Born in London in 1934, Bob Larbey has spent most of his professional life writing for British television. Much of his work has been done in partnership with another Englishman, John Esmond. Together, the two have been responsible for about a dozen highly successful comedy series, including Please Sir, written for Independent Television, and, for the BBC, The Good Life, Ever Decreasing Circles, and Brush Strokes.
He has also written television comedy on his own, most notably A Fine Romance, a 26-episode study of mismatched lovers starring the distinguished actress, Judi Dench.
According to a profile in Teletronic, an online website devoted to British television, Larbey “admits that working without a partner is less fun. ‘There is no one to bounce ideas off of nor is there a partner to laugh with if something is funny.’" Possibly this fondness for collaboration is reflected in A Month of Sundays in the friendship between Cooper and Aylott—two residents of a nursing home who pool their wits to refashion the trials and inanities of everyday life into a kind of ongoing sitcom.
A Month of Sundays, Larbey’s first work for the stage, was originally produced in England in 1985, with a setting and characters that were distinctly British. This version of the play won the London Standard award for Best Comedy in 1986. A revised—and Americanized—version of the play opened on Broadway in 1987 in a production starring Jason Robards. In 1989 the play was filmed in an adaptation for television under the title Age Old Friends. Larbey’s other plays include Building Blocks (1992) and A Small Affair (1994).
The action takes place in a room in a, “Rest and Retirement Home in Westchester County, N.Y., on the first Sunday in April and the first Sunday in May. . . . The room is large, and on the first floor of what looks to be a Victorian country house, but the furniture is modern and the décor bright and attractive.” The room belongs to Cooper, the main character.
The most notable element in this description is the location of the retirement home: Westchester County. This is the world of affluent New York suburbs such as Scarsdale, Bronxville, and Chappaqua—where the Clintons bought their post-presidential home. The Westchester setting informs us that the clientele at this institution are members of the middle and upper-middle classes, affluent enough to be free of material want in their old age. Instead, we discover, they are primarily afflicted by the spiritual and emotional anxieties that come with the so-called “golden years.” Well-educated and accustomed to independence and authority, they feel with special keenness the diminution of autonomy that accompanies advancing age. And Cooper’s social and economic status is further confirmed by the size of his room, its Victorian pedigree, and its “attractive” furnishings.
The fact that the action occurs over the course of two Sundays in April and May is also important. Playwrights often exploit the emotional associations of the seasons to highlight or contrast with various elements of plot or character. For example, Ibsen ironically sets A Doll House, a play about the dissolution of a marriage, at Christmas time—the season of family in-gathering and warmth. In Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, which charts the decline of an aristocratic family, the action begins in early May and ends on the threshold of the Russian winter—a seasonal progression that seems to parallel the darkening developments of the plot.
Larbey’s decision to set his play on two Sundays in April and May is equally significant. In the world at large, April and May mean springtime—the season of Easter, and of youth, renewal and hope. But inside the nursing home, renewal and hope—much less youth—are scarce commodities. Thus the season outside Cooper’s room stands in sharp contrast to the atmosphere inside it. Cooper lives in the permanent winter of old age, always aware of impending decay and death, while his visitors enjoy the hope and promise of springtime.
On the other hand, the lives of the residents aren’t over just yet. There is still time—however little—to seize life’s possibilities. And the season outside reminds us of this remnant of promise, even as the characters inside struggle to cling to hope.
As the play opens, Cooper, a man, “in his late sixties, frail but lively of mind,” is delivering a long speech comparing the serving of breakfast in the nursing home to an attack by a Nazi tank unit: “The Panzers will be coming soon. . . . Fuel on board—tea, coffee, orange juice. Ammunition on board—oatmeal, dry cereals, eggs, bacon, armour-piercing sausages.” He thus immediately establishes himself as a wit and a curmudgeon, a man with a talent for converting the mundane to the fantastic through the power of a hostile imagination.
Beautiful young Nurse Wilson then enters bearing a breakfast tray and returning us from the Eastern Front to Westchester County. Cooper proceeds to banter and flirt with her, revealing, as Wilson notes, his inner “dirty old man.” When she leaves, Cooper launches into another monologue informing us of the transition of fellow resident, George Hartley—a man always described as “remarkably fit for his age—into “Zombieland.” This is Cooper’s term for the state of senile dementia that seems to overcome everybody in the end. Hartley, dressed in the blue suit that was his badge of fitness, has been found “paddling in the pond in the garden.” Hartley’s sudden fall into aged incompetence haunts the remainder of the play as an emblem of the awful end which Cooper dreads.
Next comes a visit from Baker the housekeeper, Nurse Wilson’s tart-tongued, middle-aged opposite. She scolds Cooper for withdrawing from the world into his room, for being sex-crazed, for occupying more than his share of space, and for calling Hartley a Zombie.
When Wilson returns to see how Cooper has done with his breakfast, we learn why he has been refusing to leave his room: on his last outing, weeks ago, he fell—and ever since he has been frightened to descend the stairs again. On top of which, this being the first Sunday of the month, he faces a visit from his daughter and her family, a prospect that puts him in a funk:
Since I last saw her, I’ve ‘Had a fall,’ I now have to get up three times in the night instead of twice, ‘Remarkably fit for his age’ George Hartley has joined the Zombies and . . . Mrs. Baker suggests that I try looking for my father, who is in a little urn somewhere in Riverdale. So Cooper sees himself and his world headed steadily downhill, a prospect not improved by the thought of his daughter, for whom his feelings are, at best, ambivalent.
Cooper is next joined by his fellow resident, Aylott, a man of his own age, but of somewhat “gentler” temperament. Together they have formed “The Escape Committee,” a whimsical partnership plotting their flight to Switzerland. They swap information on their respective infirmities, Cooper grimly anticipating urinary incontinence, and Aylott dreading dementia. Each has shown early symptoms of these problems, and Cooper jokes about synchronizing their loss of faculties:
Look, I’ll make a bargain with you. You start repeating yourself without knowing it at exactly the same time that I start peeing myself without knowing it. . . . You can say, ‘You’re peeing yourself, you’re peeing yourself, you’re peeing yourself,” and I can say, “Stop repeating yourself.
In addition to their medical speculations and their joking, they continually goad themselves with a seemingly trivial unanswered question: who played third base for the 1937 New York Giants? In fact, this is anything but a trivial query. So long as there is a mystery to solve, there is a reason to turn the page of life, and the problem of the 1937 Giants is one of the puzzles that keep them going.
Scene I comes to an end as Aylott sets off on a walk to the candy store and Cooper heads to the bathroom for yet another of his alarmingly frequent visits.
As Scene II begins, Cooper is nearly done dressing for his daughter’s visit. There remain only his shoes to put on. However, as he stands unsteadily with one foot on a chair, tying his laces, he loses his balance and falls to the floor. At that moment Julia, his daughter, walks through the door, and their visit is off to an awkward start.
She and her husband, Peter, complain about the traffic on their long drive from New Jersey to Westchester. They attempt to talk to Cooper about his health, about the rooftop deck they are building, and about their neighbors. But Cooper brushes off every conversational gambit with snappish humor, finally goading Julia into blurting out an unpleasant truth—that Gary, Cooper’s grandson, no longer wants to visit his grandfather. “[H]e started having very bad dreams after coming here. . . . You talk of death. . . . Urine bags and zombies and walkers . . . It creeps into every conversation we have.” So Cooper’s preoccupation with death has frightened off the one person he most wanted to see, and removed from his monthly routine its one recurring note of youth and promise.
The visit soon limps to an end, with Julia and her husband citing Sunday traffic on the parkway as their reason for an early departure. Cooper then muses about his feelings towards his daughter:
‘Not her father’s daughter,’ as they say. Not her mother’s either. Of us but somehow never ours. I sometimes have the nasty suspicion that I only loved her because I was supposed to love her. Such a serious little face. Very obedient—very correct—contented rather than happy.
Pretty Nurse Wilson interrupts this sour train of thought to inquire about the visit. When Cooper informs her that things went badly, she tries to console him; and when he inquires about the lately-demented Hartley, she declares that she will never give up on caring for him: “Even when he doesn’t know who I am, I’m not letting go. I’ll smile at him and I’ll make jokes to him and I’ll always call him Mr. Hartley.”
She leaves for a date with her “young man,” to be succeeded by Aylott, who is back from his walk. Disturbingly, he never made it to the candy store. Instead, taking a wrong turn at the gate, he wound up in an industrial park, confused and lost. Once again they must confront together—albeit jokingly—the approach of their decline. After a glass of whiskey and a desultory game of chess, they bid each other goodnight, bringing the first act to an end on a note of rueful melancholy.
Act II begins one month later, on the first Sunday in May. Once again it’s breakfast time, but on this Sunday morning Cooper believes he can feel something unusual in the air. Nurse Wilson confirms his suspicions when she informs him that one of the patients, Colonel Bruton, has died, adding another gloomy entry to the chronicle of life at the nursing home. After they banter about Wilson’s boyfriend, she goes off, and, just as in the first act, is succeeded by the dour Mrs Baker, who resumes her verbal sparring with Cooper. Except for the Colonel’s death, this Sunday in May is looking like a replay of April.
But we do begin to see some noteworthy differences. For one thing, Aylott fails to make his morning visit. Or rather, he “appears in the doorway. . . . looks somewhat puzzled and goes” without being noticed by Cooper. His absence creates a kind of void in the morning, which Cooper decides to fill by taking a walk—a positive advance over his trepidation of a month earlier. With his walking stick over his shoulder—looking almost jaunty—he steps up to the door, and with a brave summons, “Well, come on, confidence,” he embarks on his adventure, bringing the first scene of the act to an end on a hopeful note.
The second scene finds Julia and Peter back for their monthly visit, arriving, as in the first act, at an awkward moment. This time, Cooper is asleep in his chair, presumably exhausted by his morning’s walk. Once again they have been delayed by parkway traffic, and once again things seem to be falling into the usual rut of mutual peevishness between father and daughter. But just as there were important departures from routine in the first scene, so there are changes in the interplay between Cooper and Julia. Exasperated by his constant sarcasm, she declares her long concealed resentment toward her parents: “I didn’t get close to either one of you,” she tells her father. “You always seemed so complete you and Mother. I sometimes felt I’d intruded just by being born. . . . I don’t feel you need me even now.”
Cooper is taken aback by this revelation, so much so that he lets his own emotional cat out of the bag:
COOPER. I do need you, but . . . ‘Big boys don’t cry,’ you see. . . . Some times I want to say, ‘I’m frightened.’ I want to say that I’m feeling very sorry for myself—and I want somebody to say they’re sorry for me.
Seeing the door to her father’s feelings finally open, Julia rushes eagerly through it, reversing years of estrangement. She even invites him to move into the spare room in their house, but Cooper doesn’t want to overdo the theme of reconciliation: “Let’s end the day on a winning note,” he says, happy to embrace the progress they have made and reluctant to jeopardize it by going too far too fast. And so, breaking with precedent, their visit ends on a happy note, with both father and daughter genuinely looking forward to the following month.
Nurse Wilson returns, bearing disturbing news about Aylott, who, she reveals, “had a small problem this morning. . . . a temporary dislocation.” Cooper immediately sees the darkest implications in this event, assuming it means that Aylott is going “off his trolley,” and that he’s about to join the “Zombies.” Wilson tries to reassure him that no such conclusions need be drawn, but the dark possibility hangs in the air.
Counterbalancing this is Wilson’s good news: she and her “young man” are to be married, and Cooper is invited to the wedding. Delighted, and at the same time unsettled by this development, Cooper immediately assumes that this means Nurse Wilson will be leaving her job, thus deserting him. She reassures him that she plans to stay on. Buoyed by this news, he breaks out into what for him is a positively extravagant effusion:
Quite a day. I’ve finally made contact—some sort of contact with my daughter, and my other daughter’s just told me that she’s going to get married. . . . You’ll tell me when you are pregnant, won’t you? . . . So that I can start knitting.
As she is about to leave, they make a pledge to one another:
WILSON. You won’t let go, will you?
Now alone on stage, Cooper is filled with anxiety as he awaits Aylott’s arrival. Worried that Aylott has started down the road to dementia, he says, “I don’t want him to come unless he’s the real Aylott. ‘Be his friend,’ Wilson said. ‘I am,’ I said. So come ahead Aylott, whoever you are.”
When Aylott arrives, he himself is filled with dread that his slide into Zombieland has begun. He tells Cooper that he cannot remember anything about the morning just passed, that he has begun to have trouble finding the names for common objects, and that the world is beginning to feel strange, as if it were wrapped in cotton-wool. “Don’t leave me, Aylott,” Cooper pleads. And just as his friend seems about to sink into senility, Aylott bounces back:
AYLOTT. Cooper . . . . There’s a team. . . . Baseball. New York Giants. 1937.
And from there, they go on to name all the rest—except for that third baseman, whose name they have been trying to recall for months. The important fact is that Aylott has returned, however briefly, to the game of life. And when he suggests they look up the elusive name, Cooper refuses: “Not yet, Aylott. Not quite yet.” With this declaration of mental self-reliance, and therefore of ongoing hope, the play comes to an end.
COOPER: In an interview in The New York Times, Gene Saks, director of the original Broadway production of the play, discussed both its main character and the actor who played him, Jason Robards:
‘The character has a bit of the devil in him, and there's something romantic about him,’ Mr. Saks noted. ‘He's charming and attractive, and he also has the dignity of someone who's funny but is not just a comedian. You need somebody who can play both sides of this. It's a very serious play in many ways, and Jason has the ability to touch you as well as charm you. There are very few actors who have that. To me Cooper is a little bit like Jason's character in A Thousand Clowns. He has an unsentimental black nastiness with a great soul underneath. He's a flirt and a tease, and Jason is all that. He also has a quality of great curiosity - the curiosity of a gossip. There's a great thirst for life that's very disarming. . . .’
Cooper too is constantly delivering needling remarks, whether doing his best to shock the nurses or to thwart his largely insufferable daughter. In his case, however, the acid wit is a defense against the unspoken terror of the future. ‘He is shut off from his emotions,’ Mr. Robards observed. ‘He uses sarcasm to try to cover, yet he is very vulnerable underneath. But for the moment this is hopeful; it's not really about the long run. You can't worry about that. I don't mean that you can't plan a little bit for the future, but in terms of daily living you've got to take it day by day. . . . I think Cooper is not frozen. He's still playing little flirtatious games. He has a little world there in that home.’ (New York Times, April 12, 1987.)
Implicit in what both director and actor have to say about Cooper is that his primary motivation is to keep going in the face of decay and death, even if that requires inventing reasons to go on living. Indeed, Cooper is nothing if not an inventor.
There are several examples of this in the play: his creative banter with Nurse Wilson and Mrs. Baker; his concocting of wartime scenarios to describe breakfast in the nursing home; his antic schemes and verbal games with Aylott. But the most revealing instance of this strategy for survival is his refusal to look up the name of the third baseman on the 1937 Giants, even after his daughter and son-in-law give him a baseball encyclopedia as a gift. Despite having been frustrated for months by his inability to remember the ninth man on the team, he won’t allow himself to find the answer in the encyclopedia because, as he explains:
[Y]ou’ve got to have a challenge, haven’t you? I mean, the Atlantic’s been rowed, Everest has been climbed—So we settle for the ninth name on the 1937 N.Y. Giants.
As long as his own, minuscule Everest at third base remains unscaled, there remains something to look forward to, some reason to push on to the next day. His ignorance is intentional, and therefore contrived, but as long as it keeps him going, it’s as good as the real thing.
The other five characters in the play serve essentially as foils for Cooper. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a “foil” as, “One that by contrast underscores or enhances the distinctive characteristics of another.” This meaning derives from the use by jewelers of thin sheets of bright metal—foil—set under gemstones to emphasize the latter’s color or brilliance. Thus, Horatio’s stolid calm sets off Hamlet’s mercurial temperament, while Dr. Watson’s plodding common-sense throws Sherlock Holmes’s intuitive brilliance into sharp relief.
In A Month of Sundays each of the secondary characters underlines a different facet of Cooper’s personality. Julia’s bourgeois inhibitions and conformity and Peter’s suburban blandness arouse Cooper’s subversive impulses, goading him into repeated attempts to shock his family with his cynical pessimism.
On the other hand, the beautiful Nurse Wilson initially calls out his inner “dirty old man,” but in the end her kindness forces Cooper to reveal the father’s heart that beats beneath the façade of the jocular flirt; and by inviting him to her wedding, she nearly, as he confesses, “un-mans him.” Which is to say, she almost makes him weep.
Mrs. Baker is nearly as curmudgeonly as Cooper, and so arouses his combative instinct more fully than any other character. She challenges him on his own ground of straight-talking bluntness and as a result inspires something like admiration in him. It is to her that he discloses his financial situation—he lives on the remains of his savings, and on the money from selling his house—and to her that he gives a bottle of whiskey for her aged father.
Aylott, as we saw above, is a far “gentler” version of Cooper. Not so much a foil as an alternative image of old age, Aylott shows us another side of the geriatric experience. Together, he and Cooper supplement each other, like senior versions of yin and yang. Cooper clings to life noisily, while Aylott soldiers on with a more stoic calm. Cooper fumes at the indignity of it all, while Aylott quietly worries about losing his mind. And because they are supplementary characters, their times on stage together come off as periods of shared improvisation. Riffing about their escape to Switzerland, or about the medical conspiracies between the optician and the throat specialist, or about the clichés that young people deploy when talking to the old, they are like jazz musicians, tossing variations on a theme back and forth to each other. With other characters, Cooper usually finds himself in competition. With Aylott, he is playing a duet.
“I can’t go on. . . . I’ll go on,” says one of the characters in Waiting for Godot, hopelessly resigned to an empty existence in the face of death. By contrast, the poet Dylan Thomas pleads with his aged father, “Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Bob Larbey’s vision in A Month of Sundays lies somewhere between Beckett’s despair and Thomas’s call to valiant endurance.
We might imagine Cooper saying something like, “I can’t go on. . . . But damn it, I’ll find a reason to go on.” In Beckett’s world Godot never comes, whereas in A Month of Sundays he at least sends flowers. Thus, Nurse Wilson will not be leaving the nursing home–just yet. And Julia and her father achieve a reconciliation—tentatively. And most importantly, Aylott does not succumb to the “dying of the light”—at least, not for now. Cooper lives in a world of impending calamities, but the deferrals provide him with just enough reason to “go on.”
However, somewhere in the not-too-distant future, Cooper’s universe—temporarily held together by a Wilson who is bound to leave, a Julia who might easily find the traffic too much to cope with, and an Aylott who is already forgetting the word for “table”—will surely fall apart. Thus the play strikes us as a comedy-for-now; as the portrait of a world standing about an inch from the edge of the abyss. Tune in again next month, and it may well have fallen over that edge.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.