There is a point at which the "plague on both your houses" outlook of the British left turns into sheer self-righteousness. Precisely at this point Marghanita Laski sat down to write The Offshore Island for the B.B.C. in 1954. In the resultant drama the United States and the Soviet Union emerge as allies-fin-destruction, victimizing innocent England.
The victims Miss Laski chooses to show include Rachel Verney, a forty-year old woman, her son and daughter, isolated for five years on a farm that miraculously escaped nuclear poisoning, and a fisherman who visits periodically from another pocket of survivors. Except for the daughter (Anne Lilley Kerr) overwhelmed by sexual longing, these people greet the prospect of rescue with some ambivalence. Their misgivings are justified, it turns out, because the Americans who enter as saviors only want to head them into reservations for "contaminated persons."
In Miss Laski's original script, Russians and Americans appear on the scene as mirror-images ("we come as comrades," says one commander, "we come as friends," says the other), but the Russians have been cut in the re-writing. The ensuing anti-American tone is heightened by Brice Weisman's snarling caricature of an American military man. But in general, Thomas Bissinger's production is as sophisticated as Miss Laski's political vision is banal.
Mr. Bissinger has carefully rehearsed one of the finest casts assembed on a Harvard stage in recent years. As the fisherman who suspects the Americans' motives, Harry Cooper is vivid and strong. Anne Lilley Kerr is convincing in her desire, and Josephine Simon succeeds in transforming Rachel Verney's unique postwar experience into one of dramatic pertinence. Otto Holmberg turns the not-too-intriguing son into a sympathetic figure.
One need not quibble over the scientific premises to question the final relevance of Miss Laski's play. A playwright is of course entitled to make use of a nether-world such as her postwar England; but a good writer uses it to comment on reality rather than to indulge a hypothetical vision. Miss Laski's commentary lacks political validity: in presenting her image of nuclear destruction, she strains toward praise of an isolationist status quo. Thus Rachel Verney informs her Amercan rescuer, "for five years I've been free from guilt. I've lived in peace with my family." War is shown to be the disrupter of a contented world, rather than the outgrowth of a disparite and unjust one.
Trying to write of apocalyptic tragedies and future horrors, too many writers have lost their sense of human proportion. It is this sense that Miss Laski struggles nobly to retain in The Offshore Island. Mr. Bissinger's careful, expensive production in constructed with extreme theatricality. Its faults--an occasional vestige of television writing, a touch of melodrama--are overcome with considerable skill; and the significant theme is developed with no extra heavy-handedness.
Its pretensions and its political cliches notwithstanding, The Offshore Island is an important play and should be seen. Anyone who feels the theater has some ideological potential in our times would do well to contemplate its weaknesses.