Pictured: Stacy Keach. Photo by Liz Lauren.
By Sheri Flanders
Hemingway is a literary giant whose mythology throws a shadow longer than the man himself ever stood. What then, truly, can one add to such a timeless and imposing legacy? This monumental gauntlet is one that Stacy Keach bravely picks up in PAMPLONA, at the Goodman, written by Jim McGrath and directed by Robert Falls.
To approach a legend such as Hemingway is already an intimidating challenge, but for Keach to return to such a feat after experiencing an on-stage mild heart-attack last year just as the play opened, requiring the run to be canceled, demonstrates an admirable level of bravery and fearlessness.
As the lights come up, Hemmingway is on deadline in Pamplona, struggling against writer’s block and alcoholism, attempting to write an article about the running of the bulls during the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona for Time Magazine. He is at once both a living legend and yet another spoiled, rich American behaving badly abroad. As the advance money for the article has already been spent; his life is in tatters, and he begins to cycle through depression, anger, and worst of all – doubt.
Whether or not you know much about Ernest Hemingway, some of his novels such as The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms, or his life is irrelevant, as Keach frequently monologues plot summary designed to take you back into the gaslit haze of Paris in the 1920s; and absinthe-soaked memories of the hedonistic writers and artists of that era, such as Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
And this is the crux of the play; for those who find artistic drunken malaise and ennui romantic, then you are hooked. Keach is jovial and witty as Hemingway, embodying the bluster and cavalier crassness that makes him such an enduring literary figure. However, for those who aren’t successfully seduced by nostalgia for days gone by, there is little to round out the crueler notes of Hemingway’s sexism and bitterness. As an art school graduate, I fall into the former camp; the mere mention of Paris in the 20s makes me swoon. But Hemmingway’s characterization of every woman in his life as a “bitch” dissipates that amorous fog as quickly as fluorescent lights at closing time.
Though the setting may be nostalgic, Jim McGrath thankfully writes Hemingway without rose-colored glasses. The era of writing the tragic creative male hero as an aspirational and sympathetic figure is over. Keach presents a broken and bitter Hemingway on the far side of his prime, years of broken marriages and broken promises weighing heavily on his heart. As he writes, the mighty bull becomes a metaphor for the runaway power of the arrogance of realized genius, its destructive power leaving mangled corpses of men in its wake.
Keach portrays a man who has everything rendered impotent underneath the shadow of his rival F. Scott Fitzgerald, the terrifying scars of being a soldier in war, lost love and painful memories of his parents. For all of his talents, Hemingway is a man that must remain enamored by his own romantic image to avoid a terrifying reality. Is writing well enough? Or is outside validation necessary for success? The journey of a writer is an internal one, and mines ever-darker territories in its search for literary treasures. Keach deftly portrays the uneasy anxiety of paranoia both real (the FBI) and imagined.
The play lightly touches upon a sad truth; how people coped with mental illness a century ago. Knowing what we know today, one can easily see that the clichéd problems with drinking and relationships were attempts at self-medication for trauma such as PTSD and a family history of mental illness. There is a sadness in knowing that the works of Freud and the history of the field of psychotherapy were rapidly developing concurrently alongside his slow downfall. For a man so adept with words to lack the vocabulary to soothe his own suffering is a painful irony.
Keach is at his best when leaning into the near-manic tragedy of a man desperate to buy into his own hype. From a distance, we can see that romanticising suffering leads one stuck underwater, twisting in the undertow of depression and self-torture. The play feels muted, drugged and numb, as if edges of the highs have been shaved off and the thud of rock bottom has been cushioned. And, though a stellar performance, this removed distance from emotion stops it short from being a tour-de-force.
PAMPLONA is an excellent yet tragic play about poor choices and the way that they compound. Even the most imperfect people crave love, but brutality is impossible to wrap in a warm embrace. PAMPLONA teaches us that even a life lived on your own terms can still end with regrets.
PAMPLONA runs through August 19th at the Goodman Theatre.