Monday, 29 December 2014

The Gentlemen Go By by Elizabeth Housden
Release Date: 2nd October 2014
Publisher: Housden Publishing
Genres: Historical Fiction

The three words of this title are in the wrong order, really.  But that is how it came out as I sat at my computer, thinking what to write.  It just came into my mind.    So, obviously, the living bit came first but it was not long after I was born, less than three years, to be precise, that acting came into my life for I was not quite 3 when I performed my first professional role on stage.  
I can remember it, vividly, or bits of it.  I can remember the odd snapshot in my mind’s eye of what was going on around me but most noticeably, I can remember what I felt like.  I was a rabbit in a pantomime.  The dance school in which I was enrolled to study the art of ballet, was asked to provide the tots’ chorus number.  I don’t remember which pantomime it was - probably Babes in the Wood, logically, or possibly Sleeping Beauty but I can’t be sure.  I  don’t remember my costume or the steps but I remember the audience.  I remember standing on the edge of the stage on the end of the row of other rabbits, I was the littlest, and I remember staring out into the dark beyond the orchestra pit.  I wasn’t in the least shy or self-conscious.  I was curious as to why everyone was there and who they were.  I liked the dark of the men’s evening dress and the glitter of the ladies jewellery - one dressed up for the theatre in those days, not the jeans and anything goes of today.  I recall being not puzzled as to why I was there but I hadn’t expected to have all those people looking at me.  I remember, too being made to stand on a box so they could put make-up on me and I remember, very clearly, refusing point blank.  Neither my mother, who in my recollection was around, nor my dance teacher had any idea how to make me and they didn’t.  I was interviewed, it transpired later because of it, because I was the only white faced rabbit amongst all the brown ones.   I don’t remember that, though.
My overriding feelings as a child as I took on more and more acting roles was it was natural for me to be up there, looking out into the audience, wondering why all those people were there too.  That feeling didn’t go away for a long time.  I spent most of my days dreaming about being someone I was not - being a cat up a tree was a favourite of mine.  A lot of children have imaginary friends and it appeared, so did I.  But I didn’t.  They were real to me.  My Alsatian dog lived on a patch of moss under my parents’ bathroom window.  He was naughty and would pinch things - toys, flowers, apples.  There was also a very large Hare, who walked on his hind legs and he was exceptionally difficult.  Once, when my mother had mislaid some money she and my father asked me if I knew where it was.  “No,” said I, “but Hare knows.”
“Does he, darling?  Where is it?  Did he say?”
“No, he wouldn't tell me, but he took it.”
“Ask him.  Ask Hare where he put the money!”
“He won’t tell.  But he took it.  He told me he did.  I think he threw it down the drain.  He hides things there.  He thinks it is very funny.”
“It isn’t funny at all,” my father joined in the cross examination, “Which drain?  Get Hare to tell you where he put the bloody money!”
It was a ludicrous conversation.  But to me it was real.  Of course, in the end it was discovered that my mother had spent it on something she had completely forgotten all about but the serious  questioning of a four year old about a five foot tall Hare in a red jacket about where he hid the money they never forgot, it seems.  I was convincing as an actress even then, they said.  And I hadn’t seen or heard of then the incomparable film/play of Harvey.  No, all these characters were real.
Odd really, for the whole of theatre, of course, is an illusion.  The people we see on stage or screen are not what they appear.  The scenes before us are not a New York cocktail bar or Cinderella’s kitchen or an eighteenth century drawing room.  Everyone there knows it is a vast, huge confidence trick and we all are part of it.  It was not too surprising that after being a rabbit, when I knew I was really a little girl, or seeing an Alsatian dog sitting on a tuft of moss in conversation with a large hare in a red frock coat  that I would eventually become more at home on the stage than I was anywhere.
Later, I learned that that was the easy bit.  The hardest thing for an actor is to keep hold of reality and at the same time create the illusion you are whoever you are supposed to be on stage.  I remember one of my teachers at drama school, several years on from the rabbit and the hare and the dog, saying we need to play the most exhausting and emotionally charged and challenging people with one part of our mind and body and the other bit of ourselves in the real world - a perpetual ongoing schizophrenia.  We had to play Lady Macbeth, say, burning up with hatred and passion and persuasive tongue, driven in the end to lunacy by her actions with her, “Here’s the smell of blood still,  All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.  O, O, O...!” but at the same time be thinking, “What’s in the fridge for supper when I get back?  I really must stop at the supermarket and pick up some more eggs.”  We must keep one foot on the ground of reality or within days of the start of a long run, we would be finished emotionally and as mad as the character we were attempting to play.  And God alone knew who we’d turn into if we had to play a truly dreadful character such as Caligula or Sweeney Todd!  That is acting - pretending, always pretending but never forgetting who you really are, even in the middle of some of the greatest speeches ever written we must never let go of the the fact we are an illusion and a con artist.  The late wonderful John Gielgud summed it up beautifully once.  When asked advice about acting on stage by a great actor of the screen when he found himself dismayed at not getting hold of the essence of the great Shakespearean role he was attempting to portray - Method acting failing him for once, Gielgud looked at him, kindly and said, “Try acting, dear boy.”  It is the best advice an actor can ever have.
So, writing - the last and first part of this life.  All my life I have been pretending to be other people.  As the roles in theatre diminished, as they do for many of us, I knew that my second great love had moved in with me.  The first had not been ousted, how could it be, it has been with me since I was a baby and will be with me till I shuffle off this mortal coil.  No, now, it is up to ME to create the characters, spin a yarn that holds together, make the people real.  The art of illusion is holding the end of my pen as I write, or press my fingers onto the keys of my keyboard.  Suddenly I am the creator.  I have no one to fall back on, to refer to or, oh horror, to blame.  And it is not just my character that matters to me now.  In all the plays I have been in, all my fellow actors have their responsibility to the roles they play, to their fellows on stage and to the audience and I am simply part of that team, bringing to the whole my bit of the action.  It is my responsibility to the whole but
now, as a writer, I have to be all things to all men and women for I am their master.  It is my fault if the story doesn’t work, or the characters don’t.   All my characters must perform on the pages as well as I have done on stage with my one role per play.  My God!!
I recall sitting at the computer for the first time when I knew I wanted to write a novel.  I had written plays - a lot of them, that was easy.  I was utterly familiar with the format, how long to make the scenes, how long to make the speeches, where to make the breaks between the acts, how to avoid a quick change for the actors, how to make it real by giving the actors enough clues with which to work.  Simple.  They worked, too for they were performed.  But this was different.  It was up to me to decide how long was to be the book, what was the subject matter, what the people looked like, felt, said, behaved and it was up to me to make them speak, and appear and simply be.  Everything was up to me.
Initially this was invigorating, liberating, I had given myself carte blanche but gradually, as I sat there, thinking, I began to embrace the enormity of the task and at the same time realise how fortunate I was.  I was fortunate because I was a trained, professional actor.  In the search to find the clues to successful playing, we look at the text, obviously but we need to see how the character speaks, what he or she says, what he or she says about others in the play, what they like, what they don’t, why and what others  say or feel about the character I am playing.  There will be subtext.  We need to find it and draw it out, make it live and be important.  Sometimes there is a back story that we can draw upon or lean upon to help with the illusion.  Take Lady Macbeth, for example.  Shakespeare gives us not too much of a back story or subtext in his plays but there are one or two clues here and there.  So, in our modern demanding way we like to find out WHY it is that one of Shakespeare’s arch-villainesses decides she wants the man she married to be a king.  What gives her the blind ambition to drive him to kill for her and why does she not do it herself, if she’s that desperate?  We know what she says of him - he is not without ambition but lacks the will to make it happen - “he is too full of the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way.”  So we examine the text.  Here we see lurking there that she has had a child (“I know what t’is to love the babe that milks me”) but we know she has no children now.  So she has lost a child, maybe more than one.  That fact alone can send a woman crazy for ever.  She loved her father (“Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I’d ‘a done it!”).  So she was capable of loving as well as incitement to murder, but not the actual deed, it is to be noted.  So, in these tiny facts (real facts about her) we see a dilemma that can send her off the rails.  She is capable of remorse.  It is no wonder she walks in her sleep, horrified at the reality of what she has done and finally leads her to take her own life.  You can work back to it the other way, too.  What is it in the personality of this character that leads her to commit suicide?  We find the same clues in searching the text that way, too and it still works.  So, suddenly this “hag-like queen” is becoming real and if I can make her real, then Macbeth and the all the others in the cast will find her real, too and react to what she says accordingly.  And so will the audience.  We have the beginnings of an illusion - and illusion is our job.  
So... writing.  For each character there has to be a back story.  I invent them.  The villain of the piece, for example - what makes him violent towards women or a control-freak or collect them like trophies?  What makes him desire the heroine to the point of enticing her to his house, manipulating his wife out of it?  How can he ignore the fact that his son is in love with this young woman and not care?  Each one of those who people my books is real to me.  There is nothing secret in their past lives to me.  I may not mention one quarter of what I KNOW about them, it may not be relevant to
the story but it is relevant to making them what they are.  I imagine scenes where they talk in friends’ kitchens about how to make a stew, talk to builders about how to refurbish a bathroom, talk to secretaries, bus conductors, taxi drivers.  Anything about them.  What were they like at university?  What were their lovers like?  What makes them popular with the public and loathed in private?  Nothing is hidden from ME.  As long as my readers know enough to make them real then all these other scenes and conversations with past lovers, fellow workers or bell hops don’t matter.  They would be uninteresting and not part of the story.  All they serve is for me to paint a real picture and make them necessary to the plot and real to the reader - my audience.  And I read every word of it out loud.  It’s how I edit it.  It is invaluable.
I have done a lot of work with young people, as an actor and teacher.  People note particularly about the conversations my young characters have with each other and how they differ from those they have with adults.  I have been privileged to see both.  They are real to me.   I am particularly fond of the children in my book Passion’s Slave.  None, indeed no one, is modelled on a real person, I find the idea rather horrid and insulting, actually.  Insulting to me, that is, as a creator!  I have no need at all to borrow real people and put them in my books, I have the imagination to create them for myself and, because I am an actor, the ability, I hope, to make them live. I was born, I acted and now I write and as a writer I draw on my acting to make my people live.  An odd life, of course but the only one I have.  “A poor thing, sir, but mine own,”  And for that quote I have to thank the greatest writer of all time, William Shakespeare.   And he was an actor, too.

Elizabeth Housden is married to an international banker, Michael and they have 4 children between them, two sons and two daughters.  She also has 6 grandchildren. She has written several plays and 5 novels to date.

Passion’s Slave
Brief Candle
Natural Allies
Tigers of Wrath
The Gentlemen Go By
All are available on Amazon UK and US

She has two websites.
(her website that concerns her theatre company (concerning her writing)


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