Dic Edwards

In Conversation With Dic Edwards

Dic Edwards is an internationally acclaimed playwright with more than 20 productions to his name, including Franco’s Bastard, Utah Blue and Wittgenstein’s Daughter. His last production was of Casanova Undone, in Copenhagen in 2009. In September 2011, Manifest Destiny, for which he wrote the libretto, was produced by Opera Close Up at the King’s Head in London on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. He is also the author of the poetry collection, Walt Whitman, while in recent years his short stories have regularly appeared in literary magazines. His latest play is entitled Let’s Kill All The Lawyers. He is Director and founder of Creative Writing at Lampeter, Trinity St David, University of Wales.

John Lavin: ‘Distance’ is written in a very honed, pared back style that feels appropriate for a story dealing with the creative process. You have been a published writer now for over thirty years. Do you find that it is easier to use fewer words in order to express yourself as you become more experienced as an artist? And by this I mean to say, do you now find it easier to know how to choose the right words?

Dic Edwards: No, I’ve always been undisciplined so it’s hard work. It’s the thing I most regret about my schooling – that I didn’t allow myself to be trained in self-discipline. I think it’s the one overwhelming negative for a writer. I’m learning to write short stories now in order to get the discipline.

The story is centred on Hopper’s Gas. What was the motivation behind using this painting in the way that you have? Was it the starting point for the story?

I think it’s how art works – that you need to live inside it. I used to sit in that café and look at the petrol pumps and think of Hopper’s painting and imagine being inside it. I like to think I’ve lived in every good book or story or poem I’ve read or painting I’ve viewed. But creatively. Everything I’ve written has come out of the art I’ve experienced.

I’ve heard you praise Hopper in the past and in this story you seem (via the medium of the narrator) to identify with him as an artist. Because when the narrator says of  ‘the Hopper scene’, that it is ‘simplicity painting the sadness’, this is what you are also doing in ‘Distance’, isn’t it? Has Hopper been an influence on your own work, and if so, how?

I like the truth in Hopper. The unselfconsciousness and the lack of sentimentality. He tells stories. The greatest painting works because the stories they tell live on beyond the canvas. That’s how Rembrandt works and why his portraits live. Just look at a portrait that tries to reproduce the sitter as if it were a photo. It’s dead. The image is nailed to the canvas. And even if the sitter is alive he’s dead. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that in a Rembrandt portrait details are often incomplete – a hand may be a blur. We are incomplete. None of us is like a photographic portrait. Hopper’s stuff is like this. Have a close look. It’s the key to how it works. I hope that my story is not too tidy.

‘Distance’ is deceptively simple, or perhaps it would be better to say, deceptively still. At first one thinks that it is simply a quiet, beautifully written meditation on the creative process. It is only as the piece draws to its conclusion that it begins to dawn on the reader that what the story is really about is the death of the narrator’s wife. That the story is, in actuality, not still at all. On the contrary it rages with inconsolable grief. Just this morning, I noticed that you had said on twitter, ‘We have to be creative in order to survive living’. Is this the dynamic that you are trying to express in ‘Distance’?

That’s a good way to put it. Still. My wife has been ill and my mother died a couple of years ago so these things were on my mind. I was thinking of distance in this way: that the more we love something, ultimately the more distant it is. There is no distance like the one imposed by love. And you’re right about the inconsolability of that grief. Death makes time uncompromising. Creativity is our attempt to outmanoeuvre the despotism of time.

I’ve been asking all the authors in this series what they think of this quote by Camus: ‘art is nothing but this slow trek to discover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence [your] heart first opened.’ It seems to me that the narrator in ‘Distance’ is alluding to the same thing when he says: ‘And I can remember clearly that she [his mother] was in her late twenties with black hair that fell in waves onto her shoulders. I always remember thinking that there was distance in that hair – though I suppose that was a notion I would have come up with later.’

It seems to me that this realisation of ‘distance’ was one of the narrator’s ‘two or three’ moments of artistic awakening, (which is what I believe Camus is referring to), and the subject that he has gone back to again and again both as a writer and a person. Would you say that this is true? And would you also say that distance is one of your major themes as a writer? And do you agree with Camus (you seem to be suggesting in the above quotation that notions like Camus’ are something that ‘writers come up with later on’)? 

I think you’re right about that passage you quote – that its purpose is to suggest that there was a moment when he first became aware of distance – or love. And it’s fully realised with his wife but he can’t ever help playing that game with distance as he does with the binoculars when he is trying to capture time in moments of distancing. Isn’t Camus talking about love? The aesthete is a lover – he lives always about to fall into a pit of despair and the imagery of art holds him back. Your heart has to open or you’ll never commune with art.

You are the founder and director of Creative Writing at Trinity Saint David, Lampeter. Do you find teaching creative writing helpful to your own writing process?

It’s the same thing.

Hanif Kureishi recently created something of a furore by saying that ‘teaching creative writing is a waste of time’. Presumably you would disagree. Would you be interested in responding to this? Why, in your opinion, is teaching creative writing, in actual fact, the very opposite of a waste of time?

It’s a stupid thing to say. Isn’t he a professor of Creative Writing? He should take his pessimism with him and leave his post immediately. Anyway, it’s the wrong language. We don’t try and teach Creative Writing – who would ever think that you can teach creativity as though you can teach use of the imagination? We may want to say that we teach some things about writing like technique but when it comes to creativity we are facilitators. We produce an environment in which we facilitate within the collective (workshop) an opportunity for people to express themselves imaginatively at an advanced level and encourage creative responses to the work presented. And we lead that response. It’s an heuristic form of learning. It’s certainly not a waste of time – I have students who have published as a result of my courses.

I’ve been listening to Songs for Drella a lot recently, the album Lou Reed and John Cale made about, and in memory of, Andy Warhol. There are several striking lyrics about the creative process throughout the album but the one that has ended up sticking with me the most is this, from ‘Work’ (about Warhol and Reed’s differing work ethics): ‘Sometimes when I can’t decide what I should do/ 
I think what would Andy have said/ He’d probably say, “You think too much/
 That’s ’cause there’s work that you don’t want to do”/ 
It’s work, the most important thing is work.’  What do you think about this quite pleasingly demystifying attitude towards the creative process? I have to say regarding my own work, I agree with Warhol wholeheartedly!

I know that song well. I have this quote from Jack London pinned to my office door in college:

And work. Spell it in capital letters. WORK. WORK all the time. Find out about this earth, this universe; this force and matter, and the spirit that glimmers up through force and matter from the maggot to Godhead.  And by all this I mean WORK for a philosophy of life. It does not hurt how wrong your philosophy of life may be, so long as you have one and have it well.

The three great things are: GOOD HEALTH; WORK; and a PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE. I may add, nay, must add, a fourth — SINCERITY. Without this, the other three are without avail; with it you may cleave to greatness and sit among the giants.

Will that do?

Since you published Walt Whitman and other poems (your first poetry collection) in 2008, you have written a great deal of poetry and short fiction, whereas I believe that in the past your output was predominantly defined by playwriting. What were the reasons, do you think, for this embracing of new modes? And do you feel as though these ventures into new territory have enriched your playwriting?

The reason I’ve turned a little away from playwriting is because theatres don’t want to do my plays. This is especially true of Wales where, in terms of theatre, I’m virtually persona non grata. One day about six years ago I was cycling over a hill and had an epiphany: I could see I no longer had a place in British theatre. So I decided that any future play I’d write would be for my own entertainment. It’s significant that my last production was in Copenhagen.

I was never a very good poet because I was trying to write like others and everyone’s better than me! Larkin put me straight. Then I started writing my icepoems. I’m not aware of anyone writing in this way and so I feel more comfortable with them. If they can’t be compared with anything then no one can say they’re no good! But I think they owe something to the Beats; in particular Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’.

When I first read Walt Whitman and other poems I felt as though I heard the voice of Dic Edwards the playwright writing in another mode, and I was struck by the strength and iconoclastic power of that voice. But when I read your latest play, Let’s Kill All The Lawyers, which I will say I consider to be one of your very best, I almost feel as though it’s the other way around. I hear the contemplative, surrealistic, more avowedly lyrical voice that inhabits your recent series of icepoems, as well as stories like ‘Distance’. It feels as though in the past, as a playwright, you always wrote very much in the tradition of Brecht and your mentor Edward Bond, but that, while this remains a cornerstone of your playwriting, the goal posts have shifted to a certain degree. There appear to be other influences at large. Would you agree? And if so what are these influences?

There’s a Dylan lyric about how some men will rob you with a fountain pen. I think I had that in mind. When Shaw began writing he was up against Victorian melodrama. Most of these plays would end in one kind of violent flourish or another: with swords or daggers or pistols. Shaw ended his plays with an argument and modern theatre was born. I think I’m becoming a modern writer. And my plan is working because I find Lawyers very entertaining.

Could we talk for a moment about Edward Bond? He was a great help and encouragement to you in the early ‘80s, I believe. How did that happen to come about?

I met the writer Tony Coult at a workshop where some scenes from my first play were produced. Tony said that he thought Edward would like to see some of my stuff so I wrote to him.

You have always appeared to identify very strongly with Bond’s playwriting and just as he, while very possibly being Britain’s greatest playwright, is all too rarely performed and discussed in this country, so you too seem to have been marginalised by the British theatrical establishment. Indeed you have spoken, in an interview with the playwright Torben Betts, about how you feel that establishment ‘want to repudiate Edwards’. Why do you think this is? Is it because, like Bond, you write overtly political plays? Plays which are unashamedly plays of ideas? Do the public not have an appetite for such plays?

I was probably a bit excited when I was talking to Torben. I don’t think anyone’s repudiating me. They don’t care. I have a feeling that a lot of plays being written now are put together by people with one eye on TV and the other on film and that seems to suit theatre goers. I don’t write like that. When my play Wittgenstein’s Daughter was produced at The Citizens in Glasgow a reviewer said it was so full of ideas I was on another planet and another said that there were too many words in it. That audiences don’t want words; that was actually The Guardian.

A play like Franco’s Bastard, for instance, about Julian Cayo-Evans, and really in my opinion one your best, funniest plays, caused walk outs and protests by Welsh Nationalists when it was premiered at Chapter in Cardiff some years ago. Did that detrimentally effect people’s perception of the play, do you think? Did it have a detrimental impact on the Welsh theatre-going public’s perception of you as a playwright? Or was it a case of any publicity is good publicity?

Is there a ‘Welsh theatre-going public’? Maybe in the Welsh language. The English speaking lot seem to want revivals and musicals. And Under Milk Wood which isn’t even a stage play. I think the funniest thing about Franco’s Bastard was when an aged terrorist threw a stink bomb at the stage.

You have spoken in the past about wanting to create a ‘Theatre of the Evicted’. Could you tell us a little bit about this?

I think most British theatre takes place inside somewhere middle class, the people I’m interested in have been kicked out. But, of course, a theatre for those people is a pipe-dream.

Finally, could you tell us a little bit about your new play, the extremely well-titled Let’s Kill All The Lawyers. It’s a very funny play but also a deeply serious one, concerned as it is, with the corruption and venality which sadly appear to be more or less endemic in both the business and the political worlds. Is there even a difference between the two spheres anymore?

The title comes from Henry VI Part Two. And the name of the character who speaks the line is Dick! I don’t think there’s a difference. Most of the politicians are lawyers which is why politics has become so remote. Lawyers are in the business of creating epithets while politics should be about finding solutions.

Ilustration by Dean Lewis