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AN ETHIC OF WORK AND PLAY
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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Now that nostalgia has had its day, Broadway is enjoying a modest boom in sports. That Championship Season, Jason Miller's grimly funny account of a high school basketball team's 20th reunion, was voted the best play of 1972 by the Drama Critics Circle, and is an established hit. Last month a particularly attenuated bit of upper-class British nonsense called The Joekey Club Stakes arrived and, largely due to the patrician quality of the acting, is doing nicely, too. This week perhaps the best sports play of all opens at the Morosco Theatre. It is The Changing Room by David Storey.

The men in this drama are at the opposite end of the sporting spectrum from plummy racing gentry. Even in the age of televised sport, Rugby League remains a private, insular British phenomenon, a deeply rooted part of working-class life north of the Trent, capable of arousing savage loyalties. Yet unlike soccer, England's national game, it has never been plagued by riots. Many, including Playwright Storey, believe the game itself is so violent that the crowd is sated by it. He adds that it is a sport played by puritans, not hedonists. The widest publicity Rugby League has ever received was through Storey's first novel, This Sporting Life, which was made into a movie starring Richard Harris. If what you remember from that picture is a lot of blood and mud and pounding around, your impression is correct. Broken arms, jawbones and collarbones, dislocated shoulders, cauliflower ears, a hockey player's depleted set of teeth—these are the weekly realities of Rugby League life. The players, to whom the week's pay is the difference between poverty and a few luxuries, seldom wait to heal before getting back into action.

It is likely that a lot of people will see The Changing Room and learn more about the sport, as well as about the speech and codes of Northern England. The play seems a certain hit. Through an odd set of circumstances, The Changing Room arrives with the major critics already in its pocket.

With a cast of 22 men it is expensive to produce, a fact of theatrical life that has never deterred Storey. An earlier play of his, The Contractor, required an intricately calibrated corps of actors to assemble a huge banquet tent on stage. In London, Storey enjoys the services of the subsidized Royal Court Theatre to cope with such balletlike creations.

The Contractor was produced a year ago by the adventurous Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, but never received sufficient backing for Broadway. When The Changing Room was done by the same group last November, New York critics who journeyed up to see it were so lavish in their praise that the company is gambling on making enough to pay the actors and the rent.

Today, at 39, David Storey is one of England's best novelists. Only Harold Pinter rivals him as a playwright. He lives with his wife and four children in Hampstead, the favored preserve of successful writers and artists as well as of professional people who like the creative ambience and who drive up real-estate prices.

There is no doubt that Storey could be a celebrity. In addition to his reputation he has the looks for the role—warm, sensuous eyes and mouth set in a fascinating skull-like head. But Storey avoids interviews and trendy hangouts and would rather listen than expound. He gives the impression of being a virtuoso listener—someone capable of picking up the silence a skull might hear. He may in fact hear too much for his own comfort.

For one thing he doesn't travel well. He once undertook a VIP trip to Hollywood, listened to the official greetings of the studio folk and flew back home. Confronted with Manhattan on another trip, he retreated to the waiting room at Grand Central Station and spent an entire day just listening to people talk.

In his own voice, traces of his native Yorkshire remain: like anyone else involved with the game he calls it "roogbilleague." Storey was born into the working class. He could have been Arthur Machin, the hero of This Sporting Life, or any of the 13 players in The Changing Room.

"My father was a collier," Storey says. "He put in 16 hours a day in the pit until he was 63. He was exhausted all the time. He had silicosis." Exhausted or not, he was determined that his sons would not follow him into the mines. He learned decimals so he could teach them to David, and made him write a "composition" every night. "My father's whole ambition was to see me settled as a schoolteacher, but after going through the grammar school system I decided I'd rather be a collier than a teacher," says Storey. Looking back on his teen-age years he thinks that Beatle John Lennon's early lyrics express some of the inchoate tangle in his own head. "There was a lot of that anarchic working-class semi-intellectualism in the provinces in my time. We knew there was another world out there and things to be done, but we didn't know exactly what it was that we wanted to do."

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