In a riveting performance, Rhode Island actor Richard Clark brought 20th-century iconic author Ernest Hemingway to life on Tuesday evening, Aug. 9, for an audience of around 35 at the Island Free Library. The show was entitled “Life, Language and the Pursuit of Happiness, Ernest Hemingway Alive!”
Clark has spent more than 30 years in New York and New England regional theaters; in his series called “Keeping History Alive,” in addition to Hemingway, he recreates the lives and worlds of such figures as Mark Twain, Clarence Darrow, Andrew Carnegie, William Shakespeare and more.
Exploring the connections between Hemingway’s life and his art, Clark depicts the writer in his later years reflecting on his past — from the troubling dysfunction of his early family life to his liaisons with many women, leading to four marriages.
Moving back and forth from a podium where he reads from his own works to a small table and a chair in which he sometimes slumps, “Hemingway” clutches a glass of whiskey throughout his monologue as though clinging to a sustaining life force. He quips that he is “a drunk who just happens to write well.”
Clark’s portrait grows directly out of the author’s words — biographical and fictional — weaving together the pain of his existence and his compelling drive to shape it into true art. Clark quotes Hemingway as saying, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” He adds, “Fiction is the art of what we know, and the artist is all about finding truth.”
Throughout Clark’s tour de force, Hemingway confronts the demons of his life: a mother who emasculated him and a father who belittled and beat him. In his story “Fathers and Sons,” one of the series of Nick Adams stories, a father brings his young son into the grand outdoors to hunt as his father had brought him. It is an attempt by the father, Nick, to connect his son with nature and his grandfather who has passed on.
The attempt is futile for, as Hemingway says, “It was a wonderful country up there for father and son — if only the father had loved the son.”
According to Clark, as with many critics, much of Hemingway’s fictional work is biographical. Because of vision problems, Hemingway could not enlist officially in World War I, so he became a stretcher bearer in the Italian campaign, an experience he brilliantly distilled into his novel “A Farewell to Arms,” published in 1929.
Living with the horrors of the battlefield in the “war to end all wars,” Clark as Hemingway continues to breath the “stink of war” as he addresses his audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, never think well of war; however necessary or justified, it is a crime.”
Of his own injuries — 207 pieces of shrapnel, many fragments of which were unable to be removed — and of the fear accompanying them, he says, “I still wonder when I close my eyes if my soul will leave.”
In a portrayal delivered in the stark and uncensored language that has come to characterize the author, Clark captures the humor and romance that punctuates the tragic nature of Hemingway’s life and struggles.
We are introduced to his many lovers and wives and to the expatriate world of Paris in the 1920s, of which Hemingway writes, “Paris is a moveable feast.” Many years later, in a memoir called “A Moveable Feast,” Hemingway depicts those creative years — years in which he lived and wrote on the banks of the Seine, as did many of his literary contemporaries and friends, among them F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein.
Clark’s moving performance takes Hemingway through the heights of his triumphs and the depths of his disillusion, through the physical and psychological illnesses that eroded his sense of fulfillment, and finally up close to the final moments of Hemingway’s despair.
Though our own knowledge of Hemingway’s suicide stands over us as we watch the performance, we are left with the triumph of his significant body of work. At the presentation of the Nobel Prize to Hemingway in 1954, a member of the Swedish Academy expressed the appreciation of the academy for: “the eagle eye with which he has observed and for the accuracy with which he has interpreted the human existence of our turbulent times. … The human problems which he has treated are relevant to all of us, living as we do in the confused conditions of modern life; and few authors have exercised such a wide influence on contemporary literature in all countries.”