Home Arts A man can be destroyed, but not defeated

A man can be destroyed, but not defeated

by The Concordian November 22, 2011
John Hemingway recently worked as a consultant on a new play about his famous grandfather. Written and directed by Stéphane Brulotte, it paints a rather unfamiliar picture of Ernest Hemingway.
John wrote Strange Tribe: A Family Memoir; a book where he explores the complex similarities between his own father and grandfather. He was also involved in the adaptation of Dans l’ombre d’Hemingway, which brought Ernest to a modern audience.
The writer, often referred to as ‘Papa’, is typically remembered for his unique writing, his hard drinking, and for his love of hunting and bullfighting. To many, Hemingway was the epitome of the stereotypical macho-man.
“Initially when I started talking to Stéphane Brulotte, he had what I would call a rather traditionalist view of Ernest Hemingway,” said John. “Of the unparalleled man’s man, the strong figure, and I said, that’s true but there is a lot more to Ernest than meets the eye, in terms of what he was interested in.”
John helped Brulotte (who had previously written Une partie avec l’Empereur, a historical drama about Napoleon Bonaparte) bring out a side of the celebrated writer that people aren’t expecting: the fragile, drunk and angry man he’d become towards the end of his life. “The beginning of the play is very typical Hemingway, and the crowd likes that. At the end, they see another side of Ernest,” he said.
The play takes place in Cuba in 1950, and sheds light on the troubled years of the iconic writer’s life. Ernest plunged into a vulnerable state following the release of his novel Across the River and into the Trees, which was the object of harsh criticism. The book was inspired by his love affair with Adriana Ivancich, a young Italian countess who he had met in Venice.
In the production, Ernest is portrayed as submerged in alcohol, completely distraught over his inability to write. The writer had not been able to produce a single sentence in 84 days. The young Ivancich, along with her patronizing mother, pay Ernest and his then fourth wife a visit in the Caribbean. Spectators witness the passion and evolution in Ernest and his muse’s platonic liaison, despite his wife Mary’s presence. Frustration consumes him as he realizes his incapability to carry out his relationship with the youthful aristocrat.
Brulotte’s play revolves around profound themes of love, death and the process of aging. Actors Michel Dumont (Ernest), Marie Michaud (Mary) and Bénédicte Décary (Adriana) deliver powerful and convincing performances.
John is an American expatriate, like his grandfather was. He has been living in Montreal for the past four years after having lived in Europe for nearly half of his life. John spent most of his time in Italy, lived a year in Spain and spent a little time in France before coming back to North America. His wife and children are Canadian so moving to Montreal seemed like a good opportunity. “It’s a great town – there’s a lot going on culturally,” he said.
He also works occasionally as a translator and does public speaking, but lately has been spending most of his time traveling to promote his writing.
“In my book, to understand my father, I had to understand who my grandfather was,” said John.  “There were a lot of similarities between the two of them.”
“Ernest was writing in his short stories, as far as the 1920s, about these topics of androgyny, gender games, gay and lesbian relationships,” he said. “If you think about it, it’s something odd for a person who’s known to be the Lord Byron of the 20th century.”
Gregory Hemingway, John’s father, cross-dressed as a teenager and later in life had a sex change. John makes a point of connecting this to Ernest’s writing.
“There is a lot of stuff in Ernest Hemingway which reflects this need to understand where the man begins and where the woman ends and if there is a point of union between the two,” he said.
While Ernest’s suicide was well publicized, he wasn’t the only one of the Hemingway lineage to take his own life. His own father, Clarence, committed suicide in 1928, and so did two of his siblings.
John’s father Gregory suffered from mental illness along with alcohol abuse much like Ernest. His mother is schizophrenic.
One would think John might have to endure the same mental and emotional instability, but that’s not the case. He was able to avoid the genetic predisposition his family members have had to cope with throughout their lifetimes.
Just like Brulotte’s latest work depicts an unexplored side of Ernest, so does John’s critically acclaimed memoir. There was more to the famed writer many of our professors reference than meets the eye.Dans l’ombre d’Hemingway runs until Dec. 3 at Théâtre Jean-Duceppe at Place des Arts. For more information, visit pda.qc.ca.

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