In the lead-up to Julia Pascal’s new play Blueprint Medea, running at London’s Finborough Theatre from 21 May to 8 June, she lets us into the secret influence of Martha Gellhorn on its most powerful scene.
Some of you might remember that Pascal reviewed our book A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf for The Financial Times, calling it ‘an exceptional act of literary espionage’. We were delighted to receive this endorsement from a writer whose stage plays we had long admired for their daring representations of female friendship.
It is a particular pleasure, therefore, to welcome Pascal to Something Rhymed.
Who has been my most important female literary friend?
It was 1990. I was writing a drama about the Nuremberg Trials. Someone told me Martha Gellhorn had attended them. I knew of her fame as the most important female war journalist of her time but I had no idea that she had seen the architects and perpetrators of the ‘Final Solution’.
I called her, introduced myself and asked her to lunch. I don’t lunch, she told me, I drink.
She invited me to her Eton Square apartment. Everything was white. The sofa, the carpet, her sleek hairstyle. She immediately harangued me about my wild curls. Can’t you do something with your hair? We drank whisky. She smoked. She spoke about war, travelling, writing. And, of course, the man she hated being associated with, Ernest Hemingway. After a few meetings, she told me that Hemingway was a lousy lover. She talked about marriage as a terrible idea. Don’t. You end up quarrelling about the gas bills.
Gellhorn would send me postcards in those days when letters were written and stamps were bought, and I saw her intermittently as I was conducting my own difficult love affair with a man in France. Yes, we did marry. No, we did not quarrel about the gas bills.
But in other ways I followed her lead. What did she teach me? There were forty years between us. I saw a woman who was unafraid of offending. I saw a woman in her eighties still madly in love with the craft of writing even though her sight was limited by macular degeneration. I learned from others who knew her that she was both feared and admired, and I liked her say-it-as-it-is attitude.
In my new play Blueprint Medea, there is an unexpected female friendship. Set today, Medea, a Kurdish soldier flees imprisonment in Turkey and arrives in Heathrow on a forged passport. She works illegally as a cleaner in a gym where she meets Jason-Mohammed, the son of an Iraqi taxi-driver. They have a similar Muslim background but their cultures and philosophies are different. Medea, a Kurdish Muslim, has become politicised by the PKK. She is an atheist and a feminist. Jason believes himself to be a secular Londoner but, during the action of the play, is sucked back into conservative Middle Eastern values.
When his father forces him to marry his cousin Glauke, Jason is made to believe that Medea, as a Kurd, is the ‘wrong tribe’. Euripides’ play Medea kills Glauke by sending her a poisoned wedding dress. In my version, Medea deflowers Glauke and, in doing so, suggests that she is freeing her from the strictures of Islamic patriarchy. By placing her finger in Glauke’s vagina is Medea committing violence or freeing Glauke from the Islamic marriage market?
Did meeting Gellhorn provoke me to write this unusual scene?
Gellhorn and I did once connect in the most visceral of ways. I was at her apartment once when I felt menstrual blood seeping through my skirt. I excused myself. But before I could finish cleaning myself up, Gellhorn was forcing me out of her bathroom. Making straight for the toilet, she fished out the tiny offending tampon. As I looked on from the hall, it struck me as extraordinary that the great war correspondent was touching the tampon that had just been inside me, that she was plunging her hand into the essence of my womb.
Her aggressive yet liberating act did not mark the end of our friendship. The last of her communiqués was Come over and tell me how your career is going.
I was busy with a production and did not reply. I did not realise this was her last postcard to me. I did not know that she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It was years after her death that I learned this command was her way of organising goodbyes to friends before her carefully planned suicide.
No longer would I go over to her white flat, taking with me packets of smoked salmon – there was never food in her apartment. No longer would I see her watch television and shout at the injustices of the world or hear about her snorkelling in Eilat with her brother. Until long after her death, I didn’t even know that, like me, she was Jewish. Why did she never mention that?
I was brave when I met Gellhorn: her influence has made me braver. This has led to a kind of wildness in my writing of female friendships. I like to think that Gellhorn would have enjoyed Blueprint Medea and the two huge female characters I have created. I wish she were still alive to be there on the first night.
She would tell me that women don’t behave that way. She was no feminist and female solidarity was not her world. And yet, because of our friendship, my impulse to write strong female characters has intensified.
For me she is not dead.
Julia Pascal is a playwright and theatre director. She was the first woman director at the National Theatre with her adaptation of Dorothy Parker’s prose and poems in the Platform Performance Men Seldom Make Passes. She has been produced in the UK and internationally and is published by Oberon Books. In 2016 she completed her PhD at the University of York. She is a Research Fellow at King’s College, London University. Currently she is researching a new play on a meeting between American philosopher Hannah Arendt and German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon in France 1940.
You can book tickets for Blueprint Medea via London’s Finborough Theatre, where it will be running from 21 May to 8 June. We’ve already got our tickets, so do say hello if you spot us there.
If you too have an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch. You can find out more about what we are looking for here.