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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

The Rear Column

Simon Gray

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To purchase The Rear Column

Title: The Rear Column
Author: Simon Gray
Genre: Drama
Written: 1978
Length: 76 pages
Availability: in The Rear Column and Other Plays - US
in The Definitive Simon Gray - Volume 3 - UK
  • First performed in 1978, in a production directed by Harold Pinter, with Jeremy Irons as Jameson, Simon Ward as Ward, and Clive Francis as Troup

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Our Assessment:

B : good, atmospheric play of life under extreme circumstances

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Rear Column is based on actual events. The play is set in the Congo, in 1887-8. Henry Gordon Stanley has set off to rescue Emin Pasha and left behind a "rear column" at Yambuya, on the banks of the Arruwimi River. They are to wait there for six hundred additional porters, to be delivered by Arab slave trader, Tippu-Tib. Only then are they to follow Stanley.
       Yambuya is an inhospitable place: the climate is hellish, dangers are all around. In the compound they have established a group of Englishmen hold down the fort. And wait.
       And wait.
       And wait.
       There are three acts to the play, with six months passing between each act. The situation in each remains almost identical: all they can do is wait. But the conditions take their devastating toll.
       Stanley gave specific but not exactly clear instructions. Barttelot is in charge, but he acknowledges that he is "well and truly in Stanley's web". He practically can't do right. Stanley -- from whom absolutely nothing is heard until the very end -- is a real, overwhelming presence throughout, a dark, complicated dominating shadow.
       The few left behind at the rear column (and those who join up with them) are, as they recognize, apparently left to "rot among rotting niggers for no reason". But duty-bound -- especially Barttelot -- they keep at their post. Waiting. Flogging the natives. Fighting disease and boredom and frustration.
       Jameson seems the most human of the small group, sketching wildlife, trying to find the compromises that make day to day life possible. In the end, however, it is he who participates in the most horrific act, a shocking coda of the loss of civilization in these parts.
       One of the characters, Ward, notes: "There are no noble causes in the Congo, and never have been." Nearly a quarter of a century after this play was written the words are still as true as ever.
       The Rear Column is specifically about Englishman and Englishness and duty and stiff upper lips (superficially maintained, but in fact rotted to the core soon enough in these awful circumstances), but it is also a useful reminder of the obscenity and absurdity of the entire colonial enterprise. It also usefully demystifies the terrible men wrongly remembered and celebrated as "heroes" (such as Stanley), as well as offering another perspective on what is generally ridiculously romanticized history.
       Gray's dialogue is light and bright through much of the play, effectively highlighting the absurdity of the situation. The final gruesome twist around Jameson is then particularly effective.
       It is difficult material: there are horrible circumstances and offensive conduct (especially towards the slave-porter population). Gray has dealt with it quite well, fashioning a quite powerful (if often enervating) psychological drama.

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Henry Morton Stanley and the Rear Column: Simon Gray: Other books by Simon Gray under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Simon Gray (1936-2008) wrote numerous plays, as well as works of fiction and non-fiction.

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