Monday 1 July 2019
Left Field: CHAPTER 34 - Simple Writings
One of my favourite films is Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Set in the 1820s, a young man is discovered at night in Nuremberg’s town square, hardly able to stand. He is dumb and has been kept in a cellar, without human contact, since birth. Adopted by a local doctor, he learns to talk and proves to be wiser than those around him.
When I first saw the film, the friend I’d gone with told me the story reminded him of a character in a Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen novel. He said Simplex Simplicissimus was set in seventeenth century Germany at the time of the Thirty Years’ War. If I wanted to borrow it, he had a copy.
I discovered that it had been translated into English in the 1930s. Even though the language was archaic, I loved Grimmelshausen’s story of a peasant boy who’d been cruelly treated by his father and was hardly able to talk. As a mute, he was sent into the hills to watch over the family’s flock of sheep.
When soldiers attack his family’s farm, Simplex watches from the hillside as his parents are killed and his sister raped. He runs into the forest where he is befriended by a hermit who slowly and patiently educates him.
When the hermit dies, Simplex makes his way out of the forest and is found by marauding soldiers. Although he can discuss Plato’s philosophy and Euclid’s mathematics, he has no social skills. Thinking him a fool, Simplex is dressed as a goat and made a figure of fun. Since playing the idiot is infinitely better than killing, he willingly performs this role. He is eventually forced into one of the armies where he proves to be an invaluable military strategist.
SOLDIER (singing) It's too long a war, It's too long a war.
A self-important MAJOR enters
MAJOR (to SIMPLEX) You’re in the army now, laddie, although your beard needs to grow a little if you’re to be a soldier.
SIMPLEX I’m a match for any old man, Major. It’s not the beard that marks the man, else billy goats would stand in high esteem.
MAJOR If your courage is as forward as your tongue, perhaps you’ll be useful. (To SOLDIERS) Now men, we’re going to seek out our enemy in that village. (He points) They have to be disarmed as we have information they have a cache of weapons.
SIMPLEX How do you know that, sir?
MAJOR (Laughing and winking at SOLDIERS) Because we sold the blunderbusses to them, you fool.
SIMPLEX This is a poor village, sir. We should travel further south. The peasants there are richer.
MAJOR Who asked your advice?
SIMPLEX If we raid this village, we will find little and there will be nothing left afterwards, then we will be forced south anyway. Travel to those villages now and there will be something to return to. It's better than scraping at an empty barrel, even if that barrel is standing beside you.
SOLDIER He talks sense.
MAJOR Shut your mouth. Prepare to fire.
SIMPLEX With respect, sir, wait -
MAJOR Troop advance
SIMPLEX Sir, they know we are here. It would pay us to wait and watch where they hide their weaons, or whatever it is you are seeking. If we note their movements, it will save us time and blood. Here, sir. Take this pen and paper and please accept this as respectful advice.
MAJOR (Waves quill about) You do it. I'm no clerk.
In 1986 I took the first draft of the play on holiday to Croatia. I would disappear from the family for hours to write under an olive tree in wild land above the sea.
Yugoslavia was beginning to fracture and the nationalism and aggression emerging from Miloševi in Belgrade was finding its mirror image in Croatia, even among my wife’s family of Partisans. My father-in-law would only smoke a brand of cigarettes called ‘Croatia’ and seemed to be breathing in the country’s nationalism with the nicotine. The Simplex story took on added urgency.
Back in London, a friend suggested I contact Michael Walling, a young theatre director on the lookout for original plays. Mike was excited by it and agreed to direct. We staged it at the Duke of Cambridge Theatre in Kentish Town.
Michael adopted a Brechtian approach with minimalist set, songs to interrupt the action and the actors addressing the audience with Shakespearean asides.
Curiously, there had never been a dramatisation of this book in Germany, despite the fact that Brecht’s Mother Courage was adapted from another Grimmelshausen novel, The Runagate Courage. An opera, Simplicius Simplicissimus, had been composed by Karl Hartmann for chamber orchestra in the mid-Thirties. I’m sure that Hartmann must have toned down Simplex’s radical message with the Nazis in power.
After a good review of my play in the Financial Times, (‘witty, bawdy, and as profound as anyone cares to consider it’), German ZDF TV filmed a performance.1 Excerpts were broadcast on their news channel, ‘Here is a small pub in north London and an English writer has adapted our great classic for the stage.’
The three-week run was a sell-out.
At one of my afternoon visits to Gustav Delbanco, he told me a story about a Rembrandt that had made a journey from Amsterdam to the Soviet Pacific island of Sakhalin at the end of the Second World War. It had eventually fallen into the hands of the Japanese mafia, the Yakusa, and in the early 1950s turned up at a gallery in London.
With encouragement from Gustav, I used this story and my knowledge of the art world to write The Old Master. Set in a West End gallery and again with Michael Walling as director, rehearsed readings were given at the Old Red Lion in Islington and the Lyric Studio in Hammersmith.
My sister had met a TV producer from Los Angeles and told him about my play. He rang to ask if he could come to the Lyric reading. I was thrilled. Of course he could.
That was the last I heard of him until some years later. I was in New York on War Child business and told an American friend the plot. She said she recognised the story as one of a series on TV about art crimes. I asked her if she knew who the producer was. She didn’t, but I did.
I have no copy of The Old Master. There was one in my house, as well as in a file on the Apple computer I left behind. Another victim of my divorce.
My next play had a connection with the art critic Mervyn Levy. After seeing Simple Writings, he wrote to me about a possible collaboration. He suggested that I might be interested in co-writing a play about Dylan Thomas. Mervyn had been to school with him and they’d shared a flat in Chelsea. In his letter to me Mervyn said, ‘I can show you copies of the evidence concerning Dylan’s stay in Macy’s morgue, New York, and wonder whether something can be made of this fact. Dylan and I were totally obsessed with the Marx Brothers – we used to go to their films together and I would like to get them into the play. It would be good to work together on this venture since I think we cast a similar wry and humorous eye on the world ... I can only hope that the idea appeals to you.’
Unfortunately, we didn’t get much further with those discussions because the BBC Arena film and the War Child years got in the way. Mervyn died in April 1996 and it was only after I had returned from Bosnia in 2000 that I picked up his notes again. Among them was this account of his and Dylan’s childhood years in Swansea. It had as its title ‘A Temporary Measure, Swansea, 1925’:
Dylan was in the coal-house feeling May’s tits. We had, as always, tossed a farthing for who went in first. Straggling home from the Grammar School, it was a game we often played about tea-time ... May’s breasts were as large as rugby balls, with rich brown aureoles and deep purple nipples that stood to attention as you felt and sucked ... May sat on a pile of coal sacks to indulge our pleasures, our knees often grazed or bleeding.’
With these notes as inspiration I got going on the play.
DYLAN Come and let me in and on. I’ll kneel to you and latch upon those great balloons, my teatime marathon. Lovely, scrumptious, rumptious, tits like lemons.
WOMAN No sultan could be better served.
DYLAN Rugby balls, deep-purple nipples standing to attention.
WOMAN Poke you in the eye though. Take care.
DYLAN Salty-sweet, delicious on the tongue, crystallised fruits.
WOMAN At Christmas.
DYLAN Wet and warm.
WOMAN Drive you mad.
DYLAN Her eyes traps to ensnare my fluttering heart. Your breasts, twin sisters firmly grown. Two hills.
WOMAN Oh no, oh no. (DYLAN presses teats and they hoot) Oh yes, yes.
DYLAN How lovely youth is that flies us ever. Let him be glad who will be. There is no certainty in tomorrow.
WOMAN Careful now. I’m not a cow. Oh, oh, give me cucumber and hooves.
Michael Walling suggested I set the play in Macy’s morgue and that I include the Marx Brothers. Acting on his advice, Spitting into the Sky opens with Groucho and Chico talking about death. Harpo is running around the stage, opening caskets and introducing the audience to the characters in the play, stacked one above the other in mortuary drawers: Dylan, his childhood sweetheart, his parents, his wife and his lovers. The backdrop to all this is the New York skyline – a skyscraper graveyard.
As the play unfolds, Dylan’s past emerges from the coffins, his childhood in Swansea, his time at the BBC in London and his visits to the USA. He delivers lectures and poems, falls in and out of love, argues with, and clings to, his wife, Caitlin, and wrestles with the two themes that obsessed him: sex and death. The boathouse in Laugharne is a place of peace and relative sanity in the chaos of his life. And it is all there, played out in Macy’s morgue.
The first draft had too much poetry, and when Anne first read it, she reminded me that people went to the theatre to see drama, not hear long poems recited. There was also no second act and I didn’t know how to expand it. She recommended I read Caitlin’s memoir, Double Drink: My Life with Dylan Thomas. In it, Caitlin tells how she arrived in New York as Dylan was dying and accompanied his body back to Wales. On the first night at sea, the captain put her below decks with her husband’s corpse because she got so drunk she wrecked the bar.
Anne suggested that Act Two had to take place in the ship’s hold. With a real sea captain in the play, there would be more than a nod towards Captain Cat and Under Milk Wood.
Ghosts are ever-present. Voices emerge from the gloom, reminding Dylan of a life he’d rather forget, but cannot escape, even in death. It becomes clear that, despite the alcohol and the women, he and Caitlin love each other. Towards the end, Groucho appears and he and Dylan discuss the hidden purpose of his humour and Dylan’s poetry. Both, Groucho says, are avoidance techniques, a refusal to confront the reality of their lives.
After receiving praise from John Yorke, former controller of BBC Drama, and from playwright Terry Johnson, the play was given a rehearsed reading at the 2004 Dylan Thomas Festival at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea.2 The cast included Sion Probert, Stan Stennett and Liz Morgan.
In May 2009, Anne collaborated with me on The Trainer, the Gaza benefit play, which was performed as a professional reading at Oxford House in Bethnal Green and later at the Hackney Empire. The cast at both readings included Tim Pigott-Smith, Corin Redgrave and Roger Lloyd Pack. Sadly, it was one of Corin’s last performances before his death in 2010.
The Trainer had its genesis in Keith Burstein’s opera, Manifest Destiny. After the opera was performed at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival, the Evening Standard claimed that it glorified terrorism. The composer took the newspaper to court and, after losing in the Court of Appeal, he was ordered to pay the Evening Standard’s legal costs. Burstein was bankrupted by this decision and the Official Receiver seized possession of all his works, including Manifest Destiny.
The Trainer is a multimedia play set in a gym in the basement of a Mayfair gentlemen’s club frequented by Court of Appeal judges. Their trainer is Leila, a young Palestinian who has a Jewish fiancé, Josh. Using video excerpts from the opera, news footage from Gaza and breakfast TV, the play deals with Burstein’s bankruptcy, the love between Leila and Josh, and reveals the absurdities of UK terror laws. It delivers a darkly comic warning on the dangers of sleepwalking into a police state while, at the same time, highlighting the struggles taking place in Gaza.
As I write this, Gaza is once again under attack. Should Anne and I rework the play? It’s too depressing to consider. Maybe my next play will be about mountain flowers.
1 Simple Writings reviews, the Duke of Cambridge, May 30th– June17th, 1989.
Claire Armitstead, Financial Times, June 13th,1989 ‘David Wilson’s dramatisation, originally made for television, comes to the stage with a cast of ten who give themselves ably and ebulliently to the task of peopling Grimmelshausen’s world. A succession of scenes takes us from the orphaning of the child Simplex, through his conversion and education by an old hermit and his adventures as an innocent adrift in a bad world, to his final return to contemplative solitude. In the background and sometimes the foreground, rages the Thirty Years’ War. The astonishing thing to emerge from this production is that the novel has not been dramatised before: it is witty, bawdy, and as profound as anyone cares to consider it.’
Ann McFerran, Time Out, June 7th, 1989. ‘Based on Grimmelshausen’s Simplicianic Writings, writer David Wilson unfurls a sprawling, vibrant, bustling canvas of 17th- century German peasant life in the Thirty Years’ War as he tells the story of a naïve boy, Simplicius, who, like the original author, was separated from his parents in adolescence. Since the action is continually counterpointed with the naïve wisdom of Simplicius’ philosophy, the play at times works like a painting by Breughel, in its juxtaposition of the ingeniously fanciful and the gruesomely horrific.’ Ham & High, June 10th, 1989. ‘David Wilson’s Simple Writings brings to often uproarious life a 17th-century German novel with overtones of Fielding and Rabelais, but with its own contemplative force besides.’
2 John Yorke, former controller of BBC Drama: ‘A powerful and beautifully written piece of theatre, and I have to say that your mastery of language isn’t far off Thomas’s himself. I thought you did an excellent job of interweaving between the man himself and the world of the plays and the poems, and adding the Marx Brothers into the brew lent a wonderfully surreal tone. Much as I enjoyed the piece as theatre, I think that’s exactly what it is, theatre’
Terry Johnson, Director, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (West End, 2004) and playwright (Insignificance; Hysteria; Dead Funny; Hitchcock Blonde; Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick, etc.): ‘I read Spitting into the Sky and I loved its imaginative spiralling. I loved the setting and the theatrical gifts it allows you to indulge. I love the idea of the Marx Brothers taking us through the play: I think the language is grand, and worthy of the man. I think it’s very good.’