Michael Hollinger doesn’t want you to be misled by a thumbnail description of Ghost-Writer, his three-character play about an Edwardian-era writer, his wife, and his secretary, the latter of whom claims to continue to receive dictation from the great man following his death.
“I would say that people are often surprised what a passionate experience it is, because the world feels like it might be, on the surface, kind of dry or abstract,” Hollinger told me during a recent phone interview.
“It’s not at all dry or abstract. And, although it seems like, ‘Well, this is a really boring idea for a play,’ I think what shows up, when people watch it, is that, although the environment the play takes in is, on the surface, a rather still, cool one, it allows you to see what’s volcanic underneath the surface. And that’s kind of fun. I think that’s a fun dichotomy.”
Hollinger himself will travel down from his home city of Philadelphia to participate in a post-show discussion following the 2pm matinee on April 14th at Quotidian Theatre Company, which is presenting his play at The Writers’ Center in Bethesda. Quotidian’s production of Ghost-Writer opens April 5th.
I had begun our chat by asking Hollinger what had inspired him to write Ghost-Writer. “To the best of my recollection, it was a pair of things that occurred in close succession. One was the death of my Mom in 2006 and, more than that, my observations of my Father as he adjusted his life around the hole that my Mom left behind: what I would refer to as the presence of absence.
Produced by Quotidian Theatre
April 5 – 28, 2019
Details and tickets
“Around this time, I also ran across a book review in The New York Times for a book about the history of the typewriter. And the article referenced an anecdote that was written about in the book wherein the novelist Henry James had a secretary to whom he dictated his novels and who claimed to continue to receive dictation after his death.
“That was the only reference in the book review, but I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting: that somebody who was accustomed to working with someone else for such a long period of time would continue to channel them after they were gone.’
“So I think those two things created the twin impulses that are necessary for me to write anything, which is something that may be true, or autobiographical, or close to me, and something that feels very far away but interesting, because it’s a little exotic, or unusual, or hard to understand. Usually, for me, that combination of something that is familiar and something that’s strange allows there to be something dynamic for me in writing.
“So that’s really kind of it. I started doing research. I bought the book. I did research on typewriting. I read some Henry James.
“It became apparent to me that I was uninterested in pursuing James as a character, partly because he was unmarried — and asexual, or homosexual — so that the notion of a triangle, in the way that I was starting to conceive of it, wasn’t really going to work very well if it was Henry James. It gave me a lot more liberty to play with the play that I wanted to write, if I was able to fictionalize a character instead.
“But I was very taken with the voice of James’s secretary, whose name [Theodora Bosanquet] I suddenly can’t remember, but knew very well at one time. She wrote a book of reminiscences about him, and there was something about the way she wrote about him in her memoir (I forget what the title is, too; it’s been a few years!) — something about her tone in writing about working with him was kind of curatorial. It was like someone who is guiding you through… curating an exhibit called ‘Henry James at Work.’”
Having the advantage, after the call, of consulting Google, I can report that the name of Bosanquet’s book is indeed Henry James at Work.
“I found that tone engaging and so, when I began finding [the secretary] Myra’s voice, it very much had that quality to it: the way she would speak about him almost like a museum exhibit.
“If you think about it (and the thing as I thought imaginatively about these characters): if you actually were receiving dictation from a great writer, you’d have to be a kind of receptacle, just ready and waiting — not to fill the room with your own mind, and thoughts, and personality, but ready to receive and transfer these thoughts which are, you know, kind of precious. So I can only imagine that that relationship would be quite intimate — whether it was intimate in romantic or sexual ways beside that — but intimate, certainly.”
I wondered how the play had ended up on the radar of Quotidian. “Well, they found the play. I don’t know if it was through a board member, Michele Osherow, who is an old friend of mine, and who knew the play, I think, from years ago. She is now a professor at the University of Maryland and the dramaturg at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre. She was, for many years, an actor and an arts administrator here in Philadelphia, so I worked with her on a couple different fronts: as an actor; as a fellow administrator at a theater; and in her early days when she was the marketing director at Arden Theatre company, where Ghost-Writer premiered (though it premiered long after she had left the theater). So I think she may have been the matchmaker to say, ‘You guys should look at this play,’ but I’m not sure.”
Osherow will moderate the post-show discussion on the 14th, which will also include the Quotidian cast (Carol Spring, Steve LaRocque, Stephanie Mumford) and director Laura Giannarelli.
Giannarelli appears frequently at Washington Stage Guild, which has produced other Hollinger scripts including Hollinger’s best known, Opus. “I saw her perform in Tiny Island a few years ago. But, yeah, they’ve done a number of plays of mine,” Hollinger remembered, referring to Giannarelli and the Stage Guild.
Does Hollinger come down to DC frequently? “Not a ton, but it’s not that far away, and we have some friends in the area, so it’s nice to get back, and it’s nice to see things when there have been things of mine that have been produced. It’s been nice when I’ve been able to catch them, though that hasn’t always been the case.”
MetroStage produced the area premiere of Ghost-Writer in 2013, so I asked whether Hollinger had seen that. “I did. I did. And it was lovely. It’s kind of fun — it’s not always fun — but it can be a delight to have very little contact with a production and see it, especially to not know the performers necessarily, to not know the space, and to not have any familiarity with the audience.
“I’ve premiered most of my plays in Philadelphia, so I know this audience really well, and I know the acting pool, the directors, the designers, most of which are pretty familiar to me, so it’s neat to go to another area and see something.
“I will say there have been times where that’s not fun, particularly if I’ve had no contact with a theatre, or no conversations with anyone, and I feel like productions, at times, can be misguided. That’s not fun, but most of the time it’s a pleasure, because your collaborators are doing their best, and are doing their homework, and putting their all into it, so I’ve enjoyed the stuff that I’ve seen in DC.”
We spoke a bit about a notorious instance when a playwright saw a production of a play that particularly displeased him. “And stopped the production, and, I think, very justifiably so, based on the information that I heard. You can’t violate so many things and just say you’re interpreting the play. There are protections for that.
“I don’t think anyone wants to do it. I think people involved in the theatre, if they are of the theatre, understand that it’s a collaborative form, and that it requires collaboration, but certain basic protections (like you must use the words that I’ve put into the script) — that’s considered basic.”
Has Hollinger ever been so displeased that he’s pulled the plug? “No. I think there’s a difference between people making choices because they thought they were in keeping with the author’s intentions, and people making choices because they think they’ve got better ideas, or need to somehow repair a play, or goose it, or something, in a way that they probably suspect that they’re not — they probably suspect that they’re messing with it, but believe it’s better for it.
“That’s different from, you know, a sound cue that’s misguided because it’s not period to the play, or an acting style — ‘Well, we’ll break the fourth wall with this play, because we think it would be funnier if the actors knew the audience were there.’ Those are things that I’ve seen in productions of mine, and while they made me unhappy, and I felt like they were misguided, I didn’t think that they were malicious, or that they were deliberately disregarding my intentions.”
I presumed Hollinger had been very involved with the first production of Ghost-Writer. “Yes, very closely, and not least because my wife originated the role of Myra, so, early on in writing the play, I knew that I was writing the role for her.”
Will she (Megan Bellwoar) be coming to Washington as well? “She will. She will. I hope that doesn’t add any pressure to the situation! She’s seen a couple other productions, too. She saw the production in Alexandria — the MetroStage production — as well; in fact, was part of the talkback there that I did. So, um, yeah.
“But I was certainly aided in the writing of it by knowing what she is capable of as an actor, and being able to deploy her particular gifts, which, thankfully, aren’t unique to her. I feel like many other people are able to do wonderful things with the part. But Megan, my wife, is someone who has a very powerful emotional life, and I knew, putting her in a role that was highly restrained, that that heat would be quite evident; like, you would understand that there was something churning underneath this character who has to remain so still, and restrained.
“And she’s wonderful with language, and so, for a character who is extremely precise in the way she uses language, I knew that those were skills that she had. So that was an aid to me in writing.
“I’ve heard wonderful things about the Quotidian cast. Of course, I’ve worked with Laura (at least I’ve seen her work as an actor), so I have a good feeling about it; that it will be well-served.”
Does Hollinger write for Bellwoar frequently? “It was unusual for her to do it, but not unusual for me to have written a role for her. I had written earlier roles for her, for which she had done readings but not, ultimately, performed them in full productions — which was hard for us. So this one, I felt quite clear, as I was working on it, ‘Nope; I’m going to save this one for Meg. She’s going to do it or nobody’s going to do it first.’ And, fortunately, we were able to see that through.”
Will Hollinger confess to influences? “Oh, I think it would be very, very hard to pin me down, because every play is so incredibly different. There are plays that are very madcap, in terms of comedy — physical comedy, verbal comedy. And then, this is probably the most — I don’t know — crystalline, I would say, or austere of my plays; the one that asks people to listen most carefully and to — the word I used when I was working on the play, and talking with early collaborators, was the play asks audiences to iris-down, so that they become aware of nuances of language, and nuances of relationship, and nuances of humor that are rather subtle, because they’re entering a world that is slower and stiller.
“In my experience, audiences do do that. They’re trained, early on in the play, to go, ‘Oh, I need to listen in this particular way, and I’ll be rewarded when I do.’ But it’s not the pace, or noise, that some of my plays make. There are some where, as soon as the lights come up, you’re on a freight train, and that’s very deliberate, like, ‘Hang on, ‘cause we’re going to go fast; you’ve got to keep up.’
“This is very different. This says, ‘Listen carefully, attend carefully, and it will feed your attention.’ But It does ask your attention. I don’t know what models I would cite for this. I think there’s something in it that feels a little akin to the film The Remains of the Day, because there is, at its heart, a kind of romantic ache that comes out of restraint.
“I think it’s funnier than that, because I am a comic writer, and so, I think, there’s a lot of wit, and, in fact, some very funny scenes in Ghost-Writer — and necessarily so. I don’t think you can ask people for so much attention in a drama without also making them laugh, because there’s energy to be released. But, otherwise, I’m afraid I don’t really…I can’t really…I can talk about a ton of influences, but they probably wouldn’t tell you anything about Ghost-Writer, particularly.”
I assume that the play is set around the time that Henry James, the man who inspired it, was alive. “Yeah, it is pretty much: towards the end of what would be James’s life, as I recall, so Ghost-Writer goes between about 1905 and 1919. And I’m trying to remember how I settled in on that.
“One of the reasons, I think, was because there was a sudden rise in mysticism, seances, psychics around that time. At the end of World War I, there were so many deaths, and I’m speaking just in the United States — and we were latecomers to the war — but even in the United States, the fact that boys and men didn’t return; there was a huge upsurge, a rise in, mysticism and seances (including the popularity of the Ouija Board and other things). And as I was doing some research on that, it just felt like the right year, somehow.
“It also was an era that was seeing a change in the fortunes of women in the world. They had just earned the right to vote in the United States, with the suffragist movement, and so there was a kind of recognition of women rising out of the constraints of what we might call a kind of Victorian morality, and entering into what would be the modern woman.
“We hadn’t yet hit the 1920s, and the kind of cultural changes of the 20s, so there was still a lingering sense of restraint in the late teens, but it seemed like a really interesting time to tune into Myra as a character. Ballroom dancing had emerged recently as a social event, and people were now writing books about social dancing and things like that, so it was an interesting crossroads of time.
“For me, I’m really interested in period. In most of my plays, they are quite specific in terms of the year or month or week or day that they take place, and the historical things that were taking place at that particular time, so I did a lot of research just to say, ‘Alright, what was going on this week, last week, at this particular time, and how might that be impacting the characters?’
“And literature, too, was changing rapidly. A guy like my character, someone like Henry James, was both very old-school, at this point, and just about to be blown out of the water. So, my character is very much a Victorian, Edwardian novelist, whereas Scribner’s, which is his publishing house, is just about to publish Fitzgerald in a few years: The Great Gatsby. They’re just about to publish The Sun Also Rises in 1926. And then, we’re off to the races with the new generation of writers coming in and busting up old forms.
“So there is a sense of (although it’s completely invisible in the play; unless you know something about the history of the novel, and the history of the novel in the United States, you would never understand this), but there is something old-fashioned about this man, and his particular world, that’s about to be shaken up.”
I heard that Opus had been adapted for film. “Yes, it was optioned for a film, and I wrote a screenplay for it. It didn’t happen, and I think, to some degree, it didn’t happen because another string quartet movie came out, and had lots and lots of similarities to it, and I don’t think there was a lot of market for another one.”
I mistook the competing film for the recent Maggie Smith/Tom Courtenay flick. “No. That actually is not about a string quartet. It’s called Quartet; that’s actually about singers. No, no. This movie is called A Late Quartet, which is about a string quartet, and has a number of striking similarities to Opus, so, you know, bad fortune for me that it came out. I mean, if it made a gazillion amount of money, then, maybe, people would have been desperate to have another string quartet movie. But I think it was kind of a niche to begin with.”
Is Hollinger currently working on anything that he could talk about? “Sure. I just finished drafting a play, a couple of days ago, called The Virgin Queen Entertains Her Fool, and I have no idea if it’s any good yet. I’ve sent it to a few people, including my wife, and told her there’s a role in it for her, if she wants it.
“I’m about to fly out to Northlight Theatre outside Chicago later this month to workshop a holiday play they commissioned called Mr. Dickens’ Hat. And I’m working on a musical of a play by Bruce Graham called Moon Over the Brewery with composer Robert Maggio.
“So those are three things I’m juggling at the moment and, who knows? I might start something new. There’s usually several pans on the stovetop, and some of them are advancing very slowly, and I stir them once every few months, and then some are heating up, and I’ve got to stir them really fast, so, yeah.
“Unfortunately, I’m not done yet, apparently,” Hollinger chuckled in conclusion.