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Martha Duffy
March 05, 1973
Dramatist David Storey's recurrent theme is man's constant toil. In a new hit on Broadway he argues that sport and life are best at their extremes
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March 05, 1973

An Ethic Of Work And Play

Dramatist David Storey's recurrent theme is man's constant toil. In a new hit on Broadway he argues that sport and life are best at their extremes

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David felt that he could both paint and write. But paint what? Write what? On the other hand, he was also a star rugby forward at school, so at 18 he was signed by Leeds, one of the best Rugby League clubs, for an initial bonus of $1,700. Then he registered at art school in his hometown of Wakefield.

His teammates took an immediate and enduring dislike to him. In many matches he suffered as much from their blows as from those of opponents. "They were all young colliers or factory workers and I was a bloody student," he recalls. "They thought it was absurd to be carrying on as a painter. To them, all artists were homosexuals."

Matters got worse the following year when Storey transferred to Slade, the famous art school in London. The management at Leeds was very reasonable about David's move. He thinks, in fact, that the owner rather enjoyed the notion of having an exotic around, especially since—in 1953—Storey's hair was as long as George Best's is now. The hostility of his teammates deepened. "I was a moody, introverted young man, and I was doing an incredible thing," he says with characteristic dispassion. "During the week I was living with flighty, artistic nonentities in London, and then traveling 200 miles to play with plumbers on Saturday. Also, I did no training, whereas they had been pounding around on the pitch two nights a week."

As it turned out, both art and athletics suffered. "When I got back to Slade on Mondays, all I could draw were awful little squiggles. My fingers were swollen until Wednesday. Half the time I was in bed until Wednesday."

For all that punishment he never did become a first-rate forward. His manager, Ken Dalby, says Storey had promise. "He had a nice turn of speed and didn't fear anybody in his tackling. He never knew when he was licked, and I feel sure that had he stayed with Leeds he would have been blooded with the first team in another 18 months." Today that comment sounds a bit like the learned lepidopterists who contend that Nabokov could have been a respected butterfly man if he hadn't dabbled in writing.

After four years, though, David felt he was licked. At the same time Slade was taking a dim view of his latest artistic vision—metal sculptures—and he was at a dead end there. For a few years he was forced to teach, a life he found every bit as wretched as he had anticipated.

This Sporting Life, begun on train journeys between London and Leeds, was to be his salvation. After eight rejection slips from British editors, it won the 1960 Macmillan Fiction Award in the U.S. At first Storey thought this amounted to a distant round of applause. Then word came that it meant the book finally would be published and he would receive $7,500, and in that vertiginous moment he went out and bought a Jaguar, to this day the most impulsive and extravagant act he admits to.

He willingly accepts the puritanical heritage of his youth. He feels obligated to put in at least an eight-hour daily shift at the typewriter. As a result he has been very prolific: four novels published with a fifth due soon, five plays produced with two more "in the queue" at the Royal Court.

Storey labors at his fiction, but he literally dashes off his plays. He wrote the award-winning Home, which provided those true knights of the theater, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, with their best roles in years, in two days. The Changing Room took five days, largely because Storey had trouble keeping track of the large cast.

He works with serendipidist simplicity. The Contractor began with a vision of three tent poles (Storey once had a job putting up banquet tents). He got the idea for The Changing Room, with its even more detailed physical activity, from watching rehearsals of The Contractor. Home took shape from two chairs and a table and a man seated in one of the chairs. "Then," adds the author disingenuously, "he has to have someone to talk to."

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