The night that changed my life: Margaret Drabble on Watching Pirandello on TV in 1954

I felt I was entering the adult world.

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One of the first plays I saw on television was Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. It was April 1954, and I was 14. Our family didn’t have a television set, and so the medium itself was a novelty. I was staying in Northumberland with the family of a school friend, and together we watched this extraordinarily compelling play, in what I remember as a gripping production. I think my friend’s parents weren’t very happy about our watching it, but they didn’t stop us, and we sat there, riveted by this very adult drama.

The standout performance was by Mary Morris, in the star role of the Stepdaughter. She was mesmerising. Her gamine and savagely teasing features, her intensity, the intelligence of her delivery were unforgettable. I don’t know how well I understood the play, which was written very much for the theatre rather than the screen, but it worked brilliantly, in the starkness of its black and white imagery. I felt I was entering the adult world as I watched.

Morris had a distinguished career, but mainly in the kind of plays and films that I didn’t go to see, and I didn’t rediscover her until recently, as I replayed DVDs of the BBC TV Shakespeare productions, some of which are outstanding. She was the Duchess of Gloucester in Richard 11 (1978) and Queen Elinor in King John (1984). Her power was undiminished.

In 1954 I fell in love with drama, an aspiring tragedy queen, and at Cambridge five or six years later I played the Stepdaughter in a production at the ADC. Ian McKellen played the Son, and John Fortune the Producer. We all thought we were wonderful. Then, in 1981, I saw my son playing the Son in an Oxford University Dramatic Society production. The Son refuses to associate himself with the antics of the other characters, and at the end he walked off the stage, away from the curtain call, through the audience, and out the back of the building, never to be seen again – a great coup de théâtre, which my son says he has forgotten. What a play, what a playwright, what long memories.

The night that changed my life: read more from our series in which writers share the cultural encounters that shaped them

This article appears in the 05 December 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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