Magnetic North Blog
Edmund Gosse – the author of Father and Son – was, in his time, a major figure in the British literary scene. Born in London in 1849, by the time he died in 1928 he had been knighted and made a Commander of the Bath: very much a man of the establishment, he was literary editor of the famous 1911 edition of the Encylopedia Britannica and his lecture on Thomas Hardy was recorded for the British Library.
During his career as a literary critic, author and poet, he befriended a huge number of famous litererary figures, though he was treated as something of a figure of fun behind his back: Virginia Woolf noted rather waspishly that he was a little too fond of people with titles and that he behaved like someone who had “not always been accustomed to getting his suits made in Saville Row.” When he died, T.S.Eliot observed that no-one could replace him because no-one quite knew what it was that he did.
Despite this, Gosse deserves credit for, among other things, introducing Ibsen’s work to British theatre – his translations (with William Archer) of Hedda Gabler and The Master Builder were mainstays of English-language productions for many years; he also arranged financial support for both W.B.Yeats and James Joyce when they were struggling at crucial points in their careers. Of the many books published in his lifetime – which included quite a lot of not-very-good poetry and hastily-written criticism – only Father and Son survives, but it casts a long shadow. Peter Carey’s
1988 Booker Prize-winning novel Oscar and Lucinda was strongly influenced by Gosse’s memoir: the relationship between Oscar and his father mirrors that of Edmund and his father, Philip. A number of passages are reproduced almost exactly, including the famous scene in which Philip Gosse throws a Christmas pudding the cook has secretly made into the fire, denouncing it as ‘popish’. Dennis Potter’s 1976 BBC television play Where Adam Stood, is based on the section of Father and Son that recounts Philip’s crisis of faith following the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In the book, Edmund touchingly notes that “every instinct in his intelligence went out at first to greet the new light. It had hardly done so, when a recollection of the opening chapter of 'Genesis' checked it at the outset.” The film is a beautifully touching distillation of the book, but is sadly unavailable commercially. It occasionally pops up on YouTube for a while before being taken down again. Rob and I were able to watch it during a brief window of availability and, although we have taken a different route with the material, we admired it greatly. It captures both the tragedy of Philip’s steadfast belief in creationism and the charm of the father and son relationship.
On tour October-November 2017.
We’ve just finished our final development week on Our Fathers before we start rehearsals in mid-September. Our Fathers is a collaboration between me and playwright/performer Rob Drummond, based on Edmund Gosse’s 1907 memoir Father and Son and its connections to our own lives as the sons of clergymen. As I wrote in my last blog on the production’s development (Making ‘Our Fathers’), we’ve also begun to explore the modern connotations of the book to see what it has to tell us today about how people with opposing views might talk to each other more respectfully.
We were fortunate to be working in Traverse 1, which is where we’ll open the production in October. This meant we could get a sense of how we might talk to the audience – an important element of the show – and how we might use the space. Ian Cameron (who is co-directing with me) and Jenna Watt (assistant director) were with us all week and we were joined at various points by other members of the creative team: composer Scott Twynholm, designer Karen Tennant, lighting designer Simon Wilkinson and voice director Ros Steen.
Our aim for the week was to establish the structure and ‘voice’ of the production. Rob and I are collaborating with each other for the first time and, to make things harder for ourselves, are working in a way that is new to both of us, though it’s a method that incorporates elements of our individual practices. Rather than writing a complete script for rehearsals, we are creating what Rob calls a script-ment, which is somewhere between a treatment and a script. A treatment is a stage of screenwriting which describes in some detail what will happen and usually comes at the stage before a full script is written. In our case, the script-ment will combine dialogue for some scenes, outlines of action for others – the dialogue is for scenes adapted from the book, while the outlines are for the semi-improvised scenes of discussion between me and Rob. Ah yes, perhaps I should have mentioned that Rob and I are performing in the production. We play Edmund and Philip Gosse and versions of ourselves, exploring our relationships with our fathers – and our own sons – and talking to the audience about their own experiences of faith and disagreement. Rob has frequently performed in his own work, most recently In:Fidelity at the High Tide and Edinburgh festivals last year. I’m a more infrequent performer, but also performed at last year’s Edinburgh fringe – a semi-improvised movement piece with In the Making. What connects us is that we both trained with Anne Bogart.
As I’ll be performing and as the subject matter is quite personal, I decided that I wanted to work with a co-director who could be an outside eye and would bring some objectivity to the process. Ian Cameron has worked on many hugely successful shows like WhiteBlack Beauty and The Voice Thief and has a fantastic eye for what happens on stage, partly because of his background in both visual art and clowning. As anyone who has seen him perform knows, he has a wonderfully reassuring presence on stage, and he brings this quality to the reheasal room as well.
During the week, we worked on different aspects of the play, finding the different elements that will be threaded together in rehearsals. Scott taught us a hymn – Eternal Father, Strong to Save which we tried to sing in harmony; Ros worked on ways to speak Gosse’s sometimes rather purple prose – he has a tendency towards rich description which is sometimes beautiful, sometimes overbearing; Karen and Simon watched closely, scribbling away and every so often chucking in a wonderful observation. Jenna Watt has been working with us throughout the process and combines forensic note-taking with a great ability to remember details that Rob and I have forgotten in our rush onward.
The next time we’ll all meet again is on the first day of rehearsals in four months’ time. Meantime, we’ll all have worked on other projects, but I know from experience that the work we did will be percolating away at the back of our minds ready to be drawn forward
“It is not usual, perhaps, that the narrative of a spiritual struggle should mingle merriment and humour with a discussion of the most solemn subjects.” Edmund Gosse, preface to Father and Son
Our Fathers is a new play by award-winning playwright Rob Drummond and Nicholas Bone, artistic director of Magnetic North. It combines historical biography, autobiography, verbatim reporting and audience conversations in an exploration of the continuing effect of faith and belief on the way we live in the 21st century.
Our Fathers is partly inspired by Father and Son, the poet and critic Edmund Gosse’s 1907 memoir of his upbringing as a member of a fundamentalist Christian sect in Victorian Britain. The book relates Gosse’s memories of his childhood and his relationship with his father - a renowned scientist with an absolute belief in Creationism who fiercely opposed Darwin.
Rob and Nicholas are both atheist sons of clergymen and have relatives who believe in the literal truth of the bible. The project will use this connection and the book as a setting off point for an exploration of faith in the 21st century, focusing particularly on inter-generational differences.
As part of the development process, we will interview people who have experienced inter-generational conflict over faith – both those with no faith and those with profound feelings of faith. Do get in touch if you’d like to talk to us.
When I was growing up, there was one thing that just about everyone I came into contact with already knew about me: that my dad was the local vicar. There is always a frisson of recognition whenever one clergy child meets another. This is because there are some things that are particular to being a clergy child: your weekends are always focused around your dad’s (or mum’s nowadays) work, people often assume you actually live in the church, people think you’re deeply religious as well, everyone knows who you are, and you exist in a strange world of genteel poverty because the clergy don’t get paid very much (I suppose on the basis that people don’t really go into it for the money).
A few years my dad asked me if I’d ever read a book called Father and Son by Edmund Gosse. When I said that I hadn’t, he replied - slightly cryptically, I felt – that I might find it ‘interesting’. I discovered that the book was about the relationship between Gosse and his preacher father and how Gosse junior gradually lost his faith in God. As my own lack of religious faith was a topic about which my dad and I never seemed to quite have a conversation, I assumed that he thought I might find some illumination in the book about our own relationship. After he’d gone home – my parents lived 400 miles away so we only saw each other a few times a year - I bought a copy and read it, waiting for the moment when I would think “Ah, that’s what he wanted me to see!” I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was he’d wanted me to learn.
When he was next visiting, I told him that I’d read the book and he said, “Oh yes, I read that years ago – I can’t really remember anything about it.”
Which was a bit of an anti-climax.
But it planted a seed in my mind about adapting the book at some point, though I felt I needed someone else to work with me on it and didn’t know who that person was. A while later I saw Rob Drummond performing The Bullet Catch and, when he mentioned in the show that his father was a Church of Scotland minister, a light went on in my head. We talked about it and agreed to collaborate on it.
That was 4 years ago, and now we’re in the midst of creating Our Fathers, which will premiere this autumn. From the starting point of adapting the book, we’ve found ourselves making something that is as much about us and the strange political events of the last year or so as it is about Edmund Gosse and his father. The Gosses’ story is still at the heart of the play, but one of the central themes that has emerged is about how people talk to each other when they disagree strongly. Are there better ways than those currently modelled by ISIS or Donald Trump, for example? Is it possible to do it respectfully, whilst still agreeing to disagree?
Also floating about in all this is the conversation I never properly had with my dad, and now can’t have because he died two years ago. What I did do, though, was record an interview with him about his relationship with his own father (who was a born-again evangelical Christian preacher), and this has been the setting off point for conversations that Rob and I are having with people who do and don’t believe in God. We’ve had some fascinating conversations, including with two Mormons who gamely agreed to be recorded talking to us about their beliefs after they stopped Rob in the street on his way to work with me on the project.
We’re now having a pause in the development process, because Rob and his wife are about to become parents for the first time. I know from personal experience how life-changing this is, so will be fascinated to see what difference this event will have on Rob’s approach to the show. Especially if he has a son.
The Edinburgh Festivals are about to begin. We've made our way through the endless listings and recommend the below from Magnetic North alumni:
Arab Arts Focus, from 2 Aug
Eaten, from 4 Aug
Chill Habibi, from 4 Aug
Fairich: Live, 14, 21, 22-28 Aug
Home is Not the Place, 18-27 Aug
Wired. 23-26 Aug