DH Lawrence swings in and out of favour, but his play about a mining family proves him a master of stage as well as page, writes Barney Norris.

By Barney Norris (Keble College, 2006)

The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd is one of the greatest plays ever to come out of England. The story of a mining family in early twentieth-century Nottinghamshire, it is a valuable source for those interested in English social history, and has an extraordinary emotional power. It is also fascinatingly overlooked.

It has been the fate of DH Lawrence’s greatest play to be in constant need of rediscovery. During Lawrence’s lifetime even this much could not be said for it – the plays were only really discovered after his death.

Lawrence started going to the theatre when he moved to Croydon in 1911. He saw the work of Synge and Chekhov, and wrote three plays in quick succession – A Collier’s Friday Night, the play in question and The Daughter-In-Law. Holroyd was published in 1914 and produced in 1926, by which time Lawrence had written several other plays and become successful as a novelist and poet, but he was never supported by a theatre and never received the acclaim he deserved as a dramatist, nor the opportunity to develop his theatrical ideas.

In the sixties the Royal Court produced his first three plays as a trilogy, but that was fifty years ago, and today they have once again faded largely from the repertoire. Paul Miller is to be applauded for his championing of Lawrence, previously at Sheffield and now at the Orange Tree in Richmond where he is artistic director, and where the production stars Ellie Piercy as Lizzie Holroyd (pictured).

Lawrence’s standing as a writer over the last century is an index of our country’s changing social attitudes. His first role, as a working-class voice speaking in the period of the ascendance of the Labour movement, saw him cast as an outsider, a peasant poet in the tradition of John Clare.

We caught up with his passionate, humanist brand of social realism a few years later – Lawrence’s reputation was bolstered in the Sixties when he became associated through the Chatterley trial with freedom of speech and sexual freedom, and with FR Leavis as cheerleader he was afforded a posthumous revaluation reminiscent of that of Blake or Van Gogh. The tide was at the full, and Lawrence’s reputation at its height.

By the Eighties, though, that tide was going out again – Ken Russell ended up approaching Lawrence in much the same way Kate Bush approached Charlotte Brontë, and these days Lawrence is not much discussed at all. Set alongside the statistics for social mobility or those relating to the wealth gap during the same period, that is an interesting trajectory.

Lawrence has been most admired when England has been most interested in improving the lot of its people, which is perhaps why so few read him now. In a sad letter, he once wrote ‘just as an audience was found in Russia for Tchekhov, so an audience might be found in England for some of my stuff, if there were a man to whip ’em in. It’s the producer that is lacking, not the audience.’ Raymond Williams, introducing Lawrence’s plays, concludes that ‘the point to emphasize is that these plays show us we have lost half a century’.

Another fifty years on and the producer is still largely lacking. We appear still only rarely to produce the conditions in which a theatre will give voice to the drama of ordinary life. For as long as Holroyd is not considered alongside the plays of Miller or Synge as a great tragedy, we will be able to use Lawrence’s work as a barometer of English diffidence and embarrassment around the subject of its social values.

Barney Norris’s book To Bodies Gone: The Theatre of Peter Gill is available from Seren, and his play Visitors will be presented at the Bush Theatre, Shepherd's Bush, from November 26 to January 10. All images by Mark Douet, courtesy of the Orange Tree Theatre.