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God Requireth That Which Is Past

On attending a revival of Dear Octopus.

I want to want to be a theater-goer. I like the idea of being a metropolitan person, thoughtful and open-minded, leaving the T.V. dead and blank and the computer switched off, to spend brilliant evenings in London’s West End, laughing at clever jokes. How wonderful to continue in the Athenian tradition, established thousands of years ago and still living. How, well, civilized.

But like most of my efforts to be the sort of citizen I once wanted to be, I have never really managed it properly. I treasure a few moments. When I was young and impulsive, I groped my way, largely uncomprehending, through Ibsen, Strindberg, and Harold Pinter at the Oxford Playhouse. I actually traveled up to London to attend an appalling 1960s agitprop play called US, in which a huge cardboard nuclear missile was deployed on stage, and in which the beautiful Glenda Jackson played a minor role. I have seen many open-air productions of Shakespeare in Oxford college gardens, but they have become too fashionable now. I gave up after a rain-soaked version of Julius Caesar in which many but not all the male parts were taken by women, and my mind simply couldn’t cope with the implications. During my years as an actual Londoner, I laughed like mad at Tom Stoppard’s early plays, though, when I read them now, I wonder why.

I occasionally saw genius: Michael Hordern making a one-man show of Evelyn Waugh’s portrayal of his own descent into temporary madness, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, and Henry Fonda impersonating the not-very-likable liberal lawyer Clarence Darrow. I was one of the earliest patrons of the then-new National Theatre, a bomb-proof concrete emplacement on the South Bank of the Thames which would have fitted without difficulty into the Maginot Line. It was there that I disgraced myself by being the only person in the vast auditorium who laughed at a remark in a left-wing play (Pravda) attacking the sort of popular newspaper for which I have worked for decades. The words (I cannot now remember them) were funny but not in the way the playwright had intended, and so scores of cross left-wing faces turned towards me as I cackled.

Then parenthood intervened and for many years it was not even thinkable. But since then, I have tried again. I am not sure if I shall keep it up, because it is so colossally expensive and a great expedition. The London National Theatre, its exterior now darkened by age, has slowly turned into a sort of solid museum of pre-Thatcher Britain, its architecture and guiding spirit obviously originating in the brutal certainties of progress. But it bizarrely evokes my youthful revolutionary era, and so is curiously, unexpectedly light-hearted, especially now I can afford dinner at its restaurant. The nationalized ice-cream it used to sell in the intervals has been privatized. Even so, amid all that concrete, I can still hear the last enchantments of the 1960s, such as they were. Yet what drew me back there recently was an astonishing unexpected pleasure, a play first performed in September 1938. Dear Octopus was penned by a writer whose work almost everyone knows in one form or another but who, even so, is not that well-known. Dodie Smith, a tiny, toothy, naughty woman, is best known as the original author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, a work I suspect she threw off pretty briskly because she was annoyed by the declining popularity of her plays. She also wrote a charming and funny novel I Capture the Castle, which famously begins, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink . . .”

Dear Octopus has a curiously unsettling history. On its first night, September 14, 1938, everyone in the auditorium knew that war with Germany was imminent. The Czech crisis then erupting appeared to have no solution. Many had come into the building clutching evening papers full of news of impending combat. The audience were sunk in gloom and the first act played to a flat, apathetic response. War was coming, and a new age of casualty lists in the papers, rationing, and regulation was about to begin. It might be necessary, but it was not welcome. And everyone was wishing that this bitter cup would pass away. At the interval, the now forgotten but then famous novelist Charles Morgan, theater critic of The Times, appeared in the stalls with news from his office. The British Premier, Neville Chamberlain, would be flying to Germany for a summit with Hitler. This was greeted with unmixed joy, much as the later agreement at Munich would be. The rest of the play went very well. Its final rather moving scene, a tribute to the enduring value and power of the family, that “dear octopus,” left many in tears amid the applause.

It would run for more than two years, well into the war which eventually came. I am not sure whose idea it was to revive it in 2024, but the experience was a curious form of time travel. If I never see another play, I shall have been glad to have seen this one. Neither cinema nor T.V. nor a novel could have achieved the thoughtful, lasting distress and rather guilty longing which it inflicted on me. Here was the world my parents had lived in and known, everyone in it still spared the knowledge of the tumultuous eighty years which have since then, blasted away almost everything they once thought they knew and believed. A beautiful, austere set, combined with clever use of a revolving stage, created the impression of the sad passage of time as nothing else has that I have ever seen. The lamplit, shabby house, and all the events in it, seemed to be hurtling away from me in a downward spiral, as I am told the universe moves. And it is irrecoverable. Dodie Smith knew, I think, what she had summoned up. At a key moment, one character quotes from Ecclesiastes the words “That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.” I suspect the whole play, in which Christianity is openly discussed as a shared and normal faith, more than once, revolves around those words.

Two devices in the production, one in the 1938 original and one new, emphasized the fear and hatred of war which had quite reasonably arisen in the England of that date. Missing from the family gathering (for a golden wedding) is the firstborn son of the celebrating couple. His portrait is prominent in the room, but his body lies dead in France, killed in the 1914 war along with that great multitude of others, mourned and missed still in 1938, probably by every single person in the theater that long-ago September night. In a very brief but startling moment, the lost son’s mother Dora, and the nanny who nursed him as a baby, have this concentrated exchange.

Dora: My dear Peter.

Nanny: We shall see him again, ma’am.

Dora: Of course we shall.

The other is the playing, on a huge fretwork radio set, of B.B.C. bulletins from September 1938, speaking of preparations for war, the digging of trenches, the provision of gas masks and the rest. This tells us, in 2024, what everyone in the auditorium would have known eighty-six years before. Yet in the modern world we pretend not to understand this, or close our minds to it.

Plenty of ancient newsreels are played in T.V. documentaries, showing Neville Chamberlain bringing home his piece of paper from Munich, so we can all smugly say “Silly man!” But on September 30, 1938, sixteen days after the first night of Dear Octopus, a giant crowd gathered round Buckingham Palace in drenching rain, to welcome and applaud that same Mr. Chamberlain. It was the greatest multitude seen in London’s streets since the Coronation, the year before, of King George VI. And the King was there too, for he had invited his Prime Minister and his wife to share the Palace balcony with him and the Queen. For four long minutes they bathed in great waves of applause and cheering, lit up on that dingy early-autumn evening by the beam from one of the very few anti-aircraft searchlights then to be found in the capital of the British Empire.

There must be film of this event, but I have never seen it in a lifetime of viewing war documentaries and history programs. I have a theory as to why it is not shown. We are happy to jeer at Mr. Chamberlain, his appeasement and his pin-striped trousers, but not so happy to laugh at our forebears who at that hour were unashamedly delighted to have been spared war. I think this is because we reject the obvious suggestion that we might well have done the same had we been there, and the further implication that the mass of public opinion is more often wrong than right about the great issues. On this occasion I think they may have been wrong mainly because they sensed (correctly) that the familiar world they knew would not survive such a war, and they rather liked that world. As they mostly acquitted themselves with some nobility when the war eventually came, I believe we can excuse them for this very reasonable view. And God requireth that which is past.