Total immersion is the prime imperative for crafting any piece of biographical theatre. It’s not enough to read every word your subject wrote, stand where they once stood, or meet surviving relatives. This is necessary, but essentially hackwork that could be done by anyone. What’s required beyond this is the emotional honesty to deeply explore what attracts one to a subject, and the ability to identify empathically with the way your subject thought, loved, fought and (often) failed.
I decided to write a solo play about the life of novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton (1904-1962) at a time when my own personal life was in a very Hamiltonian free fall. At the age of 35 everything had broken into sorry smithereens. Suddenly, I was sat in an empty London flat with no direction or purpose. Just a lot of silence. I had never experienced prolonged silence before; so easy to drown it out with booze, relationships, the internet or simply (dreadful human evasion) “being busy”. Of course, real solitude is actually the long-delayed encounter with one’s own soul. A terrifying meeting. But until you’ve had it, you’re not living at much more than a quarter of your true emotional capacity.
This was my starting point for a sojourn into the psyche of Patrick Hamilton. I read Nigel Jones’ superb biography of Hamilton, Through A Glass Darkly, largely by chance. I was immediately struck by the fact that Hamilton, despite precocious literary talent, made of his life one relentless balls-up after another. By the age of 25, Hamilton was an internationally famous playwright thanks to his gripping thriller Rope (later filmed by Hitchcock), and a critical success with novels like The Midnight Bell, his deeply touching saga about lives of quiet desperation in Soho publand.
But underneath the tailored veneer, Hamilton was lugging around more unprocessed baggage than Heathrow. His childhood (egomaniac father, smothering mother) had dealt him hugely conflicting messages about love, and like so many humans he’d struggled into adulthood with no great affection for himself. This set the scene for a life of emotional chaos, with Hamilton time and again pursuing women who could not return his love (including a Soho prostitute, and two wives who ‘shared’ his life simultaneously for many years). Of course, it was always doomed because Hamilton did not love himself, and chose booze (“the neurotics’ microscope” he called it) to blot out this horrible truth.
Hamilton’s fiction (the riveting Hangover Square, the immensely moving Slaves of Solitude) is often veiled autobiography, and underneath the wit and dazzling verbal pyrotechnics, one senses a man desperately trying to understand himself before some final cataclysm strikes.
So. I had some great words. A life story with universal resonance (which of us doesn’t struggle with giving ourselves a break?), and a subject whose life at times reminded me uncomfortably, thrillingly, of my own. Bingo! Not quite. It took me a year to write what became The Silence of Snow: The Life of Patrick Hamilton. It was my first attempt at playwriting, and my constant aim was to make every line funny, true, or both. I also wanted the piece to mirror Hamilton’s life, being from the start energetic, kinetic, and vibrantly flowing until the closing minutes when, dying of alcoholism, Hamilton is finally forced into silence, selfreflection, and the encounter with self that might have made all the difference to his time on the planet.
There are no immutable rules for creating a biographical play. I followed some established precepts, such as including as many of Patrick’s own words as possible, and playing numerous characters from his life (from his father to his lovers) to give the audience the feeling that they’ve seen a whole cast on stage. But rules, once respected, can be broken, and it’s certainly crucial to decide which aspects of the subject’s life interest one. For example, my piece barely mentions Patrick’s fascination with communism, mainly because I could make little dramatic capital out of it.
I’ve come to love Patrick. He was not an easy man to like, but I see the lost, uncertain child, the heart and the compassion, underneath the dysfunction and the three bottles of whisky a day. His talent blazed for only about fifteen years, but sometimes our minor literary figures have important things to teach us. This is what inspired me to have Patrick confide to the audience near the end of the play: “The great problem with life is that you can get from one end of it to the other without ever feeling that another human being ever truly knew you”.
Playing a reallife character carries with it a responsibility, but one shouldn’t be too slavish, because of course one is simultaneously telling one’s own life story. Every time I’ve played Patrick, this man who never entered solitude and silence until it was too late, I’ve been struck by how urgently essential it is for every one of us to develop a healthy relationship with self, and how fortunate I was to be hurled into my own personal wilderness.
As if I needed more proof, Fate gave it to me days after I finished my first draft. I passed it to a trusted friend, an actor called Tim Welling, to read. He would tell it to me straight, I thought. He did. He loved it. And then he committed suicide. He was 44 and I have lost an irreplaceable comrade. Tim could not “only connect” and tell me how chronic things were for him. That is a tragedy that makes me burn with passionate determination to know myself, and everyone in my life, with every fathom of depth possible. The Silence of Snow encourages the audience to do exactly the same, by depicting the thrilling, funny, tragic story of a man who could not. The play is dedicated to Tim, and I know that he sits somewhere in the theatre watching every single performance.
The Silence of Snow: The Life of Patrick Hamilton by Mark Farrelly is at the Old Red Lion, London, from 25th September – 11th October 2014