Book of the MonthBack
Peter John Cooper's
She Opened The Door
Peter John Cooper is a playwright, poet and theatre director whose work has been seen throughout the UK during the past 40 years. Among his prolific output are two adaptations of Hardy novels which have been published online.
About the Book
She Opened the Door has already proved controversial and aroused discussion, as it attempts to understand something of the Great Man by looking at the women who surrounded him. It provides a different view of Hardy from the more conventional biographies, and the chance to read an actual working play script and understand how such a work is put together. Peter John Cooper presents a more understanding view of Emma, Hardy’s first wife, imprisoned by society, circumstance and self-view within the high walls of the garden at Max Gate, the house that Thomas built for them both and which may have come to represent everything that was wrong with her life. The unhappy relationship between Emma and Jemima, Hardy’s mother, is vividly portrayed, along with the dawning of feminism in the form of ‘The Other Woman’ and ‘The Maid’, who are both equally restrained by their situations. Hardy fans will enjoy spotting references and quotations from Hardy’s own novels, poems and short stories, which Peter has cleverly interwoven into his writing. Peter’s book is published by Roving Press (www.rovingpress.co.uk), priced £7.99. Order it in time for Christmas by telephoning 0845 370 0067
Literature Works caught up with Peter to chat about the research and writing process.
What drew you to write about Thomas Hardy?
I grew up in Hardy country and I’ve always felt that he was writing about people I knew. Some years ago I was commissioned to write adaptations of The Mayor of Casterbridge and The Trumpet Major and that provided me with a rather different perspective on the man and his works. I realised that Hardy was much more than the rural recorder of rural Wessex. He was an internationalist who travelled widely and met the stars of the European literary world. What’s more he came to be regarded as a hard hitting contemporary artist who inspired DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. Since then I’ve always wanted to write more about Hardy himself and when Jane McKell of AsOne Theatre asked me to write about Hardy’s women I jumped at the chance. I wanted to consider how it is, that depite the central role he gives to his female characters and his support for women’s suffrage he is still sometimes dismissed as a misogynist. Although Hardy himself doesn’t appear, She Opened the Door says a great deal about his relationship with Emma his first wife, his mother and the host of women who did surround him. He is meant to be a continuing but unseen presence, rather as he seemed to be in real life.
How important was research to the process to writing the play? How did you balance the factual with the imagined?
I always live by the old adage that a writer should do as much research as possible and then throw it all away before starting to write. There were three strands to the research – the biographies and written records, the works themselves and the geography. The biographies I didn’t use a great deal except to provide a backstop for matters of fact. The works I plundered shamelessly. I wanted to show how Hardy might have used snippets from the world around as I do. Afficienados might smile when they hear lines from the novels cropping up in the mouths of characters in my play. As to the geography, I only had to stand in the garden at Max Gate to understand how Hardy and Emma fitted into the world. It was essential that I fit in with the facts as they are set down. So I wrote the play backwards – starting with the known facts about Thomas and Emma’s life together after 1895 and then surmising how that could have come about. There is a great advantage that a playwright has over the biographer. This is the possibility of creating a character and seeing them walk and talk in front of you. The crucial thing is that the character on stage must be credible and consistent and so, as long as he or she fits in with the recorded facts, you can find out what makes a character tick in the way that a biographer, constrained by the historical record, cannot. For me, as long as the character doesn’t conflict with the record then you can explore their thoughts and impulses and parts of their character that are denied the biographer. What was extraordinary in this play was that I set off with one view of Emma but during rehearsals, actually seeing the character coming to life, I revised utterly what I thought of her. I hope I may have changed other people’s views of Emma too and made her story more sympathetically received.
Can you tell us a bit about the process of writing a play; do you start with a character, a concept, or a snippet of conversation?
For me, a play grows out of a stage picture. If I can visualise a moment in the piece then the style and voice follows. I call that the taste of the play and often, if I lose my way I will go back and lick that bit again just to re-energise the process. Like any writer I keep a notebook of all sorts of scraps of conversation and events. These get jumbled up with images and scraps from the research. This jumble gets filed away in my brain where the magic chemistry happens unbidden. A stage picture and starting point comes to me when two different ideas click together and I have something new and original. With She Opened the Door I had the image of a furious Emma standing next to a bonfire holding Hardy’s manuscript of Jude the Obscure ready to consign it to the flames. Later I saw the image that Hardy used of a sad and lonely woman on the stair at Max Gate which I amplified for Emma’s soliloquy “There have always been ghosts”. Between these two images, Emma came to be a living breathing woman.
You’re a successful playwright; do you have any advice for aspiring writers who might wish to see their work staged?
I’ve always had close associations with theatre companies and I would strongly recommend writers getting involved in the grit of live theatre and learning how a play actually works on stage before sitting down in a darkened room to write. I was very lucky in that, as a young man I was able to work with some serious companies as a stage hand, stage manager and actor so I learned by watching. One of my first jobs was a stage hand on a West End show written by Alan Bennett and starring Sir John Gielguid. That was worth any amount of writing courses and theory workshops. My first writing job was, as stage manager of a regional theatre company, having to cut down somebody else’s over-long script. You may not be lucky enough to get that sort of job but it doesn’t stop you becoming involved with a local amateur or community company. When you’ve got your feet under the table you can offer to write bits and pieces. Theatre is a craft and requires a lot of technical knowledge. It’s imperative you get that technical knowhow first but once you’ve got it you can be as creative as you like.
What are you working on at the moment and how is it going?
I always have a number of projects on the go at once. When I need thinking and resting time from one I can get on with the next. Even if I don’t have a commission on the horizon I still need to write every day. I’m currently writing a comedy murder mystery set in 1946. It starts with Brief Encounter and then turns into a manic farce. It’s unusual for me because it’s not commissioned. That means I can be as crazy as I like. Most commissions are very specific as to numbers in the cast, style and are constrained by budgets and the actual venues that are to be played. In this case there are ten characters which would be a real no-no for most companies these days. I have pretty well finished it and I shall be looking for a company to produce it but I’ve still got the most difficult part to go – finding a title.
Thank you John!