Books: The Meaning of Recognition — Larkin Treads the Boards |
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Larkin Treads the Boards

Before explaining my belief that Jack Nicholson is the only choice to play Philip Larkin on screen, I should pay tribute to how well Tom Courtenay plays him on stage. A one-man show that had the audience at the Comedy shouting its approval on opening night, Pretending To Be Me has a booby-trap for a title. When Larkin coined that phrase, he wasn’t saying that he was short of a personality. He only meant that he didn’t want to waste his time, effort and creative energy on making public appearances to bolster the career of the famous name he had accidentally become by writing poems quietly at home. (Now, post mortem, someone else is doing it for him: a paradox we might have to examine.) Luckily Tom Courtenay, the principal deviser of the show, is well aware that Larkin, whatever else he was short of, was never short of a sense of self. If he wound up as a reclusive curmudgeon, it was a role he chose for himself and studied with relentless application from quite early on: an act of assertion if ever there was one. With appropriate decisiveness if implausible aplomb, Courtenay’s Larkin is up there like Judy Garland at the Palladium. After the third encore, Judy would promise, or threaten, that the evening wasn’t over yet (‘I could sing all night!’) A two-hour monologue from Larkin, all of it drawn from his marvellous prose except when studded with his incomparable poetry: what could be more riveting? And what could be less likely?

There, of course, lies the show’s first and most glaring problem with verisimilitude. In real life, holding forth at length always rated high on the list of things Larkin could never be imagined doing. A weekend in Acapulco with Julie Christie: perhaps yes. But a long uninterrupted speech? Not a chance. The only reason he would ever talk for more than two minutes at a stretch was his fear that if you said something he wouldn’t understand it. He was deaf. The life that had begun with difficulties in speaking ended with difficulties in hearing. Courtenay retains a hint of the stammer, but uses it as a device for varying the pace and emphasis in a flow of speech that Larkin could never have contemplated. His prose gives us the sense that he could talk like that, but good prose always does, and great prose can almost be defined as the illusion of what can be said concentrated until it sings. Larkin wrote the way he did because he could never talk that way. So the piece rests on an anomaly: reticence on the rampage.

Luckily the theatre, despite Brecht’s best efforts, remains a place where we are content to fool ourselves by accepting the patently anomalous. The experimental writer B. S. Johnson once told me that he didn’t think Shakespeare’s plays were up to much, because real people do not speak poetry. B. S. Johnson is no longer with us, and Shakespeare remains the experimental writer that counts. Similarly, nobody in real life speaks continuously for hours on end unless he is Fidel Castro: but whereas Havana is full of people who wish he wouldn’t, and Miami full of people who wish he hadn’t, we wish that other people would. Larkin was already near the head of that wish-list before we first-nighters entered the theatre, some of us well armed with memories of every word he had written; but others, presumably, not.

The curtain opened on a set consisting of nothing except a few boxes pretending to be the packed goods Larkin had just moved from one Hull house where he was reasonably content to another Hull house that he hated on sight. Postponing the task of unpacking the ‘specially chosen junk’ that he once evoked in a poem, he began by speaking prose. Clearly he would speak the prose well. How well he would speak the poetry remained to be heard. The prose was cunningly spliced together from articles, interviews and letters. I could spot nothing that had been posthumously invented for the occasion. This was a mercy, because it would have stood out like a Big Mac at the Last Supper. Courtenay brought to the prose a commendable respect for its tone and rhythm. He varied both without notably distorting either, and apart from a few physical effects he held the attention by the quality of the words alone. (Except for one member of the audience who had attended the event in order to die of diphtheria, there was scarcely a cough all evening.) Admittedly some of Courtenay’s physical effects were a bit weird. Prominent among them was his periodic adoption of a wide-legged, knee-trembling, goal-covering stance as if he had suddenly been required to save a penalty from David Beckham. But the only real question about his delivery arose over the poems, and even that question, except at one telling point, was not about the way he spoke them. Last week in this paper Hugo Williams, who had attended a preview, properly raised a general objection to the way actors recite poems. No mean reciter himself, he was well qualified to speak, and he was right. Most actors do bury the rhymes, mangle the rhythms, and comprehensively ruin the poem by trying to put emotion in instead of just contenting themselves with getting it out. But Williams left it politely vague as to whether Courtenay himself was included in this indictment.

I think he should have said specifically that Courtenay wasn’t. All of Larkin’s poems invite recitation. Even the big poems whose long stanzas would resist being spoken in a single breath always invite you to try. Courtenay was good even with ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, which is a very hard number to read aloud, because it stretches single sentences over rhymed and rhythmic frames to an extent that Yeats himself, though he pioneered the practice, never pushed quite so far. While making every poem flow like a spontaneous utterance, Courtenay was careful to respect the punctuation, which includes the line-endings, each of them doubling as the phantom comma that a thespian in quest of conversational naturalism typically leaves out. Courtenay’s respect for syntax was immaculate, sometimes to the point of pedantry. On the last line of ‘An Arundel Tomb’ (‘What will survive of us is love’) he hit the word ‘us’ as if we who are alive were being contrasted with the figures on the tomb. Professor Ricks has made a case for this possible stressing as part of the last line’s putative complexity. But if Larkin had meant that, he would have found a way to stress the point that left less room for Professor Ricks to crash the party. The word to hit is ‘survive’, because we are being included, along with the effigies, in the contention that our only immortality might consist of a remembered gesture. (The ‘might’ is covered in the penultimate line: it’s only almost an instinctive belief, and it’s only almost true.) But an actor who can get your mind working about textual points like that isn’t doing too badly, and we can be sure that for listeners coming fresh to Larkin it wasn’t the quibbles that mattered: it was the imagery, sent over the footlights like an arrow shower, and right there becoming rain. On the whole Courtenay read the poems better than I ever hoped to hear them read. That wasn’t the problem.

The problem with the poems — the second problem of verisimilitude dogging the production — was with the spontaneity, not the utterance. Mercifully never preceded by a drum-roll or postluded by a curtsey for applause, each poem seemed to arise from the surrounding prose, which Courtenay was successfully endeavouring to make sound as if it was being thought up on the spot. The result was that the poems sounded as if they were being thought up on the spot too. If Larkin had been capable of that, either his entire poetic output as we now have it would have been composed in a fortnight, or else he would have spent his lifetime making the torrential Victor Hugo look like the parsimonious Ernest Dowson. But Larkin had to work hard at his craft, and the demands of that work defined his life. In Courtenay’s all too accomplished readings, the poetry was respected but the real career, that of poet, was diminished. A poet with Larkin’s fanatical standards of quality control must spend a lot of time waiting. Even while he works, he might spend hours trying to fit a single phrase in the right spot. Sometimes Larkin spent decades trying: a long patience. There could be no activity less dramatic, but some attempt might have been made to dramatize it. Courtenay could scarcely have paused for a month or so before reciting each poem. A less impossible device might have been for him to recite one of the poems that Larkin eventually abandoned for want of a single line, and then to supply an appropriate line of prose that might point that fact out. But even in the absence of any means to show the length of time involved in composition, it should have been possible to indicate that the poems had been composed in a way the prose wasn’t. (Actually the prose took time too, but much less of it.) Lighting effects are the obvious answer, and at the climactic point, near the end of the show, when Courtenay’s recital of the magisterial ‘Aubade’ marked the oncoming finale of a night out and of a man’s life, a lighting effect was actually used. Everything went dark around him, to make him look isolated, instead of just alone.

The upside of this was that one of Larkin’s supreme achievements was put in a separate frame. The downside was that Courtenay felt inspired to go for broke. For one almost fatal moment the extraordinary actor became an ordinary actor. Suddenly transforming himself into a human loud-hailer, he ranted a phrase that was begging to be whispered. I won’t mention which one it was, because I very much hope that he changes his mind about this initiative, which added colour to the poem only in the way that the uninvited arrival of a circus barker would add colour to a funeral. By then, luckily, the success of the evening was beyond sabotage even from himself. Against all the odds, he had given us the old curmudgeon’s tough love of language, the deep secret of his acerbic charm. The question of whether some of the uncharming stuff had been disingenuously left out, however, lingered in the air, even as we stomped and cheered. This was the third problem of verisimilitude, and the one that mattered most.

If some of the critics have been tepid about the show, this problem was their main reason. They have a point. There are cats out of the bag, and Courtenay put them back in. Larkin the pornophile is only fleetingly present, and funny when he is. He complains with disarming bitterness about the way his new television set fails to provide the flood of filth he was threatened with before its purchase, and there is a suggestion that his interest in well-developed schoolgirls might include their corporal punishment. But the pile of treasured top-shelf publications that he might have produced from one of the crates — just to check that they had not been injured in transit — is not forthcoming. As for his racism, the point is raised only by implication, and solely in his favour. He plays records by Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday on his obsolescent radiogram, and dances about in silent ecstasy to the music. The implication — and it would have been the right inference to draw — is that the man who was supposed to dislike blacks was grateful to black musicians for having made his life more bearable.

But to deal with the point fully would require at least two more elements. One of them would be a recital of his poem ‘For Sidney Bechet’, in which the great saxophonist is saluted as the exemplar of all joyous creativity, the man of genius to whose eminence Larkin the mere poet can only aspire. No true racist would be capable of such homage. But in fairness to all the black Britons who do not play jazz, there would have to be a set of quotations from the bigotry that cropped up in letters he wrote to close friends. I think a fair view of Larkin’s prejudices is that he disliked multiculturalism because it altered his bolt-hole version of England, and that he could no more stand alteration than an institutionalized prisoner can stand being issued with a new cup; but there can be no doubt that the way he said so is unpleasant to read, and doubly so because it comes from him. If those remarks were quoted, however, you would also need a disembodied voice to explain that among his circle of unshockable correspondents, to write shocking things was a sport, and that in his public life as a librarian and a literary figure it was unknown for Larkin to be less than courteous to anybody of whatever gender, creed or colour. The disembodied voice, which would need more time on the public address system than Courtenay has on stage, would have to go further, raising the issue of whether or not Larkin made a mistake when he failed to engineer the bonfire of his private papers that he often contemplated. He was an archivist by nature, but he might have foreseen that his impulse to preserve would injure his reputation as a poet after his death. He didn’t care about his career in the usual sense of the word, but about his poetic reputation he cared passionately. Yet he would have had to be clairvoyant to guess that his literary executors, by showing us his prejudices, would open the door for a rush of dunces.

The diligence of the executors was perhaps foreseeable. The zeal of the dunces was something else. Invited to attack the man, they have downrated the poet as well, and though the absurdity of this disparagement must eventually become apparent, in the meantime it will serve to ensure that the world’s path to the better mousetrap he built becomes an obstacle course. As Hugo Williams noted last week, Bonnie Greer, per media the Mail on Sunday, recently instructed us to stay cool on the subject. In her view, there was no need to worry about Larkin the racist, because Larkin the poet was not very good anyway. So in her view there was no real problem. Bonnie Greer’s sensitivity to poetry could be assessed when she appeared in an episode of BBC 2’s Essential Poems (To Fall In Love With) and gave her assigned poem the kind of working over calculated to make Hugo Williams take up gardening. Nevertheless, or all the more, she needs to be told that there is a problem after all. Philip Larkin really was the greatest poet of his time, and he really did say noxious things. But he didn’t say them in his poems, which he thought of as a realm of responsibility in which he would have to answer for what he said, and answer forever. He also thought there was a temporary and less responsible realm called privacy. Alas, he was wrong about that. Always averse to the requirements of celebrity, he didn’t find out enough about them, and never realized that beyond a certain point of fame you not only don’t have a private life any more, you never had one. But for treating these themes in Pretending To Be Me there is neither time nor room. They would have to be raised in class. Ideally it would be a literature class in which race relations might occasionally be discussed, but the rule of dunces may soon ensure that it will be a race relations class where literature is occasionally discussed, and only as evidence for the prosecution.

On stage, the women who loved Larkin in real life are neither present nor specifically referred to, except perhaps in the beautiful poem about the footprints in the snow, which has recently cropped up even in some of the tabloids, with the addressee duly named and shamed. Normally the tabs are not open to poetry, but all evidence of Larkin’s amatory duplicity can now be assured of maximum exposure. This, again, is a huge subject that would be hard to fit on stage even in skeletal form. Just as the man who complained about his shy diffidence was actually an efficient bureaucrat at the top of his profession, the man who complained so often about missing out on love was actually surrounded by it. If Larkin was not exactly Warren Beatty, he certainly bore, in his multiple liaisons if not in his personal appearance, a striking resemblance to Albert Camus. In the week before Camus met his death in a suitably glamorous car-crash, he wrote to five different women pledging eternal fealty to each, and he was probably telling the truth every time. Larkin had a similar network of affectionate loyalties, but always with the proviso that his life had to remain undivided. Not even Monica Jones, who was the closest to being a companion, got a share of his solitude. When he said ‘Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth’ he left open, beyond the simple statement, the complex implication that if he had not been granted sufficient deprivation he would have had to seek more of it. The play depends on the assumption that the life shaped the work. The proposition that the work shaped the life would be too difficult to discuss in the theatre, and would be hard enough to discuss for a panel of professors locked up together for a year. If we accept all these limitations as inevitable, Pretending To Be Me can be hailed for what it is. It gives us a bravura performance by an actor who understands that bravura must be in service to emotion, and not just a display of technique. It shows a curmudgeon doing what curmudgeons do best: being sardonically funny about life. Above all it brings to the theatre the primal exultation of language; the very thing that has made the English theatre thrilling since Mercutio first told Romeo about Queen Mab; the thing from which it can stray only so far before ceasing to be substantial.

The only question now is who will play Larkin next. Courtenay can’t keep it up forever: for only one set of vocal cords, the piece must be like trying to sing the whole of Aida on your own. The perfect lookalike, Eric Morecambe, is sadly not available, and anyway he was too merry. Alexei Sayle could do it: he’s the wrong shape, but he can do the right kind of humour, which is the curmudgeon’s humour, and thus not very merry at all, because it makes jokes about the world falling apart only on the understanding that the man making them is falling apart as well.

Recasting the leading role in your own mind is a good sign: it means you think the script is alive. Recasting it for Hollywood is a bigger challenge, but it will have to be faced. Courtenay has been a fine film actor at every stage of his career (if you think nothing could be better than his appearance in Billy Liar, see him in The Dresser) but Miramax will probably want an American. Miramax won’t relocate Larkin from Hull to Harvard: Harvey Weinstein knows by now that British literary life has a solid appeal on the art-house circuit and a pipeline to the Oscars. But Weinstein will want a bankable star. According to my own sources, Robert De Niro has already declared his interest, but to prepare himself for the role he wants to spend fifty years in a library. Bruce Willis wants the library to be taken over by terrorists. Seriously, it has to be Jack Nicholson. Jack has been in training as a curmudgeon since the campfire scene in Easy Rider. Remember Five Easy Pieces? ‘Hold the mayo.’ The scorn, the bitterness! Nobody does sardonic better. There is nobody like him for disillusioned. When Jack gives it the bared teeth and the arched eyebrows, he could recite his own death sentence and still sound funny.

The beauty part is that Jack has just played an irascible old bastard and will probably get an Oscar for it. In About Schmidt he’s Philip Larkin without the bifocals. Admittedly Schmidt doesn’t write poetry or do anything very much. The movie, which you should see unless you have a chance to visit a molasses factory, asks us to believe that Schmidt has wasted his life in an insurance office. But since there is no residual evidence of any personal qualities that he might have wasted, Jack is left to convey little except an unspecific sense of having achieved nothing. To put it another way, he is left to convey nothing. He does this by impersonating a stunned mackerel with a comb-over. But at least there are no mannerisms. Jack is ready to begin again, after Stanley Kubrick set him on the wrong track by convincing him that there could be an acting style beyond naturalism. There is no acting style beyond naturalism except ham, as Jack proved in Prizzi’s Honour, where he pioneered his latterday schtick of clenching his lips with difficulty over an object he was reluctant to identify. By the time he got to As Good As It Gets, you would have thought he was concealing a live mouse in his mouth. But when he bared his teeth at Helen Hunt like a wolf with its eye on a new-born lamb, we got a reminder of what this man could do, and can still do. That killer drawl is ready for its greatest workout. And he only wants a few changes. ‘Your mom and pop, heh heh. They fuck you over, right?’ Coming soon to a multiplex near you.


Ian McEwan said that he would never forgive me for having written this piece, because it persuaded him to break his personal rule of staying away from the theatre. Choosing his words with care, he told me that he had disliked the evening very much, and that he thought me demented, if not criminal, for having encouraged people into the theatre with my review, instead of standing outside the theatre and encouraging them to go home. Speaking as one who loved Larkin’s poetry at least as much as I did, he wanted to know how I could be a party to a theatrical presentation that might have been designed specifically to render the poetry less meaningful, by promoting the idea that such a concentration of emotion needed acting out. I tried to tell myself that Courtenay’s performance might have gone off a bit since I first saw it, but on second thoughts I had to admit that McEwan might have had at least the ghost of a point. Hadn’t I, while watching the play, been thinking that it would be a good introduction to Larkin’s poetry for young people who had never read it? And hadn’t I, who knew his work well, also been thinking that to hear even the best actor read the words aloud was nothing like as good as becoming acquainted with them in the silence of print? In other words, I had been thinking of what might be good for others: a sure-fire formula for distorting one’s initial response. But my first thoughts were the ones I wrote down in that same week, and I was glad to have done so. One young lady said that my review led her to the play, that the play led her to Larkin, and that his poetry became part of her life. She recited the last lines of ‘Dockery and Son’ to prove it. There had to be something good about that chain of events, at a time when accredited arts experts were lining up in print, on radio and on television to insist that the old fool had never been worth bothering with.

Now it can be revealed: the phrase of ‘Aubade’ that Courtenay hammered was ‘This one will’, and it had the effect of dropping a mortar bomb into the adagio of Schubert’s C major string quintet. The anomalous uproar was especially unfortunate because ‘Aubade’ is the poem that so many of Larkin’s literary admirers think of when they hear the creaking of death’s door. ‘Aubade’ unites other writers in a common worship. People agree about its quality who agree about nothing else. Harold Pinter can recite the whole poem from memory while seated at the dinner table. The poem is a point of reference in Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries. Very few poems have that kind of currency. Tom Courtenay probably thought the same: the reason that he gave it special treatment. He should have copied Pinter, who dials down the histrionics. But finally the poem outclasses even the most beautiful voice that tries to recite it. One is reminded of what Schnabel said about Beethoven’s late piano sonatas: music better than can be played.