REVIEW: Television World Theatre: ‘The Light Is Dark Enough’

  • Broadcast: Sunday, 26 January, 1958

Character: Richard Gettner

“On Sunday night the actor (PETER WYNGARDE) will reach the pinnacle of his currently successful run when he appears with dame Edith Evans in the BBC television presentation of Christopher Fry’s ‘The Light is Dark Enough’’ The Radio Times

 GETTNER

⇑ PETER as Richard Gettner, with Dame Edith Evans as Countess Rosmarin and Barbara Everest as Bella

‘The Dark is Light Enough’ is a 1954 play by Christopher Fry, that was written especially for Dame Edith Evans and which is set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. The drama, which Fry himself called ‘The Winter Play’, is set in an Austrian country house in the winter of that year, and mostly concerns the impact the rebellion has on the inhabitants and visitors of the house.

Foremost of them is the Countess Rosmarin Ostenburg (Edith Evan); a distinguished lady of wit, independence, compassion and honesty. At the bottom of the heap is the shrewd and cunning rascal, Richard Gettner (PETER WYNGARDE), who has no integrity at all. Apart from several other well-drawn people, representing either amusing worldliness or earnest convictions, the play concentrates on the ordeals of the Countess’ conscience: She’s above any petty hostilities and bitterness and, overflowing with forgiveness, is grievously hurt by the callousness of Gettner’s unprincipled behaviour. Through a last final act of self-sacrifice, in which she gives up her own life to save another, the Countess redeems Gettner, and some of her own strength and nobility become his.

For Director Stuart Burge’s presentation, Norman James designed some wonderful settings, which accurately depicted an Austro-Hungarian country house in the middle of the19th Century. For the play itself poet, Christopher Fry, had devised three not-so- pleasing acts, which were full of twists and turns, but containing little stimulation. At one point in the drama, a character remarks, “the language is full of yes-no and no-yes.”

Ever a lover of costume drama, the BBC saw to it that everybody was richly bedecked and PETER, as the leading man, looked particularly handsome in uniform. I am not at all clear in my mind what exactly it was that Fry was driving at with his very wordy script. Indeed, he was described by one critic as ‘sounding like warmed-over Oscar Wilde, as in “It would be easier to love you than like you.”

Anyhoo… as we already know, the Hungarians have rebelled against the Austrians, and the Countess’ home is clearly a gathering place for both sides – particularly when she has her Thursday “at-homes”. So the screen is usually filled with people, and most of those individuals stand around for the majority of the time waiting for somebody else to stop talking. This takes time, as the drama is in unrhymed verse.

When PETER is doing the speaking, the play comes alive, as he’s a striking, forceful actor with one of the best and clearest voices on both stage and screen. But even what he says might strike the audience as being indefinite, so he didn’t offer us much guidance in leading the viewers through a plot of unspeakable complication.

In spite of certain very real difficulties in the play at hand, it did seem at one point that Fry’s words were ready to stop messing about and settling down. Until then the unforeseen lyricist who gave us ‘The Lady’s Not for Burning’ and a number of even more eccentric self-satisfactions had had enormous fun with the language – teasing and tormenting it; making it laugh in a manner to which it has been unfamiliar, and sometimes hitting it out of the ball park. It was often white-knuckle, yet occasionally unruly to the point of recklessness. In “The Dark is Light Enough” it’s as if it actually belongs to the audience. As Dame Edith, playing the Austrian Countess, chooses to risk her own life and endanger her loved ones to perform an entirely uncompromising act of mercy, she speaks with a quiet self-confidence: “I am always perfectly guilty of what I do,”, then with acerbity: “People are always ready to die for what death will take away from them”, and finally with humour “Are you military by nature or misfortune”. And each of the lines belongs, not to a whimsical flight of Mr. Fry’s more wayward creation, but to the woman who’s thinking it.

Elsewhere in this histrionic verse in praise of human kindness there are further indications of the author’s beginning assignation with reality; his initial affection for aspect in addition to deftness.

Much of the second act involves an intangible, enticing, yet completely alive relationship between the good-for-nothing deserter, Richard Gettner and Bella (Barbara Everest) – the Countess’ daughter, who has loved him, lost him, and is now jeopardising her second marriage by indulging him with a kindness he does not deserve. As Gettner and Bella move clumsily, then impulsively toward each other we, as the viewer, are never sure what this persistent love is meant to signify, or where it might lead. For that instant, it seems very real; completely fleshed, and is working out its unique purpose before our eyes, and the moment means that Fry has started to see his characters in terms of their secrets rather than just their words.

And so, toward the end of the play, when the bemused viewer, whose lives have been turned upside down by seemingly pointless silences to remark that he knows a clear truth “in the still of my mind”, it’s conceivable to believe that these individuals do still have reserves, places of rest, behind their vivid and enthusiastic word-play, and this finding of depth signifies, we presume, an incredible progress for the author.

These encouraging things apart, it’s still necessary to say that some of ‘The Dark is Light Enough’ is too intangible by far: if the characters fumble with great honesty, they often do not get their hands on anything that is very final, or particularly secure. The play is almost always stopping in mid-act.

Nevertheless, it’s made all the more enjoyable by PETER in an immensely problematic role of a man who trusts that “good has rejected him” and who, immediately turns himself into the sort of boorish and thankless rogue who’d taunt even those who’ve saved him. The part is multifaceted. Richard Gettner wavers between longing for love and utterly destroying it, yet PETER thrived in doing much more than just reciting the play, line-by-line, and allowing the contrasting values fall where they may.

As the lady who adores him and unobtrusively winds her way through this intricate world, Barbara Everest as Bella is lovely to look at, and a joy to listen to. The quantity of her elegance and ability might be witnessed by the fact that her final scenes in which, dying, she expresses her compassion to make a threadbare universe bearable, are her best.

Gerald James as Kassel is excellent as a bearded and snappy member of the Countess’ circles; as is the superb John Philips (Count Peter Zichy ), and André Van Gyseghem (Belmann), who brought power and passion to his portrayal of the enormously sympathetic husband; with Joseph O’Connor as Colonel Janik, Melvyn Hayes (Willi) and Daphne Slater (Gelda), adding colour to a monochrome recording.

The production as a whole, then, was both striking and effective. The play has its own sporadic ambiguities, in which there’s not really light enough. But Fry gradually and tolerantly fleshed out those dancing skeletons.

The following is a personal letter which was sent to PETER by the actor, James Cairncross, after the broadcast of ‘The Dark is Light Enough’:

James Cairncross

C/O Vaudeville Theatre

Strand

London

W.C.2.

Wednesday, 29th January 1958

Dear Peter,

May I please offer my sincere congratulations on your really excellent performance in ‘The Dark is Light Enough’ on Sunday evening. I saw this play twice in the theatre – once at Brighton before it came into town, and on the first night at the Aldwych – and while I love and admire Dame Edith more than any other actress, and thought hers an incomparable performance, I was so baffled on both occasions by the rest of the play that I simply couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to. My clearer understanding of the piece on TV was largely due to your performance, and to Daphne Slater’s, and I am very grateful to you both.

Come to think of it, you seem to have got TV acting pretty well buttoned up all round, and that is no mean feat, for it’s a ghastly medium is it not.

With all good wishes,

Yours Sincerely.

James Cairncross


The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/

 

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