Friday, May 03, 2013

Trying to understand: my first play

The first play: The Doctor Of Honour (a translation of ‘El Médico de su honra’ by Calderón).

Written in 1978; first performed at the Crawford Arts Centre, St Andrews in 1983. Directed by Alistair Cording.

My very first play was a translation.

At that time, theatre for me was a place of terror and shame. I absolutely could not se myself as being capable of writing an original play. And I had no intention of working in the theatre. I just wanted to find a way of finishing my PhD.

I’d found my way into theatre as an actor. I was at a boy’s school, and was picked to play the girl’s parts.

I loved acting. I loved rehearsing. I loved being part of a company. I loved the feeling of belonging.

When I stand on a stage, I still feel absolutely at home there. It would be good to say that way back then, when I was a boy, I knew I had found my artistic vocation. Because actually I had; only I didn’t know it, and I was blocked from pursuing it.

What blocked me was that it was then I discovered I really wanted to be a girl. I was a prisoner in a viciously abusive and bullying world. Where I was to want to be a girl was the worst thing a boy could feel.

I was lost and alone. This was 1965; there was no information and there was no help.

All I could do was try to suppress my femaleness and try to become a normal boy.

I still wanted to act, though; but when I tried for male parts I was hopeless. Paralyzed by shyness.

So I turned my back on theatre and spent 15 years trying to be a novelist.

Because I knew by then I had to be a writer.

But theatre kept trying to pull me back; and it was this play that did it. In spite of myself.

I had the chance to study for a PhD; and this play was the subject I chose. It’s a bleak piece, written about 1636. Its poetry is beautiful, for all that it portrays a dark and pitiless world.

Its main character suffers from pathological jealousy about his wife. He is ashamed of his jealousy, and secretly kills her by paying a surgeon to bleed her to death. He covers up the murder by pretending it was an accident. The king colludes in his crime: and offers him someone else to marry.

Looking back on it it is clear that the main character is terrified of losing his manhood. As I was. He is ashamed of his fear and tries to conceal it. As I did. He deals with it by bleeding  his wife to death; and in murdering her he tries to kill the woman inside him. And I was trying to do that too. Slow suicide. The king cannot stop him, because that’s the way the world is.

And still is: misogynist, abusive, unjust.

My obsession with the play begins to make sense as I think about it now. But it made very little sense at the time. Then, round about 1973, Calderón was unknown, and when he was thought about at all it it was by academics thinking of his plays as works of literature.

I was trying to understand this work as a play. It made less and less sense. I gave up my thesis and tried to engage with the world. First by working on the buses, and then by becoming a student nurse.

As a nurse, I saw horrors. 

I became obsessed with the idea that the only way for me to become a writer was to finish my thesis. And after I gave up nursing, I translated the play to get back to the theatre.

My partner Sue Innes happened to know someone at work who happened to have studied drama and had heard of Calderón. She showed him my translation.

His name was Robert Livingston and he told me: “You can write dialogue”. 

I hadn’t known that. It was his telling me led me back to the stage.

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