REVIEW: D.H. Lawrence & Tennessee Williams – By Night and Day

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Tennessee Williams

D.H Lawrence wrote eight full-length plays, six of which were penned between 1909 and 1913. Of these, only two were performed during his lifetime and only three were published. The Fight for Barbara (1912) was found in an attic in Heidelberg after Lawrence had died. This suggests either he never intended it for public consumption or more likely, it was stored there for a rainy day and he simply forgot about it. For NEAT16 it was performed alongside an unfinished play by Tennessee Williams, which features D. H Lawrence and was unearthed in 2014 at the University of Texas. This was its first ever public performance, so it’s quite a scoop for the NEAT festival.

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The Night of the Zeppelin

Williams’ play kicked off proceedings, and ran for about twenty minutes. This amounts to around ten typewritten pages, consisting of two scenes. The action takes place during WWI and stars two literati couples in D.H Lawrence (Kieran Hardcastle) and Frieda Lawrence (Holly Lucas) and publisher John Middleton Murray (David Beckford) and the novelist Katherine Mansfield (Katherine Morrant).

The unfinished play was billed as The Night of the Zeppelin as this was the title given to the first scene, which opens as follows:

“The room of a shoddy lodging place in London, 1916. The Murrays, John Middleton and Katharine Mansfield are visiting the Lawrences. It is near Christmas. Some German cookies, made by Frieda and a bottle of wine are on a little table and there is a small artificial tree with home-made decorations. The legend, PEACE ON EARTH, crowns the tree.”

Although this was a short piece there was enough in it to keep you intrigued. Air raid sirens are wailing, and orange lights beam up across the top of the middle tier seats so that the audience are plunged into the action. But despite the bombs, Katherine Mansfield has a bigger battle. She is coughing up blood and dramatically claims it’s coming from her heart, and so Williams has us wondering what emotional trauma is she going through.

Mansfield was diagnosed with the dreaded tuberculosis in 1917 and would succumb to it in 1923 at the age of 34. In the play, Lawrence confesses that he too has coughed up blood which brings the two friends closer together. Williams has taken a rare liberty with the facts here as Lawrence was not officially diagnosed with TB until the mid-1920s  – although he did have pneumonia as an adolescent which developed into a lifelong ‘weak chest’. Lawrence largely ignored his symptoms and was to some extend in denial, so I wonder whether he’d have been so forthcoming about his symptoms.

But the group of friends were very close and so the production left me thinking how Williams would have interpreted their friendship. John and Katherine attended the Lawrence’s wedding and shortly after Katherine died, John had an affair with Frieda. This would have been particularly difficult for Lawrence, not least because he’d taken quite a liking to him also. The friends would part ways in 1918 and not see each other in the flesh again, although Lawrence and Katherine would write regularly to each other – something the director, Martin Berry, suggested could make for an interesting future production.

Tennessee Williams never met Lawrence, but he admired him greatly. His plays have been described as being full of ‘lyrical Laurentian outpourings’. In 1939 he wrote to Frieda Lawrence expressing his desire to write a play about Lawrence, ‘dramatizing not so much his life as his ideas or philosophy which strike me as being the richest expressed in modern writing’. The closest he got to achieving this was the one-act play I Rise in Flame, Cried the Phoenix (1951) but this was far from complimentary and instead exposed the contradictions between Lawrence the writer and Lawrence the man.

My only criticism of the production of this play is one of curation. It would have been far better placed with Stephen Lowe’s Altitude Sickness (which kicked off the Neat Festival on17 May) as both start with a game of charades and both deal with an unfinished play.

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Director Martin Berry (left)

The Fight for Barbara (1912)

Lawrence’s plays generally tend to be provincial, focused on the working classes, rich in local dialect, and are fraught with domestic conflict and drudgery. His male characters are proper angry young (Eastwood) men and the action tends to take place around what we would now describe as the ‘kitchen sink’. Perhaps because of his brutal and honest portrayal of working class life, it took a long time for his plays to become fashionable with the ‘mathematical folk’ at the Royal Court Theatre. The Fight for Barbara got its first run at London’s Mermaid Theatre in 1967, and led one critic to observe, ‘If this play had seen the light of day sooner, Look Back in Anger might not have seemed so original.’

The story revolves around Barbara Charlcote (Holly Lucas) who has left her aristocratic husband Fredrick Tressider (David Beckford) for the working class ruffian John Wesson (Kieran Hardcastle). The action takes place in Italy and is yet another highly biographical work that mirrors Lawrence’s personal life: In 1912 Frieda left her husband Earnest Weekley and eloped with Lawrence. They first headed to Germany, then Austria, before eventually settling down in Villa Igea, Gargnano, from 18 September 1912 to 30 March 1913.

Although the play is set in Italy it could easily be one of Lawrence’s Eastwood plays as it has all of the usual ingredients. In particular we have class conflict, represented by Wesson insisting Barbara take off her silly fanciful dress that represents pomposity. When she is dismissive of him for being a miner’s son, Wesson is keen to point out he’s the son of a butty collier. This is an important distinction and a point of pride.

The title of the play suggests that the lead has no agency but this is quite the opposite. Barbara is a fiery character who wants to determine her own destiny and has the confidence to reject advice from her mother Lady Charlcote (the sneering Tanya Myers) as well as the paternalism of Sir William Charlcote (the indignant Robin Simpson).

Barbara then finds herself torn between her suiters when her husband turns up and chides them both for their possessiveness: ‘All men are alike. They don’t care what a woman wants. They try to get hold of what they want themselves, as it were a pipe. As for the woman, she’s not considered – and so – that’s where you make your mistake, gentlemen’.

When both her husband and lover threaten to kill her she dismisses the violence with a matter-of-fact, ‘Not twice in one night.’ Barbara may have been pampered but she can hold her own. She refuses to be ‘swallowed’ up by anyone and mocks Wesson’s masculinity in some superb exaggerated acting when she dives on all fours like a dog and ‘paps’ at him. To be fair, Wesson deserves it. He’s a bit weak and doesn’t have the stage presence of say Robin Simpson, who played Lawrence in Altitude Sickness. This isn’t the actor’s fault. In so accurately mirroring real events, Lawrence the writer has positioned himself in the play as an observer. Therefore Wesson has lost the fire that we associate with Lawrence himself.

As James Moran has observed in the superb The Theatre of D.H Lawrence (which I read in one sitting) ‘Lawrence’s fiction often works by presenting versions of Lawrence in which different aspects of his own life and personality are erased, embellished or invented; revealing a kind of thespian delight in role play and identity change’.

Director Martin Berry has trimmed around 40 minutes off the original play and this works well. I think he’s changed some of the original character’s surnames too. It was billed as a comedy but Lawrence isn’t capable of writing a comedy. He’s far to up his own arse. But he does have a gift for dialogue and like all writers worth their salt he can pin down the motivations of characters, particularly those he’s run off with in real life…

D.H Lawrence, By Day and Night was performed at the Nottingham Playhouse Tuesday 31 May – Wed 1 June. Tickets £11

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REVIEW: Stephen Lowe’s Altitude Sickness

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(L-R) Mabel Dodge Luhan, Frieda Lawrence, Dorothy Brett

Altitude Sickness tells the story of D.H Lawrence’s (Robin Simpson) happiest years, when he was invited to Taos, New Mexico in 1923 by Mabel Dodge Luhan (Tanya Myers), a wealthy heiress who liked to throw parties for arty types and who was married to a Pueblo Indian (Jim Findlay). Joining them is Dorothy Brett (Ava Hunt), a partially deaf aristocratic painter. The final member of the five part cast is Lawrence’s long suffering German wife Frieda (Ulrike Johannson) who’s seen it all before and heard it all before.
The play is set around 1923 when Lawrence was penning the play Altitude for Mabel Dodge Luhan. He would never finish the play and wisely Stephen Lowe hasn’t tried to either: There is only one thing more irate than D.H Lawrence and that’s apostles of D. H Lawrence. Instead, Lowe explores what was happening around the time the opening scene was written.
The play opens with Lawrence playing charades on his own for about ten minutes. This alludes to two things: firstly, we have a play within a play and all that this may symbolise. Secondly, Lawrence has to play all of the parts and most importantly, he must win. This offers an early insight into his character. It’s a quite remarkable scene and Robin Simpson should be given some credit for pulling this off with only three rehearsal days. Fans of D.H
Lawrence will pick up on the references to characters and friends, others will simply enjoy a man in a frenzy switching costumes and accents at an alarming rate.
The three women in the play all represent different challenges to Lawrence as well as changes in his short life. He died aged 44. Frieda Lawrence steals the show, though, largely due to her deadpan responses and refusal to be impressed by her husband who has the other women gushing. At least for a while…
On being married to the notorious writer, Frieda once wrote ‘try it yourself, living with a genius, see how it is’ and this comes through. Lawrence is obsessive, didactic and at times an absolute bore with his relentless striving for perfection. Frieda on the other hand likes making dresses out of old curtains, tabbing it in front of the fire, and getting her leg over with anyone up for it. She may not have been a match for Lawrence’s intellect but she was certainly a match for him in spirit. The two of them personify defiance.
The play is as much about relationships as it is about Lawrence’s odd ideas about self-deification. They argue and fight and shout and scream and then when it all goes horribly wrong, are there for each other. Just as couples do. It was in Mexico that Lawrence had the idea for a novel called Tenderness, about a gamekeeper who has it off with a posh toff called Constance Chatterley. Lowe’s play helps show how the women in Lawrence’s life had an influence on the novel that would be published in 1928 and banned until 1960.
If you’re a fan of Lawrence then you’re in for a treat as Altitude Sickness is the first of three plays featuring Notts favourite beardo. 1 June sees Lawrence and Williams: By Night and Day with staged readings of Lawrence’s semi-autobiographical play The Fight for Barbara alongside Tennessee Williams short unfinished play The Night of the Zeppelin.  The following day the Galleries of Justice host  A Novel Trial: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a retelling of the court case that made it possible for everyone to swear more freely.
Altitude Sickness was performed at Djanogly Theatre, Lakeside on 17 May as part of the NEAT16 Festival. 
Neat16 runs from 17 May – 12 June. See the website for a full listing of programmes

Stephen Lowe on ‘Altitude Sickness’

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Photograph by James Walker in Stephen’s study.

Stephen Lowe has dramatised and fictionalised the life of D.H. Lawrence many times over the year. His most recent play explores Lawrence’s life in Taos, where he found himself surrounded by three very independent women: Mabel Dodge Luhan, Dorothy Brett and Frieda Lawrence. 

Why is DH Lawrence important to you?
The easy answer is I’m a working class lad from Nottingham who wanted to be a writer and you can’t grow up not reading Lawrence. Lady Chatterley’s Lover came out when I was thirteen and I’ve spent my whole life living with and thinking about him. I’ve written about him so much he’s like family now. But sometimes we fall out.

Your new play Altitude Sickness deals with an area of Lawrence’s writing that’s problematic…
It deals with his notions about the submission of women and how the stronger the woman is the more she has to place herself, like The Taming of the Shrew, under the foot of the master. His notions of wills between relationships I now think are rather silly, particularly the phases through which this play looks at: when an artist makes a move from being an artist to a prophet and then a messiah.

What’s the context to the play?
Mabel Dodge Luhan was a wealthy heiress and patron of the Arts. The American equivalent of Lady Ottoline Morrell in that she came from that tradition of holding soirées for artists of all kinds. In 1923 she pays for Lawrence to come over to Taos, New Mexico along with a selection of arty folk to help set up her dream artistic community. She wanted Lawrence to write about her life.

He doesn’t strike me as someone who’d settle down into an ‘Arvon’ type commune.
Lawrence sees art as being like a grenade. It blows the world up and some will rise from the ashes with the phoenix. For him, art must have this tremendous revolutionary action that moves from the head to the blood to the pagan again. That’s what he wants from this meeting of people. He doesn’t want a commune with everyone writing poems on their own. He wants a commune in which he can lead as a revolutionary God. Which is what the play is about. It’s very funny, honest.

How does the play start?
Lawrence loved playing charades, which I find most curious. The problem was he had to win, and increasingly, he had to play all of the parts as well. I got this idea for this playful but significant game of charades that they’re setting up before breakfast in Mexico. The twenty minute script that Lawrence actually wrote – on which this play is based – is not important. What’s interesting is why he didn’t finish it.

Which has something to do with women…
Altitude Sickness explores what happened around the time that this opening scene is written and how Lawrence coped with having three powerful women vying for his attention. These were Mabel Dodge Luhan, aristocratic painter Dorothy Bret and, of course, his wife Frieda. It’s exactly what he would have liked, the three women fighting over him. It’s a classic play about sex and the relationship between a man and a woman. It’s important to look at the three women and how they represent challenges and changes to Lawrence.

Lawrence met his match in Frieda. A strong-willed woman…
There’s a famous story about how Lawrence and Frieda met in 1912. Lawrence went around to see his old tutor Ernest Weekley on Private Road, who Frieda was married to at the time. Weekley was out. The debate that goes around is whether it took her 20 or 25 minutes to get Lawrence into bed. Frieda had been the mistress of Otto Gross, one of Europe’s most notorious sexual revolutionaries and was an advocate of free love. Everything Lawrence knew about sex, Frieda taught him. But he found it very difficult to accept the consequences of her liberalism. He was very rarely unfaithful, she was determinedly so.

How did Lawrence cope with this?
Initially when they were on the move, Frieda carried on as she always said she would. As an advocate of free love. But eventually, when she sees the pain it causes him, she stays quiet about her affairs. Instead she says she is ‘visiting’ her mother in Baden Baden. Frieda is an incredible woman. Her principles and history are amazing.

She’s been unfairly derided by critics and painted as a heartless mother who abandoned her children…
When Frieda was married to Ernest Weekley she would take male friends to Germany to have her fun and always returned home. When she took Lawrence on one such trip, he wrote to her husband saying she wasn’t coming back. When Weekley got this letter he quickly got the lawyers and stopped Frieda from coming back and seeing her three children. Lawrence was very manipulative and I’m sure this caused their relationship friction over the years. But there’s no doubt that as much as they argued, they genuinely cared for each other.

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Helmut Naumer, Sr. (1935-36) Taos Pueblo

Lawrence was a restless beast who travelled the world in search of Rananim, a kind of utopian community of like-minded people. Did he find this in Taos?

Everywhere he’d gone before where he’d met the ‘natives’, he ended up disliking them, for not living up to his expectations. This wasn’t prejudice, it was Lawrence’s own personal ideology. But, from the Pueblo Indians of Taos, he felt there was something to be learned. I explore this in the play through the Hopi Indian dance, but beware of the snake…

Why was he searching for Rananim in New Mexico?
Taos is cut off. It’s up in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. It’s about communing with nature. Lawrence yearned desperately for that pagan way of living; running naked into the forest when it rained. This wasn’t unusual in the twenties. People were seeking completely different ways of living after WWI. You either went hedonistic, like the bright young things of Evelyn Waugh’s novels – who Lawrence detested – or you went pagan. You went backwards to see if native cultures had something.

Have you visited the ranch?
I was offered a place to write there thirty years ago when I was a shepherd in Yorkshire. But I couldn’t afford the air fare at the time. I got to go five years ago when they were doing my play Empty Bed Blues, which is about a dying Lawrence trying to find a publisher for Lady Chatterley. It’s pretty basic and freezing in winter because it’s 6-7,000 feet up. Lawrence and Frieda were terrific about being poor. Frieda made the worst dresses you can imagine out of old curtains and didn’t give a damn.

Do you think he was truly happy in Taos?
Lawrence was massively influenced by the philosopher and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who was into simple living in natural surroundings. Lawrence wanted somewhere without a divide so that when you opened your door you were straight into wilderness. Primitive. With a cow. Lawrence loved milking his cow every day. It was this that led to the ‘prophet’ notion. So landscape and place was crucial to him. The cruel irony is that after travelling all over the world to find this spot, he finally finds it and he’s told he has to move out because it’s bad for his health.

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The cast discuss the play after the performance.

Altitude Sickness, Lakeside Arts Centre as part of NEAT16, Tuesday 17 May 2016, 2pm & 8pm, £5.

Steven Lowe’s website