Arts journalist and filmmaker Verity Healey speaks with members of the Belarus Free Theatre to discuss how making art in exile has prepared them for making theater during a pandemic.
It was a crisp fall-like morning on December 19, 2014. “We’ve been expecting you,” said a woman in her early fifties with cropped black hair and thick glasses with pink frames. The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin — one of the nation’s finest cultural research libraries — was virtually abandoned, as many of the students and faculty escaped for the long winter break.
“We just need you to sign a few things,” she said, pulling out a stack of forms. I began scribbling my name and date at the bottom of each. “Sorry there are so many. We have some very valuable things here.”
The library’s archives contain a vast collection of personal artifacts that once belonged to some of the great American cultural icons, including Edgar Allen Poe and Jack Kerouac. I was here to research the subject of my newest play: Edward Gorey, the American writer, illustrator and designer, who died in 2000 at age 75.
An eccentric, satirical and fabulous aesthete, Gorey enraptured readers with his darkly subversive and delightful pen-and-ink drawings and cryptic children’s stories about adult subjects, including death, love, strangeness and loss. During his lifetime, Gorey authored over 100 works, including “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” “The Doubtful Guest” and “The Unstrung Harp,” the later being my favorite.
Some called Gorey a reluctant recluse. He bounced back and forth between New York City and Cape Cod for most of his life, toggling between the madness of the city and the solitude of the beach. When in Manhattan, Gorey was a fixture at Gotham Book Mart, a bookshop for the literati. He was also obsessed with George Balanchine; Gorey attended almost every performance of every ballet that Balanchine choreographed for several years. Shortly after Balanchine died of the human equivalent of mad cow disease, Gorey moved to Cape Cod permanently. He spent the final seventeen years of his life living alone in his decaying house with seven cats, twenty-five thousand books — more than the local library — and his objets d’art, including sandwich glass, sea stones, glass eggs, doorknobs, finials, TV guides, records, VCR tapes with every episode of “Golden Girls” and handmade puppets.
No one knows if Gorey ever had a romantic relationship, though his writings suggest infatuations with several famous and anonymous men. We don’t know if his feelings were reciprocated, but we do know that Gorey almost never let anyone into his house. He socialized on his own terms, strategically keeping his friends separate so they couldn’t compare notes.
I spent more than 20 hours in the aisles of the archives at the Harry Ransom Center over the course of three days. I unearthed hundreds of sketches, notes, poems and half-finished stories that Gorey penned during his undergraduate years at Harvard University (1946-1950), a scathing and personally insulting rejection letter received at just age 25 from the legendary cartoonist Franklin Modell at the New Yorker, as well as letters Gorey wrote to or received from his mother, father and his openly gay college roommate, poet Frank O’Hara.
As a playwright, this process was exhilarating and exciting. On a personal level, however, it was a little uncomfortable and painful. I felt like an intruder. What would Gorey have thought of me riffling through his things? Would I really want someone thumbing through my personal things, post-mortem, hoping to find a great line or scene?
My obsession with Gorey started several years before my trip to Texas, during a long weekend getaway to Yamouth Port, Mass. An ex-boyfriend’s mother gave us a gift certificate for a bed and breakfast in the sleepy town. At a loss for what to see and do, our innkeeper enthusiastically encouraged us to visit the Edward Gorey House Museum, next door to where we were staying.
During our tour, I quickly become infatuated with Gorey — his quirks, eccentricities and secrecy. A few years later, I found myself taking the plunge into the play. In partnership with some amazing archivists at Fordham University, where I teach, I scoured hundreds of pages of transcripts from Gorey’s press interviews, analyzed almost every article ever written about him, and reviewed the two books written about his life and a book of his private letters to and from the writer Peter Neumeyer.
Shortly after I returned home from Texas, I added my copies from the archives to the other piles of research I collected about Gorey. I then started the daunting task of putting the disparate pieces together in a coherent play. It turns out that that writing a play about a reclusive writer is difficult to say the least.
Gorey loved to give cagey, often monosyllabic responses to interview questions. That doesn’t make for great theater. Also, Gorey never divulged clear, cogent stories about his personal life. Occasionally, he would admit to lying to reporters and then provide conflicting reports of the past. This proved problematic for me as a playwright.
For about a year, I unsuccessfully tried to write a linear play about Gorey’s life. It was, frankly, flat and boring. Then, after a series of frustrating readings and rewrites, my focus shifted from trying to find the real Edward Gorey. I stopped trying to fight Gorey and became more open to portraying the unknown, his “secret” lives.
This involved expanding the play to three actors portraying the enigmatic artist at different stages of his life. During the play the three Goreys interact with each other, enabling time to move forwards and backwards.
I call this play a “fantasy memoir,” because it lives somewhere between fact and fiction. It is an excavation of Gorey’s memories and is loosely based on interviews, personal notes, journals and letters. But, to be clear, Gorey’s words are only a jumping off point. In the play, we escape reality and enter Gorey’s vivid imagination through lush projections with imagery inspired by Gorey’s early sketches and puppetry reflecting pivotal moments in his life. The scenes unfold in independent layers, creating a ghost-like palimpsest of Gorey’s real and imagined memories.
The actors play theatrical interpretations of Gorey, not exact imitations. Some scenes ask the actors to play themselves. The transitions between the worlds of play and reality are fluid and, when possible, invisible.
The play mostly takes place at the Edward Gorey House Museum, but we are also transported to New York City and other locations. As an actor-driven play, all scene and costume changes are done by the actors themselves and in full-view of the audience.
The set is littered with memory — an elaborate and highly theatrical sculpture of books, photographs, manuscripts, drawings, vinyl records, curiosities, and other incongruous ephemera; a bricolage of architectural flourishes. The upstage wall is covered with Gorey’s notes and sketches. The audience is invited onstage prior to the start of the play to examine these papers and may reexamine the wall after the play as well.
Not a traditional bio play, “Gorey” embraces its desire to be an episodic tapestry displaying the unwieldy nature of Gorey’s memories. When one part starts to stitch together, another unravels into even more threads of intrigue and mystery. At the end of the play we are left asking ourselves “Why?” versus reassuringly telling ourselves, “I understand.”
“Gorey: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey” runs at HERE Arts Center from April 30 to May 22, 2015. For tickets, visit: http://www.here.org/shows/detail/1754/