Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Lodge’s diary playback

David Lodge - happy 80th birthday! A British author of modern-day classics such as Small World and Nice Work, and their TV adaptations, Lodge is also well known for his literary criticism and for books on the subject of writing itself. I have no idea whether or not he keeps a personal diary, but, inspired by Simon Gray’s diaries, he did keep a journal while involved with the production of his first stage play, and this was published in one of his books on the writing process.

Lodge was born in southeast London on 28 January 1935. His father was a musician, playing with a cinema orchestra. During the war, he and his mother were evacuated to Surrey and Cornwall. Lodge was schooled at St Joseph’s Academy, Blackheath, and, in 1952, he entered University College, London. After a two-year stint in the Royal Armored Corps, and two years teaching for the British Council, he was appointed a lecturer at the University of Birmingham. In 1959, he married Mary Frances Jacob, whom he had met while at University College, and they had three children.

Lodge published his first novels - The Picturegoers and Ginger You’re Barmy - in the early 1960s, and his first volume of academic criticism, Language of Fiction, in 1966. He spent some time, with his family, in the US, thanks to a Harkness scholarship (like J. G. Farrell - see Catch some of my life below), but, from 1967, and for two decades, he continued an academic career at Birmingham university (from the mid-1970s he was Professor of English Literature). During this time, he continued to publish novels, roughly one every five years, including Changing Places in 1975 and Small World in 1984. He retired from academia in 1987, to become a full-time writer. Nice Work appeared a year later, with a television adaptation soon after.

Since 1987, Lodge has published half a dozen more novels and a similar number of books about writing, as well as three stage plays. Presumably to coincide with his 80th birthday, he has brought out an autobiography, Quite a Good Time To Be Born: a Memoir, 1935-75 (Harvill Secker, 2015). Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, the British Council, or The Cadbury Research Library website. There are also plenty of online reviews of the new autobiography, for example, at The Telegraph (‘less wit than his novels’), The Guardian (‘a sociologist’s paradise’) or The Independent (‘lacks [. . .] fireworks’).

There’s no obvious signs that Lodge has ever kept a personal diary. However, apparently inspired by Simon Gray’s diaries (see Smoking, heroin and opium), he has tried out the form once, while producing his first play, The Writing Game. Subsequently, he included extracts in one of his books The Practice of Writing, (Martin Secker & Warburg, 1996; reprinted by Vintage Books, 2011).

The Practice of Writing (which can be previewed online at Googlebooks) is a collection of occasional prose pieces about literary fiction, drama and television adaptation - mostly written after 1987. The last piece in the book, dated to February 1996, is entitled Playback: Extracts from a Writer’s Diary, and concerns the play Lodge wrote in 1985, originally called The Pressure Cooker but which became The Writing Game. In Playback, Lodge starts with a brief summary of the plot, and then recounts the somewhat tortuous route by which the play came to be produced, for the first time, by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1990.

The diary starts on 21 March 1990, and finds Lodge bemoaning the fact that, although rehearsals are due to start in two or three weeks, not a single part has been cast. I am told, he writes, that this is by no means unusual in provincial theatre, ‘but I find it rather nerve-racking’.

The first diary entry continues thus: ‘I have decided to keep an occasional diary as the play is cast and goes into rehearsal. Since time is limited, I will dictate the narrative into a tape recorder, have it transcribed, and polish it later on the word processor. This project, I must acknowledge, was suggested by Simon Gray’s highly entertaining and instructive books about the trials and tribulations of mounting productions of his play, The Common Pursuit, in England and America, entitled An Unnatural Pursuit and How’s That for Telling ‘Em, Fat Lady? respectively. Although I cannot hope to emulate the wonderfully comic paranoia of Gray’s authorial persona, I shall try to be as candid as he seems to have been. If this narrative proves to have a more than private interest and value, it will be as the history of a play’s gestation, development and performance, seen from the point of view of an author to whom the whole process is largely unfamiliar.’

The entries continue until 26 June 1990, some of them are quite long, running to four or five pages. Here’s a few cut-down extracts.

17 April 1990
’Today we met for the first read-through, arranged for 2 p.m. to allow the actors time to travel up from London this morning. We assembled in the Boardroom at the top of the Repertory Theatre, with most of the heads of the various departments present. First, the General Manager, Bill Hughes, welcomed the cast, introduced the various people present, and gave out practical information to do with pay, Green Room facilities, concessions, etc. Then all departed except for the cast, John [Adams], myself, designer Robin Butlin and the ASM, Philippa Smith. John then gave a little chat designed to make the cast feel relaxed and at home, sketching out how he proposed to proceed, and indicating what the schedule of rehearsals was likely to be. The actors sat on each side of the Boardroom table. John sat at one end near them. I sat with Roger Butlin at the other end. This, although not pre-arranged, proved a rather useful seating plan, since John and I were able to look directly along the table and silently indicate whether we were happy or unhappy with something in the actors’ delivery, though we did not actually begin to exploit this mode of communication until later on in the day. [. . .]

We broke for tea and the actors went down to the Green Room. John came over to me and said: “Sometimes with a read-through you think immediately, well, we’ve got the right cast and they’ve got hold of the play and all we need to do really is to refine and polish this reading; and with other read-throughs you think, Hmmm.” And, he said, this is one where you think, Hmmm. In other words, there is quite a bit of work to be done. Both Roger and I agreed with this assessment.’

23 April 1990
‘This week I have agreed to stay away from rehearsals, as the actors will be mainly concerned with trying to learn their lines. I called the Rep this morning to arrange for a taxi to collect the rewrites that I’d done over the weekend, and Wiff told me that Timothy West has agreed to do the voice of Henry. That’s good news.’

10 May 1990
‘I’ve been so busy over the last few days that I haven’t had time to record any notes until now. On Monday, the British May Day holiday, I flew to Frankfurt to appear with Malcolm Bradbury in a kind of festival of contemporary British writing organised by the British Council. We have done this double act so often that we are in danger of becoming the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore of modern English letters. It was a long and tiring day and evening - an almost continuous sequence of interviews, meetings and socialising. [. . .] The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast and a short stroll around Frankfurt with Malcolm, I flew back to Birmingham, arriving at 1 p.m. I drove home, changed and went out immediately to the rehearsal rooms for the run-through. This went quite well and Lou [Hirsch] got through all his major speeches except one without a fluff. He and Sue [Penhaligon] still however tend to make small, but to me troubling, verbal errors.’

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