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