With thanks to Mr. Fry

Among the gifts that have come my way recently, and for which I am truly grateful, is that I was able to see a play written by — or at least translated and adapted by — one of my heros of the theater, Christopher Fry.

Part of my gratitude goes to Southern Oregon University, whose department of theatre arts staged "Ring Round the Moon," Fry's English adaptation of French playwright Jean Anouilh's play "L'Invitation au Château."

The talented cast and crew presented a delightful evening of theater that did Fry proud. David Kelly's choices as director helped steer the production artistically forward. Fry's gift for language was evident from the first words spoken, with clever turns of phrase, biting satirical barbs and deftly balanced introspective moments providing both levity and pathos. That's Fry for you.

Fry, the British playwright who died three years ago at the age of 97, wrote a handful of plays that won him much acclaim in the 1940s and 1950s. But his plays are rarely produced anymore. He wrote "Ring Round The Moon" for director Peter Brook in 1950. The show was revived at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 1967-68. In 2008 it was revived again. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival staged it in 1980 with Peggy Rubin and Shirley Patton in the cast.

To me, Fry is a kind of an English Thornton Wilder. Both writers focused their considerable skills on telling stories about humanity in loving, compassionate ways that shed light rather than spreading darkness.

Fry once said of his writing, "In my plays I want to look at life — at the commonplace of existence — as if we had just turned a corner and run into it for the first time."

Like Wilder, Fry's mastery of language gave his characters the ability to speak profound truths in eloquently simple ways. Fry also has been compared to his friend T.S. Eliot who, like Fry, chose to write plays in verse.

Fry said, "Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement ... says heaven and earth in one word ... speaks of himself and his predicament as though for the first time. It has the virtue of being able to say twice as much as prose in half the time, and the drawback, if you do not give it your full attention, of seeming to say half as much in twice the time."

Fry wrote "The Boy With A Cart" in 1938, his first major work. His last play, "A Ringing Of Bells," was commissioned by his old school, Bedford Modern School, and performed there in 2000.

Fry was a Quaker and a pacifist. A conscientious objector during World War II, he served in the Non-Combatant Corps where one of his jobs was cleaning London's sewers. I never knew how deeply religious a man Fry was. He certainly never preached in his plays. But it was clear that he had a deep love for humankind.

After WWII he wrote the comedy, "A Phoenix Too Frequent," which was produced at the Mercury Theatre, London, in 1946 starring Paul Scofield. I saw an amateur version of that play when I was just out of high school. It was my introduction to Fry.

In 1948 Fry wrote "Thor, With Angels" on commission for the Canterbury Festival. I was in two amateur productions of that play and experienced first-hand the magnificence of Fry's language.

"The Lady's Not for Burning," commissioned by the Arts Theatre in London, was first performed there in 1948, directed by the actor, Jack Hawkins. The play moved to the West End for a nine-month run, starring John Gielgud and featuring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom. It opened on Broadway in 1950 featuring Burton in his first role on Broadway. It remains Fry's most well-known work. I saw an amateur production of the play years ago and I still remember lines from it.

"The Lady's Not For Burning" was revived by the Royal National Theatre in 2001 as one of the 100 best plays of the 20th century. In 2007, it was performed in a new production at the Finborough Theatre, London.

Laurence Olivier produced Fry's "Venus Observed" at the St. James's Theatre. "A Sleep Of Prisoners" followed in 1951. I saw a fine high school production of the play.

"The Dark Is Light Enough" starring Edith Evans in 1954, was the winter play in Fry's "seasonal" plays quartet. "The Lady's Not For Burning" was the spring play, and "Venus Observed," summer. The 1970 summer play "A Yard Of Sun," completed the quartet.

When I started getting serious about writing plays I turned to Fry as my model. I dedicated my first three plays — a trilogy of "seasonal plays" in verse — to him.

Writing in verse was probably what gained Fry his initial stature and cost him his later audiences. By the 1950s, playwrights and audiences were looking for more rough-hewn language and themes in their plays.

"Imagination is the wide-open eye which leads us always to see truth more vividly," Fry once said. "Comedy is an escape, not from truth but from despair; a narrow escape into faith."

It is our loss that Fry's work is rarely performed anymore. It is considered by some to be dated. Out of fashion. Wilder also has suffered the same fate. Too literary. Too many long passages. But our ears need to hear those words, those sounds and thoughts juxtaposed together.

Fry said, "Between our birth and death we may touch understanding as a moth brushes a window with its wing."

Thank you, Mr. Fry, for brushing our windows with your gentle wings.

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