or ‘Time for tiffin?’
Catherine, of course, says no such thing. She is looking for her cousin, Leonora, a Noel Cowardish sort of name, and while she initially declares that she wants no more than to invite her ‘to come and look at the canal’, her aims are more superficially bizarre and more profoundly idiosyncratic. Catherine thinks that Leonora should look at the water ‘as it isn’t term time’. She explains herself: ‘I quite see that during term a thing like the Regent’s Canal would be an idea to Leonora, it would be a geo graphical and historical and sociological idea, but during vacation I do think Leon ora ought to take a look at reality.’ Catherine is convinced that her husband, Charlie, who is seated at his desk engrossed in some academic research, has not been paying heed, so she makes him repeat her words, which he more or less does. ‘Leonora ought to look at reality,’ he dutifully intones, but Catherine insists on the qualifying time frame, ‘during the vacation’.
These words are warning blasts to let the audience know they have passed through the looking-glass. This is not after all the drawing room as Coward or Rattigan knew it, and the reality under observation is more evanescent and disembodied. The attitudes, the discussions, the questions tossed about in conversation are of a different order from those discussed in bourgeois comedy, but the play is in fact a comedy whose humour and wit are sharper, more brittle, more chic and smart than anything in Coward, who was under a cloud in 1962 when Spark’s play received its only performance in London. There are various tides in theatre, but no ebb or flow at that time could have carried Doctors of Philosophy with it. Coward was out because John Osborne was still in. The bitter rawness expected of theatre had been established in 1956 with Look Back in Anger. In 1962 Osborne’s Luther moved to the West End, Arnold Wesker’s Chips with Everything was staged at the Royal Court while Edward Bond’s Saved was given a one-night reading. These were strange bed fellows for Spark’s work, which aroused the enthusiasm of Grahame Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Doris Lessing. That should have been enough to override the tepid indifference of the official reviewers, although here too there were exceptions carried in the blurb of the published edition (Macmillan, 1963). The Financial Times expressed the hope that ‘if she wishes to, Miss Spark (could) become the begetter of a style of high comedy in the modern manner’.
She wrote no other plays in any style, modern or other, although some of her novels, most notably The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, have effortlessly transferred to the stage or screen. The crispness of her dialogue, the complexity of the intrigue, the mysteriousness of her characters, the depiction of moral dilemmas make adaptation desirable and feasible, and she displays these qualities in her play, which is very much in the intellectual and spiritual style which is distinctively Spark’s. How should one look at reality, and is it different in term time or in vacation time, as the question is put in the opening exchanges? Do humans view things differently in different phases, and what is reality anyway? Do we create it by the way we observe it? Alan Bold, in his perceptive study of the writer, notes a resemblance to the philosophical world view of Luigi Pirandello, and indeed the convergence with, if not the influence of, a Pirandellian notion of elusive truth, of shifting personality, of the uncertain boundaries between appearance and reality is unmissable.
These characters here have found their author, and Spark will not let them forget that they are in a drama. In Spark’s first novel The Comforters, Caroline Rose has the disconcerting feeling of being a character in a fiction, not an autonomous human being. She may of course be unbalanced, since the dividing line between sanity and insanity is as fragile as it is in Pirandello, but she believes she hears a typewriter beating out the words she is about to speak or has just spoken. In Doctors of Philosophy the characters are intermittently aware of their status as players on a set, and an unstable one at that. They have to help construct the scenery before the second scene of Act 11 can get under way, and later Annie, Leonora’s cousin, congratulates her on a decision to ‘stage her climax on the terrace’ since that is safer than the canal. Leonora will have none of it. She shakes a tall pillar and the terrace wall which both move, and tells Annie that this instability ‘blows all (her) theories to hell’. She goes on to announce that ‘the scenery is unreliable. Some people know that by instinct, they take it for granted’. The author may know it by instinct, or may have learned it when she became a Catholic, but she is out to question the reliability of things.
The reality topic recurs in the conversation between the people who are the drama. ‘Reality is very alarming at first, and then it becomes interesting,’ says Leonora, turning to the charwoman, to enquire ‘are you interested in the nature of reality, Mrs S?’ Mrs S. replies, ‘Very, I’m trying to give it a polish as you can see,’ a reply which is comic but not because of the waspish common sense of the down-to-earth Englishwoman who will not stand airy-fairy intellectual non sense. Mrs S. is a striking comic creation because she overturns what is expected of her class, and can be as intellectual as her upper-crust employers. She knows the years of the editions of Yeats’ poetry and can reprimand her employers if they fail to meet her expectations, as they frequently do. ‘Poor Leonora don’t get away with much, she can’t sit around all morning looking like the Caliph of Bagdad’s favourite Christian,’ she remarks.
Questions of reliability and reality are raised by the central incident of the plot which may have actually taken place in the drawing room, or may be merely a dream. Leonora dismays the family circle by coming up to Charlie late at night and whispering to him, ‘Charlie, give me a child, before it’s too late.’ There is no adulterous triangle emerging. Leonora is not Lady Chatterley nor is Charlie a Casanova. His response is English embarrassment and he rushes to inform his wife, Catherine, while Leonora denies the tale and says Charlie must have been dreaming. Dream or reality? She is not a liar, neither is he. Reality is fluid or unknowable. There is a tape recording, which plays back both voices, but evidence is useless for resolving problems of that depth.
The family are caricature academics, a caste of human being which notoriously inhabits a dimension remote from material reality. Old Charlie, so called to distinguish him from the other two Charlies who appear, is an economist who churns out articles which will remain unread and unappreciated outside his own circle but which are sufficiently highly esteemed inside it to guarantee his promotion. He is also a miser of a type recognizable from traditions of comedy in any language. Leonora also has a PhD and has just completed a two-year research project on Assyrian paleography, only to be told by her cousin Annie that new archaeological discoveries, reported in that day’s press, have blown her research to hell. Leonora is not as disconcerted by the ruin of her work as others assumed she would be.
Catherine, Old Charlie’s wife, feels excluded. She too has a PhD and Leon ora had usurped her with her research into ancient Assyrian culture, for this had been Catherine’s field before she settled for married life and a job teaching in a mere grammar school, not a university. She keenly feels the absence of something both her cousins have, ‘a dramatic sense of myself ’, but she is too honest to cultivate it. ‘It’s stark reality for me, every time,’ she moans, to which Leonora makes the retort, ‘What kind of reality? Everyday life?’ What Leonora has is ‘a definite sense of being watched, of being observed and listened to by an audience, an invisible audience.’ Daphne, the Delfonts’ daughter, intervenes to tell Leonora that this might be ‘the beginning of something like religious mania. There’s a type of religious mania where the patients are beset by a terrible sense of being watched.’
The question at one level debated is whether the sense of being observed is a neurosis or a symptom of the sense of the numinous. Muriel Spark’s work is imbued with precisely that Catholic consciousness of the transcendent, the belief that external reality is flimsy – another of Leonora’s bon mots – and that there is another dimension to life. The more sensitive, or the more neurotic, of the Delfonts grope towards that sense. They articulate their views inadequately, because this is a comedy and maybe life is a comedy. The characters are comic, their speech is humorous, their attitudes often grotesque, their behaviour odd, and they inhabit a fallen, post-edenic world. One of the writers who most influenced Spark was Cardinal Newman, who saw the world in those terms.
Other dilemmas have to be acted out, in every sense of the word. Daphne has formed with young Charlie a relationship which is rendered awkward by the fact that he is a nuclear physicist engaged on some top secret project while she is a ban-the-bomber who is proud of being arrested in the company of Bertrand Russell. When she finds she is pregnant, she refuses to marry him, until her mother devises a ruse which has him seemingly attempt to take his own life by drowning in the canal, only to be saved by the third Charlie, a lorry driver who had been brought into the group, and who carries in the dripping but still breathing body of young Charlie. But had he thrown himself into the water, or was this a dramatic ruse operated by Catherine to bring Daphne and young Charlie back together?
Of course everything in this play is contrived, and that is the point, but if it is always intriguing it requires an unusual level of suspension of disbelief. Perhaps that is the only way to arrive at belief, real belief.