David Storey: an instinctive writer who portrayed a divided soul and country

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David Storey, who has died aged 83, was a dramatist and novelist of unflinching, Lawrentian integrity who explored the divisions of class, the conflicts of body and soul, and the riven state of the nation. You felt he was trying to resolve the tensions in his own life since, at one time, he was simultaneously an art student at the Slade School in London and a professional rugby league player in Leeds. Storey also once told me that, as the son of a miner, he felt obliged to put in an eight-hour day at the desk in order to replicate the rhythms of working-class life.

Storey constantly used his own experiences as inspiration. He became famous through his novel, This Sporting Life (1960), set in his native Wakefield and dealing with a rugby player who is lucky on the pitch but less fortunate in love. It was filmed in 1963 by Lindsay Anderson, which led to a long and fruitful association between writer and director, to became one of the glories of British theatre. Storey’s first play, The Restoration of Arnold Middleton (1966), about a teacher’s mental disintegration, was directed at the Royal Court by Robert Kidd but after that it was Anderson who became his loyal interpreter.

Rachel Roberts and Richard Harris in Lindsay Anderson’s film of This Sporting Life.
Rachel Roberts and Richard Harris in Lindsay Anderson’s film of This Sporting Life. Photograph: Allstar/Rank Organisation

Their first stage collaboration was In Celebration (1969): a mesmerising play, starring Alan Bates and Brian Cox, about the buried guilts exposed by a family reunion. But it was with The Contractor, also staged at the Court in 1969, that Storey’s mastery of theatre emerged. At one stage, he had earned his living as a marquee-erector: an experience he used in his 1963 novel, Radcliffe. Out of that memory Storey forged an astonishing play in which we first see a tent erected and then taken down. But in the interstices of the work, Storey explored the intricacies of class and created a powerful visual metaphor: as we looked at the riotous disorder created by the unseen wedding guests, we wondered in what way they were superior to the workmen who had at least erected an object of elegance and beauty.

In many ways, Storey was a painterly dramatist. He was haunted by the image of a white metalwork table left on stage at the end of The Contractor. That became the inspiration for his next play, Home (1970), in which we gradually discover that the four eccentric occupants of a summer garden are, in fact, patients in a mental hospital.

Ralph Richardson, left, and John Gielgud in Home by David Storey.
The still, sad music of humanity … Ralph Richardson, left, and John Gielgud in Home by David Storey. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

The play became instantly popular, not just because of the cryptic beauty of the writing or the Wordsworthian spareness of Anderson’s production, but because it starred Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud: the combination of the two was like hearing a bassoon partnered with a cello and left the impression we were privy to the still, sad music of humanity.

Storey, who once said he’d seen only half a dozen plays since a childhood visit to Hamlet, had an instinctive understanding of theatre. He also knew how to mine his experience to create resonant metaphors. In The Changing Room (1971), he used his knowledge of rugby league and its match-day rituals to provide a microcosm of a deeply hierarchical society with fixed traditions and inflexible codes of behaviour. The correlation between Storey’s drama and fiction also became apparent in a later novel, Present Times (1984), about a sports reporter who becomes famous through a play about a rugby league changing room. Even Storey’s occasional misfires were memorable. When I dubbed his Ortonesque black comedy Mother’s Day (1976) “a stinker”, Storey waited to entrap me at the Royal Court and give me a cuff, wildly over-reported at the time, about the ears. I quite understood his motive.

If his later work achieved less fame, it was partly because it seemed further from his own roots, although Early Days (1980) offered a fine performance from Ralph Richardson as a politician uneasily living out his retirement. But, just as Storey’s fiction will long continue to be read, his best plays will be revived for their haunting, unforgettable portraits of a divided soul and country.

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