"One's real life is so often
the life that one does not lead."
-Oscar Wilde


In 1957 there was a growing concern over nuclear armament. Both at home and abroad, the future looked bleak. It appeared for all the technological advances mankind had made, we were poised to snuff ourselves out with a simple push of a button. 1957 was the same year British playwright David Campton wrote A Smell of Burning and Then . . . Published together by Dramatists Play Service, this pair of one acts are a satirical examination of attitudes which individuals and society trap themselves by.

In A Smell of Burning we catch up with the Joneses over breakfast. They're a couple we suspect have been together awhile. Their conversation is rote, having forgotten how to listen long ago. We're given the impression they like it that way, for any break from their routine is cause for consternation. The Joneses are a couple immersed in the details of the mundane, to the neglect of events occurring around them.

Enter Mr. Robinson. He claims he is Deputy Head of the City Surveyors Department, and he is there to supervise "certain alterations in the structure of the Status Quo." Mr. Jones, who's engrossed in toasting bread - an act he performs the same way with the same problems everyday - hardly pays him a second thought. His wife, no more curious than her husband, fetches a hatchet at Mr. Robinson's request and sends him on his way to perform whatever duties it is the Deputy Head of the City Surveyors Department does.

A few minutes later there is a scream from the upstairs apartment. It is the residence of one Mrs. Prendergast, the Alderman of the Borough. Mr. and Mrs. Jones pause long enough to complain to one another about screaming in the morning, but are instantly resumed in their morning tasks. Mr. Robinson soon returns, wiping the hatchet clean, and returns it to its place in the kitchen, the Joneses failing to connect their neighbor's scream with the weapon.

The faith of Phythick and the girl has saved them from

annihilation, but the blinders which got society to

this point in the first place are still in place.

Mr. Robinson is not through. With the assistance of Mrs. Jones, he hangs her with the laundry line, and all the while Mr. Jones sits and reads the newspaper as is his habit. He is so wrapped up in the minutia of his life he fails to notice murder when it's committed right under his nose. Perhaps Robinson sums it up best when he sees the toast has burnt. "Strange," he observes, "that you never notice what is happening." It is a statement directed at himself, Mr. Jones, the audience; the whole world.

In the second play, Then . . . , we are confronted with a post-nuclear holocaust world. Phythick is a mathematician who thinks he's the only person to have survived the blast. The play opens with him pondering his existence, wondering if his life can or should go on, when a girl walks by. She is nameless, a former beauty pageant queen, and has never possessed a thought of her own. The girl, like Phythick, has a paper bag on her head.

Before the blast, the nation's top scientists advised everyone to wear paper bags on their heads. They said it would protect against the explosion. People, being what people are, grew complacent to the advice so when the day came only Phythic and the girl bothered to put their bags in place. Through the bags, the playwright has created a vehicle to caution against the dangers of blind faith. First, The bag over-the-head imagery represents the blind faith in government by a populace that would let nuclear armament escalate to such a level as to cause global destruction. Second, it conveys the empty-headedness of the girl (a blind faith in what others tell her) and third, the unfailing belief in science on the mathematician's part (a blind faith of its own). The faith of Phythick and the girl has saved them from annihilation, but the blinders which got society to this point in the first place are still in place.

Campton has given the theatre two excellent plays about the sin of self-involvement. They offer a bleak perspective of the world in 1957, and perhaps a view bleaker still of mankind's future. In light of America's present pursuit of new and mightier defenses, however, these gems are as timely now as they were then.

posted 01/31/01