The Maker – a personage ROLL readers might recognize from my previous pieces, or can find in the magazine’s recent archives – has been kind to me during the past six months. She has never been unkind to me, it’s true, over the past sixty-odd years, as witness my obnoxiously relentless production of novels and plays, well over the 200 mark now. I say ‘she’ in honor of The Maker’s traditional persona as the muse; and I say she has never been unkind because I’ve never experienced anything resembling writer’s block during the last six decades. I turn on the faucet and the water comes. Never once a dry gurgle. This is not to say that what comes out is a wine worth keeping. Anything but; in fact the more an artist produces the more it looks as though most of it must be dross (not in every case, of course), while those whose production is limited – I think at once of great American novelists like William Gass and William Gaddis, whose work I ask my students to read – must surely have spared us the dross and kept the gold. Not in every case, of course.
The plays I’ve written recently appear not to have come direct from the Maker without intercession, but been midwived, or at least inspired, by individual actors. The first one, when completed, had a gratifyingly well-received run at the Byrdcliffe Theater in June, and was triggered by a dream that came to an actress called Violet Snow when she was acting in a previous play of mine last year, Midget In A Catsuit Reciting Spinoza. Violet dreamed that she was appearing in a new play of mine. This was thrilling in itself, and enough to have prompted me to write something for her; but better still, and most wonderful, the play in her dream had a title. It was called Hedgerow Specimen. This became my starting point, and Hedgerow Specimen was what I wrote for her , during the fall, for production in June – and she was splendid in it. Hedgerow Specimen was already written when, at the beginning of the year, another fine actor asked me to write him a play. This was Michael O’Brien, a virtuoso capable of stunningly diverse performances, as Woodstock audiences have seen in three plays of mine, Scenes From A Misunderstanding (in which he played Carl Jung), Bad Boy (as a murderous patient in love with his therapist) and the afore-mentioned Midget, in which he played Salvador Dalí. Michael wanted a two-character play for himself and me; Michael, I knew, could play anything and anyone; but when it came to deciding what sort of a character – historical or otherwise — that I might want to create for myself, to play opposite Michael, one factor obtruded: I haven’t removed my beard for 40 years, and don’t want to now in case I frighten the horses (a phrase we owe to Oscar Wilde’s friend, Ada Leverson, who said it didn’t matter what you did in the bedroom so long as you didn’t do it in the street and frightened the horses), or at any rate alarm my friends and family, including my children who have never seen my shaven face and shouldn’t ever have to, unless they request it.
Within half an hour the Maker had provided me with three suggestions for Michael. Plan A: I would play Karl Marx and he would play Lenin, and we would meet in heaven – both of us embarrassed to be found there by the other? – to debate what went wrong with and for communism. This would be In Communist Heaven. Plan B: I would play Tolstoy and Mick would play Chekhov, in a meeting at Chekhov’s farm during which Tolstoy would be goaded into confessing that he hated Chekhov’s work (there is some historical basis for this premise), and Chekhov would fetch his gun and contemplate the opportunity to kill his celebrated literary enemy. This would be Tolstoy Dies Tonight;. Or, I suggested warily, in plan C I could play Rex Harrison, my father, at 70 (bearded for his much-lauded performance as Captain Shotover in Shaw’s Heartbreak House, in London’s West End and on Broadway) while Mick would play a beardless 40-year-old Rex Harrison at the period of My Fair Lady. We would meet, young(ish) Rex and older Rex, and see whether the young can take good advice from the old. Or would it be bad advice? Malicious advice? At any rate I knew there would be fun to be had. I had a feeling this would be Mick’s preference, out of the three. It was, although he liked the others. Mick is also a producer, in New York City, and the producer in him was looking for a good commercial bet no less than a good role. So Rex it would be, as our subject matter.
And now that Rex & Rex, as the play about my father is called, is completed and going into rehearsals this month, I have a secret hope that our double-act will be a prologue to a trilogy: that in fact I shall go on to write In Communist Heaven and Tolstoy Dies Tonight). We’ll have to see how this first one goes. We’ll be opening ‘out of town’ at Woodstock’s Byrdcliffe Theater in June, and also perhaps appearing in the second Byrdcliffe Festival of the Arts, an event whose composition is still largely in the lap of the gods.
While rehearsing Hedgerow Specimen, in May, I was simultaneously writing Rex & Rex, indeed wrestling with it through several substantially different drafts. The problem wasn’t obvious to me at first. I felt no embarrassment about creating a stage character out of my father at one of the turning points in his life – this was to be Mick’s role – or giving myself lines as the older and possibly wiser Rex looking back on his madcap younger self. I was laughing too hard to be embarrassed. Would the younger Rex accept the warnings the older one had to offer? Would, in fact, any of us accept such warnings? Do we want our way smoothed out for us or do we want to live out every bump in the road? In Young Rex’s case, there was much pain to be endured – and inflicted – in the course of six marriages. If his future self could guide him to less tempestuous waters, wouldn’t he seize at the chance? Or would he? As I sketched out the play, I could see how much mileage there was in a duel of young and old, the older Rex furious at the younger one for bequeathing him so much in the way of regret and remorse, the younger one contemptuous of the older man’s advice. My father’s life provided an excellent framework and delicious detail; but in order to be a play, a play with its own shape, its own contest, suspense and closure, and not merely a biographical portrait, it had to be a play about all of us: about everyone, about youth and age and the universal contest between the two. So far so good – this was the play I enjoyed writing, more than the real-life story. But somehow the piece wasn’t firing on all cylinders. It took three complete revisions for me to face the truth: comedy or not, the play had to delve into the real pain of my father’s life. All his agony and all his defiance – by turns – had to be there. Thanks to them, as they found a place in the structure, the piece grew stronger as a play. Yet it remains above all a meditation on whether we can any of us listen to good advice, or are doomed to ignore it. It’s not a tell-all piece, as much as some might wish it to be. But having been raised by parents for whom privacy was dearly bought, I believe in that privacy no less than they did. As a writer I’m looking for human truth, for the truth about us all, not just the truth about a few. So my hope is that this will be what Rex & Rex has to offer: a mirror in which to see ourselves, enmeshed in our fate and trying to escape – or surrender with good grace.
As soon as the first draft of Rex & Rex was done, and while still directing rehearsals of Hedgerow, I was caught up in a third commission. A British actress whom I’ve known almost since she was born asked me to write a play for her. She’s the daughter of my longtime writing partner, Jeremy Paul. Jeremy was best known to audiences of Masterpiece Theater for having written much of the Upstairs Downstairs series and providing brilliant Sherlock Holmes TV scripts for Jeremy Brett, perhaps the greatest Holmes of all. Jeremy Paul died last year, greatly loved and deeply missed, leaving a wife and four daughters who adored him, as did I — who had the privilege of writing many plays and screenplays with him. Tara, one of his daughters, was the one who asked me for a play, and I sat down to try and do justice to her raw power as an actress. The one-woman play that emerged, I Won’t Bite You: an Interview with the Notorious Monster, Dorothea Farber, was described by a fellow-writer as the darkest play ever written. I appreciate the compliment, outlandishly exaggerated as it is, while knowing that no-one can compete with the Athenian tragedians, masters of the darkness in the human heart. In the back of my mind, all through the writing of I Won’t Bite You, I had Martin McDonagh’s brilliant and terrifying play, The Pillowman, which among its literary tours de force re-invents the Grimm’s Fairy Tale in a variety of alarming iterations. McDonagh’s play didn’t serve as a narrative model, but as a mood, and an example of remorseless daring. The only point of similarity is that his play, involving numerous characters, concerns a police investigation, while mine focuses on an interrogation in a South American high security jail, and involves one character only, and the stories she has to tell. These begin with her grandmother’s experiences during the Second World War, horrors which come to haunt and finally to steal her life away.
Little did I know, as I wrote I Won’t Bite You, that Tara had recently been subjected to a dreadful instance of domestic abuse, an assault from which she was still seeking to heal. At first I think she imagined my play might be a therapeutic tool; on closer inspection, as rehearsals began in Britain, it became clear that it was quite the wrong enterprise, at this time, and the production – once destined for the Edinburgh Festival — has been shelved. The play was deliberately designed to accommodate either a British or an American actress in the role of the imaginary Dorothea Farber – Dorothea’s life, her changes and disguises, make either accent feasible – and I’m already in rehearsal for next June’s American production of I Won’t Bite You. As I intended all along for the American version, It will run at the Byrdcliffe Theater in repertoire with Rex & Rex, a very different kettle of fish. I’m lucky to have a quite remarkable actress, Holly Graff, in the part of the ‘Notorious Monster’; Holly’s performance as the murderess in Hedgerow lent that play a force and a truthfulness that gripped the audience by the throat. She is not only fearless, but brings to acting a clarity of purpose and a surefootedness I’ve only encountered once in fifty years of working with actors, many of them brilliant, some of them celebrated and rightly so. The other actor with Holly’s unerring deftness was David Suchet, an actor who came to prominence with the Royal Shakespeare Company, has played leading roles in Hollywood movies, and over many years and television series brought to life Agatha Christie’s famously mustachioed Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. In the 1980s he was my Sigmund Freud, in a lengthy television series I wrote for the BBC – it took me three years — dramatizing Freud’s life, a series seen on Masterpiece Theater in the US and repeated for many years at strange hours of the night and early morning, presumably for insomniac psycho-analysts and their patients. Suchet could play the same scene any of ten ways; each one was truthful, fascinating and right. A writer’s dream – just as Holly is, seemingly unable to put a foot wrong, even when the material veers from horror to humor, from farce to the fantastic. I Won’t Bite You turned out to be the play I’d been waiting to write, waiting to allow myself to write, all my career: story-telling with no holds barred. Thank you, dear Maker, for letting me be its vehicle, its mouthpiece. And thank Providence for bringing me Holly Graff.
Dear patient readers, I hope you will come and see both ‘Bite You’ and Rex & Rex – Rex & Rex for the fun and the gossip and to see Mick O’Brien be the Rex Harrison of My Fair Lady while I bring my dear old Pop – whom I loved dearly – onto the stage as me, to chastise young Rex; and ‘Bite You’ to be astonished by an actress of genius who will hold you spellbound, believe me, and make you forget time and space as she takes you to the forbidden regions of the human heart. It will be – she will be – an experience to remember. I don’t know where I found this play; I didn’t find it, it found me; and like all those who toil in my particular vineyard, I salute the winepress of the imagination when it honors and astonishes us with a tale worth telling.
Carey Harrison is British-born, the son of the stage and screen actors Sir Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer, and was raised in America. He has divided his life between the UK and the US, writing and teaching on both sides of the Atlantic. He is currently the artistic director of the Woodstock Players theater company, and is Professor of English at the City University of New York. Harrison is the author of close to two hundred plays for stage, radio, film and television, and 16 novels; his work has won numerous literary prizes and been translated into thirteen languages.