From time to time we devote an evening of Pinter Fortnightly to a writer other than Pinter, particularly writers who have been underrepresented on our stages. This Monday, July 25, we feature a reading of Grace by Doug Lucie, one of the most important British playwrights of the last 30 years. His Grace, from 1992, is a remarkable work, concerning the attempt by an American TV evangelist to purchase an old English estate to serve as the headquarters of his expansion into the European market. It’s an attempt that meets with surprisingly stiff opposition from Ruth, the owner of the estate who needs the money but is reluctant to enter into a deal with, well, the devil. Here, the playwright himself tells the story of how he was inspired to write Grace. We hope to see you on Monday for the reading of Grace. – Frank Corrado
In 1987, the Royal Shakespeare Company premiered my play Fashion, about the attempts of a morally compromised advertising consultant to win the account to produce television ads for the Conservative Party running up to the forthcoming General Election. The play showed, amongst other things, a group of mercenary zealots jockeying for position and shafting one another, metaphorically and literally, in the process. The play was a big hit, and was described by one critic as “conveying with chilling accuracy some of the cankers afflicting both public life and personal beliefs in the dark days of the late 1980s”.
In the two years following its premiere, the play was produced again twice, with a view to transferring it to London’s West End, but despite enjoying sold-out runs, this never happened – mainly because when the offer came, one of the cast refused to step onto the “creatively bankrupt treadmill” of commercial theatre. Six months later, this actor was to be found treading the boards on London’s glittering Shaftesbury Avenue in a second-rate yet highly popular piece of theatrical fluff. His excuse? “They offered me Monopoly money.” Which rather neatly summed up one of the points I’d been making in “Fashion”, namely that if the ’80s proved anything, it was that everybody has their price.
At about this time, I was invited to appear on the pilot for a new TV chat show centered on the arts, to discuss Fashion with a special guest. There was no fee involved but, always up for an argument, I agreed. Well, thank your deity of choice, or not, that I did, for it was on this program that I came face to face with the man who would inadvertently inspire me to write Grace. His name – Harvey Thomas. His claim to fame – he’d been Margaret Thatcher’s Press and PR Director throughout her reign as Prime Minister. Strangely, given the prominence of communications directors and spin doctors in these fractious days in Blighty, I’d only been very vaguely aware of Mr. Thomas and knew nothing about him. (As I write this, PM David Cameron’s former director of communications has just been arrested over phone-hacking allegations during his time as editor of Britain’s foremost Sunday Sleazepaper). On the program, I was confronted by a large, seemingly avuncular bear of a man wearing the sort of cheerily patterned sweater you wouldn’t wish on your most sartorially-challenged enemy. So how could this perma-smiling apparition be in any way connected with the sort of goings-on I’d depicted in Fashion? He appeared the very epitome of sweetness and light – had I been wrong all along? Had I misjudged, even maligned my enemy? A shadow of doubt crept across my thought as he took his seat.
Then he began to speak.
Fashion was, he asserted, “pure Alice in Wonderland.” The play was, in every respect, wrong – the fevered imaginings of an envious, left-wing malcontent – it was inaccurate, biased and unworthy of serious consideration. But this verdict was delivered with a steely menace and smiling malevolence which oozed personal dislike. It was like being “dissed” in the most powerful street lingo by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Clearly, this man represented something I’d never encountered before. I was used to mealy-mouthed shysters whose verbal infelicities (lies, to you and me) were transparent and ridiculous, but here was an eloquent apologist for all the forces which had been busily destroying so much of what so many people valued about the UK. Here, I realised, was the living embodiment of Shakespeare’s line that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain” in lurid, living color. We had, I realised, succumbed to what, up until then, we’d regarded as a mainly American phenomenon – the snake-oil salesman as respected public figure.
So, fascinated, I sought out more information on this disturbing man, and I found in his appallingly-written autobiography, the awful truth: Harvey was an evangelical Christian and right-wing zealot, whose further education in the ’60s had taken place in the US, where he’d worked for many years for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, as well as producing and coordinating evangelical events worldwide He was also an international PR consultant whose faith and politics were inextricably intertwined.
He scared the bejasus out of me, because just as Britain (and the Tory Party) had tired of The Iron Maiden towards the end of the ’80s, so her replacement, John Major, had encouraged a sort of kindly, patterned sweater public image for the party, while promoting a “back to basics” morality. (This was the same John Major who, we later learned, had been having an affair with Edwina Currie MP, a Thatcher-wannabe, who also vociferously promoted family values.) And worse, their backwards-looking little-Englander mentality concealed a worship of, and subservience to, US-style politics and economic policies every bit as draconian as anything enacted during the Thatcher years. We were into slightly different territory now – the Thatcher revolution was into its next phase, which would be expanded during the Blair years, and is now back on course with the Cameron led Con-Dem Coalition.
So, off I went in search of the ideology of right-wing evangelism and the language of the Bible belt. But worse was to come for this music lover; I also had to investigate Christian pop/rock. I sincerely hope my self-sacrifice was not in vain.
Doug Lucie, Oxford, England, July 2011