May 21, 2013
Uneasy lies the head...
Herald Senior Editor
Jonathan Lamb’s Don’t Touch That Pillow explores the world of Horacio Quiroga
South America’s most famous horror story, The Feather Pillow by Horacio Quiroga, will run this coming week at the British Arts Centre when two young actors come off stage from musicals and operas in the West End and jet out here for what author Jonathan Lamb describes as “a spookfest with magic and music.” Herald readers may recall Jonathan from the widely-acclaimed 2009 première of his play about Hans Langsdorff, The Drama of the River Plate. We caught up with him as he was rehearsing at the BAC, to a sound of thunder, creaking doors and hair-raising screams.
What makes an Englishman choose this point in time to write a play about a short story by a South American writer who died by his own hand 75 years ago?
Well, admiration for the story, for a start. El almóhadon de plumas first came out in Caras y Caretas in July, 1907. It is barely three pages long but in those three pages it puts two well-drawn characters against a deftly-painted backdrop, and then proceeds to murder one of them, slowly and with evident relish.
So it’s a murder story?
Yes, Quiroga seems to me to be not unlike the later Thomas Hardy in that he creates characters in order to do nasty things to them and finally bump them off. Hardy marched poor Tess of the d’Urbervilles over half the frozen cart-tracks in Dorset, and then had her hanged at dawn. He took pleasure himself in seeing women being hanged, particularly the rustle of their petticoats as they swung. Quiroga seems to take a similar pleasure in creating characters who do something ill-advised — go into the woods unprepared, for example, or sit under an enormous palm tree in a high wind — and then die as a result. Hardy and Quiroga even have similar expressions in some of their photographs: guarded, watchful, hard. But Quiroga tells some of these stories so effectively, with such artistry and economy, that you follow developments with a kind of horrified fascination. In this he reminds me of another English writer, lighter and more sardonic but with an equal flair for the short and unsavoury: H. H. Monroe (Saki), whose wonderful story The Open Window is only about a page and a half long.
They were all contemporary writers, weren’t they?
Yes. Saki was killed by a sniper in the First World War. His last words were: “Put that bloody light out.”
So what happens in this play?
This play takes some of the best-known horror stories by Horacio Quiroga and interweaves them with the horror story that was Quiroga’s life. Everybody around him seems to have met their end in violent and tragic circumstances, beginning with his father who died in a shooting “accident” when Horacio was only 13 months old. After learning what later happened to his stepfather, his best friend, his first wife, their two children and to Quiroga himself, you almost wonder whether it couldn’t have been the baby that did it.
Because Quiroga killed himself, didn’t he?
Yes, a bit like Ernest Hemingway. He was diagnosed with cancer in the Hospital de Clínicas in Buenos Aires, and in 1937 he took rat poison containing cyanide. Some people regard suicide as cowardice, but whatever you say about Quiroga, he was very brave. He built a house with his own hands in the jungle near Misiones, worked hard at setting up various rural businesses — that all failed — and put himself through the same rigours as his family. Before he first went on an expedition into the jungle at the age of 24, he was something of a dandy but the jungle seems to have changed him. Like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, perhaps, it was ‘The horror! The horror!‘ But not a supernatural horror, merely the implacable struggle for life. Quiroga was a gifted naturalist, always dissecting reptiles and observing the flora and fauna which encroached on his house every day. He even seems to have taught his small children to handle poisonous snakes. His Artículos Misioneros, about the bugs and beasts of the jungle, are some of the best things he wrote. And it’s not difficult to make a drama about him because he wrote quite openly about things that happened to him, for example thwarted love affairs and consuming too much cannabis in 1900.
What sort of show is it?
Multimedia, with acted scenes and pictures on screen. One of the pleasures of the show is putting a musical backtrack to all this: we’ve taken an eclectic approach and use everything from Beethoven to Bulgarian folk music and heavy metal. My 18-year-old daughter introduced me to Evil Seed by Pentagram, which seems to go well with the horrible climax of The Feather Pillow. There are some lighter moments too — it’s hard to do gothic horror for over an hour without being tempted from time to time to send yourself up a bit. And we have some fun with one of Quiroga’s popular and enduring stories for children, The Lazy Bee. But we don’t recommend the play for children under 13: it’s not fair to make them scared of going to bed.
So it’s a mixture of fact and fiction?
Yes, the fiction mostly comes from the stories and from invented dialogue, but there is a narrator who recounts Quiroga’s life over the multimedia display, and I have tried to keep the narration to known fact. Like the last voyage of Hans Langsdorff, it’s so dramatic in real life that nothing really needs to be added.
And what would you say is the basic theme of your play?
I think it’s about writing as an activity. Quiroga was a very active man: he mixed chemicals, did photography, built boats and even once started to dig a tunnel to get into the house of a young girl he liked. You can look at texts as texts, in the manner of Saussure and Derrida, but you can also look at them as something that is done, like carpentry almost — you can look at the doing of them. At one point in the play the Narrator is questioning Quiroga and he says: “Writers do things when they write. To the public, to those they know, to themselves, to their characters. What were you doing with your writing, Horacio Quiroga?‘” This is the question that the play seeks to explore, even if it finds no easy answers.
What about the actors?
Well, in addition to the two young stars from the West End (one of whom is in a film called London, Paris, New York which is due for international release this month — the other, interestingly, used to play football for West Bromwich Albion) we have two experienced locals in the shape of Jack Sprigings, who is still touring with The Drama of the River Plate after three years and four Langsdorffs, and BAC’s own Hugo Halbrich, who trained in New York with Raul Juliá and others and has been in a score of shows. I come on briefly for a cameo role but am mainly enjoying working with professionals on the direction and choreography. If the show is a success at its première in Buenos Aires, we hope to take it to the Edinburgh Festival in 2013.
Where & when
“The Feather Pillow, a life of Horacio Quiroga” is at the British Arts Centre, Suipacha 1333, for three performances only on 15 to 17 March at 9pm. Tickets are 60 pesos (concessions 40 pesos) from 43936941.