“Musicals,” Stephen Sondheim once said, “don’t get written, they get re-written.” And the same thing seems to apply to the plays of Simon Gray, who just this year alone has re-written Melon as The Holy Terror, and the published but previously unperformed The Pig Trade as The Old Masters, the latter currently running at the West End’s Comedy Theatre. But in the case of Gray, plays don’t only get written and re-written; they also get written about.
One of the most compulsively readable series of books, both about the process of putting on plays and the man writing them, has been Gray’s magnificently illuminating diaries, from 1985 onwards, of his experiences with his plays The Common Pursuit in both the UK (in a diary entitled An Unnatural Pursuit) and the US (How’s That For Telling ’Em, Fat Lady, 1988), Cellmates (diarised as Fat Chance, 1995) and The Late Middle Classes (chronicled in Enter a Fox, 2001), all published by Faber and Faber.
Brutally honest & intimately revealing
Gray may no longer have the kind of theatrical successes he once enjoyed, but wrestling with the demons of professional failure (and his own demons of alcohol-driven and nicotine-stained angst that have so often fuelled his writing) have created their own kind of poetry and blistering revelations of the artistic, business and above all personal cost of the work he does. Now he’s written his most brutally personal and intimately revealing book yet, The Smoking Diaries (Granta Books, £12.99), where the subject isn’t the workings of his plays but the workings of his restless, forever questioning and hyper-critical mind. He makes no attempt to impose order on the disorder of it: the writing is an adrenalin rush stream-of-consciousness (and sometimes unconsciousness), of fractured thoughts and themes that he picks up and promptly discards, sometimes mid-sentence, only to complete later when he remembers where he was originally heading.
In the process, Gray revisits his own childhood so extensively and inquisitively that Diaries really forms the first part of an autobiography. But it’s also, more morbidly, partly an obituary, as he mercilessly details his own failing state of health and that of his friends (in particular, fellow playwright and his frequent directorial collaborator, Harold Pinter). He observes himself, too, with ironic detachment and fearless self-discovery, on holidays and visits to restaurants and theatres.
(Has there ever been a better description of the Barbican Centre than this? “We seemed to waft out of the auditorium, at least until our feet hit the bizarre undulating floor of the Barbican – the only floor I’ve come across that makes you seasick just to walk a few paces on – why did they do it, whoever did it, in fact why did they do the Barbican at all, unless a challenge to the seriousness of the audience’s intentions – the concrete wastes that surround the building, the tunnel that leads to the building, the hideousness of the building itself, make you feel that you’ve entered a war zone, the final bunker – and then inside, the vast undulating floor, with double and triple sofas arbitrarily arranged by way of seating.”)
The Smoking Diaries is a brilliant book, if a frequently unnerving one: Gray is so unsparingly frank about himself that it sometimes hurts. But he has the impressive knack of being unsentimental, too – he’s not craving your pity, just telling it like it is, at least in the moment of telling it. It’s a book that’s totally in the moment, even when it’s in the past.
If Gray knows how to lay his soul bare, actor Michael Gambon, a notoriously private man, seems content to do just the opposite. “I think I’ve achieved being an actor without anyone knowing anything about me”, he tells New York Times journalist and critic Mel Gussow during one of the extensive interviews, conducted by Gussow over a 13-year period from 1990, that have now been collected into a fascinating book, Gambon – A Life in Acting (published by Nick Hern Books, £15.99).
The reason for this apparent reticence – apart from a natural shyness that emerges very clearly in the book – is explained thus: “The less people know about you, the better it is. The more they know about you, the more it fucks up your job. If you walk on the stage and they say, ‘Oh, there’s the man who restores antique guns’… if they know nothing about you, then the canvas can become easier to paint on.”
But even if Gambon jealously guards his privacy as a result – though we do indeed find about his love of antique guns, driving cars and flying planes – Gussow earns enough of his trust to delve quite extensively into taking the pulse of his craft. And in the process, she throws a powerful spotlight on the man. “It’s like a compulsion, isn’t it, acting? I don’t really like it. I have to do it… It’s a release – something inside you that has to come out. Or maybe you don’t know who you are, or maybe you just want to be all sorts of people. That’s certainly true of me. I live in a fantasy most of my life. In my off-stage life, I’m a pseudo-gunsmith, a pseudo-pilot, a pseudo-expert on this and that. It’s all acting, isn’t it? Fundamentally, acting is a deep process of showing off in front of a thousand people, dressing up in costumes and saying, ‘Look at me’. That’s why the best actors are slightly childish. It’s quite a childish thing, acting. Child-like.”
And Gambon loves to be childish. The stories of his mischief-making are legion and irresistible. To Gussow, he claims that his reputation as a practical joker has been “exaggerated”. “I don’t fool around more than any other actors…. It’s boredom that causes that, the repeatability of being in plays.” But the book is littered with hilarious revelations of some of the games he’s gotten up to, on stage as well as off.
The best of them is a wicked story of taking a fellow actor, Terence Rigby, on a flight that Gambon piloted in a four-seater Cessna. “He really had this terrible fear of flying and he took a lot of persuading. I said, ‘If you sit next to me in the right-hand seat, I’ll do everything very gently, and you can see how a plane works. Maybe you won’t be frightened.’ We took off from Biggin Hill. It was a gentle climb up. Then I levelled off at 2,000 feet. Terry was rigid, but he calmed down a bit. I said, ‘If you do this, the nose drops, if you do this, the nose goes up,’ and ‘This is air-traffic control I’m talking to’. All that bollocks. I was going north to Essex. I was going to take him to Ipswich to have a cup of tea and a sandwich. I got over the Thames and it’s like a devil in you that fucks up a play. I just wopped a bit of rudder down, put the stick forward, and we went into a very slow drop – and then I had a heart attack. I did the whole thing (he demonstrates by gasping for breath) and collapsed against the side screen (He laughs loudly.)…. Then I said, ‘Just a bit of indigestion’.”.
Road to recovery
By complete contrast, the collapse suffered by Jane Lapotaire on 11 January 2000 - when she was about to start teaching a group of college students in Paris, during a break from a play she was touring in across the UK - was no laughing matter. After what was later diagnosed as a burst middle cerebral artery aneurysm, she very nearly died. In the intensely moving, intimate and superbly written Time Out of Mind (Virago, £16.99), Lapotaire chronicles her slow road to recovery as she seeks to rebuild her personal and professional identity.
On stage, Lapotaire was always a brave, resilient and resourceful actor; but just how far those resources are tested as she tries to rebuild her life is painfully revealed in a book of riveting sadness and unbelievable strength. Like Simon Gray, she’s often testy, irascible and frequently her own worst enemy. But like Gray, too, her own journey is so full of self-knowledge that she’s also her own best friend as she eloquently comes to terms with what happened to her.