Fact, Fiction and the Theater: Truth Is, We Prefer Lies

020606 article heilpern Fact, Fiction and the Theater:  Truth Is, We Prefer LiesAs I was saying, I don’t go to Oprah Winfrey for the truth. I go to the theater instead. That fragile, fantastic thing we call the theater has always seemed to me to be the last place on earth where our stories can be truthfully told. There, Artaud’s “strange sun,” a light of abnormal intensity, illuminates the whole of life, including its high comedy and convulsive cruelty and lies.

Compared to the eternal verities of theater, what has the righteous Ms. Winfrey to offer us but melodramatic revelation, loud good deeds, cheap psychiatry, diet cures and free cars?

Lift your eyes

Where the roads dip and where the roads rise

Seek only there

Where the grey light meets the green air

The hermit’s chapel, the pilgrim’s prayer.

No perfectly balanced fact in sight there! No zealous insistence on virtuous literalism can take dull comfort where the grey light meets the green air in T.S. Eliot’s odyssey to memory’s forgetfulness and yearning. That is why I turn to the poets and playwrights for truth—not to the talk shows, not to the self-flagellating New York Times, not to winsome Maureen Dowd, not to the purging faux memoirs of a drug addict, least of all to this President.

I am content to stand alone in your good company. Unconvinced by the real world, I look to the grand illusion and big, fat, whopping lies of the theater world to tell us the truth about ourselves. Besides, I’m stage-struck. I’m always glad when the curtain goes up on actors pretending to be someone else. Many people aren’t who they seem to be, but only the actor pretends to be someone else nightly and on matinee days.

On my shelves is a book appropriately entitled Lies Like Truth. It’s a collection of theater reviews and essays by the great drama critic Harold Clurman, and he’s written the following epigraph in his forward. He firstly quotes Picasso: “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” In which case, James Frey is the Picasso of memoirists. Then Clurman quotes Macbeth, and where Macbeth goes, trouble is sure to follow: “I … begin to doubt the equivocation of the fiend that lies like truth.”

Where do Picasso and Macbeth leave us? They leave us confused. Or, as Alan Bennett’s eccentric headmaster asks his class in Forty Years On: “What is truth and what is fable? Where is Ruth and where is Mabel?”

For those of you who have been wondering where I’ve been these last few months, I have been chained to my desk trying to shed truth and light on another man’s life. It so happens that John Osborne, the playwright who changed the history of British theater with Look Back in Anger, wrote two memoirs about his turbulent life and times and stated publicly that they were a creative act. “One should approach it as if it were a novel,” he wrote to his old friend, the director Tony Richardson, who was at work on his own memoir. “It’s your dream, no one else’s. Facts are secondary. Feelings are real.”

In that cavalier sense, Osborne resembled the philandering Frank Harris who, when asked by Max Beerbohm if he ever told the truth, replied: “Occasionally. When invention flags.”

The first of Osborne’s autobiographies, his 1981 A Better Class of Person, was generally acknowledged to be a masterly story about growing up in postwar England and the young Osborne’s eventual refuge in the warm embrace of the theater. He was also admired—and reviled—for his lacerating honesty about his mother. You are not supposed to hate your mom, least of all in public. You are supposed to keep it to yourself or disciples of Momism everywhere will be mortally offended. Osborne was the playwright, however, who brought passion to the understated, restrained, ever-tactful British psyche. But where does his “facts are secondary, feelings are real” leave the credibility of his memoirs?

Look where “feelings” got the now pilloried, pathetic James Frey. But Osborne and Mr. Frey are the same kind of memoirist only in as far as a saint and a sinner both have feelings. After six years living in my home with the late John Osborne—not to mention his five wives, numerous mistresses, recurring depressions, various crack-ups and 31 plays—I feel I know my man.

His challenging persona and plays disturbed people precisely because he was a truth-teller. His autobiographies weren’t a process of invention, but interpretation. The facts that were secondary to Osborne check out with the evidence of all the people I met who knew him. His cousin, Tony Porter, grew up with him as a child and gave Look Back in Anger’s furious anti-hero his surname. But when I met Mr. Porter, he told me that when he read Osborne’s first memoir, in which he appears, he was astonished by its accuracy and detail. Osborne possessed a photographic memory.

It wasn’t the facts that cousin Tony disputed. It was the way they were interpreted. “I didn’t think his mother was that bad,” he told me. But she was Osborne’s mother—not his. The memory of growing up with her in poverty belonged uniquely to Osborne. Then what is truth? Let me know when you find it! The truth is, truth is tricky. Look Back in Anger has become a mythical success, but when it opened at the Royal Court in 1956 to become the only play in the history of theater known for its birthday, the play itself was a flop. It was believed with very good reason that it would close within a week and, along with it, the newly founded Royal Court Theatre.

Of the 14 national daily reviews of Look Back I’ve read, 12 were negative and only two were positive. If I put a kinder spin on the critical count, we’re still left with seven negative, five mixed and only two clearly in favor of what became the most celebrated theatrical debut in England of the 20th century.

Yet people prefer the myth of Look Back to the truth. Myth is easier and it pays better. As the renowned line in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance goes: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

As I see it, it’s my job as a biographer to see behind the mythomania and print the truth. But as a drama critic, give me beautiful lies every time. As I return to the theater beat, I am for those who believe feelings are real and facts are secondary. I am for all those in theater with open hearts.