Autumn Crocus by Dodie Smith is no where near as good a play as Smith’s Dear Octopus but I would still love to see it performed live. First produced in the spring of 1931, it is a three act play about a spinster school teacher who falls in love with a married hotelier while on holiday in Austria, not realising that he is married until she has already fallen in love.
Their romance is, frankly, not that interesting to read about. It is slight and clichéd – the sort of thing that is dull on the page but can be made enjoyable on stage if the actors are compelling. Reading the cast list for the first production, it is not difficult to see why this play – predictable as it is – was a success. Fay Compton and Francis Lederer surely made the romantic leads far more interesting than they are on the page.
For me, the most delightful moments were provided by the supporting cast, the other guests at the alpine hotel where the play is set. They are sadly underused in Act Two but in Acts One and Three they are wonderful. Everyone comes in pairs: the pair of schoolteachers (the younger of whom, Fanny, falls in love), the vicar and his unmarried sister, the boisterous German tourists, and, my favourites, the young unmarried couple who take marriage so seriously that they feel they must first live together rather than rush into any sort of legal union. Alaric and Audrey’s delight in explaining their situation to everyone around them amused me greatly, particularly when they explain their views to Mr Mayne, the vicar:
Audrey: Of course, your generation’s always so flippant about sex. Look how you behave – rushing lightly into matrimony, peopling the world with unwanted children, thronging the divorce courts –
Mayne: I have never thronged a divorce court –
Alaric: Probably because you have never married – which is, in itself, a crime against the State. The duty of every healthy male is to find a suitable mate – one who, by bring the necessary feminine attributes naturally omitted from his ego, will complete that ego, enabling it and its female counterpart to vibrate in plastic rhythm – united, yet individual – in dual unity with the harmonic cosmos.
Mayne: Good gracious! I’m afraid I don’t know what any of that means.
Everyone in the hotel is aware of their unmarried state (how could they not be, with the young people constantly wanting to talk about it?) and more intrigued than outraged by it, especially Miss Mayne:
Miss Mayne: And how is the – the adventure?
Miss Mayne: Yes – my brother was telling me about you. Really, I think he expected me to be shocked, but, of course, I’m most interested in modern ideas. Not that I get the chance of hearing many. No one in our village ever does anything modern.
Audrey: Don’t they?
Miss Mayne: Well, not on purpose. I mean, it’s only – well, by accident – one just rescues them, you know. But you, of course, don’t want to be rescued.
Alaric: Well, not from ourselves.
And yet somehow Alaric and Audrey manage to be endearing rather than insufferable. They are earnest without being particularly strident. In the original production they were played by Jessica Tandy and Jack Hawkins, both looking very, very young.
All in all, it is not a particularly special play, though it is an impressive first effort. I enjoyed the Austrian setting (there is a liberal amount of dialogue in German) and loved the supporting characters but am happy that Smith’s powers as a playwright developed far beyond this.