“We wanted to try and write a play that aimed really high,” says the playwright David Eldridge. “A play that we’d never have the bottle to write individually.”
Eight years ago Eldridge and fellow playwrights Robert Holman and Simon Stephens launched an experiment to attempt a joint play. All highly regarded dramatists in their own right, they have been collaborating on the work since. The result certainly does aim high. A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky, which is about to have its premiere at London’s Lyric Theatre, is an epic piece about the end of the universe.
“We started out with the idea of writing a cabaret,” explains Eldridge. “An evening for which we would all write different bits. But we soon realised that the more interesting and brave thing to do was to write a whole, coherent play together.”
The writers make a curious trio. Eldridge is bespectacled, articulate and contained – though according to the other two, he provided most of the play’s comedy. Stephens, dressed in black, could be the vocalist in an indie rock band. He radiates wiry energy, winds his legs tightly round each other like a corkscrew and runs his hands through his hair, driving it into wild peaks. These two do most of the talking.
Holman, by contrast, is a rather monk-like presence with his greying fringe, benign features and gentle manner. He tends to watch on quizzically, occasionally offering a thoughtful observation. The project is his baby, however. Eldridge recalls him proposing the idea “very sweetly, as if he was asking out a girl”: an analogy that sends them all into hoots of laughter.
But despite their very different personalities, the three have, as Holman puts it, “a shared aesthetic”, an appetite for thinking big and “a belief that people are basically trying to do their best”. That basic optimism doesn’t stand in the way of some pretty dark material, however. Holman wrote one play, Rafts and Dreams, in which underground water suddenly flooded the world. Stephens wrote Punk Rock, an account of adolescent violence, and Motortown, the shocking tale of a traumatised soldier. Eldridge wrote Under the Blue Sky, a daisy-chain of love and lust among schoolteachers.
With this in mind, I attempt a bit of literary sleuthing. The new play tells the story of one fractured family trying to repair old wounds as the apocalypse bears down on them. Did Holman, perhaps, contribute the fantastical elements, in which characters from the past meet those of the present? Did Stephens work on the corrosive secrecy in the family and Eldridge deliver the intricate structuring?
My detective work turns out to be more PC Plod than Hercule Poirot. When I advance my theory, the writers smile charitably. They explain that, although they began by contributing individual scenes, every line, every scene and every draft of the play has been reworked by each of them to the point where, Stephens admits, “I genuinely can’t remember which lines each of us originated.
“We established shared linguistic rules. “And I think that makes it very difficult to discern who wrote what. We agreed there would only be one swear word in the whole play and that all the characters would speak with standard English grammar: no idiom, nothing regional. We reveal ourselves as writers through our language and our imagery.”
Is there not a danger that such homogeneity might produce something bland, rather than rich: a drama designed by committee? The three are adamant this is not the case. “We were very tough with each other about preserving the richness of three voices,” says Eldridge. “We all said that the cardinal sin is to homogenise down.”
They also had a pact that anyone could leave the project at any time. That hasn’t happened and their friendship has survived: they have a warm, open manner with one another. The process of writing hasn’t always been harmonious, however.
“We’ve had our disagreements,” Holman admits. “There were a couple of occasions when I’d written scenes that one of the others had butchered,” [his colleagues guffaw at this description] “and I wanted to get up and murder them. And I had to say to myself, ‘Hang on a minute, why am I doing this?’… It’s to do with listening. It’s a great art, listening.”
“We’ve had really full-on, ferocious disagreements,” Stephens agrees, cheerfully. “We’ve just had one, outside. Not even about a line – about two words. It was a tiny grammatical shift that stoked up massive passion.”
They are not, of course, the first dramatists to collaborate. Franci Beaumont and John Fletcher made a fruitful 17th-century team, as did Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. More recent examples include John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy, David Hare and Howard Brenton. Creative partnerships can often generate something that is somehow more than the sum of the parts. But we tend to enjoy the idea of the solo artist: the individual genius.
Stephens suggests that the appeal of the lone artist producing a masterpiece is a lingering Romantic notion and points out that a great deal of theatre is collaborative.
“It’s not uncommon for writers to work together, but, ordinarily, they are ignited by a moment of shared political anger,” he adds. “Our ignition was much slower and much more personal. The only goal we set one another when we started out was to write the scene that we would never have dared write on our own, because it would have been too personal. The umbrella of being shared writers gives us the protection. That’s what we did – and that spirit of bravery has stayed with us.”
The play’s apocalyptic subject matter certainly displays a degree of audacity, as it explores how the characters behave in the face of imminent destruction. The writers were determined that the catastrophe should not be man-made. In A Thousand Stars Explode, doomsday is brought about by a phenomenon called cosmic string (not their invention, they insist: we can look it up on www.newscientist.com).
“Most apocalypses in fiction tend to be ecological or nuclear and in some sense sit upon the idea that man’s downfall will be brought about by himself,” says Stephens. “I was much more interested in the notion that there is a fundamental fragility to our position in nature and in the universe …. There’s this refusal to accept how powerless the human being is in nature and how accidental human life is. The entirety of human life is just such a tiny moment in global history.”
Despite this sobering scenario, the play is upbeat. Stephens, who got stranded in Europe during the recent flight chaos, notes how kindly many people behave under duress. And to some degree, the process of writing the play has matched the material: the writers have had to pull together, no matter what.
They all agree that the experience has enhanced their writing. Holman has learnt from Eldridge’s astute characterisation and Stephens’ “truth”. For Eldridge, the lasting lesson is that “the emotional life of the play is far more important than the rational life”. Stephens will take away “linguistic daring”. He adds that the impact on his work has been significant:
“There’s one scene that I wrote as a gauntlet to Robert and David that actually was a big watershed moment in my career. I wouldn’t have been able to write Motortown, or Punk Rock, or Pornography, if I hadn’t written that scene and had this experience of writing together. I’ve changed as a writer directly because of this experience.”
‘A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky’, Lyric Theatre, London W6, May 7-June 5, tel: 0871 221 1729; www.lyric.co.uk