Her savage send-up of the London intelligentsia was a box-office disaster. But could Doctors of Philosophy now be about to hit its prime?

On Tuesday 2 October 1962, a play by Muriel Spark was premiered at the New Arts Theatre Club in London. It was called Doctors of Philosophy and its cast included Fenella Fielding and Kathleen Breck. In fact, the play has six central parts for women; the remaining three characters are men who, in a typically Sparkian flourish, are all called Charlie. Despite the fact that Spark wrote a number of audio dramas, and that many of her novels have been adapted for the stage and screen – most famously The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – it was her one and only original work for the stage.

At the time, Spark’s fame was flaring. She had just published Miss Jean Brodie. She was working on another of her most celebrated books, The Girls of Slender Means. But Doctors of Philosophy received mixed reviews. Kenneth Tynan, writing in the Observer, thought it like “a late Eliot play extensively rewritten by an adolescent Iris Murdoch”. He did not mean it as a compliment. “No doubt it has a shape,” he wrote, “and even, perhaps, a purpose; let me discreetly say that they are not evident.”

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