has executed some of the theater's finest improvisation since W. C. Fields
created the movie football sequence in The Bank Dick, but he admits his
approach has a disadvantage: "I have a lot of nine-line plays around the
house." Still, those short lines, seemingly snared out of thin air, make
spare, uncluttered drama that can be choreographed into stunning visual and
emotional tension; David Storey knows exactly which lines he is looking
Storey likes the
period when a play is in rehearsal because he can put in his compulsory
eight-hour shift at the theater. The Changing Room required a little more,
however. Director Lindsay Anderson, with whom Storey almost always works,
decreed that the London cast should know about Rugby League. It is about the
roughest sport left, with more tackling than in American football, done by
players who wear no headgear and virtually no protective padding. There are 13
men on a side: six forwards who try to get the ball at each scrum (a savage
close-quarters battle that starts any given action) and then pass it backward
to the seven backs, who can run with it or kick it. There is no forward passing
and no blocking to protect the ballcarrier from being tackled. The clock runs
constantly except when there are disabling injuries, and only two substitutes
per game are allowed. The field is called a pitch, a score is a try and worth
three points. The kick, which often is attempted from a torturously sharp
angle, is worth two points.
The players on
the 30 teams in the league nearly all hold other jobs in the mines or factories
of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Pay varies widely. A man playing for a poor team
like Wigan might make $24 on a losing night. On a rich club like Leeds a major
win might carry $120 in wages and bonuses. Rugby League is not to be confused
with the swifter, gentler amateur version of the sport called Rugby Union. One
might as well mistake the working class for the bourgeoisie.
The Changing Room
was enormously difficult to cast. By the time a British ensemble with the right
accents and no spindle legs (a dead giveaway that a man is not an athlete) was
complete, well over 200 men had tried out. The survivors went out to a field in
Roehampton, under the tutelage of Bev Risman, an ex-Rugby Leaguer of
international class. He taught them seven-to-a-side touch so they could make
their second-act entrances (page 70) properly "winded and puffed."
Risman recalls that the actors "were so keen that after a couple of minutes
they were knocking hell out of each other." The playwright himself went in,
but not for long. Like his teammates of old, the actors wanted "to bury him
under the ground." Observes Risman, "Actors have no sense of
Storey was able
to help more with other parts of the rehearsals. When Anderson first told the
cast to change, they darted into their uniforms and were set to go in five
minutes. That left 40 minutes of the first act with all talk and no action.
"The truth is," says Storey, "that it takes a real rugby player
about 45 minutes to get ready. We taught them how to bandage each other, how to
massage, how to fiddle with laces and do warmups, and then let each one select
his own routine." The play is nothing if not authentic. What with changing
and emerging from the offstage plunge bath, 13 men are completely naked on
stage at one time or another, which may be a good reason the play can't miss.
But audiences in London and New Haven, who were hit by a strong whiff of
wintergreen before a word was said, seemed to take the nudity in its athletic
context, scarcely noticing it.
The style of the
play could also be distracting were it not for the playwright's enormous skill.
What seems at first to be a lot of spontaneous joking and griping is actually a
carefully controlled visual kaleidoscope. In all his work Storey strikes a
balance between solid structure and improvisation. One might say that sport, at
its best, is a similar mix.
moment in Roehampton was Storey's only active endeavor in quite some time, but
he will continue to write about sports. Although he thinks that most great
literature concerns insoluble family problems, he most often writes about what
he knows best: work. To him sport is a form of work that goes beyond the merely
personal and becomes, like art, something transcending, both to the performer
and the observer.
Sport is one of
the few subjects on which Storey is willing to express strong opinions or to
permit himself some eloquence. "The pleasure to me is in the pitch of
endeavor, sustaining it, going beyond it. In many ways I hated rugby, but it
allowed people to do marvelous things. Often the real expression occurs at the
point of physical and mental exhaustion. I recall one very hard game, played in
pouring rain on a pitch that seemed to be 15 feet deep in mud. My relations
with the team were at their worst. I should have hated every minute of that
match, but suddenly something almost spiritual happened. The players were taken
over by the identity that was the team. We were genuinely transported."
The experience of
being lifted out of self and out of egotism is very important to Storey, then
and now. He enjoys nothing more than watching runners on Hampstead Heath,
whether lone, anonymous distance men or Olympian David Bedford. What he almost
never enjoys is the expanding egos of successful athletes, or their attempts to
account for their skills. "It is like asking a writer to explain writing.
You won't find out but you'll get a lot of defensive theories or plain
The dilemma of a
truly fine athlete today appalls him. "Geniuses are lost now," he says
bitterly. "The public becomes a goad and television makes it much worse.
Look at George Best. He was a genius who fulfilled the dreams little boys have,
but the pressures were too great for him." Egotism is a word Storey uses a
lot when he gets worked up and, clearly, he would like to stamp it out along
with everything that fosters it. From his catalog of lost geniuses he excepts
only Muhammad Ali: "I don't think anyone ever will regret listening to all