Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 20: Doris Lessing’s Play with a Tiger (1962)
Admittedly, the plain hard back cover and knowing nothing about the play made me apprehensive about whether I’d enjoy reading Play with a Tiger, which opened at the Comedy Theatre in 1962. For some reason I was expecting a stuffy drawing room comedy. And that of course is what Lessing wants us to think it is at the start, before (quite literally) the walls open up and the air is let in.
Set in a London flat which was probably once a mansion terrace – similar to The Deep Blue Sea – Lessing peoples her play with characters who are either single, widowed, recently broken up, or unhappily married. The play is largely a two hander between Anna and Dave. David is a brash American. Anna, an Australian now settled in London with an accompanying well-bred accent, is one of Dave’s love interests. Slightly reminiscent of Abi Morgan’s The Mistress Contract, the play sees Anna and Dave warring through the night as he tries to convince her to take him back which she struggles to but ultimately resists. It’s a love-hate relationship, and they counsel each other about dreams forgotten and their childhood memories. However, there are some interesting and perhaps unflattering perspectives on marriage. Anna channels her mother who regretted not chasing her dream of becoming a concert pianist and was instead ‘stuck in a dump like this, with two ungrateful children and a no-good husband’ (53). It is therefore understandable to see why Anna decided to travel rather than marry early. Much of this play is a ‘sex war’ as the characters call it, but to say that the play is wholly about gender differences is to make it sound boring and conceited.
It’s actually very meaty. But I want to skim over that to discuss how the play strikingly reflects wider issues of the time. Dan Rebellato in 1956 and All That explores the idea that characters in much of the work of 50s’ playwrights lamented the loss of a big cause, something which is worth fighting for after WWII. In Play with a Tiger, unstable characters who are alone struggle to find their place in a similarly unstable world. Dave complains that on ‘street corners now the kids are not prepared to fight the world… Everyone of us, we were prepared to take on the whole world single-handed’ (42). An idealist, Dave still holds a flame for believing that ‘the state of the world [is] more important than me’ (51) yet it is Anna who has to remind him that ‘there are other people in the world’ (49) referring to his selfish attitudes towards women. The play prompted me to think that it foreshadows issues in Ann Jellicoe’s The Sport of Mad Mother from a few years later in its characters’ international reach and adolescent ideals.
All this is cleverly and evocatively reflected in the walls of the flat fading to reveal the enormous, scary, dark city looming above them, something which highlights their insignificance. And is there a tiger in it? Sadly, no. But Anna’s vision of a tiger in the room when imagining something new for the future throws an idea of wilderness and freedom and playfulness into the mix. Is that Dave’s future or is it instead a marriage to a respectable college girl from Philadelphia? Are Dave and Anna living in an age of revolution or on the brink of puritanism? Maybe that’s not what the play is about at all but Play with a Tiger is so rich with ideas that it’s understandable and refreshing for a reader’s mind to wander beyond the usually restrictive walls of an apartment mise-en-scene.