When I was reading Dodie Smith’s first volume of autobiography, Look Back With Love, the title which cropped up most (and most intrigued me) was her play Dear Octopus (1938). She didn’t write much about its creation or production, since obviously she didn’t write the play during her first eleven years, but she makes allusions now and then. My attention was grabbed by the mention of family reunions, John Gielguid, and that curious title. Actually, I’ll instantly put you out of your misery, lest you think this is a play set in an aquarium. The title derives from the speech Nicholas gives at his parents’ Golden Wedding Anniversary:
Despite being an only child, Dodie Smith seems very able at portraying sibling relationships within large families. (Indeed, one character claims to be ‘crazy about large families’, and their husband caustically remarks ‘That’s because you’re an only child.’) Rose and Cassandra always seemed very believable in I Capture the Castle (albeit Thomas rather less so) and Dear Octopus is no different. The size of the cast, and the various familial and marital relationships, was rather dizzying – but, of course, it would have been rather easier to identify everyone when seeing it on the stage, rather than reading the play. We discussed reading plays a couple of years ago, and it seems that I am in a minority – although it has to be said that I do prefer reading plays with small casts, rather than the mammoth ensemble of Dear Octopus.
The situation is a tried and tested catalyst for all manner of action: a family reunion. I don’t think there’s much point in me going into specifics, but it involves all the expected angles. A daughter returns after a seven year absence, holding a secret; a sister-in-law holds resentment about a long-ago rejection; siblings compete and misunderstand each other; children try to understand the adult world; the gathering draws further attention to one family member who has recently died. And, naturally, there is a romance plot threaded through – which culminates rather too neatly, perhaps, but everyone likes a bit of feel-good theatre.
There is plenty in Dear Octopus which does remind one of the insouciance of much of I Capture the Castle – and, indeed, Cassandra’s faux-sophistication. Like this, for example:
Young love and young marriages are treated quite flippantly at times, although elsewhere the oncoming war (they must have known it was oncoming?) does crash through this flippancy:
But the focal point is not budding romance – it is the security and trust of a fifty-year long marriage. There is a lovely sense through that the anniversary couple in question (Charles and Dora) can cope with the antics of their family because of the depth of their bond. For a young(ish) unmarried woman, Smith conveys this very well, and very calmly.
Dear Octopus doesn’t reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of plays in a similar mould, and even with a similar tone, but Smith’s construction and balance throughout is so well done that this seems like an exemplar within its crowded genre. Perhaps it won’t overly excite the reader, or transform any lives, but it does its job rather well. I don’t know how often the play is revived now, but you do get a chance to see it, grab the opportunity. Otherwise, I recommend you track down a copy, and have an entertaining afternoon…