Anne Bobby inThat Woman: Rebecca West Remembers
Anne Bobby in
That Woman: Rebecca West Remembers
Dame Rebecca West, the British literary journalist and fiction writer, bulldozed her way through 91 years of unremitting personal conflict, writing rich, fiery prose throughout most of her life. She may not be a household name today but, in 1947, West was "indisputably the world's no. 1 woman writer" -- at least, according to a much-quoted cover story in Time. Earlier, she had participated vigorously in the last days of First Wave Feminism. And later, in the 1970s, she became an icon of the Women's Liberation movement, although she claimed not to know "precisely what feminism is." With current theater economics prompting the production of many one-person shows about dead celebrities, it was probably just a matter of time until West turned up on the New York stage.

Now through March 13, Broadway veteran Anne Bobby -- probably best remembered for her Off-Broadway turn as Beth in the 1994 York Theatre Company revival of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along -- is impersonating West in That Woman: Rebecca West Remembers at manhatttantheatresource on MacDougal Street. It's hard to imagine a subject more promising for a solo piece than West. Born Cicely (or Cicily, depending on whom you consult) Fairfield, she took her nom de plume from the combative iconoclast of Ibsen's Rosmersholm. She traveled widely and knew everybody who was anybody in the realm of Anglo-American letters. She had love affairs with Lord Beaverbrook, Charlie Chaplin, John Gunther, Francis Biddle, and, most notably, H.G. Wells, who fathered her one child, the novelist Anthony West.

Despite a spell of fervent psychoanalysis, West was a grandiose, truculent, probably paranoid personality described by Mary McCarthy as dazzling at conversation but utterly "cracked." Wells, the great love of West's life (whom she nonetheless disparaged as "the old maid among novelists"), remarked of his first encounter with Rebecca: "I had never met anything like her before, and I doubt if there ever was anything like her before." Inconsistency and conflict were West's stock in trade. She was a suffragist and proponent of free love who, after two decades of bohemianism, married a banker, set herself up as chatelaine of a country estate in Buckinghamshire, and thereafter pursued an outwardly conventional upper-middle-class existence. As a journalist, she covered such major stories as the Nuremberg Trials. Her doctrinaire positions -- expressing early skepticism about the Soviet system, for instance, and championing the House Committee on Un-American Activities -- involved West in intellectual brawls. Throughout her life, she battled professional colleagues and relatives alike, reserving her lowest blows for clashes with her son.

That Woman is a chronological thumbnail biography consisting largely of excerpts from West's letters, essays and books. The text, which attempts to encompass all the periods of West's life, has been assembled by Bobby herself along with Carl Rollyson and Helen Macleod. Rollyson, author of a distinguished biography of West (as well as books about Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, and Susan Sontag), is president of the International Rebecca West Society; Macleod is West's great niece and one of her literary executors. Paul Lucas, who has produced the show in association with the International Rebecca West Society, describes it as still in development -- and, indeed, what's on view at the moment is more a 75-minute cascade of entrancing words than a play.

The show's director, David Drake -- well known as writer and performer of Off-Broadway's longest-running one-person play, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me -- has collaborated with Bobby in creating a detailed, convincing characterization of their psychologically complex subject. The pair are supported by the resourceful stage designer Mark T. Simpson, who has transformed the tiny second-floor performance space at manhattantheatresource into an elaborate world of found objects. Simpson evokes the many decades of West's life with antique typewriters, luggage of various sorts, decorative pots, figurines, a tea service, and opulent-looking fabrics. His intricate setting is enhanced by Lars Hoel's projections which, from time to time, sweep the action away to places that would be difficult to conjure as swiftly and effectively by other means.

One-person plays are the Holy Grail of contemporary theater. Though irresistible to producers who fret about the bottom line, they're notoriously difficult to craft. That Woman is subtitled Rebecca West Remembers, and that subtitle encapsulates the production's weakness. Throughout the evening, Bobby is a woman recollecting bits and pieces of her life, from early childhood to old age, rather than living significant, clearly related episodes in front of the audience. As a result, the proceedings lack conflict and a clear ordering principle or a sense that the action is building to a high point. There are wonderful moments when Bobby seems about to launch into a real scene between West and someone else -- Wells or Anthony West or Rebecca's sister, Lettie. But, invariably, those opportunities pass. In the end, That Woman, with its letters, discursive tangents, and rambling reminiscences, has the feel of a platform reading. In its present form, it's a feast for West aficionados but is unlikely to make new converts.

Anne Bobby in That Woman: Rebecca West Remembers
Anne Bobby in That Woman: Rebecca West Remembers
The evening's most involving sequence is Bobby's presentation, under a simple spotlight (or a series of spots, as she moves about) of a long passage from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West's epic 1941 reflection on the history, geography, and culture of the Balkans. The passage concerns West's 1937 visit to Macedonia, where she witnessed a fertility ritual in which childless pilgrims climb an enormous rock to sacrifice various animals -- among them, the "black lamb" of the book's title. West describes the scene with painterly gusto, summoning the horror she felt at the sight: "The spectacle was extremely disgusting. The colour of spilt blood is not properly a colour, it is in itself discoloured, it is a visible display of putrescence."

Bobby pretends to read this long description from a book but actually recites it, shading the paragraphs with the varying dynamics of music. She enunciates West's sermonic analysis of the spectacle in a touching decrescendo: "Women do not get children by adding to the normal act of copulation the slaughter of a lamb....If there was a woman whose womb could be unsealed by witnessing a petty and pointless act of violence, by seeing a jet of blood fall from a lamb's throat on a rock wet with stale and stinking blood, her fertility would be the reverse of motherhood, she would have children for the purpose of hating them." West suggests that "those who...indulge in this [ritual] make the huge pretension for it that it is a secret way of achieving what is good, and that there is a mysterious process at work in the world which has no relation to causality." The fantasy at work, she suggests, is that, "[i]f one squares death by offering him a sacrifice, one will be allowed some share in life for which one has hungered."

Bobby's sensitive interpretation of West's prose, her conviction and the oratorical power she brings to the material, make what follows the high point of That Woman despite the fact that the authors haven't found a way to turn it into the emotional center of their script: "I knew this rock well. I had lived under the shadow of it all my life. All our Western thought is founded on this repulsive pretense that pain is the proper price of any good thing. Here it could be seen how the meaning of the Crucifixion had been hidden from us, though it was written clear. A supremely good man was born on earth, a man who was without cruelty, who could have taught mankind to live in perpetual happiness; and because we are infatuated with this idea of sacrifice, of shedding innocent blood to secure innocent advantages, we found nothing better to do with this passport to deliverance than destroy him."

Against the notion that violence, sacrifice, and suffering have redemptive power, West juxtaposes the idea of the persistence of goodness. "It is not possible to kill goodness. There is always more of it, it does not take flight from our accursed earth, it perpetually asks us to take what we need from it." Later in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West cites Mozart, Jane Austen, and William Blake as artists who "were not with us at the [Macedonian] rock but with the sunlight which the stench [of blood sacrifice] only so faintly disturbed, which shone inviolate above the mountains." To West, those artists are examples of minds capable of finding the way back to the "undefiled sources" of the "knowledge of goodness," rather than being "humbugged by the hypocritical claims of cruelty."

This is classic Rebecca West and emblematic of her humane world view. It takes courage to put such eccentric material on a New York stage. But such eccentricity -- or, better, originality of mind -- is what makes West an important voice and a figure who ought to be rediscovered. Her clear-eyed observations, mixed with sometimes loopy logic, led her to make inventive connections between disparate things. The authors and producers of That Woman should be commended for their courage; they haven't gone wrong, they simply haven't yet found the way to integrate all the material they want to include or to give it the theatrical spark that would constitute effective adaptation rather than mere staging.

Macleod actually knew West, Rollyson has written hundreds of thousands of words about her, and Bobby has been impersonating her for several months. But, apparently, they're all still exploring their subject's potential as the protagonist of a drama. In the meantime, Bobby is giving an energetic, nuanced performance filled with the agitation and fury that seem to have been near full boil throughout West's adult life. But she has also captured West's humorous, pleasure-loving side along with her coquettishness, her vindictiveness, her arrogance, and -- most of all -- her intellectual vitality. That's a lot for a 75-minute show.