Upon reading of Brian Friel’s death last month, I took down from my shelves a collection of interviews he had given over the decades. Friel is deliciously pugilistic in his public statements, and I delighted in the book, as it freewheeled through a life’s hits and misses, as journalistic fashions came and went, as the man himself refused to mellow or to dim. I hope every interesting playwright is the subject of such a book – I look forward to reading them all.
One gem of an idea I found between the covers of that collection was a piece of advice Tyrone Guthrie gave the young Friel – that ‘a writer only survives as a body of work’. The nuances of this are quite subtle. It warns, of course, that the hand that held the pen will be forgotten; but I think Friel took it to mean that individual plays are less important than the accumulated whole – he placed the emphasis on ‘body’, and reminded all us writers in doing so not to get hung up on the show the critics go for, but to develop a repertoire and keep ploughing on.
The relationship between writers and their ‘body of work’, as opposed to the individual projects they undertake, has always been of interest to me. Yeats, instinctively given to the retrospective mood, was dreaming of a uniform edition of his work while still in his twenties; the other great elegist in the language, Hardy, took a deeply devotional approach to the same project later in life when collecting his ‘Wessex edition’. I suspect both men’s differently unrealised personal lives put them keenly in mind of Yeats’s line that what was possible for a poet was ‘perfection of the life or of the work’. If the life you live happens most vividly, most deeply in what you write, and you come to feel better embodied by that ‘body of work’ than the body you were born in, the curation of that will naturally become a central ritual.
My first act of such curation happened this year, when Oberon collected my short plays At First Sight (2011), Fear of Music (2013) and Every You Every Me (2015) in a volume titled What You Wish For in Youth. This means all the dramatic work I’d admit to is available from a single source (Oberon also publish my plays Visitors and Eventide). I was surprised how important this turned out to be to me – how proud I’ve ended up feeling of What You Wish For in Youth. I’ve always admired the determination of writers like Caryl Churchill to focus on the next thing, to always be doing something new, but getting my short plays into this livery couldn’t help but feel meaningful. I think perhaps because my first plays were staged while my company, Up In Arms, was just beginning, and so didn’t receive ever so much public attention, it feels particularly gratifying to find a way to make them available to people. But it also felt good, I admit, to start laying a claim to a ‘body of work’ – if for no other reason than to announce that I’m in for the long haul, and plan, in Friel and Guthrie’s terminology, to survive.
Barney Norris has published two full-length plays and a collection of short plays with Oberon Books (so far). He founded the touring theatre company Up In Arms with Alice Hamilton in 2008. He won the Critics’ Circle Most Promising Playwright Award and the Offie Award for Most Promising Playwright for Visitors (Arcola Theatre, tour and Bush Theatre). His books include To Bodies Gone: The Theatre of Peter Gill. His first novel, Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain, will be published in 2016.