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Midget in a Catsuit Reciting Spinoza, or Why You Should Never Suggest a Title to Novelist/Playwright Carey Harrison by Ross Rice

With the Woodstock Players performing a new play called Midget in a Cat Suit Reciting Spinoza by Carey Harrison this month, perhaps this should be a tale told in reverse, as it is clear an adequate explanation of the title needs to be addressed immediately. With ready wit and urbane British accent—and an oddly familiar resonance—the author gladly acquiesces.

“This came about in a most unusual way. I had written stage plays for 20-30 years, which is how I started, really, as a writer. And then I got involved working with a director on a project—he worked with a theatre company—and he said ‘why don’t you write a play for the upcoming Jewish Theatre Festival in Manhattan’ which they were hosting. That happened two or three years ago. I said ‘fine’, I didn’t know what a Jewish play was going to be, but I sat down and I wrote a comedy about Freud and Jung (Scenes From a Misunderstanding, 2009), and it went well, and suddenly I got all excited about writing plays again.”

“I wrote a companion piece to the Freud/Jung play (Bad Boy), and when I took it to the director, he wrote back and said it was a love story, and he didn’t know how to direct those! But the last sentence of the email was ‘if you had written a play about a midget in a cat suit reciting Spinoza, then I’d have no trouble at all.’ I guess he just wrote that off the top of his head without thinking!”

Well, it serves Mr. Director right and it’s the Hudson Valley’s gain. Carey Harrison has brought some fresh theatrical blood to the area with his Woodstock Players, formed last year with an appreciative nod to his home in Woodstock, where he and his family moved from the City ten years ago. It’s good that these new challenges have inspired Carey to return to writing for the theatre, something he did for well nigh 30 years, writing hours of teleplays for the BBC and Masterpiece Theatre. The man writes some very engaging and humorous stuff, very well and we sure need more of that these days.

The son of actors Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer, Carey grew up in New York and Los Angeles surrounded by the reality of the movie and theatre business, and decided he preferred the control of writing better than acting. An excellent education and natural talent for communication provided him with formidable linguistic tools—he’s fluent in four, conversant in nine languages—and he quickly established himself in the U.K. with his first play Dante Kaputt, at the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester in 1966.

Thus began a steady and successful career writing for British radio, television, and live theatre audiences. He found a voice, on the (sometimes dark) comedy side of the road. “When I was a kid, I remember reading about (Eugene) O’Neill when he was writing Long Day’s Journey Into Night, coming downstairs, eyes red-rimmed with tears. As a teenager, I was thinking ‘what is this?’ If you really work out of fantasy, regardless of whether it’s hard stuff, in a way, you’re happy to be in the flow of it, it’s not stuff that would make you cry. To me, comedy is the natural thing, I guess. I just laugh a lot.”

The steady output not only fed the family, but helped Carey to immensely improve his timing and technique. “When I started writing, like many people, I just didn’t know where to go with the story or the plot. When I got myself into doing it for a living, I wrote soap opera. I wrote a lot of television, trying to learn the art of shaping a plot. If you can do it for long enough, it starts to become unconscious, which is what you always want. And now at this point, I’m so happy that I can actually allow a story to take over and do it for me. It took me at least 30 years.”

Which is apparently what happened with Midget in a Cat Suit: how does one make the incongruent elements of the title function in any sensible way? “I knew it sounded like a painting by Salvador Dali. I was fascinated by his titles; he had one painting called ‘Debris of an Automobile Giving Birth to a Blind Horse Biting a Telephone.’” (Dali makes a special appearance in the Midget play.)

“So I started with that idea and I wondered how was I going to put a midget in a cat suit. And I thought of the British pantomime tradition of vaudeville comedy, (the story of) Dick Whittington and his miraculous cat. I started the play with the premise that actors were putting on this play about the cat, and the cat is an actor in a cat suit. He’s a professional philosopher who does a kind of question and answer reflection on philosophy. I got it going, and then I wanted to bring Spinoza into it… but somehow, before I knew what I was doing, I was writing about Spinoza still being alive after 300 years! Which was a lot of fun as an idea, because he’s sick of being alive, and he just wants to die.”

“And then I got Hermann Goering into the story. And suddenly I’m looking at a story in which a Jewish philosopher wants to surrender to the Gestapo so that he can join all the Jews who have died, and he doesn’t have to be the ‘eternal Jew’ anymore. And I thought: this is an extraordinary way to back into the Holocaust, with a Jewish character who’s trying to get into Auschwitz! I was amazed at what I was being handed…I was excited, and went all the way to the gas chamber. Never thought I’d be able to do that.” To avoid casting difficulties and PC issues, the philosopher’s name is “Midgett.”

See, that’s how you make that title work.

So, thirty years of British teleplays, 35 stage plays, multiple awards including the World Play Award in 2005 for best play (Hitler in Therapy) from an English language broadcaster, worldwide. Seems like a good time to chill out, throttle back. And Carey did, sort of, when he secured a position teaching English at Brooklyn College (he presently teaches at City University as well). “Well, I’ve been grateful, it’s been my bedrock for over 15 years. As time has gone by, I’ve felt less stressed in the classroom, and you figure out how to get by. Because it’s not like you’re teaching people to build bridges, where if you screw up, people will die. I don’t think it’s possible to take the subject all that seriously. I think we can enjoy ourselves and laugh a little, and enjoy the English language, and read books we love.”

Carey is also quite an accomplished novelist, with sixteen, seven of them written in…one year. Say what? Well, after an aborted novel, “I sat down, and just tried to work on something else, sort of like clearing my throat. So, I started on a novel, and it came out reasonably fast, and I decided I shouldn’t just stop; I should just get up the next morning and start another one. Just what the hell, keep the line going. So I did, and again it came quite quickly, and then another one, and I thought OK, I’m on a roll…I’ll just do another one!” The twist: Carey wrote daily only in the mornings, between shower and breakfast, before teaching, with extra writing on his one day off. It was a definite burst of artistic urgency; Carey recalls that when his friend, author Anthony Burgess, was told he had six months to live, he wrote furiously to get in the work before fate swept in…and then didn’t die.

Besides novels and plays, Harrison also writes book reviews and essays, which have been picked up by such diverse publications as the socialist-leaning New Politics, and the paleo-conservative Chronicles, a magazine that generally endorses Pat Buchanan for whatever he runs for. “I forget how I got into that. I thought…oh, I can write for the extreme left and the extreme right and maybe I’ll have them meet at the pole!”

“In my case, I have written almost every month for five or six years for an online magazine called Vocabula. I write for them about the language, American English and British English, and English in the classroom. It may have appealed to them because I was saying how shocking it is that people arrive at college with so little experience of reading, and nobody in academic authority really wants to tackle it at all; no one wants to say the buck stops here. Everyone just says, oh, I’ve got my work. It has nothing to do with me. (These students) graduate high school and college—and no one puts their foot in the door and says ‘no, this has got to stop now.’ People do need to remember spelling, punctuation, and grammar.”

“I’m sure to Chronicles I look like a hardliner, and in some ways I am, because I don’t think it’s fair—teaching at a state university—to graduate students without warning them that they will potentially belong to a graduate ‘underclass,’ who are much less accomplished at those basic but major skills than a lot of kids who have had much more motivated parents, had many more books around, and so forth.”

Something that has surprised even Carey is a renewed enjoyment of the stage, most recently in a somewhat impromptu show at The Center for the Performing Arts in Rhinebeck earlier this year titled, Behind the Scenes in the Golden Age of Hollywood: Tales of the Great Movie Stars. For those deeply interested in the grand times of Rex and Lilli’s heyday, Carey offers a sympathetic—and of course humorous—line connecting directly to them. “I don’t feel like I’m in the shadow of their career, and trying to make a separate career of my own. I get to tell the stories that up until now I have only told at dinner parties to get a lot of laughs; there were certainly funny things that happened. Seeing how happy it makes people to hear about the old days, I’m so relaxed when I’m standing on stage, it seems like a win-win, pure fun.”

And Carey makes time for spirituality….as the Bishop of Woodstock, with the Moorish Orthodox Church. “Well, it’s a very humorous religion; we don’t have services or churches. We have picnics, which I think is probably the best possible kind of ritual you could imagine. You are free to take it seriously because it doesn’t take itself any more seriously than it needs to. And I like that; the seriousness comes in the shadow of humor. We have some wonderful poets who belong to the religion, and who have written extensively about it. That’s really how I got involved. I had read some of those, and was impressed by them as human beings.” Carey’s bishop name: Ustaz Omar Bey.

Meanwhile, he plans to keep the Woodstock Players going as long as it feels right. “If I feel there are more plays in me, I’d just like to see them onstage. And then be able to let them go, and write another one, without trying to make a career out of it, to be truthful. I feel I’ve had a lovely time in the theatre and TV and writing all sorts of things…this is kind of gravy for me. I’m not trying to climb the heights, but sometimes that’s the way you do end up climbing those heights.”

Woodstock Players presents Carey Harrison's Midget in a Cat SuitReciting Spinoza, at the Byrdcliffe Theatre, Upper Byrdcliffe Rd.,Woodstock,, 845.679.2079. Fr/Sa 6/17, 18, 24, 25,Th 6/23 8 PM, Su 6/19, 26 3 PM

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