There could never have been any doubt that Tony Harrison’s latest play, Fram, would be an exceptionally ambitious, provocative endeavor. Regularly identified as Britain’s foremost theatre and film poet, Harrison’s background is working class. He grew up in the north and, as a particularly promising pupil, won scholarships to attend Leeds Grammar School and, later, the University of Leeds. He refused to turn his back on his roots, his accent, and his choice of language. The novelty of his poetry in the vernacular built bridges between unlikely audiences, since he made the verse structure accessible for some in ways it had not been previously, while the subject matter provided unexpected insights to readers and viewers more familiar with the form. Harrison’s previous narrative verse projects include translations of classics such as The Oresteia (1981) and Hecuba (2005), an acclaimed adaptation of an English medieval mystery play The Mysteries (1985), and films, including Black Daisies for the Bride (1994), The Shadow of Hiroshima (1995), and Prometheus (1998). He is perhaps best-known for the highly controversial televised poem V (1987), when the apt inclusion of profanity sparked public debate, angered television censors, and made him a cult celebrity.
The subjects of Harrison’s latest play fit comfortably into a National Theatre season that included three new plays by established British writers featuring political subjects and historical characters in the interwar years. In Never So Good, Howard Brenton considers the life of Harold Macmillan from his experience as a soldier during World War I to the end of his time as British prime minister in 1963. In Afterlife, Michael Frayn explores the work of renowned German-Jewish dramatist Max Reinhardt as he instituted the annual theatre festival in Salzburg before the arrival of the Nazis. Tony Harrison’s Fram traces the evolution of Fridtjof Nansen, from polar-exploring Darwinian to social activist serving as High Commissioner for Refugees in the League of Nations. This coincidence of interest in the interwar period suggests connections to our own era. It is becoming increasingly clear that for many regions, peace and stability will not be found at the end of current military and political campaigns. Genocide must be acknowledged as an imminent rather than a historical threat; famine and commodity shortages are a reality, and we are confronted with the uncomfortable possibility that we may be moving toward, rather than away from, further global conflict. It is in these moments of insecurity that we are most in need of heroes. We want to be inspired by remarkable people and see evidence that an individual can make a difference.
In his new play, Harrison provides an exciting group of historical characters who are all celebrated in their fields and who can all be considered heroes. Heading the list is the Norwegian polar-explorer Nansen, and it is from the name of his ship, Fram— “forward” in Norwegian—that the play takes its title. Harrison also features professor and translator of classics Gilbert Murray, the actress Sybil Thorndike, the head of the Save the Children Charity Eglantyne Jebb, and the leader of the Russian Famine Relief Fund, the peace activist Ruth Fry. Setting the play during the 1920s should have allowed an exploration of contemporary issues with enough distance to achieve a thoughtful subtlety; the strong historical characters should have been inspirational to viewers and helped motivate positive social action. Unfortunately, this potential went unfulfilled; instead, the playwright’s disparate theatrical styles clashed, and he presented the audience with a muddled plotline and a series of unresolved-issue statements about heroism, the role of art and media to inspire social responsibility, and immigration.
Harrison’s work regularly recognizes the value of utilizing unexpected formats to raise sociopolitical [End Page 128] issues, and this production was no exception. In this instance, he juxtaposed ostensibly factual representations of historical and contemporary events with artistic representations not only in the deployment of his subject, but also in its delivery. Rather than choosing a more straightforward naturalistic narrative, Harrison wrote the play entirely in...