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John (Griffith) Bowen Biography

John Bowen comments:

Nationality: British. Born: Calcutta, India, 1924. Education: Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Crediton, Devon; Pembroke College, Oxford (editor, Isis), 1948-51; St. Antony's College, Oxford (Frere Exhibitioner in Indian Studies), 1951-53, M.A. in modern history 1953; Ohio State University, Columbus, 1952-53. Military Service: Served in the Mahratha Light Infantry, 1943-47: Captain. Career: Assistant editor, Sketch magazine, London, 1953-56; copywriter, J. Walter Thompson Company, London, 1956-58; head of the copy department, S.T. Garland Advertising, London, 1958-60; script consultant, Associated Television, London, 1960-67; drama producer, Thames Television, London, 1978-79, London Weekend Television, 1981-83, and BBC, 1984. Since 1991 member of the board, Authors Licensing and Copyright Society. Awards: Society of Authors travelling scholarship, 1986. Agent: (fiction) Elaine Greene Ltd., 37 Goldhawk Road, London W12 8QQ; (theatre) Margaret Ramsay Ltd., 14-A Goodwin's Court, London WC2N 4LL.



The Truth Will Not Help Us: Embroidery on an Historical Theme. London, Chatto and Windus, 1956.

After the Rain. London, Faber, 1958; New York, Ballantine, 1959.

The Centre of the Green. London, Faber, 1959; New York, McDowellObolensky, 1960.

Storyboard. London, Faber, 1960.

The Birdcage. London, Faber, and New York, Harper, 1962.

A World Elsewhere. London, Faber, 1965; New York, CowardMcCann, 1967.

Squeak: A Biography of NPA 1978A 203. London, Faber, 1983; NewYork, Viking, 1984.

The McGuffin. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1984; Boston, AtlanticMonthly Press, 1985.

The Girls: A Story of Village Life. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1986;New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987.

Fighting Back. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1989.

The Precious Gift. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1992.

No Retreat. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1994.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Another Death in Venice," in London Magazine, June 1964.

"The Wardrobe Mistress," in London Magazine, January 1971.

"Barney," in Mae West Is Dead, edited by Adam Mars-Jones. London, Faber, 1983.

"The Rabbit in the Garden," in Critical Quarterly (Manchester), Summer 1987.


The Essay Prize, with A Holiday Abroad and The Candidate: Plays for Television. London, Faber, 1962.

I Love You, Mrs. Patterson (produced Cambridge and London, 1964).London, Evans, 1964.

The Corsican Brothers, based on the play by Dion Boucicault (televised 1965; revised version produced London, 1970). London, Methuen, 1970.

After the Rain, adaptation of his own novel (produced London, 1966;New York, 1967). London, Faber, 1967; New York, Random House, 1968; revised version, Faber, 1987.

The Fall and Redemption of Man (as Fall and Redemption, producedLondon, 1967; as The Fall and Redemption of Man, produced New York, 1974). London, Faber, 1968.

Silver Wedding (televised 1967; revised version, produced in We Who Are about to …, later called Mixed Doubles, London, 1969). London, Methuen, 1970.

Little Boxes (including The Coffee Lace and Trevor) (producedLondon, 1968; New York, 1969). London, Methuen, 1968; New York, French, 1970.

The Disorderly Women, adaptation of a play by Euripides (producedManchester, 1969; London, 1970). London, Methuen, 1969.

The Waiting Room (produced London, 1970). London, French, 1970;New York, French, 1971.

Robin Redbreast (televised 1970; produced Guildford, Surrey, 1974).Published in The Television Dramatist, edited by Robert Muller, London, Elek, 1973.

Diversions (produced London, 1973). Excerpts published in Play Nine, edited by Robin Rook, London, Arnold, 1981.

Young Guy Seeks Part-Time Work (televised 1973; produced London, 1978).

Roger, in Mixed Blessings (produced Horsham, Sussex, 1973). Published in London Magazine, October-November 1976.

Florence Nightingale (as Miss Nightingale, televised 1974; revised version, as Florence Nightingale, produced Canterbury, 1975). London, French, 1976.

Heil Caesar!, adaptation of Julius Caesar by Shakespeare (televised1974). London, BBC Publications, 1974; revised version (produced Birmingham 1974), London, French, 1975.

Which Way Are You Facing? (produced Bristol, 1976). Excerpts published in Play Nine, edited by Robin Rook, London, Arnold, 1981.

Singles (produced London, 1977).

Bondage (produced London, 1978).

The Inconstant Couple, adaptation of a play by Marivaux (producedChichester, 1978).

Spot the Lady (produced Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1981).

The Geordie Gentleman, adaptation of a play by Molière (producedNewcastle-upon-Tyne, 1987).

The Oak Tree Tea-Room Siege (produced Leicester, 1990).

Radio Plays:

Digby (as Justin Blake, with Jeremy Bullmore), 1959;Varieties of Love (revised version of television play The First Thing You Think Of), 1968; The False Diaghilev, 1988.

Television Plays:

created the Garry Halliday series; episodes in Front Page Story, The Power Game, Wylde Alliance, and The Villains series; A Holiday Abroad, 1960; The Essay Prize, 1960; The Jackpot Question, 1961; The Candidate, 1961; Nuncle, from the story by John Wain, 1962; The Truth about Alan, 1963; A Case of Character, 1964; Mr. Fowlds, 1965; The Corsican Brothers, 1965; Finders Keepers, 1967; The Whole Truth, 1967; Silver Wedding, 1967; A Most Unfortunate Accident, 1968; Flotsam and Jetsam, 1970; Robin Redbreast, 1970; The Guardians series (7 episodes), 1971; A Woman Sobbing, 1972; The Emergency Channel, 1973; Young Guy Seeks Part-Time Work, 1973; Miss Nightingale, 1974; Heil Caesar!, 1974; The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, 1974; The Snow Queen, 1974; A Juicy Case, 1975; Brief Encounter, from the film by Noel Coward, 1976; A Photograph, 1977; Rachel in Danger, 1978; A Dog's Ransom, from the novel by Patricia Highsmith, 1978; Games, 1978; The Ice House, 1978; The Letter of the Law, 1979; Dying Day, 1980; The Specialist, 1980; A Game for Two Players, 1980; Dark Secret, 1981; Honeymoon, 1985.

Other (for children)

Pegasus. London, Faber, 1957; New York, A.S. Barnes, 1960.

The Mermaid and the Boy. London, Faber, 1958; New York, A.S. Barnes, 1960.

Garry Halliday and the Disappearing Diamonds [Ray of Death; Kidnapped Five; Sands of Time; Flying Foxes] (as Justin Blake, with Jeremy Bullmore). London, Faber, 5 vols., 1960-1964.


Manuscript Collection:

Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University; (television works) Temple University Library, Philadelphia.

Critical Studies:

Postwar British Fiction, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1962, and "The Fable Breaks Down," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature (Madison), vol. 8, no. 7, 1967, both by James Gindin.

Theatrical Activities:

Director: Plays—At the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art since 1967; The Disorderly Women, Manchester, 1969, London, 1970; Fall and Redemption, Pitlochry, Scotland, 1969; The Waiting Room, London, 1970. Actor: Plays—In repertory in North Wales, summers 1950-51; Palace Theatre, Watford, Hertfordshire, 1965.

(1996) I have always been interested in problems of form. Thus, in my first novel, The Truth Will Not Help Us, I wanted to try to tell a story of an historical occurrence of 1705 in Britain in terms of the political atmosphere and activities in the U.S.A. in 1953; in both these years political witch-hunting caused injustice and harm to innocent persons. My second novel, After the Rain, began as an attempt to do for science fiction what Michael Innes had done for the detective story: I failed in this attempt because I soon became more interested in the ideas with which I was dealing than in the form, and anyway made many scientific errors. My third novel was straightforwardly naturalistic, but in my fourth, Storyboard, I used an advertising agency as a symbol of a statement about public and private life, just as Zola used a department store in Au Bonheur des Dames. In my fifth novel, The Birdcage, I attempted to use a 19th-century manner—the objective detachment of Trollope, who presents his characters at some distance, displays and comments on them. In my sixth novel, A World Elsewhere, the hero, himself a wounded and needed politician, is writing a fiction about Philoctetes, the wounded archer, and until he has found his own reasons for returning to political life in London, cannot conclude his fiction, because he does not see why Philoctetes should allow himself to accompany Odysseus to Troy. In Squeak, the biography of a pigeon I once helped to rear, the story is told sometimes from Squeak's point of view, sometimes from that of her owners. In The McGuffin I tried to tell the story as the first-person narrative of one of the characters inside the kind of film Hitchcock might have made, the character himself being a reviewer of films. The same interest in different problems of form can be seen in my plays—the first Ibsenesque, the second borrowing from Brecht, Pirandello, and the Chinese theatre, the third a pair of linked one-acters, designed as two halves of the same coin, the fourth an attempt to rework the myth of The Bacchae as Sartre, Giraudoux, and Anouilh had used Greek myths, and to blend verse and prose, knockabout comedy, high tragedy, and Shavian argument. My full-length play The Corsican Brothers (an expansion of my earlier television play) has songs set within the play to music pirated from 19th-century composers, and I tried to make, from the melodramatic fantasies of Dumas and Dion Boucicault, a kind of Stendhalian statement about a society based on ideas of honour. In two of my television plays, Miss Nightingale and The Emergency Channel, I experimented with a narrative method that was associative, not lineal.

In this commentary, I am more confident in writing of form than of theme. One's themes are for the critics to set out neatly on a board: one is not always so clearly conscious of them oneself. There is a concern with archetypical patterns of behaviour (therefore with myth). There is a constant war between reasonable man and instinctive man. There is the pessimistic discovery that Bloomsbury values don't work, but that there seem to be no others worth holding. There is a statement of the need for Ibsen's "Life Lie" even when one knows it to be a lie, and Forster's "Only connect" becomes "Only accept" in my work. There is, particularly in The McGuffin, a concern with—and sorrow over—the ways in which human beings manipulate others of their kind.

I believe that novels and plays should tell a story, that the story is the mechanism by which one communicates one's view of life, and that no symbolism is worth anything unless it also works as an element in the story, since the final symbol is the story itself.

Inasmuch as the influences on one's style are usually those writers whom one has discovered in one's adolescence and early twenties, I might be said to have been influenced as a novelist by Dickens, Trollope, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, E. Nesbit, P.G. Wodehouse, and Evelyn Waugh—perhaps a little also by Hemingway and Faulkner. As a playwright, I have been influenced by Ibsen, Chekhov, Shaw, Pirandello, Anouilh, Giraudoux, and Noel Coward. Most of these names, I am sure, would be on any lists made by most of my contemporaries.

* * *

John Bowen has always been an intelligent and didactic novelist. His first novel, The Truth Will Not Help Us, uses a story of English seamen charged with piracy in a Scottish port in 1705 as a metaphor for the political evil of assuming guilt by rumor or association. A World Elsewhere uses the myth of Philoctetes as a parallel to complicated speculation about hypocrisy and engagement in contemporary political life. The Birdcage contains a long essay giving an account of the history and development of commercial television; and a defense of advertising as not necessarily more corrupt than any other institution in urban, capitalistic society introduces Storyboard. Although Bowen's fictional lessons are invariably complex and thoughtful, the author's presence is always visible, as he arranges, blocks out, and connects the material. Myth is made pointedly and explicitly relevant; symbols, like the lovebirds in The Birdcage or the breaking of a bronze chrysanthemum at a funeral in The Centre of the Green, sometimes seem attached heavy-handedly and literally. Bowen always acknowledges his own presence in his fiction, at times addressing the reader directly and becoming playful and intelligently skeptical about the complexities that prevent him from making any easy disposition of the characters and issues he has developed. The author is conspicuously articulate and instructive, but he does not attempt to play God; in fact, the dangers of human substitutions for a nonexistent or unknowable deity comprise part of the message of After the Rain and the skepticism underlying The Birdcage and A World Elsewhere.

Bowen's novels contain sharply memorable and effective scenes: the retired colonel expressing his style and his strength through his garden in The Centre of the Green, the nocturnal trip around Soho in which a character is beaten in The Birdcage, the picnic on a Greek island in A World Elsewhere. Often the best scenes involve a witty and comic treatment of dramatic conflict between two characters involved in close relationship, like the familial and sexual relationships in The Centre of the Green and Storyboard, the brilliantly handled quarrel between two contemporary London lovers who have lived together too long that takes place in the Piazza San Marco in The Birdcage, or the play with switching gender identities in The McGuffin. Bowen's comedy, however, no matter how strident initially, invariably turns into sympathy for his characters because they are unable to be more dignified or to match their own conceptions of a fuller humanity. This characteristic switch from satire to sympathy is emblematic of most of Bowen's fiction which works on reversals, on dramatically presented and thematically central violations of expected conclusions. The simple, muscle-flexing athlete, not the expected sensitive intellectual, finally defies and defeats the tyrant who would make himself God in After the Rain. Humanity and integrity appear in just those places most easily and generally thought the most corrupt in modern society in Storyboard. The family in which all members seem, superficially, most selfish and isolated can understand and respect each other in The Centre of the Green. This engagingly perverse positivism is often applied to social or political clichés, as in the forceful and complicated treatment of E. M. Forster's "Only connect" in The Birdcage or the ramifications on "politics is the art of the possible" developed in A World Elsewhere. Such clichés, in Bowen's fictional world, never honestly express the concerns or dilemmas of the characters who use them so glibly, although they may yet be partially true in ways the characters never intend and can seldom comprehend. The fact that people, in Bowen's novels, generally haven't a very good idea of what they're about is no warrant for denying their humanity or their capacity to invoke sympathy.

In the mid-1960s, Bowen turned to writing and producing plays for stage and television. Some of these, like adaptations of Euripides' The Bacchae, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and Dion Boucicault's The Corsican Brothers, compress the use of myth and symbol in dramatic confrontations, and suggest darker and more tragic versions of experience than do the novels. In the mid-1980s, after nearly 20 years away from novels, Bowen published two, Squeak and The McGuffin. Both depend on formal devices, dramatic fictional artifice. In Squeak, this artifice involves the reconstruction of the knowable world through the carefully limited attention to a pigeon's perspective. The McGuffin refers to Hitchcock's term for a device in his films that triggered the action without itself being part of the plot, such that one could review the story and find an inconsistency at the heart of it. These novels function less as implicit social commentary than do some of Bowen's earlier ones, although beneath the wit, they still convey humane and thoughtful lessons concerning the need to accept human deficiency and to respect forms of being, in oneself and in others, that one could not have initially imagined. During the late 1980s and 1990s, Bowen produced three more novels: The Girls, Fighting Back, and The Precious Gift, a mystery.

—James Gindin

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