On Sunday it was Love Oxford – an annual event where many of the churches from across the city gather together for one massive service in South Parks. It’s always brilliant, and this year was no exception – although for the first time I’d volunteered to steward. Just the sort of weather you want to be adding layers, in the form of a fluorescent yellow jacket. And a mic-headset thingummy, which I never quite understood.
Anyway, once the service we over we all sat in the sun (or, in my case, the shade) for a picnic – and because I’d brought a book (Three Plays by A.A. Milne) and my housemates hadn’t, we decided to do a play reading for ourselves! Well, Mel and Lois and I did; our other housemate Liz moved far away from us and pretended she didn’t know us.
I don’t know if you ever read plays, either out loud or in the normal way, but I think it’s one of the great neglected areas of fiction. It’s very unlikely that anybody is going to put these plays back on the stage, and so it’s great fun to read them. With an author like A.A. Milne, as well, there are added advantages to reading instead of watching – his stage directions are often very funny, and purely for the benefit of the reader. Since Milne was one of my first author-obsessions, I got very used to reading plays (he wrote a lot, and was famous for them long before Mr. Winnie-the-Pooh came along) but I know a lot of people would never even consider it.
The play we read was one of Milne’s most popular, and P.G. Wodehouse said it was his favourite play (even when saying he’d like Milne to trip over and break his neck… they had a bit of a public falling-out after the Berlin Broadcasts) – it’s called The Dover Road. Leonard and Anne are running away to France together; Leonard abandoning his wife Eustacia in the process. Their car breaks down, and they are forced to come to ‘a sort of hotel’, run by Latimer. It quickly emerges that Latimer intends to keep them prisoner there for a week, in order that they can think things through before acting impetuously – and see each other in a new light. Little known to them, another couple have already been there for a week… Eustacia and her runaway partner Nicholas.
Yes, the scenario is a little contrived, but who cares about that – The Dover Road is a very funny play about the benign meddling of Latimer and the various mismatched pairings under his roof. For just a taste, here’s Anne complaining about Leonard’s failure to get her safely to France (the ellipses are all in the original) : What made you ever think that you could take anybody to the South of France? Without any practice at all? . . . Now, if you had been taking an aunt to Hammersmith – well, you might have lost a bus or two . . . and your hat might have blown off . . . and you would probably have found yourselves at Hampstead the first two or three times . . . and your aunt would have stood up the whole way . . . but still you might have got there eventually. I mean, it would be worth trying – if your aunt was very anxious to get to Hammersmith. But the South of France! My dear Leonard! it’s so audacious of you.I can’t find The Dover Road online, although quite a few of A.A. Milne’s plays can be read here. Otherwise, next time you’re in a secondhand bookshop, go and have a look in the Plays section – there’s quite often a volume of AAM’s work there.
And, to go back to the first question – do you read plays? And if not, is it because you have tried and failed to enjoy it, or just never thought about it? Answers on a postcard… or, if you prefer, in the comments box…(!)