The Stars Also Rise
The Hemingway Play at the Loeb
YOU DON'T have to be interested in Frnest Hemingway to enjoy The Hemingway Play you have to be obsessed with him. And even then, after all the bullfighting imagery and its inevitable companion concept, colones or balls), boxing imagery, war imagery, big game imagery, rain imagery, woman as nursemaid imagery, even than anyone obsessed would be so battered by a Complete Emily Dickinson and vacate to Antherst.
Despite all the fine aspects of this Loeb production of a new play--and there are many--the author portrayed gets shoddy treatment. By dividing Hemingway into four characters each at a different stage of life, writer Frederic Hunter has supplied us with four stick figures instead of only one, and the resultant drama is like the clatter of dry brambles. The idea sounds like such a good one--and it charges certain moments (wistful memories, lost possibilities) with double poignancy. But the costs are too steep. Presenting four in carnations of the same Hemingway is an artificial device the audience is supposed to pardon. It can But the artificiality--the feeling of an academic exercise--rubs off onto the life and world the play is set in, and this is too much incredulity for anyone to suspend.
There is, for example, the issue of the champ Hem, the up-and coming-Clark-Gable-swaggerer manifestation of Hemingway, blusters confidently that one day he'll he "champ," Currently though the older second oldest next to Papa) Ernesto is "champ," at the peak of his career, worrying just a little about selling out the writes for Look) but worried most of all about tumbling down from the heights. Everyone calls him "champ," and he is very jealous of his position as King of the Mountain. The young Hemingways aspire to ascend there, the old Hemingway dreams of more vital days, battling heavyweight competitors and clearing the ring.
I DON'T KNOW whose fantasy this is--maybe Hunter's--but it's hard to believe that a hierarchical vision of literary activity can explain can explain much about Hemingway's inner life, It implies that writing is a technique designed only to drag one to the top of some quantifiable heap. The writing itself is a means to an end rather than a way of working our personal conflicts, fighting fear or seeking satisfaction. And Hemingway wasn't Jackie Susann.
The suspension of time implicit in the device of these four divided selves is partly responsible. With several Hemingways at once, all at different ages, the date of the play has to be vaguely late forties. Four characters is okay; four different decades would he too much. So this grand tournament of writers is static--which is unconvincing, unless Hemingway compared himself to many other writers, despite his own distinctive style, and unless his source of approval was no more specific than the general acclaim of the bestseller lists.
With this bout to be champ so emphasized, questions of vanity, ambition, and the paranoia of isolation take center stage. Suicide is the not-so-subtly hinted at shadow lurking around the corner. So self-hate, which is here one Hemingway hating another, is crucial. Some of the most ugly and malicious acts imaginable are acted out by Hemingways on Hemingways. And why do they hate each other. It's hard to fell, unless they've jealous of each other's success. Stardom seems to be the thenic here Hemingway could be a TV personality except for the few matador cliches and sexual puns thrown in and stardom is a tired subject.
To KEEP THIS merry quarter in operation, the production takes a due from Hemingway's writing--all short statements and quick transitions, snapshots set in a contextual vacuum for further resonance. Although Hemingway's prose had the descriptive abilities needed to maintain drama throughout the flashing around, on stage this doesn't work--when one Hemingway perches somewhere, says something, and passes the baton to the next while the rest pantomime, the rhythm is often ruptured mercilessly. It's as though the writer had trouble finding excuses for people to talk, since they so often have to begin from scratch. So he's forced to make them all loud-mouthed fools, blabbering their life secrets from separate pedestals. James Maxwell's boyish reporter, then is too much the eager puppy (on his way up); Robert Gerringer's Ernesto is too loud and theatrical. With the exception of Alexander Scourby as a wind-blown Papa, none of the actors can handle these pressures.
It's not their fault, and the set is not to blame, either. Cool and Spanish. Zack Brown's set is an Escher like lizard of staircases and platforms: it seems much larger than it is, more stylish than Escher, and perfectly balanced. Director Richard Edelman uses waiters, bystanders and a flamenco guitarist to keep things moving on stage, and he does it well, but the odds are stacked as relentlessly as the bullfighting metaphors are.
It's immaterial how much of "the real Hemingway" comes out in the play. Hunter clearly has an unimpeachable knowledge of the man's writing, and any argument would be a pedantic waste of time. But whoever Hemingway was he was human, and to demystify the hallowed name of a great author must be to do more than rail furiously against fame and toss about death-wish forebodings to prove the point. This only makes it look like the playwright himself is mystified and awed, while the audience is mystified and bored.