Seeing a first-rate production of The Daughter-in-Law at the Sheffield Crucible has reminded me of what a very good writer D.H.Lawrence could be before the War threw him badly off-kilter.
The play was written in 1912 and its premise is simple. Luther Gascoyne, coal-miner and mother’s boy, has finally got round to marrying Minnie, a young woman with rather more go in her than he has. A few weeks after the wedding, Mrs Purdy comes to see Luther’s mother; her daughter is four months pregnant, and the father is Luther.
The play shows the negotiations around this awkward fact, and the realignment of family relationships that it brings about. The older women (very well played by Lynda Baron and Marlene Sidaway at Sheffield) sort out the financial details; forty pounds is the going rate. The rift between Luther and Minnie takes more settling; she asserts her independence, and he asserts his mastery, and even at the end the settlement may be no more than temporary.
The women in the play are the stronger characters. The mothers have experience and practical wisdom, expressed in earthy hard-bitten aphorisms, while Minnie has more ambition and a wider perspective than her husband. The two men, Luther and his brother, are both dominated by their mother, and when they seek to assert themselves, it is liable to be by rather crude male violence. When the miners strike, this seems more of a blind lashing-out by the powerless than a reasoned response.
They are economically and socially trapped. The play is good on money – that forty pounds compensation to the wronged girl, the thirty-five shillings miner’s wage, and the ten shillings strike pay, and how these are divided between wife’s housekeeping and the man’s ‘pocket money’. The manager, on the other hand, is on twelve hundred a year.
The play (in this production at least) is very convincing about the lives it depicts, and the convincingness comes largely from the language. The programme prints a tribute by Bernard Shaw: ‘I wished I could write such dialogue. With mine I always hear the sound of the typewriter.’ That sums it up. The last thing I saw on the Crucible stage was their joyous production of ‘My Fair Lady’, where Shaw’s dialogue danced and sparkled, but you always knew that this was a happy Shavian flight of fancy; in The Daughter-in-Law, I heard the characters speaking, not the author.
The play was never staged in Lawrence’s lifetime. Not even the Repertory theatres who were championing realist drama by the likes of Houghton, Brighouse and Monkhouse took up his work. He was writing for a possible theatre, not an actual one (his involvement in Douglas Goldring’s abortive People’s Theatre movement after the War is interesting in this respect).
If Lawrence’s plays had been staged, would he have become a different sort of writer? One reason that I liked this production more than I like many of his novels and stories was that there is no intrusive authorial voice telling you definitively what to think of the characters. Here’s an example from ‘Monkey Nuts’; an important character is introduced like this:
Albert, the corporal, was a clean-shaven, shrewd-looking fellow of about forty. He seemed to think his one aim in life was to be full of fun and nonsense. In repose, his face looked a little withered, old. He was a very good pal to Joe, steady, decent and grave under all his ‘mischief’; for his mischief was only his laborious way of skirting his own ennui.
So there we have him, completely packaged, the whole character, not just his surface, but his depths. This sort of ‘telling, not showing’ can’t happen in a naturalistic play, and The Daughter-in-Law is better off for its absence.
The more Lawrence went on, the more mannered his fiction became, and the more he went in for dogmatic generalisations and nonsense about dark gods.
It was not just the War that separated him from the community he presents with such insight in works like this. In 1913 his elopement with Frieda signaled a new kind of existence. But when the War did come, it hit him hard.
This play, like much of his early writing, shows intense thought about the subject of masculinity. When the War came, and questions of masculinity became more insistent throughout the culture, and the equation of man and soldier was common, Lawrence was caught on the wrong foot. By no means temperamentally opposed to fighting, he was out of things, and on two counts. The first was his health, but the second was his marriage to a German woman.
He therefore defined himself in opposition to the prevailing mood, devising crank theories, dreaming of spiritual elites distinct from the herd (and even growing a beard when all the rest of England was shaving to look more military). The ‘Nightmare’ chapter in Kangaroo gives an idea of how isolated he became, and how he felt persecuted by the accusing gaze of the rest of the nation. Set his suffering against that of those who actually went to war, and it does not seem much, but he felt it cruelly, and there were not many writers more disturbed and diminished by the War years.
After the Armistice he left England, and hardly ever returned. He cut himself off from the society that had given such life to works like The Daughter-in-Law, and travelled restlessly. There was still some brilliant travel writing, but also nonsense like the Fantasia of the Unconscious. When he tried to write a big novel about England, in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it became propaganda for his rather crackpot sexual theories, and so much cruder than works like The Daughter-in-Law. Would the Lawrence of 1912 have written a character so crudely symbolic as the impotent toff, Sir Clifford Chatterley?
Which has got a long way from the excellence of this early work, and of this production. If you have the chance, go and see it.