One of the plays here is "The Ascent of F6," perhaps the most successful of W. H. Auden's collaborations with Christopher Isherwood. Years afterwards, Isherwood described how the noise of an avalanche, required in the action, was suggested in two early productions. In London it was done "by setting up a microphone in the backstage lavatory and flushing the toilet. The amplified noise was awesome." And in New York, after "a pause of dead silence, . . . somewhere in the back of the building, with terrific violence, a door was slammed."
Similarly, in Auden's early poetry, the familiar is made strange and the strange familiar. The "cigarette-end smoldering on a border/At the first garden party of the year" is the portent of a dying class. When commonplace detail is charged with such significance, the effect is inherently dramatic, as we can see in the movies of Hitchcock, who started about the same time as Auden. The effect is positively exhilarating: Putting down the book, coming out of the movie, we recognize a world ominous with impending change, full of spies and conspirators.
For the young Auden, then, it seems almost inevitable that his prodigious productivity in the 1930s should have included the verse drama and the contributions to documentary movies and radio brought together here, in the first of eight volumes, and admirably edited by Edward Mendelson, his bibliographer and biographer. Also collected are the fragments of a lost play, alternate scenes to others, and two previously unpublished plays. Though three of the plays were collaborations, the initiating impulse was essentially Auden's, and it appears to be he who defined the type of drama being written.
This drama is the antithesis of Shavian realism, and has much in common with German and French experiments of the time. Though Auden admitted to the influence of Berlin vaudeville, he was much interested in introducing elements from English folk plays, where characters had names like Pickled Herring and Blue Britches, or from Mystery Plays like the Towneley Second Shepherd's Play, where a thief swaddles a stolen sheep like a baby and hides it in a cradle. He valued comic incongruity, and characters break into doggerel with no provocation, or start dancing or stab people with hatpins. In "Paid on Both Sides," "a charade," he presented feuding Norse heroes in a "Prep School atmosphere." In "The Dog Beneath the Skin," the hero goes in search of a missing heir accompanied by a dog who is actually the heir himself in disguise; audiences must have recalled the popular English pantomime of "Puss in Boots."
I should perhaps say readers rather than audiences, because these plays are seldom performed--in fact I have never had a chance to see any of them on the stage. As dramatic writing, the early plays in particular are disorganized and difficult; and the last collaboration, "On the Frontier," is badly dated by its schematic plot and by the vaguely Marxist cliches of its writing. (" . . . Truth shall flower and Error explode/And the people be free then to choose their own road!") Beside Auden and Kallman's libretto for "The Rake's Progress" and the penetrating and subtle later fictions of Isherwood, these plays seem juvenile and amateurish. Eric Bentley called them "sketchy extravaganzas," and certainly none of them have the intensity or dramatic force of Bertolt Brecht's best work, which they loosely resemble in type.
Nevertheless, this collection is, above all, fun to read, full as it is of memorable high jinks. In "On the Frontier," there is a scene between three war correspondents written as a parody of the witches' meeting in "Macbeth"; in "The Dog Beneath the Skin," we are shown a lunatic asylum in a Fascist state called Westland, in which the First Lunatic says in a patriotic speech to his fellows: "Let us never forget that we are Westlanders first and madmen second"; in both this and an earlier play there are conversations between the hero's left foot and right foot, one version by Auden and the other by Isherwood, both funny; and best of all is the unforgettable climax to "The Ascent of F6," in which the hero discovers that the fabled Demon on the peak of the Himalayan mountain, robed and hooded, is his own mother--a marvelous joke about the Oedipus complex.
There is fertility of invention not only in incident but in the writing itself. In the earliest poetry, full of gnomic obscurities, the young Auden's meaning seems to be trying not always successfully to catch up with his language. But in " Dog" there is a long and brilliant survey, broken up into choruses, of Britain and Europe during the Depression, "barns falling, fences broken." There is elsewhere a handful of Auden's loveliest songs in the tradition of Thomas Campion and Tennyson: for example, "O lurcher loving collier black as night" from a documentary movie called "Coal Face" (a lurcher was a dog much bred as a hobby by British coal miners). And there are "Happy the hare at morning" and "Doom is darker, deeper than any sea-dingle," originally choruses from plays, later independent poems, which seem to me a valid and effective public poetry for the '30s rather as Ginsberg's poetry of oration was for the '50s and '60s.
Auden was always a virtuoso, something of a showoff--and it is a pleasure to watch him showing off.