On The Frontier by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1938)

This is the third and final theatrical collaboration between the poet W.H. Auden and the novelist Christopher Isherwood. Their previous two plays had been written for and performed by the highly political and experimental Group Theatre. They had been encouraged to use a mixture of prose and poetry and to write about ‘political’ subjects.

The Ascent of F6

Their previous work, The Ascent of F6, had been about the rivalry between two colonial powers, Britain and the fictional ‘Ostnia’ for control of a fictional African country called Sudonia. The natives believed whoever got to the top of the big mountain on the border between the two colonies – named F6 by geographers – would rule both. We are introduced to stereotypes of British Establishment types, including a blustering general, a scheming newspaper proprietor, and the Foreign Secretary and then the play follows the team of British mountaineers who set out to climb F6.

Three points: when it comes down to it the play is less about politics and more about the struggle in the mind of the lead character, the charismatic mountaineer Michael Ransom, who worries that if he succeeds he will be turned into a celebrity and even be tempted to use his power over the British public, possibly not for good i.e. be tempted to become the Strong Leader which a craven public is crying out for.

2. We meet two representatives of this craven public in the shape of Mr and Mrs A, who are given verse choruses throughout the action, who read the papers, listen to the radio, grumble about the trains and the weather and their crappy little suburban lives. They pop up in the boxes nearest the stage, are revealed and then disappear using clever lighting and are, generally, the most enjoyable part of the play.

3. The end is awful. Auden & Isherwood eventually tried out three different endings but none of them worked because they didn’t really know what they wanted to say. There’s lots of talk about the mountain being haunted by a ‘Demon’, but in the first version, when Ransom finally reaches the top, the Demon is revealed as being his own smothering, dominating Mother. Whatever this weird ending was trying to say, it was too obscure and psychological in origin to work on the stage.

On The Frontier

Despite these problems, F6 was a surprise success and was even broadcast, live, on a very early version of the new BBC television service on 31 May 1937.

This motivated Auden and Isherwood to try something more commercial, with an eye to getting a proper West End success. They attempted a more serious story and this time the verse – which had been such a highlight of F6 – was rigorously cut back.

On The Frontier reuses the fictional nations of Ostnia and Westland, who share a common border and hate each other. The play has three sets of characters. By far the most enjoyable is Valerian, Captain of Industry, owner of a vast combine which owns and runs most of the town beneath his looming plate glass offices. He is camp and droll, an Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward figure, loftily ironical about the ‘people’s’ pathetic dreams of freedom, but just as dismissive of the ridiculous new ‘leader’ whose risen to the top of the pile in Westland after a recent revolution. He is served by an impeccable butler named Manners, who reminds me of Nestor, butler to Captain Haddock in Tintin.

The main set of characters are two families, the Thorvalds of Westland and the Vrodnys of Ostnia, and the main theatrical innovation or feature of the play is that although these two families lives in houses hundreds of miles apart, in their respective countries, on the stage, in this play, they appear in the same space at the same time. The stage is simply divided in two and we watch the Thorvald family bicker and squabble on their side, and the Vrodnys argue and make up on theirs – at the same time. This allows for all kinds of counterpointing, for example when each family listens on the radio to the announcement of war from their respective leaders, the Leader of Westland and the King of Ostnia.

The main counterpoint is that the young man in the Thorvald household, Eric, is in love with the young woman in the Vrodny household, Anna. Yes, it is Romeo and Juliet. But cheesy though it sounds, I bet this made for quite dramatic stagecraft, for on several occasions the lights go down on their bickering families and the two lovers step into a spotlight to declare their love, and ask why the world is so violent and divided etc etc. Trite sentiments, but even reading it cold on the page you can see that it must have been quite visually dramatic.

And of course you realise this is that the title refers to: the frontier between the two countries runs right down the middle of the stage and between Eric and Anna.

There’s a third group, a chorus of 5 men and 3 women who play different roles to punctuate the main action, for example playing workers hanging round outside a factory at the beginning; or five Englishmen reading out loud from five British different newspapers which each report the mounting international tension in their stylised and biased ways; to soldiers firing from two opposing trenches, once the war gets going.

Because for all the fine talk, and all the stylish one-liners of the urbane Valerian, and despite the Leader (actually a gruff and tired and confused former peasant i.e. not at all a homicidal Hitler or Mussolini) pledging to withdraw his troops and declare a non-aggression pact – despite Eric and Anna pledging their troth in the spotlight – despite everyone’s good intentions, in incident on the border – a bomb explosion in which civilians from both sides are killed – triggers both countries’ latent hatred and contempt of the other, and they go to war.

Inevitably the war drags on and we see the homes of the two families become steadily more shabby and denuded. Not only that, but beloved members of the families are killed off as the conflict drags on.

And, just to rub it in, a plague breaks out which starts devastating both countries. The Thorvald family has included Martha, Dr Thorvald’s unmarried sister, a frustrated spinster who takes out her frustration by hero worshiping The Leader with a zeal which embarrasses the rest of the family. Well, rather inevitably, she‘s the one who develops symptoms of the plague and, once she realises it, breaks out in hysterics –  a classic example of Auden’s psychological theories that frustrated desires breed actual physical disease.

And Valerian, the amusingly cynical industrialist? As the war escalates first his loyal lieutenant, Schwartz, rushes in to tell him he’s leaving the country, emigrating to South America, the army’s collapsed, the war has turned into a civil war. Then he has a page-long prose speech yelling out the window at the rabble beneath, explaining that their ‘revolution’ will be defeated, how he and his ilk own the papers, the radio, and will spread lies and disinformation about their atrocities (this can be read as an upper-class denunciation of all revolutions but some aspects of it seem to refer to the way the Republican side was defeated in the Spanish Civil War).

Then the Storm-trooper Grimm bursts in (a character we’ve met earlier in the play, being strong and silent). Now he has rebelled. Shockingly, he tells Valerian he’s just shot dead the Leader, in his office elsewhere in the same building.

Now we discover he is a man with a grudge. At one stage in its growth Valerian’s conglomerate deliberately undercut all the small high street shops which, as a result, went bankrupt. Grimm’s father kept one. The family was reduced to poverty. His father shot himself. Young boy Grimm made a vow to meet the man who destroyed his family. It’s taken him years to enter the Storm Troopers and rise this far. And now he’s face to face with the man who did it (Valerian) holding a gun. Valerian begs for his life and offers Grimm gold, jewels, cash. It’s an extended scene in which the initiative passes between them because as Valerian talks on Grimm slowly loses his murderous impetus, while Valerian becomes more confident. Eventually Valerian oversteps the mark, passing from speculation about Grimm’s love life, or lack of, to his mother and that’s a bad mistake. Suddenly incensed, Grimm shoots him dead. Oh well.

Anyway, both Eric and Anna die. That’s it. Shame. The pity of war. The futility of conflict. Romeo and Juliet.

The play ends with Eric and Anna rising from their respective deathbeds, drifting back into the central spotlight where we’ve seen them several times before, and delivering the authors’ message, such as it is – classic Auden which invokes very generalised ideas of The City and Justice and Love and Dignity:

Now as we come to our end,
As the tiny separate lives
Fall, fall to their graves
We begin to understand.
A moment, and time will forget
Our failure and our name
But not the common thought
That linked us in a dream.
Open the closing eyes,
Summon the failing breath,
With our last look we bless
The turning maternal earth.
Europe lies in the dark
City and flood and tree;
Thousands have worked and work
To master necessity.
To build the city where
The will of love is done
And brought to its full flower
The dignity of man.
Pardon them their mistakes,
The impatient and wavering will.
They suffer for our sakes,
Honour, honour them all.
Dry their imperfect dust,
The wind blows it back and forth.
They die to make man just
And worthy of the earth.

Thoughts

Difficult to tell whether this would have worked in a theatrical setting. With good lighting, in the presence of an expectant audience, and with good actors speaking the words, maybe. But on the page it remains quite cold, reading like standard Auden fustian. By the time of its first performances (six nights in Cambridge from Monday 14 November 1938, and one night only in London on Sunday 12 February 1939), everyone in England had been traumatised by the Munich Crisis of the previous September and everyone on the Left was upset by the slow grinding failure of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War (which was declared over on 1 April 1939).

Against this deeply grim political backdrop the two happy-go-lucky public schoolboys’ stab at covering contemporary anxieties just doesn’t feel deep or worked-out enough – the characters are ciphers, the plot is ludicrous. Maybe the characters dropping like flies are doing so, as the concluding chorus puts it, in order ‘to make man just and worthy of the earth’ – but these seem like pretentious lines which the preceding ‘drama’ hasn’t really justified.

Instead the most obvious thing you get from reading this closing passage cold, is its Christian feel. It is, in effect, a prayer asking God to forgive ‘them’ i.e. us.

In a later memoir Isherwood revealed that throughout their collaborations he had the devil of a struggle preventing Auden slipping into Christian attitudes; whenever Isherwood’s back was turned, Auden had the characters flopping down onto their knees and praying about something or other, and the climax of this play seems to be a classic example of this tendency.

It feels like an ambitious school play.

Lastly, the whole cartoon concept of these two stereotypical nations, ‘Westland’ versus ‘Ostnia’, kept reminding me of the warring nations Freedonia and Sylvania in the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup, an anti-war satire which has aged far better.


Related links

Works from or about the 1930s

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