The play is set in the ruins of a house that has been
burned to the ground. As the curtain rises three young
men are sifting through the smoking ashes.
In September 1958 Eve and I drove up to Edinburgh for the dress rehearsals of The Aimless.
John Duncan and his troupe had taken over the Royal Arch Hall in Queen Street three days before and the set was already up. It was basic, the remains of a charred wall and a broken window against a blue sky, branches of a tree, rubble centre stage which would give off smoke if the fire officer gave his permission, a marble statue of Adonis stage left.
I watched a run through and wasn’t too impressed by the acting. But everyone knew their lines.
The dress rehearsal was the usual chaos. The lights didn’t work, the sound effects were not on cue, the branches of the tree got in the way of someone’s entrance, but the advance bookings were good.
Nerves, butterflies, stage fright, sickness, everyone concerned suffered them on the night. The curtain went up. They got through it. Genuine applause. Three curtain calls. I had no idea what to think.
I sat with Eve in the auditorium numbed. The shock entrance of the father, believed dead at the end of the first act, had worked well, the gay boy got a few laughs when they were not intended but coped, and tension had risen uncomfortably when he kissed the statue a little too sensually - a change from the original script to satisfy the censor. But no one had booed nor thrown rotten eggs and the audience had left in silent thought and whispered discussion.
We went back stage to congratulate the company in the crowded dressing room. Doubt as to their own success occupied each actor as they wiped off the greasepaint, then there was sudden silence.
I turned. In the doorway stood an effete, immaculately dressed man holding a cigarette between third and fourth finger of his right hand.
'I think you all d-did sp-splendidly,' he stuttered, for he suffered from this setback.
It was Kenneth Tynan.
'And you must be the writer,' he said to me. 'Having the boy kiss a statue was a b-brilliant way of expressing his homosexuality without pointing out that such a thing exists. I was curious to see how you’d get round the problem. Well done. And he was gone.
The first review by A.V.Coton, drama critic of the Daily Telegraph, came out mid week.
THE WIDOWER AND HIS SONS
Family analysis in fascinating plot.
Combing through the tangles of the Edinburgh ‘fringe’ one can find worthy plays dully
acted and also dull plays excitingly presented. The Aimless by André Launay is presented
for only a few performances by a mixed group of talents at the Royal Arch Hall. It is a
competent well designed play on a permanently interesting theme - the responsibility of fathers
towards their children and of children for their father’s actions. Its involved but plausible plot
concerns the stresses between a widower and his three sons whose lives reach a particular climax
when their hom is burned down and the three sons have to decide what their lives are about and
how much they owe to their father This is an irritating but nevertheless fascinating play whose
strong skeleton carries little attractive flesh. Its atmosphere Chekhovian, its language and situations
entirely of the 1950s.
This was followed by a mixture of good and bad notices with some unexpected and some obvious headlines:
NEW PLAY IN THE NIHILIST TRADITION. ( Glasgow Herald )
SPARKLES AND SHOCKS IN NEW PLAY. ( Daily express )
IT'S MERELY AIMLESS. (Daily Mail )
THIS PLAY IS TOO OBSCURE. (Edinburgh Evening News )
ANGRY YOUNG MEN BLAME FATHER (The Scotsman )
NEW ANGRY YOUNG MAN SPOUTS VENOM ( News Chronicle )
On Sunday, the last day, Kenneth Tynan’s anxiously awaited critique in the Observer had to be searched for in his long three column piece on the Edinburgh Festival.
André Launay’s THE AIMLESS, though feverishly ill acted, has a beguiling theme : the rational hatred
of three sons for their hypocritical father. Each of them, through being truthful, learns that truth destroys:
We all inhabit prisons from which we cannot escape without injuring somebody else. A defensible idea,
but one that needs subtler writing to defend it.
My first thoughts were whether these notices would be good enough to lead to a more professional production, my second thoughts were of how Eddy would react to the Telegraph review. It was the paper he read regularly on the train every morning.
John Duncan and his cast returned to Newcastle with mixed feelings about what had been achieved, Eve and I returned to London where I received congratulations on the phone from my mother and Pierre, complete indifference from Bill and Doris, and a wall of silence from Eddy who never once mentioned the play let alone asked to read it.
Over the following months I sent The Aimless to a number of producers all of whom rejected it, some kindly, asking to see anything else I might write in the future, but I quickly realized that I was out of step with the plays that were filling the theatres.
The label ‘Angry Young Man’ had been applied in the early 50s by the media to describe working class playwrights who were disillusioned by traditional English society. Though I had been similarly tagged, I was not a working class young man angry with middle class society. I was a middle class young man angry with my middle class surrogate father and with my interfering upper middle class in-laws. I had also weaned myself on Noel Coward, Terrence Rattigan, Jean Anouilh with a bit of Tennessee Williams thrown in, not John Osborne, Arnold Wesker or Harold Pinter.
I did not exactly give up, but I decided to put writing for the theatre on the back burner for a while.
Then Eve informed me that she was pregnant.
John Duncan was eventually to become head of light entertainment at Yorkshire Television and Nicholas Ferguson, who played the young boy, became a successful television director on Coronation Street, East Enders and many other productions.