I’ve always had a bit of a tricky relationship with the works of Ernest Hemingway. While I would acknowledge his influence on 20th century writing I find his sparse journalistic style can wear thin rather quickly and have therefore always found briefer works such as The Old Man And the Sea and some of the short stories more to my taste. Rolf Hochhuth’s monologue play about the man nicknamed Papa is now available via the Finborough Theatre where it played in 2018.
It is Sunday 2 July 1961 at 6.30am, exactly 60 minutes before Hemingway pulled the trigger that ended his life. This last hour is imagined by Hochhuth as a spiral of self-doubt, regret, frustration, despair and resignation as the author contemplates the act of suicide with which the drama, played out in real time, will end. Hemingway is a broken man, suffering from various physical and mental ailments, a confirmed alcoholic and undergoing electroshock therapy to combat depression. He has three failed marriages behind him, his fourth is far from secure and he has lost all respect for his sons as they have not participated in armed combat. The big game hunting and fishing which was always his passion are no longer available to him. Above all he has lost the ability to write and cannot even complete a suicide note to his sons or write the cheque which will pay his cleaner. In this last hour of his life Hemingway examines where everything has gone wrong and concludes there is only one way out; the same way his own father took at exactly the same age.
The resemblance between the man and the actor portraying him is uncanny; Edmund Dehn simply is Hemingway at least from what we know of the author’s public persona. Dehn makes him a man of many moods though mostly they tend towards anger and the actor roams the stage like a cornered bear growling and spitting with fury. Paranoia is also apparent as he constantly believes that government agencies are out to get him after his long stay in Castro’s Cuba. Occasionally he goes to a desk to complete a task – but is unable to; this simply fuels his frustration. There are moments of relative calm but even at these points Dehn seems to seethe with internalised rage and despair. In the closing minutes of the play he grabs the gun with which he will end it all and although we already know the outcome, we still hope that things will turn out differently.
Dehn’s is a noteworthy performance though I cannot truthfully say this is backed by Hochhuth’s script which I found somewhat flat. Essentially an elongated version of Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” it begins in the style of Hemingway’s writing using a clipped construction which marries form and content. As the play progresses however the style becomes looser and suffers as a consequence. In one elongated sequence we listen to a tale about Hemingway finishing off a deer he has shot to put it out of its misery. The analogy is clear but overworked – something which Hemingway himself might well have avoided.
I also found Natasha Westlake’s set rather puzzling. Hemingway ended his life in Ketchum, Idaho in what was essentially a glorified hunting lodge and yet we appear to be in one of the sunnier idyllic homes that Hemingway inhabited such as in Key West or Cuba. While I wouldn’t expect a set to be overly literal there didn’t seem to be any particular reason to relocate the action – unless we were supposed to be seeing things through Hemingway’s muddled memory. Anthony Shrubsall’s direction generally keeps things moving along, though about two thirds of the way through I did find myself looking at the clock.
While the piece benefits from being relatively short and self-contained I didn’t feel it added much to the sum total of knowledge about the writer’s life or death. Heathcote William’s late 70s play Hancock’s Last Half Hour trod much the same sort of ground though without the same dramatic finish so perhaps a different angle needed to be tried to make it a better play. Edmund Dehn, however, is great in the role of a twentieth century icon who lived and died explosively.