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Archetypal Patterns in Fry Emil Roy Beneath Christopher Fry’s passion for shaping diversity into unity, for finding some transcendent place to stand from which he might move his world, is a richly figurative, half-acknowledged uni­ verse of inchoate suggestiveness. It is a shifting, open world which transforms itself without being emptied of its cruellest actualities. In a spasm of mock-pathos, the heroine of his earliest published comedy, A Phoenix too Frequent (1946), bewails her sense that, When the thoughts would die, the instincts will set sail For life. And when the thoughts are alert for life The instincts will rage to be destroyed on the rocks. Only later does her lover, Tegeus, achieve a reconciliation of her paradoxes: Is there ever progression without retrogression? Therefore is it not true that mankind Can more justly be said increasingly to Gress? Fry concludes that his characters’ “hearts must be as determined as the phoenix; what burns must also light and renew: not by a vulner­ able optimism, but by a hard-won maturity of delight.” 1 But as Wylie Sypher has perceived, underneath a surface layer of what Fry has insisted must be more than “new ways to express old trivialities” must lie the pattern-free (non-Gestalt) activity of the unconscious, disciplined self which cannot be expressed by the forms consciousness imposes on our vision and thought.2 In Fry’s creative lower depths, as in those of all artists, can be detected what Santayana terms the “ primary impulses of nature,” unacknowledged archetypes which “ though intermittent, are monotonous and clearly defined, as are the gestures of love and of anger.” 3 Since the deepest meanings of art arise whenever there is an interplay between the patterns of sur­ face perception and the pressures of depth perception, a study of Fry’s most significant and obsessively repetitive archetypal patterns may more clearly define his status as artist, as opposed to that of arranger or maker. Despite the disparity of his settings, themes and sources as they have emerged in three decades of dramatic composition, Fry’s plays all develop through a cluster of patterns involving witty splits, doublings and ambivalences. To begin with, the settings of the plays are usually literally or symbolically divided, “poised on the edge of eternity,” as 93 Fry puts it. Barriers appear between villages, national groups, heaven and earth, society and the land of the dead, halves of centuries, day and night. Most of the plays reveal ironically concentric settings: a tomb or cemetery surrounded by edenic verdancy as in A Phoenix or A Sleep of Prisoners; conversely, a sunken wasteland through which a hero quests for a parental, societal or spiritual ideal appears in The Boy with a Cart, The Firstborn, The Lady, The Dark is Light Enough and Curtmantle. Or the setting may invert the tomb-within-garden motif: Venus Observed, for instance, presents an ancient house sur­ rounded by a forest within a decadent societal wasteland. In both The Dark and Curtmantle, a stable, open society shrinks to almost nothing before our eyes under the impingements of a hostile world. While the moods of the plays vary with the seasons, most of Fry’s plays begin in the afternoon or evening, rise to a series of crises during the night and reach their resolutions near morning. Each of the post­ war plays except Venus is set in a garrison state on the verge of col­ lapse, undergoing or recovering from invasion or civil warfare. Further­ more, the split settings imply the action which ensues. Fry repeats with variations the focal situation of A Phoenix. A young man wants or is wanted by a young woman, but his wishes are frustrated temp­ orarily by an older man with more money and status. (The pattern has overtones of the Oedipus situation in Greek theater, Adam and Eve in the Bible, and Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare). As Martin Grotjahn explains, “The son plays the role of the victorious father with sexual freedom and achievement, while the father is cast in the role of the frustrated onlooker.” 4 Usually the older man’s opposition is oblique or covert, his power being felt in his...


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pp. 93-104
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