'Ben Hur' Writer Christopher Fry Dies

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Playwright Christopher Fry (search), a Christian humanist who helped T.S. Eliot revive verse drama in the 1940s and wrote a number of epic films including "Ben Hur (search)," has died at the age of 97, his son said.

Fry died on June 30 in the hospital in Chichester, southern England, Tam Fry said. The cause of death was not announced.

A master of whimsical comic verse, Fry's best-known plays, "The Lady's Not for Burning" (1948) and "Venus Observed" (1949), have a sense of benign providence and hope for humanity that struck a chord in a world still coming to terms with news of the Holocaust and the use of the atom bomb.

Born in Bristol, southwest England, Fry trained as a teacher and taught for a number of years before quitting to found the Tunbridge Wells Repertory Players in 1932, directing the English premier of George Bernard Shaw's "Village Wooing."

He also wrote music and lyrics and began to take church commissions.

In 1938, he wrote "The Boy With A Cart," a play about England's St. Cuthman, who pushed his mother from Cornwall to Sussex, south of London, in a handcart.

Critics noted that its style was similar to that of T.S. Eliot (search), and the American playwright saw Fry's next play, "The Tower," written in 1939 for Tewkesbury Abbey.

Theater critic Michael Billington, wrote in The Guardian newspaper that Fry acknowledged Eliot's influence.

"I first met Eliot in 1939, and I remember asking him what I could do in wartime that didn't mean shooting people," Billington quoted Fry as saying.

"He suggested the fire service, but I told him that I had no head for heights. Eliot said, 'You must specialize in basements.'"

As a Quaker, Fry was a conscientious objector and spent four years in the non-combat Pioneer Corps, then resumed writing works that included the comedy "A Phoenix Too Frequent" and "The Firstborn."

Fame came with the staging of his 1948 play, "The Lady's Not For Burning," which made it to London's West End with John Gielgud playing the former soldier Thomas Mendip who longs for death, and Pamela Brown as an alleged witch who is trying to escape being burned. Claire Bloom and Richard Burton had supporting roles.

In 1950, Fry produced "Venus Observed" for Lawrence Olivier's debut as actor/manager at London's St. James's Theatre; it tells the tale of a duke who asks his son to choose a stepmother from his father's paramours.

"A Sleep of Prisoners" the following year told of four soldiers spending a night in a church and was critically acclaimed. "The Dark is Light Enough" three years later starred Edith Evans.

In between, Fry translated pieces by the French writers Jean Anouilh and Jean Giraudoux.

In the late 1950s, Fry turned to film scripts, rewriting William Wyler's film of "Ben Hur" and scripting "Barabbas" for Dino De Laurentis.

He continued to write plays, and in 2000 penned "A Ringing of Bells" for his old school; it was later staged at the National Theatre in London.

He was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for poetry in 1962.

Fry's wife Phyllis died in 1987. A private funeral will be followed by a public memorial service in Chichester.