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January 05, 2007

A farce with ideas: Donkeys' Years - Michael Frayn

Posted by David Womersley

Michael Frayn's Donkeys' Years
Premiered at the Globe Theatre, London in 1977
Revived at the Comedy Theatre, London in 2006

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - finds unexpected depth in Michael Frayn's farce Donkeys' Years.

A received opinion about Michael Frayn is that he was in the beginning a very funny writer, who then became infected with ideas and became a rather prosy and much less funny writer. This, it is clear, is another instance of that apparently unshakeable (and yet, as Stefan Collini has recently shown, also quite unverifiable) element in English national identity, that somehow we don't "do" ideas, and that when we try to, it ends badly. We are an unintellectual nation, and those writers amongst us do best who don't try to kick against that particular prick.

Donkeys' Years, recently splendidly revived in a production by Jeremy Sams at the Comedy Theatre, shows how wrong this is, on two counts: it is wrong that Frayn "got ideas" only late in his career, and it is wrong that an engagement with philosophical ideas in a literary work precludes humour and dramatic vivacity. Donkeys' Years is a farce (a dramatic form which Frayn would later both dissect and celebrate in Noises Off) - that apparently most shallow of all theatrical forms, but one which here is stretched in unusual directions, and which as a result acquires an unexpected depth.

Donkeys' Years is set in

one of the lesser colleges, at one of the older universities
on the night of a dinner for old members. Those gathered for the occasion include Chris Headingley, now Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Education; Alan Quine, one of his civil servants; David Buckle, now a urologist; the "ghastly, camp" Dicky Sainsbury, now a clergyman; Norman Tate, a jobbing writer; and Kenneth Snell, a furious nonentity researching parasitology in the small intestine, who had been utterly overlooked during his time at university, and who is desperate to make up for wasted time.

Waiting to greet and entertain them are the Head Porter, Mr Birkett; a junior fellow, William Taylor; and the Master's wife, Lady Driver, now an unimpeachable member of the establishment, but in her youth an often attainable object of desire for a number of those re-united on this evening (and, importantly, in particular for one old member who is expected but absent, Roddy Moore).

The three acts of the play are taken up by the accumulated mishaps and misunderstandings of the evening, which are a nightmare for some -

I'm living through a nightmare
wails Lady Driver towards the end - and a dream of fulfilment for others. As is usual in farce, the strictness with time is matched by a strictness with place. All the customary elements of farce are present - mistaken identity, dropped trousers, virtuoso use of the various points of entry and exit on the stage. But, unlike most farce, which consumes itself and leaves no residue, as the curtain drops on Donkeys' Years a number of intellectual conundrums have been crystallised.

Early in Act II, after the dinner and when all the old members are well afloat on the college's drink, Buckle becomes suddenly thoughtful:
Buckle: Well, I don't know, this may be obvious to everyone else, but it's just occurred to me as I sat here. When you look back on your life, it all seems to make some kind of sense.

Headingley: I'm with you so far, David.

Buckle: You can see how everything leads inevitably to everything else.

Headingley: Absolutely.

Buckle: But when you look forwards over your life, into the future, it doesn't seem inevitable at all.

Of course, for the audience of a farce, Buckle's distinction between prospection and retrospection does not hold at all. For them, the destination towards which the play is heading is clear and inevitable - only the route we will take to arrive there is unclear, and the art of farce is to end up at the inevitable destination by the most unexpected and complicated itinerary. So the great philosophical problem of predestination and freedom hovers in the air during this particular Gaudy night, and one way of construing the play in the light of this theme would be to say that Frayn shows us a series of puppets who imagine they are free. As the sardonic Alan Quine quips to Lady Driver:
So you're - the Lady Driver.
Life for these once youthful figures has been a matter of fitting themselves into pre-ordained roles, almost even pre-ordained phrases. Sainsbury, the unreligious and merely conforming cleric, captures the point beautifully when he reveals that, before taking holy orders, he was employed
advertising rubber reducing-garments
- an epitome of these characters willingness to fit life (including their own lives) to an arbitrary measure.

It is, however, at this point that the importance of Roddy Moore, the old member who has stayed away - who has in this as in other respects refused to accommodate himself - becomes clear. Quite what Moore has been doing since graduation is unclear; or, rather, he seems to have been doing a great many things -

He was working with a construction gang in Anatolia.

Someone told me they'd seen him selling Union Jack knickers on Forty-Second Street.

He was last seen with his head shaven, entering a monastery in Sikkim.

I thought he was doing a milk round in Kentish Town.

"Rod the Sod" has been in Alaska, he has been in Turkey. He represents the freedom of action which has eluded all the other characters, and which can equally have no place in farce. That is why he is so eagerly sought by all the characters -
Roddy. Where's Roddy?
complains the drunken Headingley. By no one, however, is Roddy Moore more sought after than by Lady Driver, who had been in love with him, and had deserted him after a row in a Tunis hotel. Frayn gives Lady Driver at this point by far the longest speech of the play, a threnody to the path not taken (albeit a threnody in which the pathos is seasoned by the fact that the short-sighted Lady Driver is speaking, not to Moore as she thinks, but to Kenneth Snell, the perpetual object of mistake and misunderstanding and who at this point remains unbudgeably in character). The most moving line of the play, however, is given to the cynical Quine, who consoles Lady Driver with the words:
Come on. None of us has found him yet.
Genuine freedom has indeed eluded these characters, as it eludes most of us. We are all in search of Roddy Moore, and few of us ever clap eyes on him.
Doesn't change very much, does it, sir?
says Birkett to Headingley as he arrives in college, to which Headingley echoingly replies:
Doesn't change very much, Mr Birkett.
What is satisfactory in a college, however, may be a rather melancholy feature of a whole existence. The narrowing of the bandwidth of life to the point where anything out of the ordinary seems to herald the end of civilization (Headingley, glimpsing the head porter Birkett in a sports jacket and flannels rather than his uniform of tail coat, sponge-bag trousers and top hat, sees it as a token of "complete moral collapse") is a melancholy insight. Yet farce requires characters who have so narrowed their lives, and not the least interesting aspect of Donkeys' Years is that its author adopts a stance of compassionate regret towards this condition of its own existence, even as he exploits it so entertainingly.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

For a rather different take on Donkeys' Years, see: Christie Davies sees a play that should never have been revived and remembers Emmanuel College reunions.


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