Sean French on the roller-coaster life of Patrick Hamilton: playwright, novelist,
Hamilton came from a family of failed writers. His parents were both failed novelists,
his sister was a failed playwright (and actress). His older brother, Bruce, with
whom he had a close, if complicated, relationship, was a failed thriller writer.
Patrick himself had left Westminster School in 1919 when he was just 15, with no
qualifications and no apparent prospects, except for the ambition to be a writer.
Over the next ten years he worked in offices, toured the provinces with a theatrical
company as an assistant stage manager and occasional actor, and published three
novels, to no very great effect. By late 1928 he was leading a raffish existence
in London, drinking heavily, conducting a disastrous love affair with a prostitute,
and writing a play, an 'exercise in the macabre' (as he later described it) on scraps
of paper in pubs and Lyons coffee houses. When he had finished it, he showed it
to his sister, who was impressed, and passed it on to a theatrical producer she
knew. The play was Rope, and less than six months later it was running in
the West End.
His first important novel, The Midnight Bell, was published to great acclaim
in the same year. Suddenly, at 25, Patrick Hamilton was a celebrated, and rich,
playwright and novelist. It all seemed to be going so well. He married. He quickly
followed The Midnight Bell with two more outstanding novels, which together
formed what would make up the trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky.
But in early 1932, while walking with his wife in Earls Court, he was run over
by a car and almost killed. He recovered quickly enough from his injuries, but his
recovery as a writer was far more difficult. He had always been an autobiographical
novelist, but his trilogy seemed to have used up all his experiences.
Meanwhile he felt incapable of following up his stage success. At the heart of
Rope was a brilliantly simple idea: as the play begins, two young men have
just murdered another man and stowed him in a chest, which is on stage in full view
of the audience. It remains there for the whole play, as the men invite guests to
join them and almost taunt them, to the point of serving tea on top of the corpse's
hiding place. How could he find another idea as compellingly theatrical as that
Bruce Hamilton's novels had never achieved much success, but they had at least
one keen reader: Bruce's brother. In 1938, Patrick remembered a detail from Bruce's
first novel, To Be Hanged, which had been published eight years earlier.
The hero is questioning a landlady about one of her lodgers: 'She thought she was
mighty smart, slipping away quietly when I was washing up in the scullery. But I
always knew when she'd gone, because the gas in the kitchen went up brighter when
she turned it out in the sitting-room. And she didn't go up to bed, neither, unless
she undressed in the dark, because it would have gone down again when she turned
the light on upstairs.'
Bruce almost throws this idea away in what is just a peripheral scene. This is
partly because in a novel it can't fully work. Patrick must have quickly seen how
much more powerful it would be when expressed visually on stage. And it also suggested
his title: Gaslight. He wrote to his brother, telling him that he planned
to make use of the idea. Bruce raised no objection, insisting that he had no copyright
Patrick had also been much impressed by Bruce's 1936 thriller Middle-Class
Murder, about a man who kills his wife. The description of the murderer reads
like a sketch for the brilliant first scene of Gaslight. 'He was never importunate,
never angry, never upset. On matters affecting his immediate desires he was indifferent
to arguments, impervious to snubs, and impossible to withstand. "Please do this
little thing for me," he would say, by voice or expression, and in the end you would
come to think that you were in the way, that you had been ungentle and unaccommodating.
He would accept your surrender with graciousness and tact. You could not help liking
Rope had been praised as a play that managed to be horrific without any
of the paraphernalia of melodrama: no knives, no blood, no overt violence. Sexual
relationships in Patrick Hamilton's work are always intrinsically sadistic.
portrays a marriage in which the most terrifying weapons are words.
The play opened in the West End in 1938 and was even more successful than
Rope had been. Hitchcock's film version of Rope was made as late as 1948
(Hamilton hated it: 'sordid and practically meaningless balls'). But
was filmed almost immediately, directed by Thorold Dickinson and starring Anton
Walbrook and Diana Wynyard. By his standards, Hamilton's reaction in a letter to
Bruce was very favourable: 'The story was incredibly ballsed up and ruined, but
actually the production and technique was excellent, and Anton Walbrook gave a really
first-class performance. On the whole, the thing wasn't too bad.'
That was just the beginning. In December 1941, two days before Pearl Harbour,
Gaslight opened on Broadway (with the dull new title, Angel Street)
in a production starring Vincent Price. The timing wasn't good, but the box
office gradually recovered, and it then became a major success, achieving 1,295
performances, the longest run of a foreign play in Broadway history. Meanwhile it
was filmed again, directed by George Cukor and starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid
Bergman, who won an Oscar for her performance. Hamilton was unfairly dismissive
of the film and lamented that he didn't receive any money from it.
He scarcely needed it. His earnings from the Broadway version made him wealthy.
This should have been a golden period for him. Gaslight was framed by his
two finest novels, Hangover Square (1941) and The Slaves of Solitude
(1947). He had achieved entirely separate reputations as a dramatist and a novelist.
But it was now also that, fuelled by his Broadway earnings, his drinking got out
of control. In 1946 Bruce estimated his consumption as the equivalent of three bottles
of whisky a day, at a time when it had to be obtained on the black market. The corrosive
effect, on his marriage, his work, his health, not to mention his bank balance,
was gradual but ultimately devastating. When he died in 1962, he was an old, old
Bruce, who had supplied the germ of Gaslight, always had an ambivalent
attitude to his younger brother and his great success. In 1972 he published a loving,
though by no means uncritical, memoir of his brother, The Light Went Out.
But his last novel, the unpublished A Case for Cain, culminates in a man
rather like Bruce murdering a man rather like Patrick.
Sean French is a novelist and biographer, and the author of Patrick Hamilton:
A Life (Faber)
Patrick Hamilton: A playwright reflects
I grew up much as all boys do, taking my surroundings for granted, but
I always had a more or less vague notion that I wanted something that my
surroundings did not quite supply. While I lived the life of an ordinary
boy, a poetic yearning developed by degrees until, all unconsciously as
to how I reached that state of mind, I was sure that some day I was going
to be a great poet.
You know I have an idea that it's this writing business that is so tough.
I suspect that it's something requiring infinitely more labour and pain
than what the average person thinks of as 'work'. 'Work' to so many people
is a question of sitting in an office, phoning, making contacts, getting
ideas, chatting, overcoming difficulties, meeting new people, above all
being stimulated by the presence and activities of others. There is no reason
why work of this kind should not be pleasurable to anyone with a reasonably
active mind. But working at writing it seems to me, in comparison, is like
hard labour in solitary something to which even illness is preferable.
Letter to his brother, Bruce
On the Theatre
I did all sorts of things, anything I could get hold of; working for
the army and at the law. Had a sister who was on the stage and that led
me into that sort of life. Took perfectly rotten jobs in the theatre, nothing
that amounted to anything more than giving me barely enough money to live,
but it did give me a pretty clear knowledge of that class of people.
While prompting and ringing the curtain up and down, I watched the technique
of melodrama closely, and realised how successful such plays might be if
written and presented in a sophisticated way. Letter to his father,
Writing a money-making play is very simple, really. Just give the actors
something good to say. I used to be one myself, once, and l know that's
all they're interested in good, long, self-indulgent speeches.
Without being a great work of art, I do think CL has a sort of genuineness
in its very bogusness it is sincere 'good fun theatre' a sort of dramatic
pastiche of Wilkie Collins or Gaboriau and as such a complete whole and
entirely brought off. Letter to Bruce
I certainly think that with this sudden burst I am now what you might
call 'known' by reading and theatre-going people in fact I think I could
very nearly say, paraphrasing Keats, 'I think I shall be among the English
writers while I live'. Letter to Bruce
I don't get a penny from this (the MGM film) and the film opens in
Milan! Bergman sings four songs in the course of the production! and
the detective marries Mrs Manningham!! What a racket! I shall protect myself
more carefully in future. Letter to Bruce
I have gone all out to write a horror play and make your flesh creep...
When Rope is accused of delving into morbid psychologies and
so forth, of being anything but a sheer thriller, of being anything but
a De Quinceyish essay in the macabre, I am at a wretched loss. Preface
to the published play
It is not only the money it is fame. And by this I do not mean a petty
notoriety but the real article fame! I have done what Noel Coward did
with The Vortex. I am known, established, pursued. The world,
truly, is at my feet. Letter to Bruce
As for the spectacle of my own life, taken by itself, I can think of
no spectacle more inadequate, troubled and ridiculous. In my personal life
I am, like everyone else, a superb egoist, and, like everyone else, I know
I am condemned to final exasperation and discontent. I have often obtained
in this world what I wanted, but I have never so far wanted what I have
obtained and I have long given up the quest. Article 'What I Expect
The Life and Works of Patrick Hamilton
- Born 17 March in Hassocks, Sussex, the youngest of three children.
His tyrannical father, Bernard Hamilton, was a writer of lightweight
novels, a serial adulterer, an alcoholic and a fraud; his possessive
mother Ellen, a failed actress, wrote romantic novels.
- Joins Holland House School in Hove, Sussex.
- Becomes a day boy at Colet Court Preparatory School, Hammersmith.
- Attends Westminster School, leaving the following year.
- Enrols at a commercial college in Holborn.
- Begins work as an actor and assistant stage manager for Andrew Melville's
- Takes a job in the City as a shorthand typist.
- Decides to become a full-time writer.
- After several rejections, his first novel Monday Morning
- His second novel, Craven House, establishes his name
on both sides of the Atlantic, as a realistic novelist in the tradition
of George Gissing and Sinclair Lewis.
- Falls in love with Lily Connolly, a prostitute.
- Twopence Coloured, a novel with a theatrical setting.
- Novel The Midnight Bell, based on his relationship
with Lily Connolly. His first play Rope, based on the celebrated
Loeb and Lerner 'Killing for Kicks' murder case in America, staged at
the Ambassador's, starring Brian Aherne and Ernest Milton. Staged in
America as Rope's End, starring Ernest Milton and Sebastian
- Play John Brown's Body. Marries first wife Lois Martin.
- Novel The Siege of Pleasure. Radio version of
Rope. Suffers multiple fractures in a road accident, leaving
him permanently disfigured.
- Novel The Plains of Cement.
- The Midnight Bell, The Siege of Pleasure and
The Plains of Cement published as a trilogy: Twenty Thousand
Streets Under the Sky.
- Radio play Money with Menaces.
- Moves from London to Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire.
- Gaslight opens at the Apollo, starring
Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, Milton Rosmer and Dennis Arundell. Radio play
To the Public Danger. Novel Impromptu in Moribundia.
Appointed theatre critic of Time and Tide, but writes
only two columns.
- British film of Gaslight, directed by Thorold Dickinson,
starring Diana Wynyard, Anton Walbrook and Frank Pettingell.
- Gaslight, re-titled Angel Street, opens
on Broadway, starring Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn and Leo G Carroll.
Runs for three and a half years. Novel Hangover Square,
based on Hamilton's unrequited passion for actress Geraldine Fitzgerald.
Radio play This is Impossible.
- Play The Duke of Darkness, starring Michael Redgrave
at the St James'. Stage and radio play This is Impossible.
Appointed play adviser to the Soviet Embassy.
- US film of Gaslight, directed by George Cukor (Hitchcock
had turned it down), starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph
- Play The Governess, prequel to Gaslight,
tours with Flora Robson and Milton Rosmer. Film of Hangover
Square, directed by Barre Lyndon, starring Laird Cregar, Linda
Darnell and George Sanders.
- Novel The Slaves of Solitude.
- Writes initial screenplay (later rejected) for film of Rope,
directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring James Stewart, Farley
Granger and John Dall.
- Stage version of Hangover Square, starring Robert Newton
and Rosamund John at the Vaudeville.
- Novel The West Pier. Moves to Whitchurch, Berkshire.
- Radio play Caller Anonymous.
- Novel Mr Stimpson and Mr Corse. Divorces Lois Martin,
marries second wife, writer Ursula Stewart. Moves back to London.
- Play The Man Upstairs.
- Novel Unknown Assailant.
- Radio play Miss Roach, adapted from The Slaves
of Servitude. Moves to Sheringham, Norfolk.
- Dies of cirrhosis of the liver and kidney failure, 23 September.