I wrote this book, and it is sentimental
Because I don’t have a right-sized reaction to the world
To write a book is not a right-sized reaction
To put all your bad thoughts on paper
And make someone else pay for them
– Extract from Write a Book, by Hera Lyndsay Bird.
The Writer by Ella Hickson is a play that tells its audience everything they need to know via its own two-word title. It is, absolutely and to its core, a play about being a writer. About being a human without proper edges who has to throw words back out into the world because it’s the only semi-polite alternative to compulsive vomiting they can come up with. It’s also, at points, more specifically about writing for the stage, or writing for the screen, or writing whilst being a human-who-is-also-female. But above all it’s about being a writer (or, if you prefer, ‘an artist’; a person who creates things) and, as poet Hera Lyndsay Bird says, ‘not having a right-sized reaction to the world.’
But because Hickson doesn’t have a ‘right-sized reaction’ either (because she’s a genius), the title comes nowhere close to describing the epic beauty of this poetically messy, brilliantly clever piece of work. I want to call it ‘Joycean’, but trotting out one of those tired, and over-used adjectives the male-dominated literary canon has given us over the centuries seems out of keeping with a play that returns again and again to the frustrations of being female and a writer. Instead, it could be called Woolfian, because it fractures, stumbles over and twists literary and societal structures like a modern-day Orlando.
The misuse of the term ‘narcissism’ in relation to my work is nauseating. My life is the trash going into the incinerator to power the book I’m trying to write,’
– Rachel Cusk, as quoted in Who is Mary Sue? by Sophie Collins
The un-named writer in Hickson’s play (performed by Romola Garai in the world premiere production directed by Blanche McIntyre) repeatedly confronts the routine, monotonous criticisms made of (female) writers. People think she is, variously, hysterical for wanting to keep control over her work; ridiculous for turning down money; ungrateful for not seeing how great her job is, and a perennial child trapped forever in story-time. Perhaps it is this perceived childishness that underpins the other familiar accusation levelled at women who make art: that if she doesn’t have babies, she’s unnatural, and if she does have them, she’s a ‘bad mother’ for neglecting them to write, paint, sing.
The female writers I know yearn to be more monstrous. They say it in off-hand, ha-ha-ha ways: “I wish I had a wife.” What does that mean, really? It means you wish to abandon the tasks of nurturing in order to perform the selfish sacraments of being an artist.
– Extract from ‘What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men’ by Clare Dederer in The Paris Review of Books, 20 November, 2017
The Writer closes with Lara Rossi reciting an anecdote about Pablo Picasso up a ladder painting Guernica whilst his two lovers had a physical fight down at the bottom of it. The artist, so the legend goes, carried on painting regardless. Because, his purpose was to paint and he let nothing get in the way of that. Male artists have been granted that privilege in a way female ones haven’t – and still aren’t, because internally or externally they battle voices telling them they should be attending to the feminine pursuits of babies, hoovering and taking up less space in the world.
It would be a mistake to read the final scene as saying that if Hickson’s writer could allow herself – and be allowed by the industry she works in – to practice single-minded creativity, she could be like Picasso. Because the type of art the character and the play itself aspires to is integrally different to the bold, self-contained, masculine art of the Spanish artist.
[The] project was less artistic than spiritual. The possibility of uniting a thing and its symbol, of reconnecting language to reality, and vice versa, is not an intellectual or artistic endeavour. It is instead intimately connected to the sacred realms of sexuality and creativity.
– ‘Hurricane Clarice’ by Benjamin Moser, introductory essay to the Penguin edition of Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector.
Some people will likely make a lot of the fact The Writer contains a lesbian relationship and sex scenes. They’ll be staring so long at the purple dildo (which looks quite similar to the penis Picasso painted half his lover’s face as in a portrait from 1932) they’ll fail to see that the point isn’t the specific type of sex she’s having with whom, but how her creative and sexual desires entwine. More than that, it’s about how sexuality and creativity interlink in a much more essential way.
In Hickson’s play this is spelled out most clearly in the character’s thoughts on theatre; writing books is presented as a somewhat stilted, controlling impulse whilst the act of creating a play that becomes an organic, shape-shifting, shared entity when performed by a cast in front of an audience is a sacred act (and likely an erotic one as well, given the way she evokes Semele and Dionysus at one point). Benjamin Moser describes Clarice Lispector’s writing as being the product of ‘a fundamentally different conception of art’. This is really at the root of The Writer, the idea that what we consider ‘art’ or ‘theatre’ is the product of historical decisions and power structures. And that if we were to break these down what would emerge wouldn’t be more Picassos (or more Shakespeares or more Eugene O’Neills) but a tidal wave of creativity drowning, dissolving, absolving as it crashed on through.
The Writer is on until 26 May 2018 at the Almeida. Click here for more details.