On the centenary of the birth of one of Scotland’s most celebrated authors it’s no surprise that Muriel Spark featured heavily in the Book Festival. The bookshop featured a table of brand new editions, the former Scottish Power Studio Tent moved out into George Street and became the Spark Theatre, and her work was at the centre of a set of events. Two of those events featured her play, Doctors of Philosophy, and the novel Girls of Slender Means.
Doctors of Philosophy is a sharp, hilarious play that received poor reception in London in the early 60s. In a theatre scene filled with Angry Young Men, a play dominated by incredible female characters, the male characters talked about more than talking, was well ahead of its time. It is not just that the male characters talk so little. Three of the four are called Charlie, and the fourth, Herbert, never appears on stage. One of the three Charlies barely speaks and another spends half his time being the set rather than a full character.
The Book Festival revived Doctors of Philosophy for a one time performance in the Spiegletent. The wonderful cast had very little rehearsal and were still using scripts, but the rough edges only served to enrich an already wonderful play. Fast and sharp, with foreshadowing that then appears to have been a ploy all along, Doctors of Philosophy works just as well now as it should have done then. The cast appeared to love every minute. And if they occasionally had to extend a pause to laugh, well, we laughed all the more with them.
Girls of Slender Means is a very different piece of work. Set in the Blitz ravaged London that was the first London Spark knew, it captures its time and place perfectly. The May of Teck club she describes could be any of the many young women’s hostels that were around at the time. Rosemary Goring conducted a reading workshop, explaining that like many of Spark’s novels, Girls of Slender Means is light and frothy on the surface but at its core an exploration of evil. Every detail is important and prescient. It was described by the group as a profound story of salvation, with an undercurrent of women’s emancipation beautifully woven in. Some characters may seek or find salvation but its discordant, distressing ending brings another theme to the surface. The end of war is often depicted as joyful, peaceful, relieving. Spark creates an altogether darker picture of a world where war has consequences and the evil that created the conflict still resides in the people celebrating their release from it.
Spark’s work was always a tapestry of themes and precision. No unnecessary words were ever left in, and no important details were left out. There are layers of understanding that encourage you to read each work again and find new meaning. She wrote with a clarity and fire that has not aged and retains its relevance to readers today.