Friday, November 9, 2007

Mighty Pens, Mighty Swords

I was talking to a fellow playwright last night and we got to lamenting the fact that while modern playwrights may create fantastic worlds on the page, our everyday lives tend to be quiet and constrained. We go to college and then get MFAs; we hole up somewhere and write a play; we submit it to contests; we format everything in that regimented one-page-equals-one-minute style... "Why don't we live back when playwrights actually did things?" we cried. These were the kind of adventurous writers we were thinking of, who don't seem to exist anymore:
  • Christopher Marlowe, who is thought to have worked as a royal spy, which might explain his mysterious murder in a tavern
  • Aphra Behn, one of my heroes (obviously!) who worked as a spy for Charles II in Antwerp in 1666, before turning to playwriting
  • Samuel Beckett, who worked heroically as a courier for the French Resistance
  • Vaclav Havel (another of my heroes, obviously!) whose plays, other writings, and political activism helped defeat Communism in Czechoslovakia
I especially like knowing this about Beckett. Sometimes he seems like such a distant and untouchable figure--the craggy sage whose plays espouse such a bleak, lonely vision--that he needs to be humanized, a little. So it's good to know that he fought for the French Resistance. And intriguing that his rejection of James Joyce's daughter Lucia helped drive her to schizophrenia. And comforting to visit his grave in Montparnasse Cemetery and see him buried next to his partner of 50 years, Suzanne--to know that despite the loneliness of his writing, in life and death he was not alone.

Photo from Wikipedia.

And I've always been intrigued by the notion of spying, à la Behn and Marlowe. They say Behn's spying contact, William Scott, was her lover--I hear that and I start imagining a scenario straight out of Hitchcock's Notorious, one of my all-time favorite movies. It also might be the most realistic espionage film ever made: it has no wacky James Bond gadgets, no superhumanly strong and intelligent spies, no shadowy government organizations. Just three heartbreakingly real and flawed people, and the shadowy mysteries of the human heart.

But of course, even if its emotions run deeper and its characters are more human than in a typical spy film, it's still a glossy '40s Hollywood product, and more exciting than anything I am ever likely to experience. Which brings me back to the beginning: what ever happened to the time when being a writer meant being adventurous...meant being notorious?

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