Artist Lovers

Written by Mimi Kramer on . Posted in Posts, Theater.


Vincent
in Brixton, Nicholas Wright’s sentimental biodrama about the year
and a half that Vincent van Gogh spent living in London in his early twenties,
is one of those plays that seem to believe that if we knew what happened to
a great artist, we could understand his genius. The play, which Lincoln Center
is presenting at the Golden Theater, is set in the period from 1873 to 1876
and concerns the relationship between van Gogh and the inhabitants of a house
in South London where he boarded for about a year: the owner of the house, Mrs.
Loyer (Clare Higgins), her daughter (Sarah Drew) and another lodger, a class-conscious
young man named Sam Plowman (Peter Starrett) who works as a house-painter/carpenter
while he waits to be accepted at art school.

Plowman’s
name is a matter of historical record. According to Wright, the number of the
Hackford Road boardinghouse where van Gogh lived and the identities of its other
inhabitants were determined by an enterprising London postman during the postal
strike of 1971. But it is Wright who gives Mrs. Loyer’s second lodger Marxist
views and dreams of becoming a painter, just as he posits a clandestine affair
between Vincent and his landlady, to whom he ascribes a passionate devotion
to the cause of art and longing to be the cause of someone’s achieving
greatness. Wright’s Mrs. Loyer is something of an intellectual (she reads
George Eliot and scorns Dickens) and something of a free spirit (she lets her
daughter and Sam share a bed without benefit of clergy because she thinks marriage
would spoil his chance of becoming an artist). She is also given to wild mood
swings and bouts of depression—of the very sort, funnily enough, that will
dog van Gogh in later life.

One day,
when Mrs. Loyer thinks she is alone in the house, Vincent comes upon her weeping
and banging her head on the kitchen table, and before you can say "peri-menopausal,"
he’s declaring his affections. Mrs. Loyer takes him to bed, and pretty
soon she has discarded the widow’s weeds she’s worn for fifteen years
and is flouncing about in pretty frocks. It’s a May-August romance—Mrs.
Loyer appears to be somewhere in her forties—but Wright and his characters
all treat it like a May-December romance. Not since the quickening of Sarah’s
womb in Genesis has Literature made such an issue of a woman’s advanced
years. "Do you know how old I am, Mr. Vincent?" Mrs. Loyer asks self-mockingly.
"I love your age. I love your unhappiness," he replies—which is as much
as to say, "You’re only as old as you feel."

Vincent
in Brixton
is based largely on van Gogh’s letters and on the memoir
of him that his sister-in-law, Johanna Gesina van Gogh-Bonger (Theo’s wife),
wrote after the death of both brothers. In a program note, the playwright states
that his version of events was suggested by "a mysterious six-month gap" in
van Gogh’s letters home from London and by what he refers to, rather coyly,
as "the well-known tendency of young men writing home to be less than frank
about their most formative experiences." But Wright was almost certainly inspired,
too, by a curious aspect of Johanna’s memoir. In it (like most of the letters,
it is available online) Johanna recounts how Vincent, on first arriving in London,
lived in a boardinghouse run by two women who kept parrots but moved—because
the place was "somewhat expensive"—to the house of a Mrs. Loyer, "a curate’s
widow from the south of France, who with her daughter Ursula ran a day school
for little children."

Actually,
Ursula was the name of the mother. The daughter’s name was Eugenie.

Johanna
goes on to say that Vincent "spent the happiest year of his life" chez Mrs.
Loyer and that "Ursula made a deep impression on him." According to Johanna,
the key to Vincent’s happiness lay in the fact that he had fallen deeply
in love with Mrs. Loyer’s daughter, whom she continues to refer to by her
mother’s name.

He did not
mention it to his parents, for he had not even confessed his love to Ursula
herself—but his letters home were radiant with happiness. He wrote that
he enjoyed his life so much—"Oh fullness of rich life, your gift O God."

Vincent,
Johanna reports, "celebrated a happy Christmas with the Loyers" that year, and
"until spring his letters remained cheerful and happy." Before summer, though,
"he apparently spoke to Ursula of his love."

Alas, it
turned out that she was already engaged to the man who boarded with them before
Vincent came. He tried everything to make her break this engagement, but did
not succeed.

With
this first great sorrow his character changed; when he came home for the holidays
he was thin, silent, dejected—a different being. But he
drew a great
deal.

The source
of Johanna’s confusion over Eugenie’s name appears to be a letter
that Vincent’s eldest sister, Anna, wrote to Theo in early January of 1874.
In it, she refers to Miss Loyer as Ursula and quotes a letter from Vincent in
which he does the same. It’s an odd document—all about how he and
"Ursula" have agreed to regard one another as brother and sister, and how Anna
should therefore love "Ursula" as a sister "for my sake," but not imagine there
is any more going on than meets the eye. Anna shares with Theo her speculation
that there is a great deal more going on.

It’s
possible, of course, that Anna herself was simply momentarily confused about
the two names and a careless copyist. (Another letter, dated six weeks later,
gets the name right: "I also got a very kind letter from Eugenie; she seems
to be a natural and amiable girl.") But Wright, understandably, chooses to speculate
that Vincent was covering up more than the extent of his feelings. The science
of textual analysis holds that difficult reading is always more fun. Besides,
there are other, similarly intriguing references in the family letters about
"living at the Loyers’ with all those secrets" and how theirs "was not
a family like others."

Unfortunately,
Wright’s hypothesis has led him merely to banality. Nothing in his little
potboiler would be expected to hold the smallest interest for us if it were
not happening to a character named Vincent van Gogh. "All I wanted was…some
day, somehow…to be the cause of something remarkable," Mrs. Loyer laments
late in the play. But for all her admiration of George Eliot, she is no Dorothea
Brooke, and nothing Ms. Higgins can do can make her into one or keep her from
being, as she describes herself, "rather dull in most of the ways that matter."

After a
year in the West End (where Higgins and the play both won Olivier Awards this
year), it’s understandable that the performances of Ms. Higgins and Jochum
ten Haaf, who plays van Gogh, should have lost some former subtlety, but I was
unprepared for the wholesale decline into broad comedy and histrionics that
Richard Eyre, who also directed the play in London, seems to have allowed. Ms.
Drew and Mr. Starrett seem like a breath of fresh air every time they appear,
but then, they joined the cast in New York, as did Liesel Matthews, who may
make the role of a stupid, small-minded and officious sister of Vincent’s—the
very Anna of the letters—even more maddening and repulsive than the playwright
intended.

Or not.
Wright portrays Vincent as a stereotypical Dutchman: dim, humorless, literal-minded—a
sort of meta-stereotype, actually, since on top of being tactless and obtuse
he’s always talking about being tactless and obtuse. Mr. ten Haaf underscores
what’s in the script without filling in any details or nuance. "How," the
play seems to ask, "did such a conventional, unimaginative fellow ever become
Vincent van Gogh?"

Wright’s
answer: by channeling his landlady’s depression.

Another
production that seemed to expect us to salivate over the idea of the genius-artist
was My Life with Albertine. A musical by Richard Nelson (book and lyrics)
and Ricky Ian Gordon (music and lyrics) based on the "Albertine" portions of
Remembrance of Things Past, it had a brief run last month at Playwrights
Horizons and was a big disappointment. Say what you like about the idea of adapting
Proust for the stage, I had high hopes of the project. The reasons against musicalizing
Proust are fairly obvious. I was curious about the reasons for doing it. The
minute his name is joined with an unlikely project, in my view, it ceases to
be unlikely and becomes intriguing. And Nelson has written with subtlety about
several of Proust’s themes: the pretensions of bourgeois art-lovers (Some
Americans Abroad
), sexual awakening (Franny’s Way) and the tragic
results of allying our lives too closely with art (Two Shakespearean Actors).

Actually,
there are a number of reasons why Proust, like the Dubliners story, might
lend itself to music-theater. The symphonic structure of the novel is commonplace,
but listening to parts of it read aloud, not long ago, I found myself struck
by the fact that the novel is about the same things that music is about: memory,
time and emotion. Moreover, what makes it so long, the digressions—those
endless, page-long single-sentence paragraphs—make Proust’s prose
itself innately musical. Music is an inherently digressive form.

Digression
implies a return to the stated subject, though, which is why Ricky Ian Gordon
was absolutely the wrong composer for this project. He writes bloodless, aggressively
cerebral music that goes out of its way to thwart audience expectation—more
often than not, by avoiding melodic and harmonic resolution. It’s a kind
of music that Sondheim is often blamed for (unjustly) and that can only be redeemed
if the lyrics are, like Sondheim’s, truly stunning—if their cleverness
and sophistication are equal to the score. The lyrics for Albertine weren’t.

I have neither
the space nor the inclination to whale on a playwright for whom I have as much
respect as I do Nelson. Suffice it to say that I wish the piece had evoked a
sense of time and place as beautifully as Thomas Lynch’s set did; that
Chad Kimball, who played the young Marcel, seemed inappropriate for the role
in every way; that it’s always a pleasure to see Brent Carver, who played
the older Marcel (designated The Narrator); and that Kelli O’Hara brought
a lovely stillness and simplicity to the role of Albertine.

I like the
idea of making Marcel a composer and having the whole thing be a play within
a play, but I wish it were being performed in the home of vulgar, bourgeois
art-lovers, like the Verdurins, who would be always commenting and always missing
the point. I think it’s a song-cycle, myself. But, like the fellow says,
the desire to rewrite someone else’s play is the second most basic of all
human urges.

Vincent in Brixton
at the John Golden Theater, 252 W. 45th St. (betw. B’way & 8th Ave.),
212-239-6200.

My Life with Albertine
at the Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater, 416 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th &
10th Aves.), 212-279-4200.

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