Writing is easy, you just sit at your desk and bleed. Hemingway said that. He also said ‘write drunk, edit sober’. And he also said, “I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?” Not that he did much of it as far as I can see; he was up in the early morning, standing at his desk, slaving away for 5 or 6 hours, then spending his evenings drinking and partying till late.
This is an extract from FOR WHOM THEY TOLL, a play about Ernest that I have been struggling with for years; it certainly reminds me of his remarks about bleeding…
FOR WHOM THEY TOLL
A burial ground. Bells can be heard tolling in the background. Off-stage a burial is taking place. VALERIE DANBY-SMITH , a vivacious 21yr old, dark-haired and somberly dressed, watches the proceedings in the distance, a tearful expression on her face. After a few moments, GREG HEMINGWAY, not so somberly attired, arrives and looks on.
GREG: (extending his hand) Hello. I’m Greg
VAL: (shaking hands) I know. I saw your picture. I’m Valerie.
GREG: I know. I saw your picture too.
They watch the scene again for a moment.
GREG: It’s a great day for a funeral.
VAL: It is – if you’re not the main attraction.
GREG: How well did you know my father?
VAL: I worked for him and Mary for about eighteen months. (pause)
He was a wonderful person.
GREG: Yes – I expect he was. (pause) I am glad he is dead.
VAL: You don’t mean that. (Greg doesn’t reply) Why Greg?
GREG: Because it means that I can’t disappoint him anymore. (he shrugs)
How come you’re not…?
(he indicates the funeral party)
VAL: It’s a bit…delicate. I was officially invited then when Mary
found out I was working for Newsweek…(shrugs)
You know how it is with reporters.
GREG: No, how is it? (laughs) Family secrets have
a way of escaping at funerals don’t they?
I can imagine Mary being mortified when she
realised her mistake.
VAL: Not that I would have said anything of course.
But I can understand why she doesn’t want me too
close. (pause) What’s your excuse?
GREG: Oh, nothing dramatic. I simply wasn’t welcome
when he was alive, and I don’t suppose he’s had any reason
to change his mind just because he’s dead.
(pause) He never spoke to you? About me?
GREG: Not even disparagingly?
VAL: Not even that way. I saw a photo of you once, but
Mary warned me never to speak of you in his presence.
(pause) It must have been something terrible between you.
GREG: In his eyes it was unforgivable (he doesn’t elaborate then shakes his head.) He finally took the coward’s way out.
VAL: Why would you say a thing like that?
GREG: I was thinking of something he himself said about his own father. ‘My father was a coward. He shot himself without necessity’.
VAL: He committed suicide too?
GREG: Yeah. Almost identical. Only thing different was the gun. He used a revolver.
VAL; Your grandfather?
GREG: (nodding) He was a weak man. He made bad investments and was bullied by my grandmother, so he shot himself. When Papa found out the true facts he came to hate her. ‘My mother is an all time all American bitch’ he once said, ‘she would make a pack mule shoot himself. He eventually forgave his father but felt ashamed for him’. (a long pause)
Why did he kill himself?
VAL: I don’t know, Greg
GREG: He never confided in you?
VAL: I haven’t worked for him or seen him in…oh, six months
You really should speak to Mary.
GREG : My wicked stepmother? She is in complete denial about
the whole affair. I read that she keeps insisting it was an accident.
VAL: Perhaps it was.
GREG: Do you believe that?
GREG: Papa knew about guns. He was a crack shot.
How could he accidentally blow his head off
with a shotgun for chrissakes?
(looks into the distance again)
Look at them. Like vultures circling
VAL: You’re wrong. They’re his friends. All his friends.
GREG: Huh! Isn’t that Uncle Leicester I see?
What’s he doing there?
They haven’t spoken for years.
VAL: It will hardly make any difference now, will it?
They are just paying their respects that’s all.
He was a great man you know. A great writer.
GREG: I know that. It’s just that I wish I’d…
Oh Christ, I need a drink. Where’s the nearest bar?
Lights change to signify change of scene.
The scene is now a bar, where the mourners are ‘celebrating’ after the funeral. Valerie and Greg are seated at a table drinking shorts. LEICESTER HEMINGWAY sees them and heads towards them. Leicester is in his mid forties, a younger version of his brother Ernest.
LEIC: Greg! How the hell are you? I haven’t see you since
you were, well knee-high to a grasshopper.
GREG: Uncle Leicester. (they shake) It’s not that long. We spoke a
couple of years ago. Some convention, I believe.
LEIC: Did we? Nope, I don’t recall.
(he looks at Valerie)
GREG: This is…
LEIC: I know who it is. (Val and he shake)
Your ladyship. I seen your picture in the paper.
VAL: All the papers seem to have used the same ones
LEIC: They say my brother’s eyesight was fading,
but seeing you I am not so sure.
(pause) Can you tell me where my manuscript is?
VAL: Your manuscript?
LEIC: The one I sent to Ernest. In Cuba. You were there.
I know. I read about it. Personal assistant they
called you. You must have opened it…in that
VAL: Yes, I did.
VAL: I don’t know what happened to it. Perhaps P…
Ernest read it, perhaps he didn’t. He was very
busy at that time.
LEIC: You passed it on to him?
VAL: Yes I did
LEIC: He never commented on it?
GREG: Uncle, this really isn’t the time…
GREG: It was my life’s’ work goddamit. I don’t
want it rotting in some stinking cellar in Havana…
VAL: It’s all right. No, he never spoke to me about it.
LEIC: I really must have it back.
I wouldn’t want it to fall into the wrong hands
now that Ernest’s gone.
VAL: I don’t see how I can help. I no longer have
LEIC: I think my sister-in-law may have plans for you.
in that respect. (he waves at somebody)
I do believe she has spotted us.
(he pauses ,then whispers conspiratorially)
Ernest had this thing about young women.
And about every ten years or so he fell in love with a new one
You were the next in line, you know that?
VAL: Next in line for what?
LEIC: The next Mrs. Hemingway. Come on, surely you knew?
All the signs were there
(Val doesn’t reply)
He never asked you? Well, all I can say is that you must’ a
been putting out the right signals – otherwise you wouldn’t’ a
been keeping him company for so long.
(finishes his drink)
Time for this old horse to find another watering hole.
I never could stand weeping widows.
And remember, if you do lay your hands on my
literary masterpiece, guard it with your life.
Leicester exits as MARY HEMINGWAY enters. Mary is in her fifties, still strikingly beautiful, in a well-worn sort of way
MARY: Well, the manners of some people!
What did Leicester want?
VAL: The whereabouts of his manuscript.
MARY: And did you tell him?
Both women laugh at this
GREG: Well, come on, where is it?
MARY: Papa took one look at it and threw on the fire.
He took great pleasure in describing the colour
of the flame as he watched it burn. ‘Look at that – Purpley-blue.
The colour of Leicester’s cheeks I expect,
could he but see it. One genius is enough in a family’.
One genius less now.
I am glad you came, Greg. Papa would have liked it.
GREG: I think he would be indifferent. Just as he was in life
I don’t like this glorifying the dead. I think we should all be
chucked over a cliff or down a ravine when our time comes,
with as little fuss as possible.
Let the buzzards or the coyote have us
Don’t you think Papa would have liked it that-a-way?
I’m going back to New York. Anybody coming?
It’s been nice meeting you Valerie.
I hope we can do it again sometimes.
VAL: I ‘d like that.
(she writes something on a piece of paper and hands it to him)
Call me sometime.
MARY: Greg is more trouble than he’s worth.
VAL: What kind of trouble?
MARY: You’ll find out soon enough.
VAL: It’s only for a drink.
MARY: Oh yeah? I’ve seen that look before. (shrugs)
Go ahead, it’s your funeral
Oh Christ, did I really say that!
Papa’s gone. What am I going to do now, Valerie?
VAL: My mother had a saying back in Ireland ‘We never
died a winter yet’
VAL: Meaning we’ll get by somehow.
You’ll get by somehow.
MARY: I intend to go back to Cuba sometime soon.
I want to try and get as much
of Papa’s personal stuff out as I can.
VAL: Don’t you think that’s dangerous.
MARY: Fidel Castro’s war is with America, not Ernest Hemingway.
Papa was good for Castro, good for Cuba.
The world’s greatest writer living there!
Besides, they were personal friends.
I want you to come with me.
VAL: Why? You don’t even like me.
MARY: Don’t be ridiculous! Why wouldn’t I like you?
As a matter of fact you remind me a lot of
myself when I was your age.
You think it’s because of Papa? How he felt.
Nothing happened, did it?
VAL: Of course not.
MARY: Well then, what are you worrying about?
VAL: I have a job
MARY: Newsweek? I can offer more than them.
Think of the excitement. The sense of adventure.
Remember Pamplona? The matadors, the bullfights,
the camaraderie. Weren’t you excited then? Even
a little frightened?
MARY: This will be better. Much better.
Can Newsweek offer you access to Papa Hemingway’s
private and personal papers? And a promise that you can work
on them when we get them back from Cuba?
MARY: See? No contest is it?
What were you going to write about today?
VAL: Nothing. I was going to write nothing
MARY: More fool you then. Because I would have.
You forget that I was a journalist before I gave
it all up to look after Papa.
Here’s some advice;
Don’t let sentiment get in the way of a good story.
I did – and look what happened to me.
Well, what do you say? Cuba or bust? Valerie miles at her, but doesn’t reply