A Private Mythology

The Manuscripts and Plays of John Whiting

Bucknell University Press , 2003

ISBN: 0-8387-5140-7


Audiences of the 1950’s and early 60’s were unprepared for the violence, incoherence and moodiness of Whiting’s plays, reacting with hostility especially to Saint’s Day and Marching Song.

A Private Mythology explores the recurring patterns in Whiting’s plays from the early unpublished “Not a Foot of Land” to Saint’s Day, Marching Song, The Devils and the unfinished “The Nomads.”

In each work Whiting involves his heroes in a monumental attack on society, followed by a sudden collapse when they retreat into exile with a group of recluses. Although his plays take place in different countries and at different times, they all share a common setting. This is the isolated freakish house where the inhabitants are portrayed as at once heroic figures, lost children, and paranoid eccentrics. They live amid their dreams of rebellion and their anxieties which paralyse them. No other artist quite combines such a juvenile idealism, the last refuge of romanticism, with domestic crankiness, and merges both with nihilism and an incongruous plea for responsibility.  Incoherence results from the tensions between the heroic and the anti-heroic, the extraordinary and the all-too-ordinary.

Whiting’s private mythology taps powerful emotional sources and elicits equally powerful reactions, yet it never is fully made public. In a sense he gives mythological significance to his evasion of a direct approach. But his very failure gives audiences an insight into the rawness of experience. His private mythology is the mode of communication of one who feels at once subversive and timid, radical and reserved.


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