Friday, February 1, 2013

My Hookup With Hitchcock: Part II

By Elisabeth Karlin

When I set out to write my play Bodega Bay I was Hitchcockful of ideas. I knew I wanted to send my protagonist off on an adventurous cross-country journey that would actually be a trip to self-knowledge. I knew I wanted to touch on themes of appearance vs. reality, the fragility of our ordered world and how the dead affect the living. I knew I would use the sea as a place of emotional confrontation. I knew I would deal in images of birds, bathrooms and eyeglasses and that my script would be peppered with allusions and in-jokes for the Hitchophiles. And I knew that I wanted to do all this in the heightened style of German Expressionism that Hitchcock was so rooted in.

Like Hitchcock, I approach story-telling as a character-driven endeavor and in Louise Finch (kudos to those who know right off the bat where I got that name) I created a natural descendant of all the familiar folk in the Hitchcock oeuvre with lives in need of purpose and meaning. Yet even with character and story in place, I still didn't have much more than a cerebral exercise. Determined to avoid a spoofy send-up or a reverential homage, I hoped to create a play that would stand on its own for those oblivious to the the Hitchcock overlay. The best dramas are written from the gut and have to come from the inside out.

Oddly, I discovered the viscera of my Hitch-inspired project in the movie that Hitchcock never made. Mary Rose is a play by J. M. Barrie that Hitchcock saw and loved as a youth. He never let go of the desire to film this fey, romantic ghost story. He wanted to do it with Grace Kelly and then with Tippi Hedren and when that relationship soured he considered unknown Claire Griswold. Because of a clear lack of enthusiasm from MCA/Universal (Hitch joked that the studio would likely have backed any project of his as long as it wasn't Mary Rose) it never happened but he never lost hope.

Mary Rose, the play, is an antique and like most antiques, it is not to everyone's taste. When I read the screenplay that Marnie screenwriter Jay Presson Allen drafted for Hitch, on the Writing With Hitchcock website (thank-you Steven DeRosa!) I wondered how such a moist and misty artifact of fantasy about a girl who disappears on "the island that likes to be visited," comes back and disappears on it again to return once more as an aching ghost, could hold such an unrelenting fascination for the sophisticated Hitchcock.

And yet, something about the script's final scene spoke to me in a strange way. It made me delve further and I came across a review of a revival of the play by critic John Lahr in the New Yorker. About the background of  J. M. Barrie and Mary Rose Lahr wrote:

"He [Barrie] knew from experience that a mother could be both alive and dead. In 1867, when he was six, his thirteen year old brother David was killed in a skating accident. Barrie's mother, Margaret, took to her bed and became a ghostly presence who was both there and not there for her little boy...In life, Barrie could not heal his haunted mother or reclaim her. In Mary Rose written when Barrie was almost sixty, he does both."

I typed this quote and put it over my desk. I taped it to the inside cover of my notebook. I looked at it every time I needed to remind myself why I was writing this play. And every time I looked at it, the words "could not heal his haunted mother" blazed back at me, evoking my own mother who in her life was always both there and not there, shielded from me and the world by her dark glasses and an opaque haze of cigarette smoke and depression. I rode those words all the way to the last draft of Bodega Bay.

His failure to film Mary Rose is considered to be the great creative disappointment of Hitchcock's life. He thought it might be his masterpiece. Meanwhile, his acknowledged masterpiece, Vertigo, waded into many of the same themes and moods--how the dead affect the living and how a ghostly figure of desire can be there and not there.

In his interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitch is characteristically flip about the whole Mary Rose thing. "You should make the picture," he told the French director. "You would do it better. It's not really Hitchcock material," he said as if covering his broken heart. For more than Grace Kelly, more than Tippi Hedren, it seems that it is the spectral Mary Rose who was really the girl that got away.

A young man saw a play that stayed with him the whole of his life. And in some slightly phantasmagorical Mary Rose way, I wrote my own play while basking in his presence on our shadowy astral plane of an island that likes to be visited. I came back with the liberating lesson that what is cinematic or theatrical need not be sensible and logical, only truthful. But it was not the great maestro of anxiety who I found on that island. It was not the majestically monumental Hitchcock. It was only the watchful and yearning Alfred--a boy who liked to go to the theatre.

Elisabeth Karlin's play BODEGA BAY plays at The Abingdon Theatre in New York City through February 17th. For information go to

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Leti Del Mar said...

Just found your blog while researching a piece on my blog about adding suspense to your writing. I've linked my page back to yours. I'm a huge Hitchcock fan and I love this site!

Leti Del Mar

Page said...

I've not read Mary Rose but it does sound intriguing and very Hitchcock-esque.

Thanks for the info on Bodega Bay.
Have a great weekend!

Elisabeth Karlin said...

Welcome to the site, Leti! Thanks, Page!