Aunt Agatha & the Well-Made Play

Naff has a cutting edge. The Middle-of-the-Road is exactly where all our motivating beliefs and underlying problems have pooled. The art of the naff is escapist or soothing, but it can never quite out run its demons. Like Karen Carpenter’s melancholy voice pleading over all those fussy sugary arrangements good Naff can’t help but tell the truth. Life is sad. Life is scary. Life is absurd. It’s also fun. Naff privileges the fun bit, because the fun bit tends to sell. Even a sentimental tragedy, handled with hopeless relish, is fun. After all, it’s not our agony, we’ve avoided the agony. Maybe because we’re smarter, or nicer, or lucky? Naff tragedy is an exciting state of alarm. You can talk about it over the garden fence. It’s terrible but it’s not coming to get you, it’s happening in the next street. Or maybe it’s not? Naff tragedy will lurk in the back of the mind.

I’ve never believed in cool – within five minutes everything is rendered naff – all you have to do is get used to it. All art is trashy kitsch looked at with jaded eyes. Only extreme youth, beauty and images of danger have the right kick. But we all get old, beauty fades, and dangers can be so horrible we should feel guilty for making them art. There are canons of good art. Opera is good. Ballet is good. The Young British Artists of the 90s were good. Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Jane Austen… enough academics think they’re not naff, so they’re not naff. Naff is never academic, or genuinely aristocratic. Even though your average British stately home is a riot of hideous china figurines, disgusting gold leaf and appalling chintz – they’ve got class. Naff has to want class or the good life or a good life, but it can’t have it. Naff is a Royal mug in a semi-detached, Naff is a karaoke contest on the Costa del Sol. Naff is mainstream, genteel, safe, prissy, priggish, timid, ingratiating, wrong, pretentious, bad but not boring, foolish, ridiculous, unintellectual. Lumpen with aspirations.

Theatrical naff in the 20th Century centred on the Well-Made Play. The well-made play had one set – two at the most – three would make it a musical. TWMP was an understated version of the melodrama – nice hero, nice heroine, nasty villain, icy villainess, comical servants, dear old Mas & Pas. There was a problem – social for a serious play (like drink, or war, or divorce), domestic for a comedy (like love, career, impressing the neighbours) and a mixture of both for the thrillers and the farces. It tended to have three acts. In the first scene of the first act the characters were set up. In the second scene of the first act the problem loomed. In the second act the problem complicated. In the third act the problem was resolved. The dialogue was plain (with maybe a bit of baroque punning in a farce), the pace was even, shouting came at the end, the moral was common-sence. There was no sex, violence or swearing. Religion was quietly kept in the background. Politics would occasionally intrude, most often to tell the audience that it wasn’t intruding because that would make it a play written by some kind of radical & we wouldn’t want to be one of those would we?

Some writers of TWMP were in their element like Dodie Smith (Dear Octopus) or Enid Bagnold (The Chalk Garden), some writers like Emlyn Williams (Night Must Fall) were trapped by it.

The eternal nephew, Terrence Rattigan

Terence Rattigan, a playwright who destroyed his own credibility in the 1960s with his half-comical, half bitchy defences of TWMP, called its audience Aunt Edna. Aunt Edna wanted a bit of glamour, a bit of excitement, ideas for furnishings and clothes she could reasonably save up for, and an idealised version of her life – getting married, having children, her husband having a job, retirement. It could be scaled down and taken literally. It wasn’t idealistic. It wasn’t Jesus Christ telling us to drop everything and follow him. It wasn’t a demagogue urging us to take up arms for the Revolution. It wasn’t sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and a tragic early death. It was sensible, sustainable and amiable. You wouldn’t have to go bankrupt trying to buy a house in the South of France (a weekend in Brighton would be just the same), you wouldn’t have to trash hotel rooms and snort coke (you’d rather redecorate and have a sherry). It wasn’t some high concept piece of pop culture agitating you for more – more money, more power, more influence, more everything, more anything.

Aunt Ednas exist at the heart of all settled cultures. She’s British, Irish, Jamaican, Indian, American… she’s Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Pagan. She’s whatever she was raised to be and doesn’t have to think too much about. She’s very loyal and attached. She’s very fearful and phobic. She doesn’t want to hear anything threatening or mean. She can be a snob and a bigot – but she’s not aware of it. She would be hurt and bewildered if you pointed it out. If you pointed it out on a stage she would feel slightly sick, and accused. She would walk away sorrowfully wondering why the ‘Bright Young Things’ hated her so, or she’d glare furiously hoping someone else would boo while she harrumphed. She thinks the country is all wrong, but she doesn’t want anything to change. That’s the centre of Aunt Edna, she can veer to the left or the right. She can assimilate new norms – as long as it’s a bit gay and not laddish. She’s never going gangsta, she might go drag queen. If she does go gangsta it’ll be to indulge her beloved Grandson. Aunt Edna’s standards warp around those she loves.

Aunt Edna loves Romance and Murder.

She did then, she does now. (Curiously enough, while her rap loving gangsta Grandson is the subject of a moral panic over his listening and viewing choices – it caused the London Riots! –  no one worries that the Christmas treat of the nation’s nice old ladies is a polite orgy of throat cutting, poisoning, stabbing, burning, running over, shooting, battering and trip-wiring).  

And so the reigning Queen of the Well Made Play (still to be seen touring and in the West End – with stars!) is the reigning Queen of the Golden Age Crime Novel, Agatha Christie.

Young Agatha Christie

Agatha has nice characters (sketched in with a few details, but the leads seem to be based on real people rather than stock types) and great plots. The plot is the main point of an Agatha story so that any morals, or accusations would be slipped in behind the basic business of murder and detection. It keeps the heat off the audience. It’s the difference between a Bible basher who thunders away and makes you feel like a worthless sinner or makes you feel like you really ought to go lynch those worthless sinners or you’ve neglected your duty, and a nice Priest who reads a bit of the Bible and tells us something mildly uplifting or improving we could take from it.

Her books clatter along and the puzzle keeps our attention. Darker things bubble beneath in a way they don’t for almost any other crime writer. Agatha seems puzzled by life. She can feel emotions, can see actions… but she doesn’t quite understand how they ended up in Devon. How can we have created a world of afternoon tea and the postal service when we’re capable of stabbing each other to death in a frenzy of passion? Things just are. There’s the surface, normal and sure. There’s the dream world of crime. There’s before and after. She evades the transitions. She hates anything contested. Her narrators are unreliable, her suspects appear to one thing and are often revealed to be another. You can’t trust a policeman to be a policeman, you can’t trust a nurse not to poison their patient. Lovely people can be evil, evil people can be noble. Her worst ire is for idealists who try to bring the normal world of order and the dream world of passion together with explanations or new ways of living.

Her imagination seems to have been driven by childhood fantasy. An Edwardian world of nursery rhymes, Chivalry and fairyland. Bad things are valiant in fantasy. There’s no moral horror in being a King with a Kingdom of peasants, no shame in slaying a dragon, conquering a country or kidnapping a fair maiden. Children are scolded and pinched, gingerbread men are chased and eaten, wily rabbits try to outwit hungry foxes. But that’s not how nice well brought up ladies would behave in real life. Then she grew up and her world was not always as happy as she was told it should be. Her father died when she was young, her opera career failed, the first world war sent her out to work in a pharmaceutical dispensary (where she learnt not only about poisons, but that being near poison could make even the most ordinary and mousy seeming man feel powerful), her first husband cheated on her and she suffered a breakdown (disappearing and sparking a nationwide man-hunt, before turning up in Yorkshire, claiming to have amnesia). With all these pretences, all these incompatible perspectives, the theatre was a natural home for her work.

She benefited from coming from a well-established world of crime novels. She had a breadth of experience and a commitment to the technical aspects of the story that most writers of ‘crook plays’ didn’t have. It wasn’t a case of getting them on and off stage, of having a body and a couple of big scenes. Her murder plays are so well plotted that there’s room to wonder about the people, their lifestyle, what it makes them feel. It borders on the mythic or the metaphysical. In ‘And Then There Were None’ (the original title was Ten Little Niggers – the plot corresponds to a nursery rhyme of the same title, it’s like ten green bottles with black boys and it’s appropriately hideous – it conveys the insane judgemental bigotry of the killer perfectly – but would be harmfully misinterpreted) visitors are trapped on an island and bumped off one by one, in ‘Appointment with Death’ a domineering woman seems to be outdone by the heat, the sand and the timelessness of the desert, in ‘Spider’s Web’ a murder has to be endlessly covered up for political reasons.

Modern audiences adore this stuff. The tourists are still packing in to see the ‘Mousetrap’ in London, and Bill Kenwright Ldt has its own ‘Agatha Christie Players’ (with stars! And Mark Wynter!) who seem to be touring a play a year. I’ve seen every one of them – my Mother is a wee Glasgow Aunt Edna (by sheer force of will – she grew up in Yoker – she should be watching pantomimes, male strippers and anything involving motherhood or the menopause and cackling) and she wouldn’t miss it. They star actors unseen since reality tv ate the schedules; Susan Penhaligon! That guy out of ‘Drop the Dead Donkey’! That young one that looks like that one who was married to that bloke who ran off with Dirk Bogarde but who isn’t because she’s young! The Glasgow audience is not an easy one for anything English, unless it’s Edna English, in which case Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic (and Asian – not too many though, this is a massive failing of British Naff culture – skin colour is still a bar to belonging, to feeling safe, to identifying with the lead) can come together in a common cause. They ooh at a bit of thigh, chuckle at a thieving cockney char, sigh at a lovelorn yokel, gasp at an attempted strangulation. It’s amazing to see that level of engagement. It’s as close as I’ll ever get to seeing a show booed off the stage or an author called for during a standing ovation. Posher theatre is dullsville in comparison; there’s laughter, maybe a bit of under-the-breath heckling, but not much else.

Agatha has her haters. She’s been accused of anti-Semitism – she was fond of referring to people having a Jewish nose – possibly because she knew someone who had a Jewish nose and she kept recycling the detail. She’s been accused of stereotyping the working-class, I think she wrote what she saw, which wasn’t much outside of her own sphere. She’s been accused of implying that foreigners are sinister – I think her hero Poirot throws a bucket of cold water over that one. Besides she was half-American, she wasn’t pure English anyway. She’s been accused of homophobia for her constant references to manly women and effete men. I don’t know how much a woman of her class and generation would really, properly know about homosexuality – it could all have been half-hidden from her – but there’s no evidence she disliked gays. No anecdotes of rudeness. Even in her later, demented novels where lesbians get a direct mention – there’s no hint that she thought lesbians a bad thing. In fact – the whisper has always been that her second husband was gay and Agatha herself might not, given half a chance, have been quite so straight. Anyway, she was surrounded by men and women who went to boarding school, who had a pash for a fellow inmate and who came out of the whole shebang Jolly Hockey Sticks practical or a bit of a dandy. It was all grist to her ‘don’t trust a book by its cover’ mill.

Myself – I love her work. I love a Well Made Play. I like Naff.

I wouldn’t be able to write it and I’d die of boredom if that’s all there was. But at its best, with its audience, in all its artificial glamour and glory. It’s perfection.

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