James Saunders   |   bibliography

Alas, Poor Fred (a duologue in the style of Ionesco)  -  by James Saunders (1958)

First presented on 25th June, 1959, by the Studio Theatre Limited at the Library Theatre (the Theatre-in-the-Round), Scarborough, (Yorkshire, England) with the following cast -

   -    William Elmhirst
   -    Dona Martyn
    Produced/Directed by Rodney Wood

setting: a drawing room anywhere

time: any time of day or night

published by Studio Theatre (Scarborough, Yorkshire, England), 1960

© 1968 James Saunders
published by Andre Deutsch, (London, England), 1968
(Neighbours and other plays - James Saunders)
ISBN-10: 0233960309
ISBN-13: 978-0233960302
also contains Neighbours + Trio + Triangle + Return to a City + A Slight Accident + The Pedagogue

© 1968 James Saunders
published by Heinemann Educational Books, (London, England), 1968
(Neighbours and other plays - James Saunders)
ISBN-10: 0435237861
ISBN-13: 978-0435237868
also contains Neighbours + Triangle + Trio + Return to a City + A Slight Accident + The Pedagogue
commentary by Ronald Hayman

published by Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1997
(Playforms - seven scripts for secondary drama - James Saunders and Robin Rook)
ISBN-10: 0521588588
ISBN-13: 978-0521588584
also contains Dog Accident + The Old Man Who Liked Cats

Alas, Poor Fred: an elderly couple gravely leading the audience (or reader) deep into the dottiness of commonplace lives.

- (inside cover, Andre Deutsch, 1968)

James Saunders... first made his mark as a playwright with Alas, Poor Fred which was written in 1958, when he was thirty-three.

The original published script was modestly sub-titled 'a duologue in the style of Ionesco'. Certainly he learned from Ionesco - as did Beckett - but the main lesson was freedom. Aristotelian drama had three rules of unity (time, place and action). Modern drama has no rules at all and the playwright is free to do whatever he likes. Quite apart from being able to move around freely in space and time, he is released from all restrictions of logic, causality and consistency. He can change his mind as he goes along about what kind of play he's writing and his characters don't have to stay 'in character'. Fantasies can be translated into outward events and the playwright can use all the conventions and all the amenities of theatre as a giant box of tricks to play with - or experiment with.

In Saunder's plays there are a great many incidents and conversations which are unrealistic, but it's almost always a mistake to treat them as symbolic. Alas, Poor Fred begins with a peaceful armchair conversation between Ernest Pringle and his wife Ethel, who are chatting about how funny it must be to get cut in half,as Fred was. Instead of treating the subject of violent death as it would be treated in a conventional thriller, Saunders places the murder in the distant past and shows us two conventional people talking about it as if it didn't interest them all that much. The fact that it was Ernest who killed him comes into the conversation just as casually as the fact that he lived in a semi-detached house. And we don't find out till the end of the play that Fred was Ethel's husband. Ernest seems to have forgotten that the house they are living in used to be Fred's, and Ethel has to remind him about the fatal afternoon thirty years ago when he was found by Fred hiding in the wardrobe while she was in bed.

One reviewer thought that Fred was a symbol of Ernest's and Ethel's guilt, and according to John Russell Taylor's book Anger and After, it gradually becomes clear that he is 'their love and life truly together; it is guilt about the emotional dismemberment of their marriage which keeps husband and wife constantly reverting to the subject'. This is certainly not the meaning James Saunders intended when he was writing. He started, rather as Pinter started in The Room, with the image of  'a room in which two people were sitting down' and everything, Saunders says, 'grew out of that and out of the fact that they were two such stodgy people'.

John Russell Taylor's mistake was to interpret the play too much in the light of Ionesco's Amédée - a play about a bickering married couple who have a corpse in their house. A good case can be made out for regarding it as a symbol of the love between Amédée and Madeleine, which is now dead, but Alas, Poor Fred was influenced less by Amédée than by La Cantatrice Chauvre, Ionesco's first play, in which a man and a woman get into conversation and gradually find out that they live in the same town, in the same street, in the same house and on the same floor. But it's only after establishing that they are sharing the same room and the same bed that they casually come to the conclusion that they must be married.

Bothe Beckett and Ionesco use this trick of making characters forget things that they wouldn't forget in reality. Their vagueness makes them question things which would normally be taken for granted, and take things for granted which would normally be questioned. In this way events are reconstructed with an extreme laboriness but, finally an extreme precision.

- Ronald Hayman (from the commentary, Heinemann, 1968)

"Most plays, even when their form is blatantly theatrical, follow the laws of nature. Their world is the rational world that we take for granted in our waking life. In it, we assume that everything that happens has a logical explanation, even if we don't always know what the explanation is.

The world of the absurd play is not logical. The usual laws simply do not apply. There is a famous play in which the characters gradually change, one after another, into rhinoceroses. An audience can accept that this can happen provided it accepts the convention within which anything can happen. This is sometimes called 'the willing suspension of disbelief' and is more common than might be expected. To a greater of lesser extent, all fiction requires it of the reader or spectator.

In the world of dreams, also, the natural laws do not apply, as you'll see if you can recall a dream you had recently. So another way of thinking of absurd plays is as though taking place in a dream world.

The playwright may use this form simply as a way of being funny, as in Monty Python or Mr Bean. But he or she may also use it to make a serious point. Do you think Alas poor Fred is making a serious point and, if so, what is it?"

(from Playforms, Cambridge University Press 1997)

James Saunders   |   bibliography

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revised 16 February 2008
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