Artist Lovers

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Vincent in Brixton, Nicholas Wright’s sentimental biodrama about the year and a half that Vincent van Gogh spent living in London in his early twenties, is one of those plays that seem to believe that if we knew what happened to a great artist, we could understand his genius. The play, which Lincoln Center is presenting at the Golden Theater, is set in the period from 1873 to 1876 and concerns the relationship between van Gogh and the inhabitants of a house in South London where he boarded for about a year: the owner of the house, Mrs. Loyer (Clare Higgins), her daughter (Sarah Drew) and another lodger, a class-conscious young man named Sam Plowman (Peter Starrett) who works as a house-painter/carpenter while he waits to be accepted at art school.

Plowman’s name is a matter of historical record. According to Wright, the number of the Hackford Road boardinghouse where van Gogh lived and the identities of its other inhabitants were determined by an enterprising London postman during the postal strike of 1971. But it is Wright who gives Mrs. Loyer’s second lodger Marxist views and dreams of becoming a painter, just as he posits a clandestine affair between Vincent and his landlady, to whom he ascribes a passionate devotion to the cause of art and longing to be the cause of someone’s achieving greatness. Wright’s Mrs. Loyer is something of an intellectual (she reads George Eliot and scorns Dickens) and something of a free spirit (she lets her daughter and Sam share a bed without benefit of clergy because she thinks marriage would spoil his chance of becoming an artist). She is also given to wild mood swings and bouts of depression—of the very sort, funnily enough, that will dog van Gogh in later life.

One day, when Mrs. Loyer thinks she is alone in the house, Vincent comes upon her weeping and banging her head on the kitchen table, and before you can say "peri-menopausal," he’s declaring his affections. Mrs. Loyer takes him to bed, and pretty soon she has discarded the widow’s weeds she’s worn for fifteen years and is flouncing about in pretty frocks. It’s a May-August romance—Mrs. Loyer appears to be somewhere in her forties—but Wright and his characters all treat it like a May-December romance. Not since the quickening of Sarah’s womb in Genesis has Literature made such an issue of a woman’s advanced years. "Do you know how old I am, Mr. Vincent?" Mrs. Loyer asks self-mockingly. "I love your age. I love your unhappiness," he replies—which is as much as to say, "You’re only as old as you feel."

Vincent in Brixton is based largely on van Gogh’s letters and on the memoir of him that his sister-in-law, Johanna Gesina van Gogh-Bonger (Theo’s wife), wrote after the death of both brothers. In a program note, the playwright states that his version of events was suggested by "a mysterious six-month gap" in van Gogh’s letters home from London and by what he refers to, rather coyly, as "the well-known tendency of young men writing home to be less than frank about their most formative experiences." But Wright was almost certainly inspired, too, by a curious aspect of Johanna’s memoir. In it (like most of the letters, it is available online) Johanna recounts how Vincent, on first arriving in London, lived in a boardinghouse run by two women who kept parrots but moved—because the place was "somewhat expensive"—to the house of a Mrs. Loyer, "a curate’s widow from the south of France, who with her daughter Ursula ran a day school for little children."

Actually, Ursula was the name of the mother. The daughter’s name was Eugenie.

Johanna goes on to say that Vincent "spent the happiest year of his life" chez Mrs. Loyer and that "Ursula made a deep impression on him." According to Johanna, the key to Vincent’s happiness lay in the fact that he had fallen deeply in love with Mrs. Loyer’s daughter, whom she continues to refer to by her mother’s name.

He did not mention it to his parents, for he had not even confessed his love to Ursula herself—but his letters home were radiant with happiness. He wrote that he enjoyed his life so much—"Oh fullness of rich life, your gift O God."

Vincent, Johanna reports, "celebrated a happy Christmas with the Loyers" that year, and "until spring his letters remained cheerful and happy." Before summer, though, "he apparently spoke to Ursula of his love."

Alas, it turned out that she was already engaged to the man who boarded with them before Vincent came. He tried everything to make her break this engagement, but did not succeed.

With this first great sorrow his character changed; when he came home for the holidays he was thin, silent, dejected—a different being. But he drew a great deal.

The source of Johanna’s confusion over Eugenie’s name appears to be a letter that Vincent’s eldest sister, Anna, wrote to Theo in early January of 1874. In it, she refers to Miss Loyer as Ursula and quotes a letter from Vincent in which he does the same. It’s an odd document—all about how he and "Ursula" have agreed to regard one another as brother and sister, and how Anna should therefore love "Ursula" as a sister "for my sake," but not imagine there is any more going on than meets the eye. Anna shares with Theo her speculation that there is a great deal more going on.

It’s possible, of course, that Anna herself was simply momentarily confused about the two names and a careless copyist. (Another letter, dated six weeks later, gets the name right: "I also got a very kind letter from Eugenie; she seems to be a natural and amiable girl.") But Wright, understandably, chooses to speculate that Vincent was covering up more than the extent of his feelings. The science of textual analysis holds that difficult reading is always more fun. Besides, there are other, similarly intriguing references in the family letters about "living at the Loyers’ with all those secrets" and how theirs "was not a family like others."

Unfortunately, Wright’s hypothesis has led him merely to banality. Nothing in his little potboiler would be expected to hold the smallest interest for us if it were not happening to a character named Vincent van Gogh. "All I wanted was...some day, somehow…to be the cause of something remarkable," Mrs. Loyer laments late in the play. But for all her admiration of George Eliot, she is no Dorothea Brooke, and nothing Ms. Higgins can do can make her into one or keep her from being, as she describes herself, "rather dull in most of the ways that matter."

After a year in the West End (where Higgins and the play both won Olivier Awards this year), it’s understandable that the performances of Ms. Higgins and Jochum ten Haaf, who plays van Gogh, should have lost some former subtlety, but I was unprepared for the wholesale decline into broad comedy and histrionics that Richard Eyre, who also directed the play in London, seems to have allowed. Ms. Drew and Mr. Starrett seem like a breath of fresh air every time they appear, but then, they joined the cast in New York, as did Liesel Matthews, who may make the role of a stupid, small-minded and officious sister of Vincent’s—the very Anna of the letters—even more maddening and repulsive than the playwright intended.

Or not. Wright portrays Vincent as a stereotypical Dutchman: dim, humorless, literal-minded—a sort of meta-stereotype, actually, since on top of being tactless and obtuse he’s always talking about being tactless and obtuse. Mr. ten Haaf underscores what’s in the script without filling in any details or nuance. "How," the play seems to ask, "did such a conventional, unimaginative fellow ever become Vincent van Gogh?"

Wright’s answer: by channeling his landlady’s depression.

Another production that seemed to expect us to salivate over the idea of the genius-artist was My Life with Albertine. A musical by Richard Nelson (book and lyrics) and Ricky Ian Gordon (music and lyrics) based on the "Albertine" portions of Remembrance of Things Past, it had a brief run last month at Playwrights Horizons and was a big disappointment. Say what you like about the idea of adapting Proust for the stage, I had high hopes of the project. The reasons against musicalizing Proust are fairly obvious. I was curious about the reasons for doing it. The minute his name is joined with an unlikely project, in my view, it ceases to be unlikely and becomes intriguing. And Nelson has written with subtlety about several of Proust’s themes: the pretensions of bourgeois art-lovers (Some Americans Abroad), sexual awakening (Franny’s Way) and the tragic results of allying our lives too closely with art (Two Shakespearean Actors).

Actually, there are a number of reasons why Proust, like the Dubliners story, might lend itself to music-theater. The symphonic structure of the novel is commonplace, but listening to parts of it read aloud, not long ago, I found myself struck by the fact that the novel is about the same things that music is about: memory, time and emotion. Moreover, what makes it so long, the digressions—those endless, page-long single-sentence paragraphs—make Proust’s prose itself innately musical. Music is an inherently digressive form.

Digression implies a return to the stated subject, though, which is why Ricky Ian Gordon was absolutely the wrong composer for this project. He writes bloodless, aggressively cerebral music that goes out of its way to thwart audience expectation—more often than not, by avoiding melodic and harmonic resolution. It’s a kind of music that Sondheim is often blamed for (unjustly) and that can only be redeemed if the lyrics are, like Sondheim’s, truly stunning—if their cleverness and sophistication are equal to the score. The lyrics for Albertine weren’t.

I have neither the space nor the inclination to whale on a playwright for whom I have as much respect as I do Nelson. Suffice it to say that I wish the piece had evoked a sense of time and place as beautifully as Thomas Lynch’s set did; that Chad Kimball, who played the young Marcel, seemed inappropriate for the role in every way; that it’s always a pleasure to see Brent Carver, who played the older Marcel (designated The Narrator); and that Kelli O’Hara brought a lovely stillness and simplicity to the role of Albertine.

I like the idea of making Marcel a composer and having the whole thing be a play within a play, but I wish it were being performed in the home of vulgar, bourgeois art-lovers, like the Verdurins, who would be always commenting and always missing the point. I think it’s a song-cycle, myself. But, like the fellow says, the desire to rewrite someone else’s play is the second most basic of all human urges.

Vincent in Brixton at the John Golden Theater, 252 W. 45th St. (betw. B’way & 8th Ave.), 212-239-6200.

My Life with Albertine at the Playwrights Horizons' Mainstage Theater, 416 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 212-279-4200.

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