Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
From the Summer 2017 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
There's a beautiful symmetry in having a tremendously successful and prolific actor play another artist whose career famously floundered with age. Stacy Keach is set to do just that as he brings Ernest Hemingway to life in Pamplona at the Goodman Theatre this spring.
Focused on the final years of Hemingway's life, Pamplona finds Hemingway holed up in a hotel room in Spain struggling to write. Explains Keach, “Life Magazine has hired him to write a piece on the two greatest matadors in the world—Antonio Ordóñez and Luis Miguel Dominguín. It's the mano a mano of the century, and he's got to write a piece on this event, and he's got writer's block.”
Sadly, the writer's block is made all the more tragic because Hemingway was bound and determined not to fall prey to it after winning both the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer. He'd sworn to himself and to the world that his greatest work was ahead of him.
“He can't understand it,” says Keach. “And in order to unlock himself, he's got to revisit demons of his past. And that's what our play's about.”
When he speaks about Hemingway, there's a certain sadness in Stacy Keach's voice. A sadness for someone he never knew and yet knows quite intimately. Hemingway has been a part of his life since his days as a student. Hemingway is a figure he's grown with as a literary scholar, actor and an artist. Says Keach, “I've grown up with him—or beyond him, actually. I feel much better about doing him now than I did when I did it several years ago.”
Indeed, Stacy Keach has been working on this piece in one way or another since starring in a four part ABC mini-series about Hemingway in 1988. Though he was delighted to play one of his personal literary heroes, Keach has often said he was really too young to fully inhabit the role at that time. “I was the right age as an actor to do young and old. But I didn't have the insight and perspective of (Hemingway's) later life that I certainly do now,” he told me.
After playing Hemingway in the 1980s, Keach continued to think about other ways to share the literary giant's story with an audience. He did a one man show in the early 90s called Solitary Confinement, and thought that perhaps that format—a single actor on stage—would best capture Hemingway's struggle.
For many years, Keach continued to ponder this concept of a one man show and eventually asked playwright and longtime colleague Jim McGrath to collaborate with him. “I met Jim McGrath on Mike Hammer, and we became good friends,” he told me. “We began talking about (Pamplona) when I did Other Desert Cities in New York. And we sat down, and we began to work on...what did we want to say about Hemingway?”
He explained, “I always think that in a theatrical piece particularly, you want to let people in on something they may not have known about the character. And that's one of our objectives. We reveal things about Hemingway that I don't believe have dominated other biographical works on him, particularly in the theater.”
Before coming to the Goodman, Pamplona had its fair share of workshopping and rewrites, most notably a very well-received staged reading during the summer of 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival directed by OSF artistic director Bill Rauch.
“We learned a lot about the play,” says Mr. Keach. “Since that time, it's evolved considerably.”
The Goodman has been in talks with Keach and McGrath to mount a production of Pamplona in the winter of 2018. When the Goodman's scheduled production of Lady in Denmark needed to be postponed, everything serendipitously lined up for Pamplona to arrive in Chicago just a bit early—a change in schedule that allowed the team to avoid the chance of a harsh Chicago winter.
Laughs Keach, “We were at one point slated for next January, but we were all kind of shuddery thinking about the cold at that time of year. This slot became available, so we gathered our resources. There's a lot of momentum flying now, and I'm very pleased about that.”
Those resources include not only the formidable Stacy Keach and Jim McGrath, but Tony and Jeff Award-winning director Robert Falls.
“I was always enamored of doing this with Bob Falls,” Stacy Keach told me. “I'd worked with him on King Lear and Finishing the Picture...I love Bob. We have a good relationship. And I felt that Chicago was the perfect place that we should launch the premiere because of Oak Park. It's Hemingway territory.”
He added, “We've had wonderful people come together. And I'm looking forward to playing in the smaller theater. I love that theater. It's very appropriate for our hotel room in Pamplona.”
Beyond the verisimilitude of the space itself, Keach hopes to share an honest glimpse into an artist's struggle. He explains, “Well, one of the things that I feel we're conveying to the audience is something about the creative process that a writer goes through in terms of being able to observe something and then digesting it and then creating one's own vision or interpretation of what that observation turns out to be.”
Hemingway is a giant, but he's incredibly relatable and human—especially in Pamplona. “Our play is about a man who is in his later life and suffering from injuries that he experienced during the course of his life…And I think the burning question that we all have is: Why did he kill himself? Why did he take his own life?”
Though it's unlikely we'll ever have a precise answer, Pamplona aims to share some insight into Hemingway's last days and perhaps the reasons behind his tragic end.
Mr. Keach notes, “Part of it had to be genetic because his family...his father, his granddaughter, his brother, his sister, I mean...they all committed...so many suicides.” He continues, “But also, he was depressed. And he was sick. He was not able to do what he was put on this earth to do, which was write. And he was very depressed in his later days. And we've captured those feelings in our play.”
Certainly Hemingway lived as passionately as he wrote, and his life was filled with more than his fair share of vices. In Pamplona, all of that hard-living is catching up with Hemingway.
It’s the toll that that “rough lifestyle has taken on him both physically and emotionally...,” observes Keach. “Four marriages and two plane crashes, many concussions. He blames the concussions at one point in the play for why he's stuck in his writing.”
Modern science might back up Hemingway's ideas about those concussions, but the source of his writer's block could just as easily be his obsession with beating the “Nobel Curse.” Hemingway was keenly aware of the circumstances that plagued his friend and fellow Nobel Laureate F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he was determined to avoid it at all costs.
“He's just won the Nobel Prize,” says Mr. Keach. “and he's proclaimed to the world that he's going to do his best work. And that the concept that anybody who ever won the Nobel Prize wrote nothing but crap afterward...that Nobel curse...he's going to overcome that. But he doesn't...he doesn't.”
But Keach doesn't subscribe to the notion of any sort of awards curse for Hemingway or for himself. “I think a lot of times success is measured by awards or money or ratings or fame. I think that's all good. Those are wonderful things. But I think truly, the work itself, the process itself is self-rewarding.”
By all accounts, the process of creating Pamplona has been incredibly rewarding for Stacy Keach and his collaborators, and Goodman theatregoers are in for a powerful production featuring a passionate storyteller. “Come and see it!” Keach insists.
And so you should.
Stacy Keach stars in Pamplona at Goodman Theatre May 19 - June 18, 2017. Visit goodmantheatre.org for tickets or details.
Actor Stacy Keach in rehearsals for Pamplona directed by Robert Falls at Goodman Theatre this Summer (photo courtesy of Goodman Theatre).