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.
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.
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."