Over the course of a career spanning almost fifty years, Robert Holman garnered a reputation as an extraordinary playwright, who influenced many of today’s most renowned dramatists. His plays, which have been staged at leading venues including the Royal Court, Chichester Festival Theatre, Bush Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Traverse Theatre, Lyric Hammersmith, Donmar Warehouse and Manchester Royal Exchange, combine close observation of the way people behave with a thrilling and often fiercely uncompromising mastery of dramatic form.
Here, to mark the sad occasion of Holman’s death last week, NHB’s founder, Nick Hern, pays tribute to a true writer’s writer, who will be much missed.
Robert was a ‘playwright’s playwright’. Simon Stephens was not alone in saying in 2015 ‘His is the name I most often offer when anybody asks me who my favourite living writer is.’ Which makes me, as publisher of fourteen of his plays, glow with pride.
I was there in 1974 in the audience at The Cockpit off Edgware Road for the very first of his plays to reach the stage, The Natural Cause. I loved the play but, having only been in publishing for five weeks, I lacked the confidence to take on this 22-year-old unknown. Mercifully, I got a second chance ten years later, publishing Other Worlds alongside its Royal Court premiere – and indeed every play that followed. I once asked him to sign a stack of his published work: he dedicated each one with a different message, but, round about the seventh, the best he could manage was ‘Not another bloody play!’ He was modesty incarnate.
The Cockpit in Marylebone, London, which staged the 1974 premiere of Robert Holman’s first produced play, The Natural Cause
He always evinced surprise that anyone was interested in his work, and it’s true that box-office success consistently evaded him. Indeed, Other Worlds held the record at the Royal Court for the lowest attendance at a mainstage play: an average of 18% over a three-week run. But despite such setbacks, his reputation among his peers remained undented, the commissions kept coming in, and his doggedness in pursuing his unique vision kept him writing.
A couple of years ago, NHB published a collection of his earlier work, including, at last, The Natural Cause. He wrote what was, for such a private person, a gratifyingly revealing Introduction, an excerpt from which follows this. It is very ‘Robert’. I will miss him badly.
Robert Holman Plays: One, a selection from Holman’s first decade of playwriting, published by NHB in 2019
Robert Holman speaks about his early days as a playwright and what he believes are a writers’ responsibilities, in this edited extract from his introduction to Robert Holman Plays: One.
Mud is the first play I wrote that had an interval. I was twenty-one. I left Yorkshire when I was nineteen and stayed with a school friend in Camden Town. I slept on an air bed. One night a bullet came through the window, made a little hole in the glass, and passed over my head. A prostitute lived below, but I never found out what the bullet was about. In the kitchen in Camden Town, in a notepad and then on the portable typewriter my parents bought me, I wrote a play which a few months later went on in a lunchtime theatre in Edinburgh. It lasted nearly an hour and was my first professional production. The play was a sort of fantasy about an old man visiting a graveyard at night, and the critic of the Scotsman newspaper said it was clearly written by a bitter old man. I was still only nineteen. I have wondered if I might one day write about the bullet in Camden Town, but a play has not come along.
Mud was written in Belsize Park. I had got there by way of Westbourne Park, where I had found a room overlooking the railway to Paddington. There were more very small spiders living around the window than I had seen before or since, as well as untroubled mice running across the floor. There was an old, broken wardrobe. The window was opaque with dirt. I put down my case, sat on the bed and looked about, got depressed, and stayed two hours. Back in Camden Town in desperation I rang my mother, wondering if I should go home to Yorkshire, but she had heard, from a distant relative, about a family in Belsize Park who sometimes had a room they let out. I went to Belsize Park for a week and stayed seven years. All the early plays were written there, in a bright room at the top of the house overlooking the garden, with Hampstead Heath nearby to walk across and the space to think. Sometimes in life we are most grateful for ordinary things, if giving someone a room to live in is ordinary. The room set the course for the rest of my life. The rent was a few pounds a week, and very often I did not pay it. I have struggled with money ever since, and it started then.
Mud was written in the evenings and in the early hours of the mornings, because I worked during the day on Paddington Station, selling newspapers and magazines. I was not a clever boy, but sometimes I had a good instinct about the best thing to do, and I was learning to trust myself. Intuition had told me to get an easy job, one where I did not have to think too deeply. If that sounds rude about the bookstall or the other people working there, I do not mean it to be. It’s the only ‘proper’ job I have ever had, and to begin with I did not tell them I was also trying to write. The first draft of Mud was written in longhand using the fountain pen I had sat my school exams with. I made it up as I went along, with no idea of where it might end up. I put down the things I saw in my imagination and wrote what I heard people say. The dialogue was character-driven and the people in the play led me. If there were days when they said nothing it was a nuisance, and I would do my best to look at the empty page for half an hour before putting away the pen. If too many days like this came one after the other, it would be frustrating and then I would get depressed. I longed for the skills of a proper writer. My writing was in charge of me, rather than me being in charge of it.
Mud was written when writing was a hobby of mine. There were two drafts of the play written in ink, the second one bearing very little resemblance to the first, because all I was trying to do was to get a sense of who the characters were, and this was changing as I wrote them. Men were becoming women, women men, someone of nineteen was becoming sixty and vice versa. At some point a consistency emerged, as much decided by them as decided by me. It was as if I knew these people as well as I knew anybody who was actually alive. By now I was typing the play. It was still changing as I went on, still surprising me. I would sometimes look at my watch and it would be past three o’clock in the morning. One day Mrs Bradshaw, who owned the house, came up the stairs with a felt pad to put underneath the typewriter because their bedroom was below, and the clatter of the typewriter keys was keeping them awake.
Other Worlds by Robert Holman, Royal Court Theatre, 1983, included in Robert Holman Plays: One
On Paddington Station we used to give rude customers as many small coins in their change as we possibly could. We wore badges with our names on. One day a stranger asked to speak to me. I expected to be told off or even sacked, but it was a theatre director, who asked if I might be free to write a play for him. He had wanted Howard Brenton, but Howard Brenton was busy and had told him about me. Still standing on the platform of the station, the director explained he had a slot. The play would need to be written in six weeks. Mud had taken me over a year to write and I was usually very slow. But who would say no to this? So, I said yes. I would be given money for writing, which I was not used to. When could I start? I said I could start straight away.
The Natural Cause was the play that began to turn my hobby into a job. I set the play in London not in Yorkshire, though when the characters said something I still heard my own accent. As with Mud I made it up as I went on. Some evenings I would write three or four pages and other evenings three or four lines, and then cross out most of it. I had to be taken in by what I was writing and get lost in it. Sometimes it would be like bashing my head against a brick wall. At the end of two weeks it dawned on me that there would not be a play if I was still selling newspapers because I needed every minute of the day to try to write. I spoke to the manager of the bookstall and told him what I was doing. He said to come back when I was finished, and if he had not managed to replace me, there would still be a job.
The Natural Cause was a worrying play to write. If writing is a hobby it matters little if there are days when you cannot do it very well. I had four weeks left to finish a play, and a day with nothing done is a day empty forever. I spent all one Monday walking up and down across the Heath, all the time wondering how I was going to lie my way out of writing the play. If I told the director I was ill that was better than saying I could not do it. Or I could just disappear. The rain started. It came down in heavy sheets and was soon penetrating the leaves and branches of trees, so standing under them was pointless. On Parliament Hill it looked as if London was drowning. As it got towards evening and lights came on, the city was resplendent. For less than a minute, in the hardest of the rain, London went turquoise, a colour I had not seen it go before or seen since. I stood on one of the wooden benches to get a clearer view, and decided it was better to write rubbish than to write nothing at all, and to work out the lies I would tell another time.
I am mostly a private writer, which means my plays mean different things to different people, even though the theatre is a public place. My plays are not driven by a single ideology or an idea, there is no right or wrong in them, or one easy explanation. They are about what you want them to be about, and this changes.
Royal Shakespeare Company poster for 1985 Barbican season, including Robert Holman’s Today
All plays are pieces of energy, and how they come about, the places they are written and in what circumstances, always says something about them. Today was written quickly. I did not have much time to think, and sometimes this is the best way to write, because thinking is inhibiting, if you are me. I still want to write a play where I do not think at all. Today was written in the moment, line by line, wherever the dialogue led me, rather than me leading it. It is a history play, but not one with an overarching idea or ideology. It is a play driven by the needs of its characters. I am simply not clever enough to write about history in an original way. If I might generalise for a moment, there is always at least one person somewhere in the world who is cleverer than we are. These are the people who come up with new thoughts about history – or anything else for that matter. On the other hand, our emotions, our feelings, are always slightly different and special to each of us. You might fall in love in a different way to me or be scared by very different things. Sometimes living is easy, but often it is painful. There are times when we feel alone even with friends about us. I was learning to try to write about all this and to know it is the stuff of life. If I have anything special as a writer, and you will decide if I have or not, it is writing characters who stay in the mind for an hour or two when the play is over; and they stay in the mind because the people in the plays are like you with your fears. They are my fears, too.
All my plays are a mixture of memory and imagination, and they have mostly used landscapes that I know well. I was born and brought up on a farm on the moors in north Yorkshire. Middlesbrough and the Tees Estuary, with the chemical and steel industry close by, were twenty miles away.
The Overgrown Path by Robert Holman, Royal Court Theatre, 1985, included in Robert Holman Plays: One
The way my plays are written in the moment means that they will not be perfect. They can be strong because of the moment but also weak because of it. If I write a scene one morning it might be slightly different if I write it the next morning. It is down to luck, but I have learned more about the world from writing plays in this way than I have from anything else in life. I have surprised myself, and now and again I hope I have surprised an audience. If an audience does not know what is coming next, it is because I also did not know what was coming next. My writing involves a lot of trust. I have to trust myself that something interesting will come out of me next morning and know that I can put it down using words. Words are everything. To trust oneself to find the right word is sometimes a challenge. The thing that matters most to me is the English language and how it can be used to tell a story.
A writer has no responsibilities whatsoever, other than to themselves, their integrity and intelligence. My plays are not about the world as it is, but about the world as I would like it to be and wish it was. In this way my plays are romances.
Robert Holman died on Friday 3 December, at the age of 69.
From all of us at Nick Hern Books: thank you, Robert, for allowing us to publish your beautiful, masterful plays.