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Grace under pressure, Ernest Hemingway in 'Pamplona'
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2018-07-18

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No matter how impressive their canon, glamorous their lifestyle or enduring their legacy, there is nothing more unexciting to watch than a writer working, unless it's a writer not working.

This incontrovertible fact makes for the irony in playwright Jim McGrath opting to depict Ernest Hemingway during a bout of the descriptive paralysis known colloquially as Writer's Block.

"[I wanted] to tell a story unfamiliar to people," McGrath has said of his choice regarding the literary artist whose laconic narratives of outdoor adventure would be imitated by generations of would-be scribblers globally over the latter half of the 20th century. Beneath the seemingly simple structure, however, was an aesthetic transporting the narrative voice from "moralistic to fatalistic" in what director Robert Falls declared "a personification of the American ideal thrust into an exhilarating new era [whose writing] reflected both the new realities of the post World War I era and his own insatiable lust for experience."

Our play begins in 1959, with its hero bunkered down at a secluded hotel in the ancient Spanish citadel city of Pamplona—the inspiration for the corrida sketches that first brought him recognition in 1923. Over the course of its 80 minutes, we see him struggle with the first sentence of the story promised to a North American magazine paying a princely sum that his debts will exhaust almost immediately, his progress constantly beset by interruptions—telephone calls from absent comrades, the complaints of a possible stalker occupying the next room, the temptation presented by a supply of palliative substances ( some prescribed, some self-imposed ) and the suspicion that his productivity may have dwindled beyond resuscitation.

These are annoyances faced by every writer that ever lived ( albeit on smaller scale, perhaps ). Hemingway's unease, though, is exacerbated, not just by the accumulated consequences of his reckless lifestyle, but the phantoms invading his solitude to awaken the anger and guilt shadowing the Oak Park lad whose male lineage encompassed a history of suicidal depression, along with gender-identity confusion arising from a mother who dressed him as his sister's twin throughout infancy and a father who instilled in him a likewise inflexible definition of masculinity.

Our host's retrospections also reference the circle of expatriate artists converging in Paris during the 1920s under the patronage of wealthy dilettante Gertrude Stein and the waning celebrity of F. Scott Fitzgerald ( whose decline Hemingway fears presages his own ), as well as his four marriages and countless injuries—most recently, two consecutive plane crashes inflicting severe concussions.

"Writing is a lonely life." Hemingway observed on the occasion of being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945—an honor he worries will destroy his creative impulse—and therein lies its danger. If the writing experience is the quest for something unattainable, then the writer risks being "driven beyond his boundaries to where no one can help him."

My play is about how Hemingway got through one of the days when he didn't kill himself," said McGrath in a recent talk at Chicago's American Writers Museum. Hindsight may tell us who emerges the victor when a lone man is pushed to the edge of his capabilities, but Hemingway's courage at the "moment of truth" is an inspiration for all time.

Pamplona continues through Sunday, Aug. 19, at The Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Visit GoodmanTheatre.org or call 312-443-3800.


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