Jack…the Flames!

Hilary Westlake and I enjoyed a long and remarkable artistic partnership. For at least ten years, starting in 1972, we spoke to each other every day for at least half an hour either on the phone or in person. We didn’t talk only about theatre – that was, in some ways, a by-product of our delight in each other’s company. Having established this renewable pastime we decided to launch a theatre company. Hilary would direct our shows and I would write them. She had been an actress and now wished to withdraw from performance and I had been a film-maker tempted into theatre within a couple of years of leaving film school.

As a result of presenting ‘TipTop Condition’ we found ourselves with some funds and the need to produce another show. The next one would have a full script, for the first time, and we would cast it, in part, from among the performers we had met on ‘TipTop’. While we did not, for a while, know what the show would be about, we were very confident about certain stylistic qualities that the work should have.

One of the things I wanted to do with dialogue was to avoid ‘the way people really talk as interpreted by playwrights’. I had been to the cinema a great deal as an undergraduate and later as a film student and had been attracted, mainly in American and French films, both to poetic speech and bald, direct speech. With regard to direct speech I liked characters to talk to each other without using metaphor or imagery. I was also strongly against characters having insight or being able to articulate their problems. On the occasions that I went to what I regarded as ‘straight theatre’ I reacted badly to the attempts of playwrights to capture, with their ‘good ear’, the rhythms and contents of everyday speech, combined with the extraordinary assumption that it was credible for hitherto unreflective characters to be blessed intermittently with the capacity to describe with precision their inner turmoils. I reacted so badly that I routinely felt furious and frequently walked out. For many years I walked out of 40% of everything I saw, including much of the experimental, physical, visual and political theatre that was starting to counter the Theatre of the Well Rounded and Articulate Character.

I always walked out quietly, from an aisle seat near the back, often removing my shoes until I had returned to the foyer. Leaving, for example, Theatre de Complicite’s ‘The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol’ at the Riverside Theatre in 1994 (this is Late Period Leaving), I slipped off my casuals at my seat, padded to the nearest exit, passed silently through the doors and was at the bar, shod, quietly drinking, within moments.

When I did not walk out I frequently fell asleep but contrived, again, to do this discreetly so as not to disturb the actors, whose fault it rarely was that their material was soporific. It was, of course, the writers and directors who had to take the blame for failing to realise that theatre was not a by-product of radio which, in turn, was not a convenient repository for the continuation of the grand traditions of the novel (the recommended form for such novelistic aspirations is the novel). I used to say blithely, and continue to do so, that Shakespeare is to blame. I will develop this assertion elsewhere on this site sometime. In the meantime the visitor craving brief examples of dismissiveness with regard to the Bard is invited to inspect certain commentaries in the Plays section of Strength Weekly, here , here and here.

My early tastes vis a vis live dialogue were formed in part by reading Artaud. As well as working my way through ‘The Theatre of Cruelty’ I consumed all the collections of essays I could find and these, taken in tandem with my admiration for the writings of R.D.Laing and his anti-psychiatric colleagues, persuaded me that theatre speech must be very direct indeed. Artaud, who died in an asylum, had said “If there is still one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames.” Such a conflagrant setting ought, I felt, to generate a rather unadorned speech style.

Artaud’s own plays – he only wrote two – were indeed direct. I read Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s translation of ‘A Spurt of Blood’ (1925) in ‘The Evergreen Review’ – an American literary periodical that published an intoxicating and eclectic range of avant-garde essays, poetry and excerpts from novels and plays. If you could find the mag in London – Better Books in Charing Cross Road sometimes had them – then excerpts from the barely published novels of Beckett, Burroughs and Kerouac were at your disposal, not to mention Absurdist drama from Ionesco and Arrabal plus lots of Beat poetry by the Beats.

‘A Spurt of Blood’ featured a pair of tortured lovers who declare, several times, “I love you and everything is beautiful”, a priest, a knight, a wet-nurse and a whore also a raining from the sky of a torrent of scorpions, snakes, live human body parts and architectural items such as columns, capitals and colonnades. At a point when God could no longer bear the behaviour of the Whore, His gigantic hand seizes her by the hair as a fearsome voice bellows from the heavens “Bitch, look at your body!” She bites His wrist and a jet of blood arcs across the stage. By the time the action has moved to page 4 (the playscript is five pages long), the Wet-Nurse, whose enormous breasts are made of gruyere cheese, endures a transformation in the course of which her genitals swell, become glassy and glow like the sun. The scorpions swarm into her.

Years before I took up writing for theatre, in 1967, I wrote to Lawrence Ferlinghetti asking for permission to use his translation in a production. The poet scrawled a reply on the bottom of my letter “Do it. Just mention my name.” I directed the play in my first year at Film School at the Royal College of Art. We used cows’ heads, live mice and a quantity of offal and tripe all rigged to fall from the elegant ceiling of the main gallery space. It was a spectacular occasion, featuring the partial burning of the gallery roof, the injury of an actress who plummeted down an unlit trap door and the dripping of cow-head blood onto the fur coat of the wife of the head of the drama school from whom we had borrowed a quantity of young talent. I’ll write it up for Strength Weekly some day.

“A Spurt of Blood” was fevered and dream-like, to say the least. It coincided with a period of self-induced personal delirium that was fed, at the literary level, by works of surrealism, decadence, absurdity and psychoanalysis. I felt that if ever I were to write for theatre or film it would be stylistically extreme, narratively inconsequential and imagistically lurid. The dialogue would, in some way that I hadn’t quite worked out yet, be bold, bald, brash and beautiful. When Hilary and I started to work together, we managed to produce spaces in which both of us could begin to work out a departure from the upper circle.

A few years after leaving Film School, in 1973, I wrote and Hilary directed our first full length scripted show ‘Jack…the Flames!’ It opened at the Bush Theatre in London, dismaying some and pleasing others.