Features Published 23 March 2016

Graham Cowley: “It’s much funnier than the bulk of Hemingway’s work”

Andrew Youngson talks to Graham Cowley about bringing Hemingway’s one and only play to the stage.

Andrew Youngson
Graham Cowley, producer of Hemingway's play The Fifth Column

Graham Cowley, producer of Hemingway’s play The Fifth Column

In 1937, Ernest Hemingway took up residence in the Hotel Florida in central Madrid, while working as war correspondent for North American Newspaper Alliance. Outside, beyond the shell-spattered walls of the hotel, the Spanish Civil War was waging. It was a terrifying time, when bloodshed and starvation were daily realities for the Spanish people, as the Republican factions fought like tigers against the bludgeoning fist of Franco’s Nationalist troops. And yet, for the Western journalists in their relatively safe and tinned-food-stocked digs, it was not only a time of darkly romantic tourism, but also an opportunity to produce career-defining work.

“You have to remember, this was really the first time journalists were given free access, of a sort, to real conflict,” says theatre producer Graham Cowley. “There had been war correspondents before, but they were attached to the staff of the army and told what to write. Even afterwards, as recently as the Second World War, they were very strictly controlled. Journalists in the Spanish Civil War had more freedom. People forget that was the first time it was happening.”

Like much of Hemingway’s experiences in war zones, his time in Spain also inspired the writing he did outside of his daily column inches. Unlike his already world-famous novel Farewell to Arms (inspired by his time as a ambulance driver in Italy during the First World War) the goings on in the Hotel Florida aroused within him a different fictional drive. He wrote a play about it.

The Fifth Column, Hemingway’s sole dalliance with playwriting, is being brought back into public memory this month in a production by Two’s Company – Graham Cowley’s London-based company which specialises in unearthing forgotten theatrical jewels and giving them new opportunities to shine. The production is ostensibly the play’s European premiere (bar its 1944 production in Glasgow, which followed four years after the world premiere in New York City). Given Hemingway’s fame as The Great American Novelist, why is the play so seldom staged?

Graham has a theory. Since founding Two’s Company 13 years ago with artistic director Tricia Thorns – who also happens to be his wife – Graham has come to believe there is often a straight forward explanation for plays like Fifth Column only getting so much stage time: “I’ve worked at the Royal Court and in other ‘new play’ companies all my life, and the penny dropped one day that many new plays only ever get one production and are never done again. So there’s every reason that the same may well be true of older plays. And so when we found this play, there are good reasons. I mean, it is an unwieldy beast and difficult to stage, and expensive because there are so many people in it.”

The challenges are indeed considerable for any brave souls looking to put on Hemingway’s one and only play, from its sprawling dramatis personae of incidental walk-on/walk-off, characters to a plot that, while largely set in two adjacent hotel rooms, also takes place in a number of other locations. “He’s not a playwright, Hemingway. He’s not a theatre craftsman,” says Graham. “But being a novelist, this wasn’t a problem that bothered him much. Indeed there was a letter he wrote about the original production in which he said, ‘I like writing plays because I don’t need to describe the location or give much thought to logistics because that’s someone else’s job’.”

If Graham and Tricia were afraid of a challenge, they may have never staged a single production. With a string of successes in their portfolio, including sell-out productions within their ‘Forgotten Voices of the Great War’ series of nine plays, it’s clear the Two’s Company duo has an eye for finding and producing material from the theatrical annals.

The Fifth Column at Southwark Playhouse

The Fifth Column at Southwark Playhouse. Credit Phil Gammon.

Take the exciting plot of The Fifth Column: Roguish playboy war correspondent, Philip Rawlings, finds himself drawn into the heart of the Spanish Civil War’s conflict of idealism, all the while wrapping himself up in an increasingly convoluted web of love affairs with a Moroccan prostitute and a fellow American journalist. Largely set within the hotel rooms, halls and kitchens of the Hotel Florida, we get to see the wider themes of the Civil War played out in micro-focus; told through the juxtaposed lives of the Westerner guests and the impoverished indigenous staff. In short, ideal fare for any fan of high stakes, sweepingly romantic historical drama.

“What I love about any piece of literature of drama is an involving personal story set against big, outside historical events,” Graham says. “That’s what so attracted me to the WWI plays, and it’s the same with this one. It’s about people’s stories set against this dominating environment. This is not really a play about the Spanish War, but rather the people that had some involvement in it.”

As regular Hemingway readers will note, the writer considered his real life to be fertile ground for his fiction. This is true of The Fifth Column also, most notably in the parallels between the central characters, and the then-38-year-old Hemingway’s real life love affair with fellow war correspondent Martha Gelhorn, which was sparked in – no surprises – the Hotel Florida.

“That’s what artists do, isn’t it?” Graham says with a laugh. “They take from whatever they can see, mash it up, and give you something new as a result of all that. Hemingway was a unique artist. He created a style which remains unique to him. The stories he told are, more or less, about him – or the people he would have liked to be ­- and the people he met also. Everything that he wrote, and certainly this, draws on the real people that were there at the time.”

While Hemingway’s popularity has always been tied in part to our fascination with his exploits in life, it can also prove challenging for anyone looking to stage his work. Hemingway the womaniser. Hemingway the cad. The macho man, the drinker, the narcissist. The writer’s reputation has long inspired and appalled in equal measure.

“That’s the marketing difficulty we face. Too much is known about him. But it’s not as if he’s the only great artist that’s been a rather inadequate human being. I mean, for goodness sake, the history of art is littered with such people, it’s just that people know so much about him because he was a self-publicist, very famous early on and so people were interested in what he did,” says Graham. “But you can take this play on its own. You certainly don’t need to have read any Hemingway books to appreciate it. It’s a completely standalone piece of art.”

Think what you will of the writer himself, Hemingway’s skill in conveying emotional depth without the need for ‘fleshy’ prose devices, remains pretty undisputed. And the novelist’s signature style is most definitely present in the play, Graham explains. “If you like Hemingway’s novels you will like this play, and for all the same reasons. It’s got the romantic sweep, and the language is very poetic in a pared-down kind of way. It’s lovely to listen to. It’s also very funny too. Unlike the bulk of his work, it’s much funnier.”

With the 80th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War’s outbreak coming in July, a trip to see The Fifth Column will also be a timely, and perhaps much needed, history lesson. “The Spanish Civil War has disappeared from memory to a certain extent. Younger people barely know it happened. I think that’s rather a shame because it was not only a fantastically important period of history, those few years, but also because of the dreadful opportunity that was lost in what the Spanish Republic represented.”

Hemingway’s journalism at the time, Graham explains, was explicitly in support of the Republic, and regularly espoused the dangers of not fighting fascism. That sympathy for the men and women who fought, and ultimately lost to, the Nationalists, is very present in The Fifth Column. “There was a steel determination among the working people. A lot felt very powerfully that they were willing to die for it it, and most of them did. It’s a wonderfully romantic tale of thwarted idealism. It was a terrible tragedy for Spain, and the country went on paying for it for years, in poverty and famine.”

Ernest Hemingway’s The Fifth Column runs at the Southwark Playhouse from 24 March to 16 April. More info here.


Andrew Youngson

Andrew recently escaped the crazy world of newspaper journalism, but hasn’t quite shaken his love of interviewing interesting characters and whiling away many happy hours writing them up