Editor’s choice – issue 40

Managing editor Matt Thacker makes his selection from the Winter 2022 issue. We publish one article from each edition on the website, but you can see the rest if you subscribe or buy a single issue or four-issue bundle. Matt has chosen Shomit Dhutta’s explanation of how he came to write a cricket-themed play.

• • •

I’ve played cricket against Shomit for the Authors XI v the Gaieties, Harold Pinter’s old team. He always scores at least 50. And always effortlessly. So I was predisposed to dislike him. But he’s also lovely. I’d heard about the play – featuring those cricket-loving playwrights Pinter and Beckett. And then I bumped into Shomit when we were both slightly the worse for wear. I said he should write something for Nightwatchman.  He asked for help contacting Mike Atherton. I obliged, so I guess he felt he had to! The result is lovely.

Matt Thacker, Winter 2022


PLAY ON

Shomit Duttha on how he came to write a cricket-themed play

 

My play Stumped, currently available as a digital production, is a two-hander about Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter at an ill-fated cricket match in the Cotswolds. I wrote it in the first lockdown of 2020. The process, however, was a long one.

 

The idea of writing a play with Beckett and Pinter as characters came about sometime in the 2000s. I was playing cricket for Gaieties CC, which wash run by Pinter (in intense if avuncular fashion). I was also doing on a doctoral thesis on the ancient Greek comic playwright Aristophanes, who was fond of putting his favourite playwrights into his plays. In perhaps his best-known play, The Frogs, the tragedians Aeschylus and Euripides appear as antagonists in the underworld, competing for artistic supremacy. Part of me felt that it would be a salutary antidote to my PhD to turn from scholar to writer and pen a modern version of The Frogs with my own favourite playwrights, Beckett and Pinter. Initially I perhaps put it off for fear of how Pinter might feel about such comic treatment (besides seeing him through Gaieties, I was regularly playing bridge with him and his wife Antonia Fraser). But even after he died in 2008, the play remained unwritten.

 

Flash forward to 2015, I found myself organising a cricket match between a Pinter XI (Gaieties CC) and a Beckett XI (the Dublin-based Theatrical Cavaliers CC) for the “Happy Days” international Beckett festival in Enniskillen. They kept two days free for the game but it rained solidly both days. We ended up playing a game indoors (which happily we won, witnessed by a crowd of at least three, possibly as many as six). We also put together an evening event, somewhat better attended, with readings and footage linking Beckett, Pinter and cricket. It had been suggested rather last-minute that, as part of this, I write a comic skit with Beckett and Pinter playing in a cricket match. I declined, as I didn’t want to do a rushed job, but realised afterwards that what I ought to be doing, rather than a modern version of The Frogs, was writing my own ‘Aristophanic’ play about Beckett and Pinter set at a cricket match.

 

Once again this new incarnation of my Beckett-and-Pinter play remained unwritten (though, in my defence, putting on another play got in the way, as did breaking my neck and needing a prolonged period of recovery and treatment).

 

I finally ended up writing my play a few years later during the first set of Covid restrictions in 2020. Like most people, I found myself in a peculiar state of stasis, waiting indefinitely and stuck in one place. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the situation put me mind of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, the two plays an Aristophanic approach would also suggest. It therefore made sense for the play to start with Beckett and Pinter waiting to go in to bat (Beckett once told actor John Alderton, who was playing Estragon in Godot, to think of himself as doing exactly that). It also seemed fitting that in my play, as in both of theirs, the characters are confined to, or return to, a single location; information is uncertain and comes from mysterious sources; certainty is elusive and hope is regularly deferred.

 

Writing the play in the that first part of lockdown, when I found myself in a comparable situation to the one I had put my characters in, felt like a kind of immersive “method writing”. That my characters were themselves writers who had put their characters in similar situations involving waiting only added to the sense of mise en abyme.

 

If the first act of my play focuses on occupying one’s time while waiting, as at the start of lockdown, the second is more about going stir crazy, as most people did when the prospects of a return to normality seemed remote. The play ended up resembling an anxiety dream formed in the merged minds of Beckett and Pinter filtered through with my own – a sort of surreal ménage à trois with two characters in search of an escape from an author. Or perhaps we were all trying to escape from one another, like the three characters in Sartre’s No Way Out (Pinter actually played one of the characters in a film version of Sartre’s play in 1964; the year, coincidentally, that my play is set).

 

My working title was Yes…No…Wait. This was based on the three possible calls when batting, albeit placed in an unpromising order. The ‘Wait’ doubled as a nod to Waiting For Godot and The Dumb Waiter. It also hinted at the fact that the title of The Dumb Waiter itself alludes to Godot and the play involves numerous echoes. All three plays, for instance, begin with a character fiddling with his boot.

 

The writing of the play was influenced in part by the rhythms and tempo of cricket itself. For me one absorbing aspect of the game, particularly when your side is batting, is the pattern of periods of waiting punctuated by sudden events. This is especially the case with the kind of time cricket that Gaieties like to play, typically a declaration game with tea between innings and the last twenty from 6.30pm (much more interesting, from a dramaturgical perspective, than the thrash-metal tempo of the short-form game).

 

I recently watched the play with some Gaieties players and they picked up on various things that directly came from playing cricket together for Gaieties. Beckett’s wearing of a long coat in the play, for example, while perhaps influenced by the coated figures in several of Beckett’s short stories and novels, was immediately linked to one of our players who, in all weathers, unless actually on the field of play, would wear his ragged overcoat over his whites.

 

Every team has its quirks but there are familiar tropes: the anxious pacing around, the nervous smoking of cigarettes (or, these days, vaping), individual players’ superstitions, the various tensions over who bats where and who scores or umpires or updates the scoreboard. Most cricketers recognise what Pinter called the “hidden violence of cricket”, which lurks beneath the civil exterior. Gaieties is a collection of intense individuals (often maniacally so) who revel in their strict non-conformism. It makes them a handful to captain. No one has lasted in the job for more than five years (though I suppose, compared with contemporary politics, that seems an aeon). Many of these tensions, while they may be traceable to my experience of Gaieties cricket, of which Pinter was a central part, seem to have wider resonance both in the world of cricket and beyond.

 

Writers sometimes say that they write what their characters tell them to. Pirandello takes this to an extreme in Six Characters in Search of an Author. Pinter, though very reluctant to talk about his plays, did offer a few crumbs on process. He said he’d start with an image and a couple of characters, perhaps an opening line, but nothing more. For the rest, he said, he would listen to the characters. Part of me used to suppose this was a little too arch, that he must surely have had a provisional structure or plot in mind. But now I think I may have done him a disservice. What he describes is, by and large, what happened with this play. Whether this was down to the mysterious influence of Pinter or the surreal mood of lockdown is hard to say. Either way, it felt as though, rather than consciously forcing ideas or lines out, I just presided over an emanation, and that the play sort of emerged from my (or my characters’) subconscious. Ideas and lines just popped up, as if through what James Joyce termed epiphanies. The important thing, I suppose, is to be well placed to receive them, a bit like a batsman being in form. Writing is, after all, a form of performance.

 

At the time of writing the play, I was reviewing Brearley’s books On Cricket. Brearley at one point talks about the rhythms of cricket as relating to life beyond cricket. An interesting example is the field walking in with the bowler and then walking back, which he compares to sex. There’s no sex in my play, but the pace and action of the first act, which takes place during the Gaieties innings, is largely dictated by the cricket going on offstage.

 

The setting of the play is not specified. I’ve spent a fair amount of time playing cricket in the Cotswolds. A place I perhaps had in mind is Shipton-Under-Wychwood in Oxfordshire. Gaieties didn’t play there in the 1960s but it was a favourite ground of Pinter’s as well as mine and a few other Gaieties players. I also noticed, from seeing Shipton on a map, that it was close to Adlestrop, which crops up in the play. I had long liked Edward Thomas’ famous poem about Adlestrop without knowing quite where it was. Having an unnamed location somewhere near Adlestrop, for me, gave the play a dreamlike quality that was somehow sympathetic with the strangely unanchored mood that pervaded that first period of lockdown, before we acclimatised to it, when space and time seemed to merge in vagueness.

 

Even getting the play on seemed, in a way, to reflect the play’s working title Yes…No…Wait. I managed to organise an industry reading at the Jermyn Street Theatre in December 2020. This led to my finding producers in the spring of 2021 (“Yes’”. Then, partly due to the continued impact of Covid on the arts that year, the project stalled (“No”). Then we managed to get things going again in 2022 but with no fixed date (“Wait”).

 

The play was eventually rehearsed with a wonderful cast and creative team and was all set for a livestreamed performance with a live audience at Lord’s on 10 September (“Yes”). Then two days before this, the nation learnt of the passing of the Queen. Lord’ cancelled all events, including the live performance of my play (“No”). So a live performance is yet to happen (“Wait”). Thankfully it was still recorded and so exists digitally.

 

I was originally asked to reflect on, and write something about, the genesis of the play. Having done so, what conclusions can I draw? I suppose one thing that strikes me is that I’ve written a very personal play. It involves my favourite authors playing a fictional game for my cricket team. The characters and the play’s preoccupations are effectively my own: cricket, Pinter, Beckett, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, literature and poetry more broadly, the classical world, drinking, confused communications, bickering, anxious rituals and practices, struggling to get back from somewhere later than planned. If there’s one other thing, perhaps it is that, though I’ve written what looks on the face of it to be a rarefied play – literary, theatrical, cricket-themed, rooted in nostalgia, and set in the past – it is, in fact, very much a product of a very specific time, when everyone, including me, was in an agitated dreamlike state of feeling ungrounded yet stuck – just like the characters in the play.