Fry was born Christopher Harris in Bristol on 18 December 1907. After a brief stint as an actor, he became a school teacher, but gave up teaching and became a founder member of the Tunbridge Wells Repertory Players in 1932. He was with the company for three years, during which time he directed the British premiere of Shaw’s Village Wooing.
Fry started writing seriously in 1938 when he was commissioned by a Sussex vicar to write a play celebrating St Cuthman, who had pushed his mother from Cornwall in a hand cart. The resulting play, The Boy with a Cart, became one of Fry’s best known works, celebrated for the poetic verse which made it similar in style to the plays of TS Eliot, with whom Fry was close friends. He became artistic director at the Oxford Playhouse in 1939, shortly before the Second World War broke out.
During the war, Fry spent four years in the Pioneer Corps. He was a Quaker and a pacifist, and served as a firefighter and warden in the Liverpool Docks, before returning to Oxford to write more plays. He penned a one-act comedy, A Phoenix Too Frequent, which was shown at the Mercury Theatre in 1946 to critical acclaim.
The Lady’s Not for Burning was commissioned by the Arts Theatre, where Fry was employed as staff dramatist, and he based the play on a short medieval story. The original production starred John Gielgud as a life-hating soldier who wanted to be hanged, with Claire Bloom and Richard Burton in supporting roles. It ran for nine months in the West End.
Fry’s other stage plays included Venus Observed, A Yard of Sun, A Sleep of Prisoners, One Thing more; or, Caedman Construed, Curtmantle and Dark Is Light Enough. He also wrote plays for television, including The Brontes of Haworth, and collaborated on film scripts, the most famous of which was the epic Ben Hur.
The playwright also penned adaptations of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, as well as Jean Giraudoux’s Tiger at the Gates which, on its transfer to Broadway, was nominated for the 1956 Tony Award for Best Play. Among his many accolades, Fry was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1962, and was described by Laurence Olivier as a “dialogue sorcerer”.
In 2000 Fry was asked to write a play to be performed at his old school, and he wrote A Ringing of Bells, which was later put on at the National’s Olivier Theatre in 2001. His wife, Phyllis Hart, whom he married in 1936, died in 1987. Fry died on 30 June 2005. He is survived by his son, Tam.
- by Caroline Ansdell