The Ascent of F6 by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1936)

Very enjoyable, quite funny at moments, very clever and zips along at speed until the climax which I completely failed to understand.

Act I

A British colony, Sudoland, is troubled, the natives are restless, and our colonial rival, Ostnia, threatens to invade across the border. At  meeting of notables, the Foreign Secretary, Sir James Ransom, explains that there is a legendary mountain, F6, slap-bang on the border between the two colonies. Native tradition has it that a) the mountain is haunted and b) whoever climbs to the top of this mountain will rule over both colonies for a thousand years. Just recently we received a telegram telling us that the Ostnians have sent an expedition to climb the mountain, is on its way now.

The notables Ransom is addressing – General Dellaby-Couch, a fuddy duddy old general; excitable Lady Isabel Welwyn; and cynical newspaper magnate Lord Stagmantle – react with dismay… until Sir James announces that we, the British, are planning a counter-expedition. Who will lead it? Why, his own brother Michael Ransom, one of the world’s leading mountaineers!

But Michael is a completely different kettle of fish from his successful Establishment brother. They appear to have been twins and James was always the brash, confident, favoured one while Michael was slightly smaller, more private.

This explains the opening scene. The curtains rise to reveal Michael at the top of a peak in the Lake District very bitterly and cynically denouncing Dante, who he’s been reading. Michael mocks Dante for his fake high-mindedness, mocking the speech of Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno which mentions ‘Virtue’ and ‘Knowledge’. Michael doesn’t believe in that guff. After a lengthy monologue the voices of his mountaineering mates call him to climb back down with them.

Michael’s cynical, disillusioned attitude explains why, when his brother unexpectedly pays him a visit at the mountaineering hostel (actually a pub, the Lakeland Pub) where he’s hanging out with four of his mountaineering buddies (David Gunn, Teddy Lamp, Ian Shawcross and the Doctor, Tom), and makes him the offer of leading this fully-funded mountaineering expedition to one of the great mountains of the word… Michael turns him down. Michael’s not interested in being anyone’s hero.

Until that is, Sir James plays his trump card, introducing their mother, who walks through the door and asks him to climb the mountain for her. She gives a speech comparing the lives of the two brothers, how he was the smaller, weaker of the twins, but she always loved him best. Michael can’t refuse. He says yes.

Act II

Cut to a monastery on the Great Glacier of F6. Monks are chanting, carrying a funeral coffin. This is where Michael and his team are resting before starting the climb.

There is dissension in the team. Earnest Ian Shawcross is very upset by the way David Gunn is always mucking about and stealing things. Shawcross desperately wants to make sure he gets to the top.

In a strange scene a monk brings in a crystal to the room where the mountaineers are staying. One by one they all go over and look into the crystal and see visions in it, telling the others what they see. Only Michael (who they all jokily refer to as MF) is silent about what he saw.

The Abbot of the monastery enters and has a conversation with Michael. Michael confesses that what he saw in the crystal is the wild adulation which will greet him if he climbs to F6, the first European to do so. It’ll be reported in all the papers, he’ll get home to a hero’s welcome. And he’ll be offered power, people will want him to save the country and save them. He’s terrified by all this and asks the abbot how he can escape it. The Abbott says there is a way to escape: stay in the monastery and renounce his way of life.

This passage brings out what you could call the Christian negativity underpinning the whole play. It comes over in the play’s poor view of human nature, irredeemably corrupted. The Abbott tells Michael: ‘the human will is from the Demon’. From reading even this far you can see why Auden temperamentally could have no truck with communism, which is optimistic, confident that human beings can control their destiny and build a better future.

Michael sees himself as being tempted, like Christ on the mountain, tempted with visions of the adulation he will receive when gets home from the weak and unhappy. Acting on this, when the Abbot has left, Michael asks his comrades to cancel the climb, but they think he’s mad and insist they go on, they’ve come all this way, England expects etc. And so, feeling weak and wretched, he gives in and agrees to the climb going ahead.

In the next scene they’re on a rock ledge and, after various bits of banter, Lamp, the sweet 24-year-old botanist, climbs over the ledge and down a bit to look at some interesting flowers and a sudden avalanche carries him away.

In the next scene the doctor and Ransom are waiting in a tent on a ridge above the previous location for the other two to arrive. They discuss who Ransom is going to choose to make the final ascent with him. Only two men can go. The Doctor reviews MF’s options i.e. who should it be out of Shawcross and Gunn? In a weak moment he asks if he can go, but realises this is foolish, he is by far the oldest of the team and it will require stamina.

Ransom says he’s made his mind up. The other two (Shawcross and Gunn) arrive and Gunn is immediately all fuss and trivial, interested only in the hot chocolate and oatmeal and natters on and even sings a nonsense song… until Shawcross snaps. Shawcross is extremely tense and demands who Ransom has chosen to take to the summit. Is it him? The others try to calm Shawcross, but he is hysterical and demands to know.

Ransom announces he is taking David, the inspired amateur, scrounger, petty thief and irritating joker. Shawcross is distraught. He berates himself as a failure, says he isn’t a man. Ransom tries to explain that: now he recognises his weakness, now he has self knowledge, he is a man. Michael he is sending him back to England to live, to be useful, and not go on this mad cock-and-bull expedition up a bloody mountain precisely because he is a serious man who will do much good. But Shawcross can’t accept it, can’t cope, rising hysteria. Suddenly he breaks free of the others, struggles out of the tent, runs to the precipice and throws himself over the edge.

Scene IV Ransom is supporting Gunn in a blizzard as they struggle towards the summit. Gunn is exhausted, cannot walk, is delirious, has a short speech and dies of exhaustion. Not going well, is it? The extremity of this short scene (barely 2 pages) prompted Auden to write some of the worse verse of the play, sub-Shakespearian bombast.

Scene V I barely understood a word of the final scene. Michael has arrived at the top of the mountain. A veiled figure sites right at the top, is it the legendary Demon of the Mountain? The chorus recites some poetry, then his brother James appears wearing full Foreign Office ceremonial dress.

Michael staggers on stage wearing his mountain climbing gear. Suddenly onto the stage comes a full set of chess pieces. James’s pieces include the General, Lady Welwyn, Lord Stagmantle, Michael’s include Lamp, Shawcross and Gunn.

Mr and Mrs A – two characters who have commented on the action all the way through – ask questions about their miserable lives and the three named characters – then James – answer them in various shades of pompous officialdom.

Then James and Michael play chess with the life-size pieces, without dialogue, occasionally saying ‘Check’. Michael wins and James collapses. Michael appears to have killed him. The General, Lady Welwyn and Lord Stagmantle recite a poem accusing Michael of murdering one of England’s favourite sons, as they jostle each other, leap on each others’ backs and ‘behave in general like the Marx brothers.

A light goes up to illuminate the Abbot at the back of the stage wearing a judge’s wig and bearing the crystal. Monks enter, lift James’s body onto a stretcher and carry him out. Stagmantle and Isabel recite what was to become the most famous poem from the play

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

The Abbott accuses Michael of killing his brother. Michael hysterically points at the veiled figure on the summit of the mountain and says the Demon did it! The Abbott (wearing a judge’s wig, remember) calls his witnesses, and one by one Lamp, Shawcross and Gunn appear, worn and bloody from their deaths, to accuse Michael.

Bewildered Michael ‘appeals to the crystal’ and the Abbott lets him look at it again. Michael looks up and says he didn’t mean it, it’s not his fault. The Abbott tells him it’s too late and says ‘the case is being brought before the Crown’, indicating the veiled figure seated on the summit. A Chorus recites an Auden poem. The Chorus and all the characters cry at Ransom that he must die, die for us, die for England!

Panic-stricken Michael turns to the figure at the top of the mountain as there’s the sound of an avalanche and all the other characters disappear. The figure’s draperies fall away to reveal… Michael’s mother, lovely as a young woman. There follows a cryptic passage of verse alternating between the Chorus and the Mother sort of addressing the meaning of the play and the choice Michael has made.

During this chorus the stage slowly darkens, and then is reillumined by the red light of the rising son. The stage is empty except for the dead body of Ransom on the mountain top.


Thoughts

What was that about? Was it his confused fantasia, was it a stream of consciousness hallucination brought on by his extreme exhaustion? Or the opposite, a ‘realistic’ depiction of a highly modern, self-consciously staged and artificial poetic event?

The first audiences like the play but didn’t understand the ending. Auden and Isherwood revised it not once but twice, with the result that there were three published versions with different endings. Later in life, Isherwood acknowledged that they never did get the ending right. But you can see this is because they didn’t know what they wanted to say.

The first part – the setup taking the mickey out of Establishment types – was easy. The scenes on the mountain, once they’d decided they’d do away with the other mountaineers one by one, almost wrote themselves. But the climax where they had to explain what the play was about? They couldn’t.

Within a year, a critic had suggested that the play dramatised nothing about politics and society but really dramatised Auden’s own personal dilemma: he had become ‘the Voice of a Generation’ and he didn’t want to be. He seemed to be a leader of all these other poets and writers but was, himself, wracked with doubts. He seemed to be leading them along a path (of socially committed poetry) which would lead some to destruction (to betray their talents) and didn’t want the responsibility.

The only way out was to kill the Auden figure amid a welter of Chorus poetry, but unfortunately this personal psychological way out didn’t make for very satisfactory theatre. In fact it doesn’t make sense and invalidates much of the preceding. The heavy symbolism of the Establishment figures, the rivalry with Ostnia and the deaths of his comrades, all these important issues are just waved away.

The strong man and other themes

A recurrent feature of Auden and Isherwood’s writing of the time was anxiety about ‘the truly strong man’ (anxiety about whether they’re being true ‘he-man’ types run through the Letters From Iceland which were written immediately after F6).

Some critics work these up into being a ‘discussion’ of masculinity. In this play you could say Michael Ransom ‘represents’ the conflict in one figure between the idea of doing the Heroic Thing, making a Proud Achievement for the Nation (i.e. climbing F6) – everyone’s stereotype of the Strong Man — but he inside knows that this achievement and giving in to public adulation would be weakness; for him, being truly strong would be to cancel the expedition, not to climb the mountain and to return to a quiet life of anonymity in England.

It’s a sort of interesting issue but I can’t get very worked up about it for three reasons:

  1. it’s obviously such an entirely personal obsession of Auden’s, maybe Isherwood’s too, it feels very close to the other schoolboy obsessions and jokes which pepper their writings
  2. and indeed, from one angle, it feels like a dramatisation of the very common plight of all weedy intellectuals who are in awe of big strong types, the wallflower anxieties of the Rick Moranis character in Ghostbusters
  3. it has been swept away by 80 years of identity and gender politics so as to be barely detectable as an issue

For an up-to-the-minute discussion of masculinity I refer you to the Barbican’s recent enormous exhibition on the subject:

Finally, these issues – a bit like the Christian symbolism which sort of appears, now and then – feel trivial in comparison to the artistic inventiveness of the play – it’s quick and fun, full of special effects, and of dazzling poetry!

Auden’s verse

On one level there’s a plot and there’s some ‘themes’ and ‘ideas’ and ‘issues’ you’re meant to take seriously. Maybe. But on another level, the play amounts to a barrage of Auden’s verse. There’s reams of it. About 30 pages of the 84 pages are in verse, choruses and lyrics. They cover a wide range of subject matter and affects. There are larky lyrics:

The chimney sweepers
Wash their faces and forget to wash the neck;
The lighthouse keepers
Let the lamps go out and leave the ships to wreck;
The prosperous baker
Leaves the rolls in hundreds in the oven to burn;
The undertaker
Pins a small note on the coffin saying, ‘Wait till I return,
I’ve got a date with Love.’

There’s a Chorus which echoes the action in typically elliptical, hieratic verse.

Acts of justice done
Between the setting and the rising sun
In history lie like bones, each one.
Still the dark forest, quiet the deep,
Softly the clock ticks, baby must sleep!
The Pole Star is shining, bright the Great Bear,
Orion is watching, high in the air.

Descriptions of England’s countryside wasted by the Depression.

Let the eye of the traveller consider this country and weep,
For toads croak in the cistern; the aqueduct chokes with leaves:
The highways are out of repair and infested with thieves:
The ragged population are crazy for lack of sleep;
Our chimneys are smokeless; the implements rust in the field
And our tall constructions are felled.

Gossipy descriptions of types of profession and character.

The cat has died at Ivy Dene,
The Crowthers’ pimply son has passed Matric,
St Neots has put up light blue curtains,
Frankie is walking out with Winnie
And Georgie loves himself.

Highly schematic call and response verse reminiscent of T.S. Eliot at his most portentous.

Give me bread   Restore my dead
I am sick   Help me quick
Give me a car   Make me a star
Make me neat   Guide my feet
Make me strong   Teach me where I belong

And Mr and Mrs A with their eternal worrying and complaining:

Mrs A
Give me some money before you go
There are a number of bills we owe
And you can go to the bank today
During your lunch hour.

Mr A
I dare say;
But as it happens I’m overdrawn.

Mrs A
Overdrawn? What on earth have you done
With all the money? Where’s it gone?

Mr A
How does money always go?
Papers, lunches, tube-fares, teas,
Toothpaste, stamps and doctor’s fees,
Our trip to Hove coast a bit, you know?

Theatrical effects

So the play is not enjoyable because of its themes of the public versus the private man, or its garbled treatment of ‘redemption’ but despite them. Despite the garbled plot, the play is packed full of not only a very wide range of types and registers of verse, but this is combined with a load of snappy stage effects.

Central is the idea that the two boxes nearest the stage i.e. not on the stage but set back from all the action, are populated by Mr and Mrs A, a dowdy suburban pair, he with his wretched job as a clerk in a miserable office, she eternally grumbling and complaining.

They appear regularly throughout the play commenting directly or obliquely on the main action (when the newspapers announce Britain is sending an exhibition to climb F6 they spout patriotic pride, when it is announced that Lamb has died they recite a funeral poem). Their appearance is indicated when the lights onstage dim to darkness and lights come up to illuminate their box.

But the box idea is taken further when one of them is populated with a radio which blares out official BBC announcements. And then by the announcer themselves in BBC black tie making announcements which also commentate on the action. Lord Stagworthy even appears in the box to make a pompous radio announcement full of clichés, ‘no more fitting grave for our brave boy etc’.

But this entertaining piece of satire them segues into Mrs A declaiming a relatively serious stretch of verse saying that the dead man (Lamp) is not now subject to age and the slow decay of ideals and mind and body. When the Mother appears she declaims a long passage of Shakespearian blank verse to describe the childhood of the two boys.

There is a secret I have kept so long
My tongue is rusty. What you have said
I knew and have always known. Why do you start?
You are my Michael and I know my own…

This is immediately followed by the stage going to a dead blackout and the voices of a load of newspaper boys hawking the latest editions and shouting their headline.

Evening Moon: Late Night Final!
Young English Climber’s Daredevil Attempt!
The Haunted Mountain: Full Story and Pictures!
Monasteries in Sudoland: Amazing Revelations!

Then lights come up on the Mr & Mrs A stage box to reveal Mrs A who declaims, not in her usual nagging housewife voice, but in a more elevated, ‘poetic’ trance:

I read the papers; there is nothing there
But news of failure and despair:
The savage train-wreck in the dead of night,
The fire in the school, the children caught alight,
The starving actor in the oven lying,
The cashier shot in the grab-raid and left dying,
The young girl slain upon the surgeon’s table,
The poison bottle with the harmless label…

(The sort of thing Auden could rattle off by the yard). Some individual pieces are brilliant and were later published as stand-alone poems (for example the ‘Stop all the clocks’ lyric that became superfamous after Richard Curtis included it in the script of Four Weddings And A Funeral).

But the real point of the play is its imaginative stagecraft – the speed with which it changes scenes and lighting and tone, from naturalistic prose to a whole range of verse, all signalled and highlighted by cunning lighting and sound effects (and the incidental music of Benjamin Britten, impossible to recreate when you silently read the play). Even in a stone cold reading its tremendous energy and inventiveness comes over. it’s a shame Auden and Isherwood couldn’t devise a successful ending to the play but it doesn’t stop the journey through the play to its muddled conclusion from being thrilling and entertaining.


Related links

Works from or about the 1930s

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