Theatre in Wales

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Mid-Year Theatre Book: Effervescence, Point and Generosity

Theatre Writer Book

Peggy to Her Playwrights- Selected & Edited by Colin Chambers , Oberon , June 27, 2018
Theatre Writer Book by Peggy to Her Playwrights- Selected & Edited by Colin Chambers The role that Peggy Ramsay (1908-1991) played in the theatre of Britain was both colossal and central. She also played a part in the history of theatre of Wales. At the time when Dic Edwards was the most performed dramatist on stages beyond Wales Ramsay was his agent. If Dic Edwards does not appear in this selection of letters it is because the wealth of playwrights that her agency represented astounds.

The starting list of 40 starts with Rhys Adrian and ends with Charles Wood. It proceeds through almost every dramatist who impacted the theatre of the era. The dramatists in translation are of the stature of Arrabal, Ionescu, Pinget, Vian. Adapters and translators are of the like of John Barton. Names of note not in this selection are Frayn and Osborne, Pinter and Stoppard but these few omissions are swamped by the legion whom she represented.

Her prominence as an agent was unique to the extent that her presence jumped well beyond the small office in Godwin's Court. These revealing letters should be read in conjunction with Simon Callow's memoir of 1999. She can be traced as an inspiration in fiction in Ayckbourn's “Absurd Person Singular”, Peter Nichols' “A Piece of My Mind” and David Hare's “the Bay at Nice.” Vanessa Redgrave played her in the film of “Prick Up Your Ears.” Editor-selector Colin Chambers includes a letter of 8th May 1987 in which she asks John Lahr that she be removed as a character from his “Diary of a Somebody”.

The correspondence reveals the sheer pace of a life at the centre of theatre's business. The schedule recorded for 2nd October 1968 covers a dress rehearsal of a client's play, a five minute gap for a 10:30 showing of another author's play. “Television was Work”, Simon Callow wrote in “Love Is Where It Falls”. The day includes a Gandhi prayer meeting and another TV play. The next is scheduled for lawyers, yet more TV drama before a weekend in Brighton loaded with scripts to be read.

The leading quality that pulses through the letters is enthusiasm. 5th May 1967 she sees “Dingo” in Bristol and writes: “I was tremendously moved by it.” To the Head of Plays at the BBC 25th August 1969: “I know that Arden has the finest writing talent in England [sic] today and possibly in the English speaking world.” Her stance towards her clients, 22nd September 1969, is generosity. The agent's due to the playwright is simple- “to foster talent.”

The letters touch on the solicitous. On July 1st 1970 she writes to the Ardens who had been briefly detained by police in Assam: “do be careful about going through your money too lavishly. I'm a bit worried that you'll be without sufficient means when you return.” To Robert Bolt, 18th July 1978, about a fellow writer: “Peter Nichols has just written a 6-part TV on his career which is full of hate and malice, and I've tried to tell him that without love and compassion an author is nothing.” Then as now distractions to writing are many. 3rd November 1981 she commends Howard Brenton for turning down an event at a US university: “Two of our authors, to say the least, are absolutely behind because they can't resist a free jaunt.”

Simon Callow reveals the music she listened to at home. Zemlinsky and Schoeneberg were indicators of a deep cultural knowledge. In a letter, 24th October 1957, to Frith Banbury she vaults across de Maupassant, Quiller-Couch, Tennessee Williams, Marlowe, Baudelaire, Havelock Ellis, Ovid, Gide, D H Lawrence, Villon. Unsurprisingly, the book reveals dramaturgical depth. 19th January 1983 to Max Stafford-Clark: “Before I was an Agent I ran a theatre. A mistake over the choice of director, designer, play, actors and lighting was crucial.” In a studied letter, 14th March 1962, she advises Alan Ayckbourn: “you need a long sustaining scene to act as contrast between Act 1 and III.”

She writes to Terry Hands, 3rd May 1974, about the challenge of staging “the Bewitched”. Peter Barnes is pitched between the Jacobeans and Laurel and Hardy. The result is “sheer naughtiness entirely lacking in sexuality or eroticism.” Writing for live acting is its own art. To Edward Bond, 14th August 1969: “Anyone who thinks that writing for the stage is in any way similar to TV, or that writing for TV has anything to do with films, is mad and incapable of judgement.”

Even back in the last century she was noticing the decrease in the proportion of money flowing through to activity on a stage. “But no theatre will ever be entirely satisfactory until the money is put onto the stage, which is the reason for the theatre being there in the first place.” She advises against over-intellectualism: “there should remain something of the child to communicate with a mixed body such as one finds in an average audience.” Playwriting is no different from accomplishment in any field of endeavour: “talent isn't enough; work and self-criticism is essential.”

“Peggy to Her Playwrights” is also a report from history. On 5th February 1964, in an uncharacteristic tone, she meets a director of the moment: “I lunched with Hall. It's terrifying to watch the effect of his maniacal will to power, which is almost destroying him. My God, why doesn't he read Schopenhauer and see the danger he is in.” In an unimaginably different climate the Ardens go on strike because they do not like what the RSC is doing with their play “the Island of the Mighty.” The loyal agent has private reservations but helps with legal advice and takes hot soup to the picket line.

An agency is a business. Simon Callow was her executor and reveals the size of her estate in his book. It was considerable but her approach to money is consistent. On the one hand she mentions, 23rd February 1957, that after two years representing Robert Bolt: “so far I haven't earned one single penny.” But there are other times as on 28th February 1967: “On Friday evening I sold LOOT film rights for “£100,000!!!”

But she observes the lures of success in the theatre. On 22nd January 1970 she writes of N C Hunter: “All his plays ran for years at the Haymarket, and the poor bugger is now stranded on the island of his past success, utterly forgotten, and a sad and embittered man. I met this ghost at a party a few years ago...he hadn't learnt a thing from all his success.”

The theme is constant. To Bolt 4th December 1963: “once an author has become successful and famous, it becomes more difficult to speak the truth, and this is why people like Rattigan become bloodless, because, in time, people fear to give them anything but lip service for self-preservation's sake.” To Michael Elliott 23rd March 1962: “[John] Mortimer's big weakness is a passion for success, and the trappings of success.” She sees talent being drained: “the people who love successful people exploit them, take them up, throw them away, and sometimes only a shell is left.”

She earned millions and the life was lived with hedonism but not ostentation. She wrote 11th August 1964 on earning enough to live satisfactorily: “we can all live more simply, and give ourselves time to think and feel and see. We don't need better cars, more clothes, bric-a-brac or luxuries. All these town houses, mammoth offices, fleets of secretaries, business lunches- ludicrous”. The film industry presents a particular temptation. To the enormously successful Bolt 5th October 1964: “you must live exactly as your audience lives, with all the concerns which we have all the time.” She makes the comparison with herself. “I often think the only reason I am doing well (financially) as an agent, is because I live the same way as the very ordinary man in the street.”

Theatre is ever a cause for simultaneous elation and despair. The roll of dramatic talent that unfurls across the pages is awesome. But nonetheless in August 1971: “the West End is crammed with deplorable plays, led by so-called stars...and that goes for the Royal Court too who are the worst of the lot”. “No Sex Please We're British” is banking £7000 a week.” As for the critics a letter to Michael Billington, 16th July 1979, in defence of Wallace Shawn critiques his narrowness of criteria. A letter to Irving Wardle is a stinger of rebuke although signed off “affectionate greetings.” As for the press as a whole she reassures David Hare at the bad time of “Knuckle”: “F*** the critics”- all in capital letters- “They've all compromised or sold out...They are hired helps of perhaps the most disgusting press we have ever had.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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