March 5, 2007

Vanessa Redgrave is Nothing Like You

The Year of Hoping for Stage Magic

I have been asked if I do not find it strange that Vanessa Redgrave is playing me. I explain: Vanessa Redgrave is not playing me, Vanessa Redgrave is playing a character who, for the sake of clarity, is called Joan Didion. At points before this character appears onstage, she loses first her husband and then her daughter. Such experiences of loss may not be universal, but neither are they uncommon. If you take the long view, which this character tries to do, they could even be called general.

This does not close the subject. ?But Vanessa Redgrave is nothing like you.?

This is not entirely true. As it happens I knew her before I ever thought of writing a play. Tony Richardson, to whom she was married, was until his death in 1991 one of our closest friends. I had known their daughters since they were children. She and I understand certain kinds of experience in the same way. We share the impulse to make things, the fear of not getting them right. I would even guess, although I have not asked the question, that she has had the nightmare in which you get pushed onstage without a script.

I say some of this.

?But she?s taller than you are.?

This is true. She is taller than I am.

I try to suggest that her task in this play, for better or for worse, offers more elusive challenges than height impersonation.

Then I give up.

In fact I never thought of the character who would appear onstage in this play as me. I thought of her as ?the speaker,? or ?she.? I thought of myself as the witness, the watcher, the auditor, the audience, ?we.? ?The speaker will be telling us something we need to know,? the notes read. ?We notice on the part of the speaker a certain carelessness about time sequence. It occurs to us that she may be losing chronology.?

It would be logical to assume that I adopted this distance to protect myself. It would also be wrong. The idea that whoever appeared onstage would play not me but a character was central to imagining how to make the narrative: I would need to see myself from outside. I would need to locate the dissonance between the person I thought I was and the person other people saw.

One example, a note: ?This is about the speaker discovering that she is completely powerless, that the control she so prizes is nonexistent.?

This was for me, even as I wrote it, novel information.

I had never before thought of myself as a person prizing control.

Only when I saw the play performed did I see that character clear, and I also saw her in the mirror.

Posted by Dennis at March 5, 2007 6:51 AM

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