Writ in Water

By Philip Pearce

WRIT IN WATER is the latest of Howard Burnham’s one-man acting portraits of formative English-speaking people.

Having suffered through past stage monologues from characters who bared their souls unbidden and at large, I’m always pleased that Howard, like classic monologists Ruth Draper and Joyce Grenfell, creates a speaker who is involved in an actual situation and talks with the other character.

In the case of Saturday’s online MCTA performance, the speaker is Leigh Hunt, arbiter of artistic taste and talent in mid-19th-century England. The topic of conversation is John Keats. As Keats’ mature mentor, guide and friend, Hunt is an obvious expert on the joys and sorrows, emotional ups and downs of the poet. And the surprise visitor he talks to thirty years after Keats’ death turns out to be Charles Dickens.

Why Dickens? Well, Bleak House features a posturing and manipulative arbiter of taste and talent named Harold Skimpole—everyone who was anybody knew the novelist had modeled on Leigh Hunt. In Howard Burnham’s prologue, Hunt generously accepts the Skimpole character as just a “naughty” piece of exaggerated Dickensian satire and spends the rest of the action responding to his visitor’s request to hear about the life of the late lamented John Keats.

The performance has a lot of the dramatic bite that just wouldn’t fit into the history behind Howard’s one-man show about Wordsworth earlier this month. Keats is a whirlpool of conflicting drives, desire, doubts and passions. Trained as a medic he ultimately rejects the financial security of a career as a licensed apothecary and surgeon at Guy’s Hospital favoring instead the uncertainties of writing verse. But he continues to wrestle inwardly with a nagging fear that he will never amount to anything important in the British literary world.

Burnham’s portrait of the artist as a young man is peopled with characters who affirm or deny his doubts about his abilities. These only loom larger when critics and the reading public reject his early published works.

Burnham is at his comic best in a brief, cutting send-up of the waspish critical windbag John Gibson Lockhart, who dismisses Keats as just another of the “Cockney poets,” and advises him to stop pushing his pen and go back to pushing pills and potions for Guy’s Hospital. Burnham exploits the full irony of a pontificating Scotsman critic nobody today has ever heard of taking potshots at a genius still honored as one of the greatest voices of Romantic literature.

Keats loved and was loved by two women. The first was Isabella Jones, though Burnham’s Hunt comments that she and Keats seemed less to have developed a serious attachment than to have “circled around each other” talking about it. The true love of his short life is Fanny Brawne, who became an inspiration for his work and a key member of his creative circle of friends.

Keats was a fitting headliner in an age when, as Burnham remarked in last Saturday’s Q & A, “it was fashionable to die young if you were a romantic poet.” He was born into a family hunted down not by a virus but by the consumption that carried off so many nineteenth century writers not to mention the characters they wrote about. Not surprising, then, that the play makes it clear Keats went through life “half in love with easeful death.” When he began to spit up blood, London medics suggested a move to the warmer climes of Italy. But, settled near the Spanish steps in Rome, his decline was probably hastened not held off by a doctor who put him on a starvation diet and regular bleedings. The end came almost exactly 200 years ago in February of 1821. The play’s title comes from the continuing self-doubt reflected in the words Keats ordered to have inscribed on his tombstone: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

It’s an erudite and moving piece of research and acting.

The next figure in Burnham’s catalogue of literary notables is George Bernard Shaw to ‘air’ March 6.