Of writers and writing

Following the Galle Literary Festival, Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn were at the British Council Kandy. Aysha Aseef was part of their captive audience

Early in February, Claire Tomalin and Micheal Frayn were at the British Council, Kandy and after hearing Claire speak about the life of Jane Austen and Michael on writing for the theatre, I went home with the urge to, one, re-read Jane Austen and, two, to watch a theatre production.

Claire Tomalin is a biographer and journalist. She was the literary editor of the New Statesman and the Sunday Times in London. Her most celebrated biographies include those of Mary Wollstonecraft, Katherine Mansfield and Jane Austen and her account of Charles Dickens' relationship with actress Nelly Ternan, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens.

Claire Tomalin Michael Frayn

As she brought Jane Austen to life, and spoke with such reverence and love, I felt that I must get to know Jane Austen myself. “Jane Austen may have written about love and money,” said Claire, “but there was something else that really interested her and this was art.” Her desk, her paper, her pencil, this was what was most important to her. She longed for quiet time to sit and write but this was not easy, because her father ran their home as a boarding house for boys to supplement his meagre earnings.

The only place where she could find some privacy was in the bedroom she shared with her sister Cassandra, who would help her find the time to write by taking over most of Jane’s domestic chores.
Jane Austen never married. When she was 26, she received a very “advantageous” proposal of marriage. She did not love the young man, but she accepted the proposal. Then in the morning she told him that she had made a mistake and that she could not marry him. Had she married him, she could have had what seemed like an ideal life, but this was the time she knew and made it clear - that it was art that was what was really important in her life and not marriage.

Jane Austen saw little success as a writer for a long time. When she wrote Pride and Prejudice she was about the same age as her young heroine, Elizabeth Bennett. By the time it was published, she was about the same age as Mrs. Bennett, her mother. A few years after she wrote Emma she became ill and eventually died at 41. Her brother Henry says that as long as she was strong enough to hold a pen she went on writing. When she died Cassandra who wasn’t normally eloquent wrote “she was the sun of my life, the humour of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.”

For Claire one of the most important things about writing a biography is what you learn from the characters. Not just the greatness and art, but the characters of the people you write about. “When you look at the courage of Jane Austen, it is a marvellous example to think about and to make a part of yourself.”

Writing for theatre

Playwright, novelist and translator, Michael Frayn worked as a reporter and columnist for the Guardian and The Observer (in London) and has published several highly acclaimed novels which include The Russian Interpreter, A Landing on the Sun, Headlong and Spies. His best plays include Clouds, Donkeys' Years, Make or Break, Noises Off and Copenhagen.

A portrait of Jane Austen believed to have been done by her sister Cassandra in 1810
Two of Michael Frayn’s books: A novel and play.

A novelist first and then a playwright, Michael feels that novels and plays reflect on each other. “You learn something about writing a novel when writing a play and something about writing a play from writing a novel,” he said, “but there are fundamental differences and maybe this is what some writers find a barrier.”

In a novel it’s absolutely natural for the writer to know what is going on inside the heads of the characters. In the theatre what we know, see and hear is what the actors tell us in words and show us in their actions. We have to deduce their thoughts and motives from what we can see. In his plays Shakespeare used soliloquies. These can be used in plays , but you must believe that the characters are telling the truth and that they understand themselves.

“But,” says Michael, “notoriously a lot of characters in plays are not telling the truth and notoriously in plays there are a lot of characters who don’t understand their own emotions and thoughts. A lot of plays are about exactly that, about people coming to understand something more about their feelings and thoughts, their own motivation. That is one of the differences.”

The other difference he points out is that theatre is collaborative. Novelists are solitary beings - nobody else is involved in the act of writing a novel apart from the publisher and maybe the publisher’s editor. “The nice thing about that is you don’t have to see if the audience doesn’t like your book. On the other hand you don’t get the positive feedback of its success. In the theatre there is a close collaboration between the writer, the actors, the audience and the director.”

Michael’s early forays into the realms of theatre were met with failure and bitter disappointment. At this point he treated the theatre as the fox in the fable treated the bunch of grapes “I didn’t want it anyway.” He held on to that attitude for many years throughout his university years and even afterwards.

His first job was in the newspapers – “I began as a newspaper reporter for the then Manchester Guardian. I also wrote a humorous column and I devoted a lot of those early columns to mocking the theatre.” However, when an opportunity to write for the theatre arose again he took up the challenge. He wrote a fairly simple play for an evening of short plays on marriage. But he was told that the producer refused to do his play because it was too filthy. Michael was astonished. “What is it too filthy about my play?” he wanted to know. The producer said that he could never do a play where a baby’s nappy is changed on stage. “I was so irritated by that, I wrote three more short plays and I had an evening of my own plays. That was my first show.”

Was his persistence rewarded? No, unfortunately, more failure followed. The evening was a disaster, but one good thing did come out of it. It is a custom on the first day of a performance for the cast to give each other little presents to remember the occasion. “One of the actors gave me a biography of a highly successful playwright. When I read it I found that his life had many, many failures, but all I remembered of him was success.”

Michael found a moral in that story, that failure in life tends to be forgotten, “if you write a flop it is taken off after a few days and people forget about it. If you write a successful play it stays on and is performed night after night and they go on producing it again and again. If you’re lucky people just remember your successes.”

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