Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Patrick Hamilton
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Sean French on the roller-coaster life of Patrick Hamilton: playwright, novelist, alcoholic

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 one?

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 on it.

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 him.'

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. Gaslight 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 Gaslight 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 58.

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

On Childhood

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.

On Writing

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, Bernard

On Actors

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.

On Gaslight

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

On Rope

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

On Life

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 of Life'

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 company.
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 is published.
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 Shaw.
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 Cotten.
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.

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