Waters of the Moon Notes

 “To what a point of insignificance may not human life dwindle! To what fine, agonizing threads will it not cling!”

These words, by the early 19th century English essayist William Hazlitt, sparked a memory for playwright Norman Charles Hunter when he read them in 1949. Six years earlier, while serving in the Royal Artillery during World War II, Hunter was recuperating in a military hospital near Dartmoor, in Southwest England. When Hunter was well enough, he used to go on walks around the area. Finding a small hotel, he decided to stop for tea. Inside, he was met by several of the hotel residents. Hunter wrote, “I felt my face growing red in the hot, stale atmosphere of the room, and I began to be aware that I was an intruder in a small and special world.” Here, in a “refuge…from bombed or threatened areas,” there was “a little quiet-living, hidden community that seemed entirely remote from war-time Britain, busy, troop-crowded, and ugly.” Into this peaceful atmosphere of reading and knitting came the tea trays, provoking the “unvarying, almost ritualistic” reactions of the elderly hotel residents. The image stuck with Hunter – an image “of almost convent-like quietude, regularity, and monotony.” Hazlitt’s words allowed him to grasp both the beauty and the sorrow of life on the moors, the excruciating feeling of insignificance bound up with an unstoppable desire to maintain something worth living for. This image became Waters of the Moon.

Hunter, born in 1908, was set to follow his father into a military career. In 1933, however, he left his commission with the Dragoon Guards to focus his attentions on a literary career (as a day job, he found a position on the BBC staff). Before the outbreak of WWII, Hunter had written five plays and four novels, although he had failed to find major success in either format. All of Hunter’s early plays are comedies with farcical elements, and while far from masterpieces, they show a developing writer searching for a style and themes. Grouse in June, performed in London in 1939, predicts Waters of the Moon in its plot. The play concerns a group of Americans who go treasure hunting when they hear about the possibility of gold off the coast of a small Scottish town. Invading a beat-up hotel, the Americans proceed to wreck havoc on the locals, who only want to fish and enjoy their summer holiday. The basic set-up, of outsiders entering and upsetting the sedentary life of a group of unwilling innocents, is played for laughs, but as Hunter matured as a dramatist, he would find poignancy and poetry in the same situation.

After WWII, Hunter’s plays displayed a noticeable change. More melancholy and realistic, perhaps as a result of Hunter’s wartime experience, the 1951 production of Waters of the Moon and the 1953 production of A Day by the Sea cemented Hunter’s reputation as an “English Chekhov.”  But it was Waters of the Moon that turned Hunter into a major dramatist. An enormous success in the West End, it ran for 835 performances at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. The same theater would also house A Day by the Sea two years later for 386 performances. The positive responses to these plays can be attributed at least partly to the star-studded casts that Hunter was able to attract. Actors who worked with him throughout his career included Michael and Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Diana Wynward, and Irene Worth. Starring in Waters of the Moon was the triple threat of Sybil Thorndike, Edith Evans, and Wendy Hiller.

While Hunter’s abilities as a playwright were debated by critics, nearly every review of Waters of the Moon praises the cast, even when lukewarm on the play. The Times makes the curious statement that the play “scarcely lives up to the rare promise of its first act…it is nevertheless a successful event.” Dame Edith Evans was praised in her role as Helen Lancaster, favorably compared to Lady Bracknell from Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and described as “enormous fun.” The Stage wrote that Dame Sybil Thorndike had “an exquisite gift for blending comedy and pathos,” and called Wendy Hiller’s “beautiful performance” marked by an “unerring directness of approach.” Ironically, several reviews suggested that the phenomenal display of acting was detrimental to Hunter’s play because it made him appear better than he was. Iain Hamilton in The Spectator suggested that someone “wag a finger and remind the author that he has not quite produced another Cherry Orchard.” The Christian Science Monitor put it this way: “[The play] started at the Haymarket, London’s best theater, with a production by Tennent’s, London’s best management, starring Dame Edith Evans and Dame Sybil Thorndike, London’s best actresses, in a play called Waters of the Moon by N.C. Hunter, who is not London’s best dramatist.”

Of course, a play doesn’t have to be by “London’s best dramatist” to make it worthy of attention; after all, there can only be one Chekhov (who, it should be noted, was also not London’s best dramatist). Some of the heated debate and extra scrutiny given to Waters of the Moon was a result of the Festival of Britain, a major postwar exhibition in 1951 designed to bolster national morale after the destruction of WWII. The influx of foreign visitors to London made the year a landmark, and theater enthusiasts naturally saw the current offerings as a marker of London’s cultural status. Waters of the Moon outlived the Festival by two years, causing New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson “to look with envy on a theatre center like London that can keep such a mild, though intelligent, play with such an extravagant cast continuously on the boards for two years.”

Unfortunately, time has not been as kind to Mr. Hunter. He lived until 1971 and wrote four plays in the decade preceding his death, but was overshadowed by revolutionary young playwrights like John Osborne and Shelagh Delaney. Compared to a new breed of drama concerning the working classes and peppered with language and topics far from the drawing room, Hunter looked quaint and old-fashioned. Waters of the Moon never made it to the United States, and Hunter’s sole Broadway play was A Day at the Sea, which ran for only 24 performances in 1955. A 1977 revival of Waters of the Moon, first at the Chichester Festival Theatre and then at the Haymarket (the same West End theater the play began at), was blasted by critics. Starring Ingrid Bergman as Helen Lancaster and featuring Wendy Hiller’s return to the play, now in the role originated by Dame Sybil Thorndike, the play was a success despite the negative reviews. Some of the animosity towards the play has the color of an impatient child demanding candy and being given broccoli. Michael Billington in The Guardian complained that the play was a “tepid naturalistic piece in a theatre that cries out for dash and flamboyance.” Bernard Levin (Sunday Times) strongly advised Ingrid Bergman to pick better productions. Levin wrote the play was “composed of clichés” and was, “from beginning to end, awful” (emphasis Levin’s).

It must be remembered, however, that during those tumultuous postwar wars, the years when the angry young men were abusing their wives and the neglected young women were getting pregnant by men they would never see again, there was another world. The world of the Dartmoor hotel that fascinated Hunter to such a high degree is no less real or powerful than that of Jimmy Porter, Osborne’s protagonist in Look Back in Anger. Porter, the poster boy for the new drama, screams at the walls and ceilings, stamps his feet, and leaves nothing unsaid. This kind of unparalleled emotional intensity is, not surprisingly, absent from Hunter’s drama, but for good reason. The sad and humdrum lives of the characters in Waters of the Moon make them fascinating. They are quiet and poetic portraits of the restrained and genteel English society after WWII. While many of the young playwrights celebrated their lower class roots by incorporating cockney slang and increasingly impolite behavior into their works, Hunter is writing about the breed that clings to the old ways, even as they desire to escape from them.

Of the reviews from the 1977 revival, the most accurate of them recognizes the play within its historical context. Irving Wardle, in The Times, makes the apt comparison between the play’s protagonists and what George Orwell called the “lower upper-middle class.” Rather than wallowing in their poverty, the characters in Waters of the Moon desperately want to enter the upper class world. They are scared of living in Jimmy Porter’s world, so they favor the drawing room. Hunter’s play is not a remnant of a stodgy, old-fashioned tepid drama. It takes place at the intersection of two worlds, on a cold and wintry New Year’s in 1951. England is trying to find its footing as it recovers from war, and its people are trying to find their place in the world. They are “ship-wrecked remnants of British middle-class respectability,” the last dying guard in a world of fury. They are the poets sitting in their armchairs and watching the passing of the days as the world leaves them behind. For the younger members of the household, this situation is not acceptable. That is where Hunter finds his drama and the heart of his characters. Their lives may be dull, but what are they going to do about that? TACT is happy to present Waters of the Moon, which, according to our research, is having its professional New York premiere.