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Whole significance of unity : a study of thematic structure in the plays of Christopher Fry Woodfield, James

Abstract

In Curtmantle, William Marshal recalls that Henry's appointment of Becket to Canterbury promised unity, but "the whole significance of unity was not debated." Christopher Fry is constantly exploring the nature of unity and seeking its significance. The purpose of this dissertation is to examine how the themes of his plays are structured in language and patterns of action which both exemplify unity and reach for ontological meaning in terms of a vision of a unified universe. Fry's work concentrates on a group of closely related themes: the positive power of love, both eros and agape; the wonder, paradoxes and unity of existence; the cycle of life, death and renewal; the operation of necessity and the nature of individuality; and man's relationship with the universe and with God. A direct approach could be made on a thematic basis, but the emphasis of this dissertation is on the structural integration of each separate play, and on the way in which these themes are expressed through aspects of structure. Many of the themes are common to several plays, and the variety of forms which Fry develops to express them is one indication of his stature as a dramatist. Another possible organization of material would be to group the plays under the headings "secular." and "religious." This method would make an arbitrary distinction between plays that have an overt religious content and those that do not. One of the important results of these analyses is that the "secular" plays exhibit patterns that make religious statements as positive as those that deal directly with religious subjects. The chronological play-by-play approach chosen contains the built-in danger of fragmentation. Against this disadvantage stands the advantage that the development of Fry's ideas, techniques and skill can be observed. A unifying factor is that themes and configurations—particularly in character relationships—recur and are reworked in fresh contexts. The dominant direction of Fry's work is in a dual quest, for meaning and for God. Each play is, in Fry's own phrase from A Sleep of Prisoners, an "exploration into God," and the analyses aim to show how this quest is pursued in each play. Critical attention has tended to focus on Fry's verse at the expense of a broader view of his plays. The poetry is only one means—albeit an extremely important one—through which the themes are expressed. They also receive implicit expression through other aspects of the dramatic structure, dealt with where appropriate. Part of the introduction, which first places Fry in a general historical and cultural perspective, deals with the function of poetry in modern drama, and with Fry's views on the subject. The choice of poetry as a vehicle for dramatic expression stems from his world view: it is a natural mode for a man who sees existence as a complex mystery to be comprehended intuitively rather than rationally. He is acutely aware that existence is not only mysterious and complex, but that it also has a shape or pattern in which meaning can be found. For Fry, the combination of mystery and pattern finds its best expression in the form of poetic drama.

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