The Devil Passes Notes

Curiously enough, when moving from London to New York, Benn Levy changed the title of his play The Devil to The Devil Passes. It might seem a minor change, but the careful wording fits Levy’s dramatic conceit very well. The Devil is not a pitchfork-wielding, cloven-hoofed monster with horns. It is a breeze, a wind, something ephemeral that passes by and causes a minor crisis. Levy, for dramatic purposes, solidifies this concept by embodying the devil. Yet it is clear that what Levy is really interested in is the devil inside us, the part that must face difficult truths, reconcile our desires with our sense of morality, and plan a course of action. Levy bills the play as a “religious comedy,” but his play has nothing to do with religious doctrine or notions of life after death, and everything to do with humanism. It is about the here and now.

Born in 1900, Levy served, like many his age, in World War I as a member of the Royal Air Force. He was born into a fairly comfortable middle class existence and attended Oxford after the war. At the young age of 25, Levy’s first play, This Woman Business, became a success and ushered in his most prolific period of dramatic writing. Levy wrote a dozen plays before the outbreak of World War II, as well as several films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail  (referred to as the first British talking picture) and James Whale’s The Old Dark House. More impressive than the quantity of his output, however, was the extreme variety.

In her critical study of Levy’s plays, Susan Rusinko paints Levy as the “chronicler of an age” precisely because of this variety. His plays were unified by master craftsmanship and a wonderful ear for dialogue, yet he never solidified into one distinctive style, like his contemporaries Noel Coward or George Bernard Shaw. In other words, his name is not an adjective. It is a shame, because the lack of an identifiable “Levian” genre has contributed to the neglect of his work. His most successful plays were stylish farces like Springtime for Henry, which, after 198 New York performances, toured America with the actor Edward Everett Horton for eighteen years. In addition, Levy wrote fantasy, straight drama, morality plays, and adapted the work of other writers. Late in his life, Levy was even influenced by radical new dramatists such as Samuel Beckett, and he experimented with pieces inspired by the new wave of world drama. Rusinko places Levy as a kind of bridge between the “twilight era” of pre-WWII English drama, exemplified by Coward and Terence Ratigan, and the new wave of postwar drama started by young working class playwrights such as John Osborne and Harold Pinter. Levy appreciated both types of theatre. He wrote, in defense of the well-made play, “Waiting for Godot is a superbly well-made play. So are the plays of Pinter. St. Joan could not carry the weight of its discursiveness nor The Three Sisters its burden of inertia nor Lear its narrative puerilities nor Hamlet its exploratory diffuseness, if their authors had not been by inalienable instinct master-mechanics of the theatre.”

Levy’s writing slowed after he returned from the Royal Navy in WWII, but this was only because his political activities increased. Completely aside from his work as an author, Levy deserves an immense amount of recognition for his undying support of various left-wing causes. He served as a Labour M.P. from 1945-1950, and during this time fought against forces like nuclear proliferation, the death penalty, and McCarthyism. Not afraid to ruffle feathers, Levy, a Jew, spoke against heavy penalties on the Germans after WWII, and he took a balanced view on Palestine. Michael Foot, a fellow Labour politician, called Levy “the best polemicist of the post-1945 period.” Levy held strong moral convictions in his personal life as well, so it is not surprising that he would choose moral and ethical decision-making as a topic for the stage.

One of Levy’s most passionate campaigns while M.P. was the abolishment of theatre censorship. He introduced a House of Commons bill in 1949 to protect theater managers from getting their licenses revoked over the content of their plays. Levy left Parliament soon after and the bill was not acted upon, but twenty years later stage censorship was finally repealed with a bill derived from Levy’s and pushed forward by a friend. Levy, along with the dramatists Jon Osborne and John Mortimer, served as witnesses in the 1966 hearings, and Levy lived to see stage censorship revoked within his lifetime. On censors, Levy wrote that they are “set up to guard the public against attacks upon its virtue and modesty made by such diabolical, unprincipled and mischievous persons as dramatists are well-known to be. As a rather shy and old-fashioned person, I find this picture of myself delightfully flattering, and the idea of there being nothing save a thin defence of censorship between my unbridled savagery and the public virtue, a welcome buttress to my self-esteem.”

It is a testament to Levy’s devotion and strong personal beliefs that his plays bear little resemblance to a play such as Edward Bond’s Saved. Saved, the prime catalyst in ending stage censorship, featured a controversial scene in which a baby was stoned to death on stage. Levy had no desire to write theater of this extreme and polarizing nature, but he fought to defend the rights of other playwrights to do it with a vigor that could not have been stronger if he had been Bond himself.

It is this variety of intense personal moral conviction, that are given a litmus test in The Devil Passes. The New York production of the play received mixed notices. All recognized Levy’s immense talent at writing dialogue and the fine acting of an all-star cast that included Diana Wynyard, Arthur Byron, Sybil Thorndyke, Ernest Thesiger, and Basil Rathbone. Some accused the play of being preachy. Brooks Atkinson (The New York Times), in the other camp, was among the play’s admirers, describing it as, “a novel idea for a modern morality play…virtually a fresh point of view.” The Chicago Daily News wrote that it was a “suave, well educated comedy, written with casual literary charm.” Percy Hammond (New York Herald Tribune) complemented the cast as acting with “intelligence and dexterity” in a “sound entertainment.” The negative reactions to the play are best summed up by the Evening Post, which declared that while the play began as a “sparkling comedy,” it became “dully methodical,” morphing into “a doddering morality play that smacks increasingly of Sunday School basement stuff.”

Levy’s play must be examined more closely instead of dismissing it. This is not a typical Faust story, where someone sells their soul and discovers too late it was a bad idea. The individuals in The Devil Passes can surprise and, more importantly, the devil can. In a fascinating letter to the editor published after Atkinson’s review, a Mr. Newman says Atkinson completely missed the point. Levy’s work, he claims, is a subtle satire of the kind of morality play Atkinson believes it is trying to be in earnest. By Newman’s estimate, Levy was writing with his tongue in his cheek. Perhaps he was and perhaps he wasn’t, but like any good play, one can interpret Levy’s work in a number of ways, from a sincere religious statement to a mocking satire on high-headed church plays. The play can be seen as a study of a very human decision-making process, one without need of spiritual interpretation, to a philosophical debate about the true purpose of evil and whether the existence of good depends on the presence of evil. Yet Levy himself, in a speech at the University of Liverpool, asked the question: “Must a dramatist be either a mere entertainer or a mere pamphleteer?” The answer was, “he will be primarily neither one nor the other, though secondarily he may be both…He may consciously aim to entertain, and thus to fill his purse; or to instruct, and thus to appease his social conscience; or to manufacture beauty and thus to satisfy an aesthetic theory. But let him not be enslaved by such purposes, for they can dislocate irreparably his own artistic mechanism. All he can do is to write, paint, sing, act, dance, or compose as wholeheartedly as he knows how and pray for the best.”

These are words that TACT takes as vital to our mission. For obvious reasons, we believe theatre should entertain and delight, and strive to do so. At the same time, we believe theater should provoke and raise questions, not to fulfill one particular political agenda or to preach one side of a message, but to cause audience members to reflect upon themselves and their own beliefs. Levy knew this, and he practiced it with his art. So, take what can be taken from Levy’s “religious comedy” or “morality play,” but realize the person sitting next to you might be taking something else. Above all, enjoy Levy’s delicious wit, crisp dialogue, and thoughtful characters. TACT is immensely proud to be giving recognition to the hidden little gem that is The Devil Passes.