Patricia Highsmith was the brilliant, Texan-born psychological thriller writer whose work was more appreciated in Europe than in her homeland where the male literary establishment dismissed her as a mere “crime writer”. Her books included The Talented Mr Ripley, Strangers on a Train and Carol – many of which were made into films.
Highsmith was a “difficult woman”. She was a misanthrope and a racist. She was quick with a homophobic slur although she was gay herself. But she did like snails, which she bred. And she loved knives and guns. And show tunes. She could also be devastatingly funny.
She died in 1995 in Switzerland where she’d lived in a kind of self-exile for years.
Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith has taken the facts of Highsmith’s life and created an imagined final days when an unexpected visitor arrives from New York.
The play, a Sydney Theatre Company production opening in Melbourne tonight, stars Sarah Peirse as Highsmith and Eamon Farren as her visitor and is directed by Sarah Goodes.
Daily Review asked Murray-Smith about the play.
What was it that initially drew you to write a play about Patricia Highsmith — and specifically what inspired the decision to imagine the final three days of her life?
My mother read Highsmith voraciously and I remember the way her eyes tracked the hieroglyphics of words before I could read. I was impressed by the fact that this inanimate object — a book — could have such a hold over a human being. When I was old enough, I read them and although at that stage I wasn’t analytical about writerly technique, I was drawn into her utterly fearless curiosity about the “darkness” of the human psyche. She was braver, truer and more modern in this than any writer to this day. Once I read some biographies, I immediately thought she was a gift for an actress. She was awful, mean and bigoted but she was also immensely charismatic, well read and witty. That kind of contradiction is entertaining to write and I hope, to watch.
What are the freedoms and constraints of writing a two-hander?
For me, there is tremendous freedom, because I don’t have to be constantly assessing the “presence” of all the voices in a scene, worrying about who drops out or who takes up too much space. Also, the suspense is easier to establish and control. You can’t really write a “cat and mouse” with a cat and two mice or two cats and one mouse.
Is writing a play that is both funny and psychologically complex a balancing act that requires writerly precision and discipline, or does it come easily to you?
I just write it and hope that it will be funny and complex. You can’t really strategise success. Either your internal voices are on song or they aren’t and you find out too late.
Do you wonder what Highsmith might have made of the play?
She would have hated it.
Did you want to capture a sense of the suspense she imbues all of her writing with?
Before I realised it, I had written a play that mimicked the suspense of a Highsmith tale. My subconscious had taken me there and it was right.
It’s a play which is much further from the world you live in than most of your work — is the writing of it particularly different when you’re working with a real person who lived on the other side of the world?
No, this play is closer to the world I live in than any other. It’s about how disagreeable writers are. And about how they fall in love with their characters. And how they often find the world inside their head more compelling than the real world. It’s about ego, mortality and criticism — three fundamental preoccupations of the literary life.
Do you think it’s recognisably a ‘Joanna Murray-Smith play’ for people who know your work?
Dark and serious themes with a hefty dose of humour and irony is pretty standard fare in my plays, as are ferocious female characters — so yes.