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Hemingway On Stage: An Interview With Brian Gordon Sinclair

Hemingway On Stage: An Interview With Brian Gordon Sinclair

I haven’t met Brian Gordon Sinclair in person, but I think I can safely describe him as outgoing. His energy and lively sense of humor comes through his emails and all of his answers in the interview questions below. I first encountered Brian through one of the Hemingway online discussion boards. When I posted a question about Hemingway fanatics, I could almost hear Brian clearing his throat all the way from Canada. “I am not a Hemingway fanatic but rather a playwright . . . The research for these seven plays has, however, brought me into contact with other fanatics” Brian wrote. ” People who are really fans of Hemingway tend to call themselves aficionados rather than fanatics.”

I am sure you will enjoy getting to know this particular aficionado and all of his Hemingway adventures. Who would guess that an interview with a Hemingway fan would include the vision of a psychic and a scuffle with Romanian gypsies?
To see a performance of Brian Gordon Sinclair as Ernest Hemingway in a play he wrote called “The Death Factory“, go to youtube and type in Brian’s name.

AB: A big part of your career is based on Hemingway. How often do you perform as EH?

BGS: Not as often as I would like. Approximately nine years ago, I started to write one Hemingway play. Now, in 2010, I am starting work on my seventh play. It takes me at least one year to write, memorize and rehearse a single play; consequently, little time is left for extended performances. No one play has been performed more than a dozen times. When the final play is completed for June of 2011, I hope to embark on an extended tour schedule.

AB: Originally you didn’t know much about Hemingway when you thought about portraying him on stage. What tipped the scale for you in deciding that you would portray him and not someone else?

BGS: In 2001, I wrote, directed and performed Easter Rising: The Last Words of Patrick Pearse. The play was a dramatic day by day enactment of the Dublin uprising of 1916 as told by the leader of the rebel forces. I had never attempted such an undertaking and was overwhelmed by the positive response. In as much modesty as I can summon, I never thought that I could be that good. I wanted to recreate the experience and I wanted the thrill of portraying another hero on stage. One day, I picked up a copy of A Farewell to Arms. Because of my Irish play, I was attracted to the war theme and to the lessons that were displayed in the story but perhaps it was the futility of war that struck me most. “There is no such thing as a good war; there is only war and it only destroys.” I was reading an author who had not only experienced war but also understood it with a sensitivity that was deeply and profoundly moving. His adaptation of the Napoleonic retreat and the incorporation of the Cesarean birth of son Patrick into the tragic ending convinced me that I was dealing with a great artist.

AB: To write and perform a one-actor play, you must feel as if you know Hemingway inside and out. Your plays are in the first person. How did you decide on his voice and tone? Did you listen to tapes of his voice? How did you adapt your own voice to become Hemingway?

BGS: Yes, I listened to the available recordings of Hemingway. I listened to the Nobel Prize speech and to the imperfect excerpts compiled by A. E. Hotchner. I also listened to the soundtrack of the film, The Spanish Earth. The latter recording is thanks to the fact that Ernest replaced the original narrator, Orson Welles.

No, I did not adapt my voice to imitate Hemingway. I decided to use my own voice. Valerie Hemingway, after seeing one of my plays, said that I captured the spirit and essence of the man. Since she is one of the few remaining people who actually knew Ernest, I consider her comment high praise. The only aspect of my voice that I changed was to place the sound in the middle of my hard palate to create a relatively neutral American sound. Having been trained in classical theatre, I did not want any vestiges of a Shakespearian actor issuing forth from Ernest’s mouth, nor did I want any remnants of a distinctly Canadian!

The rest of the voice and tone came from a solid belief in performance. I play Ernest as strong and heroic with moments of sublime tenderness. It is this feeling that created the voice and the movement. My job is, as one of my theatre mentors, Jerzy Growtoski, taught me, to blend the character with my own personality, inhabit the character fully and to recreate each performance at will.

AB: Tell me about the research you did to write your plays. The details you include of his life are impressive, where did you get it? Biographies, letters, converstions?

BGS: My research was and is no different than the others who have responded to your questions and I would like to add that those responses are quite illuminating. Your project is wonderful and I hope it ends up being published in book form. The different perspectives are wonderful.

I have read every Hemingway text, every biography, every available letter and every anecdote that is readily obtainable. Sadly after, several years, I have also forgotten much of the material. It seems that my head can only hold what is relevant to my current play.

AB:What were your favourite sources of material for Hem?

BGS: My favorite sources are the actual works and the Selected Letters, edited by Carlos Baker. Of the biographical material, I subscribe primarily to Michael Reynolds superb five part treatment and I quite like the insights of Scott Donaldson as he breaks the material into topic areas in his book, By Force of Will: The Life and Art of Ernest Hemingway.

Another favorite source is the memoirs by those who knew Hemingway. Aside from the usual litany of books, I would like to suggest, The Best Friend I Ever Had: Revelations about Ernest Hemingway from those who knew him by David Nuffer and My Cuban Son: Reflections on the Writer by His Longtime Majordomo by Rene Villarreal and Raul Villarreal. Although some of the memoirs are not literary masterpieces, these two are obviously written with care, with concern and with great affection. The former interviews people who knew him in both Cuba and Idaho. The latter provides much information about life at Finca Vigia from an insider’s point of view. In both cases, we see a gentler, kinder Hemingway than some are used to. I will definitely use certain insights from these two books in my final play.

Conversations with various friends have helped to focus my ideas and have occasionally contributed ideas for my plays; unfortunately, these conversations were considered private and confidential and cannot be discussed here. One of those conversations, however, provided the information on the “missing manuscripts’ which I will mention later. I can tell you that in a recent conversation with the Director of Museo Hemingway, I discovered some new information about one of Hemingway’s beloved dogs that I was not certain of before. This new information will be incorporated into my new play and may result in a revision to a previous play. I will not tell you what that information is. You will have to discover it in performance. Should you be at the Hemingway Days Festival this July in Key West, I will be pleased to personally answer the question.

One more conversation that was unique occurred in “The Top” rooftop lounge at La Concha Hotel in Key West. The distinguished looking gentleman sitting next to me in the summer of 2003 turned out to be Sir Rex Hunt. He had just arrived with his son who was a pilot and was enjoying a brief vacation. Sir Rex was the Governor of the Falkland Islands when Argentina invaded and Margaret Thatcher sent the British Navy to save him. What I did not know is that Sir Rex was also the Assistant District Commissioner for Uganda in the 50’s when Ernest’s planes crashed. Sir Rex received a direct report on both crashes including one from Reg Cartwright, the pilot of the second plane and he was instrumental in coordinating the rescue operation. In my possession, hand written by Sir Rex Hunt, is a six page description of what was in the report including specific details of the attempts by Ernest and Mary to exit the plane. Some of these details, I have never heard before. They will also be used in my final play.

AB: Your plays seem to capture a sense of humour – is that yours or Hemingway’s?

BGS: Both…I am a mischievous fellow and it is obvious that in reading the letters of Ernest Hemingway, he suffers from the same magnificent character affliction. Take a look at the letter he writes to his parents about his first trip to Italy. You will get seasick just reading it. Also, have a look at his letter to Scott Fitzgerald about the idea of heaven. It’s sexist but it’s very funny too.

The sense of humor is also part of the dramatic structure that I create. Didn’t we all learn that lesson from old Will Shakers? Always provide comic relief, even in a tragedy. I have worked very hard to incorporate that technique and it seems to work well. It makes Ernest more human and more enjoyable…to play and to watch.

AB: What period of Hemingway’s life do you find the most interesting?

BGS: This question is the most difficult of all. Now that I have lived through most of his life in my plays, I confess to love it all. I must, of course, suggest a slight hesitancy towards those ECT treatments. If forced to narrow in, I would choose the Paris years because they are reminiscent of my own sense of discovery of a world full of wonders. As I discovered the newness of Hemingway, he too discovered the newness of Paris. He was a young romantic learning about life and the craft of writing in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. When I finally got there, I found the vastness of La Gare du Nord and experienced the kindness of strangers. I strolled the streets of Montparnasse and the Left Bank and smelled the irresistible aroma of fine foods that drove Ernest and his hunger into the museum of the Luxembourg Gardens to discover a new sustenance in the paintings of Cezanne and Monet. I shared conversation with a beautiful woman at close tables in Les Deux-Magots and felt the caress of wine and desire. I enjoyed the moment of invitation at a new yet similar Shakespeare and Co. when asked to read from my own work. I sat in the Closerie des Lilas scribbling notes of dreamed brilliance just as Ernest had done years before and the air in my lungs felt clean and good. Whether standing on top of the Eiffel Tower or staring into the shining, rippled darkness of the Seine at night, I felt and I understood that “if you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you.” Sighhhhhhhhh!

AB: For you, what is the most interesting moment in Hemingway’s life?

BGA: Any moment where Ernest was involved in saving a life is the most interesting of his life.

Currently, I am working on a personal favourite which will be used in my new Hemingway play; consequently, I will not go into detail. In brief, Mary almost died because of the hemorrhaging from a tubular pregnancy. Because of a technique that Ernest learned during the war, he was able to save her. This information is readily available in the biographical works; otherwise, you will have to wait for the stage version to see how I interpret the story.

Another moment that is already present in one of my plays is the time Ernest saved his son Gig from three, huge sharks. It is a rousing, adventure story and illustrates perfectly the compassion that was a large part of Ernest Hemingway. He would have given up his life for his son.

AB: I am very eager to hear your theory of the disappearance of Hemingway’s manuscripts when Hadley travelled from Paris to Lausanne. Please share it with us. 
BGS: This theory has no sound scientific basis and is, in fact, not my theory but the result of a psychic’s reading. It is neither dramatic nor has it been used in my play; however, it is a plausible theory and quite reasonable in the circumstances of the time.

…Ernest was assigned to cover the Peace Conference in Lausanne, Switzerland and he wanted Hadley to go with him but she caught cold, really bad. They agreed that she would join him later. As soon as she was healthy, she packed her bags. In a separate valise, she packed all of the manuscripts. She figured that Ernest would want to do some writing during the holidays and decided to surprise him. At the Gare de Lyon, she gave her luggage, including the valise to a porter while she bought some Evian water for her throat. When she reached her compartment, her personal bags were there but the valise was missing. Someone had stolen it. All the manuscripts were gone. How did this theft happen? Did the porter take the valise?

According to the psychic, the answer is no. After the First World War, many widows of the soldiers were left with little or no pension. As a gesture, the government provided them with minimal wage jobs as cleaning women in various locations including the train stations. They supplemented their meager income by keeping any lost items they found, an unspoken benefit. The porter, because he had been warned by Hadley, hid the valise under the seat in her compartment, ostensibly for safe keeping but just before Hadley arrived with her water, an old cleaning lady checked the compartment. The bags on the seats were too large and heavy to take readily but when she looked under the seat she saw the smaller valise and made a quick assumption that it had been forgotten there. In her mind, the valise was fair game. She took it, concealed it under her shawl and apron and left. Later, she returned to her dreary, single room shelter and dreamed of the valuables, jewels perhaps, that might be inside the suitcase. Methodically, she lit a small fire in the old pot bellied stove, her only source of heat, with the few twigs and sticks collected from the streets. Slowly, she opened the bag. Paper, nothing but paper! She lifted the pages, searched in every corner and uttered a sigh of disappointment. No hope remained, only useless pieces of paper. Well, she could get some use out of the contents. Slowly, she crumpled a page and threw it into the fire…then another page and another. One by one the pages of Ernest Hemingway’s manuscripts and drafts disappeared into the flames where they turned to black ash. The work of months, years, for a few, brief minutes, provided the little warmth that an old widow would feel on that cold and lonely day.

Many mystery writers have used the missing manuscripts as the basis for a novel. I have read four or five of them. Not a single one is worth the read. Let us instead celebrate the magic and mystery of not knowing.

AB: Tell me about the travel you’ve done on behalf of Ernest Hemingway.
BGS: Key West was my first stop. I thought the festival would give me a variety of experiences and it did. After meeting with Robert Charles (Bob) Orlin, I was persuaded to enter the first ever Young Hemingway Contest to be held at Rick’s across the street from Sloppy Joe’s. The Sloppy Joe’s contest was out of the question. I did not have a white beard. With a “younger” look, I won the contest at Rick’s and commenced a lifelong friendship with Bob. I fell in love with Key West and formed an ongoing relationship with the Key West Art and Historical Society and their wonderful Executive Director, Claudia Pennington. I am proud to say that I now donate all my festival box-office to the Society. I also have many friends in the Look-alike Society and help raise money for their scholarship fund as well. With friends at Sloppy Joe’s, museums, restaurants, stores, media outlets and various other places, I now acknowledge Key West as my second home. Oh yes, I was also presented with $500.00 in cash from Rick’s. Turns out this was exactly enough to buy me a plane ticket to Cuba from Canada.I have now been to Cuba four times and expect to return at least twice in the next year as I prepare to debut a new play. From performances during an eclipse along the Malecon to wild drives through Matanzas and exciting rehearsals with dancers and musicians, I could write a book about the Cuban experience alone. This story is not over.

I have also travelled to Oak Park and Chicago. Seeing the Man-eating Lions of Tsavo and the Rift Valley recreation in the Museum of Natural History helped explain how a desire for adventure in Africa could be aroused in a young boy. Unfortunately, Africa is the main place that I have not visited. I rely, for the time being, on Bob Orlin’s exiting accounts of his visits.

In Michigan, I visited the youthful vacation site of Walloon Lake and explored the area around Horton’s Bay where Ernest and Hadley were married. At the lake, I waded out and plucked a small stone which, to this day, I carry for luck just as Ernest always carried a lucky piece. I also discovered a church where, it is rumoured, Ernest’s young Indian girl friend, Prudy Boulton, is buried in the woods out back. I used this moment to create a scene for one of my plays but I will not tell you about it now. If you see the play, however, I promise that the earth will move for you. Afterwards, I continued up to the Petosky area where the staff at the Little Travers Bay Museum still talks fondly of their “little Ernie” who used to sit and listen intently to the stories told in this former train station. Now, I try to listen a lot too.

Piggott, Arkansas was a pleasant surprise. Everyone wanted to build Ernest a writing studio and the family of Pauline Pfeiffer was no exception. I actually got to stand in a galvanized wash tub where Ernest used to take his sponge baths. The family home is restored, the studio is again restored after a fire and there is a fine gift shop and a nearby education centre. Well worth a visit.

Ketchum, Idaho gave me the opportunity to stand at the Hemingway gravesite and to see how beautiful the area is. Anyone who says Ernest suffered when he came here is not referring to the countryside. A guide at the local museum kindly presented me with a picture of Hemingway kicking a can (his “action” photo), the librarian gave me my first introduction to the FBI files and I sat beside the statue of Ernest that, peacefully tucked beside a flowing stream, reminded me that “…now he is a part of it forever.” Later this old Irishman attended a writer’s conference at Sun Valley and met Frank McCourt for our first and last conversation. God bless you Frank and God bless Ireland.

London, England, provided a small, time capsule of Ernest’s flights with the Royal Air Force. I managed to visit an airfield museum in Sussex where I saw a Lancaster bomber restored and in flight. Although Ernest went up in Mitchell B-25’s, this was close enough to feel what must have been a similar sense of exhilaration. The experience did provide information for my fifth Hemingway play, The Death Factory.

Venice, Italy…beautiful beyond belief! I went to the same morning market as Ernest, wrote notes at a desk in the Gritti Palace and ate and drank at Harry’s Bar. Harry Cipriani Jr. introduced himself and then stood me up for a scheduled meeting the next day. Even so, I purchased a book that Harry had written about what he, as a child, remembered of Ernest’s visits to their home on the small, nearby island of Torcello. Harry claimed that Ernest, in the evening, would get a sixteen bottle case of wine sent to his room. He would then write all night and in the morning sixteen empty bottles would appear outside the door. Amazing what the mind of a child remembers. It’s no wonder so many exaggerations have come to be accepted as truth. Thanks a lot Harry! By the way, Harry is now fighting tax evasion charges.

Spain was special and still is. I will be returning in July for a little Hemingway publicity in and near Pamplona. (News Flash! As I am checking this document, two complimentary air tickets from Toronto to Pamplona via Madrid have just arrived in my mailbox courtesy of the Government of Navarre.)

If you go out and look at Pamplona

Really look

You must sit in a restaurant that is high

Roof top high

Just before the sun has set.

The sunlight streams and shimmers and slides

Over tiles

And it is pure

And it is beautiful

And it is Pamplona.

No sky is more blue

No man is more warmed

In Pamplona

In Navarre

(2009: When I completed these simple words at the top of the Hotel Maisonnave, my eyes were wet. I was in Pamplona and I saw what Ernest saw and for a moment I felt like Ernest…and no one should be that lucky.)

My first visit a few years ago was the most exciting. I discovered the bullfight which I will not discuss here. Again, see my play Death in the Afternoon in which, like Ernest’s book of the same title, I deal with the issue. What I will discuss is the Spanish Civil War. I had the great pleasure of being escorted through the battlefields by the late Tom Entwistle. Tom showed me the untended fields, ignored by General Franco and even considered for sale to Disney as a site for a theme park. A theme park! Thank God that never happened! In the sides of the hills were dugout quarters where members of the International Brigades had slept. Lying on the ground were pieces of shrapnel, shell casings, rusting food cans and molding pieces of leather boot strap. It was one of those places where, if you closed your eyes and breathed the air, you could smell and sense the spirits of the soldiers still there, still fighting for freedom. I was so moved that I wrote the entire second act of The Man-Eaters on this topic. Whenever I perform that play, some of those fragments and casings are with me. “The first American dead have been a part of the earth of Spain for a long time now.”

Much more to explore! Much more to write

AB: There is a picture on your website of you and Gregorio Fuentes in Cuba. What was it like to meet him and what did you talk about? 
BGS: Sadly, Gregorio was near the end of his life when we met. Within a year he would be dead. By this time, he was too frail to hold court at La Terraza Restaurant and collect his free lunches from the tourists. When I arrived at the restaurant and expressed an interest, they relayed the message to Gregorio’s grandson with whom he lived a few short blocks from the restaurant. The grandson collected me and took me home where Gregorio came out, sat in a wheelchair and smoked a cigar. This meeting was little more than a photo opportunity as the grandson worked hard to perpetuate the myth that Gregorio was the actual role model for The Old Man and the Sea. Gregorio was reduced to monosyllabic comments and dropping burning ash on his trousers. He was 103 years old but no excuses were required for his declining powers. The old captain had lived a long life and his head was still held high with a fine smile on that aged face. He would remain that way until the age of 104. Well lived, Gregorio..

AB: Do younger audiences watch your plays? (I noticed some racy parts in the excerpts!) If they do, are they aware of who Ernest Hemingway is?

BGS: Generally, I request that my audiences be adult; however, I think that age 16 is a good dividing line. If I am made aware of younger audiences members, I tone down some elements. Ironically, some audiences most critical of the elements of life are adults who have never read the great Nobel Prize winner. Hemingway loved the raunchy parts of life and to present him as otherwise would be to leave out an integral part of his personality. My plays are only mildly racy and those brief moments are mixed with much sensitive and profound thought. Frankly, only a true prude could object.

Today, few young people know much about Hemingway. A recent US poll of secondary school students found that less than 14% could even identify the famous author. On the positive side, I remember two young waitresses who worked at the Casa Marina in Key West. I was fortunate to be sponsored by the hotel and offered the young ladies complimentary tickets to my play. The next day at breakfast, I was greeted by hugs and exclamations. They had “loved” the show and the first thing they wanted to know was what should they read and where could they buy it. I later caught one reading A Moveable Feast. They thought this Hemingway fellow was okay. Well, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Get them interested and get them reading. One day, they may even get to writing.

AB: What do you think accounts for the continued interest in Hemingway?

BGS: The actual literature is the key to everything else. If the work were not good, it would not endure. It is readable; it is often profoundly readable and it endures.

“The secret is that it is poetry turned into prose and that is the hardest of all things to do. It’s good enough for you to do it once for a few men to remember you but if you do it year after year then many people will remember and if it’s good enough, it will last as long as there are human beings.”

The span of this literature is immense and universal. Ernest writes of a childhood where he sees babies born in violence, teenage years where he looks for sex on piney boughs, love and creation with wives and writing, exciting travel and the slow, inexorable movement towards our end. For every age, for every interest, there is a Hemingway.

Combine good literature and universality with romantic adventure and you have the elements of the first “rock star” of literature. Ernest is blown up serving chocolate to the troops and saves a life. He camps and hunts and fishes in the Michigan woods. He discovers bullfighting at the Festival of San Fermin. He chases Nazi U-boats and searches for spies in the Caribbean. He sends both himself and ambulances to the anti-fascist cause in Spain. He marches into the death factory that is the Hurtgen Forest in WW II and he captures the great marlins of the Gulf Stream. This is not a life. This is the basis for a thousand stories. Ernest Hemingway lived the equivalent of several lives in his short span and he never ran out of material. What he ran out of was time.

AB: You mention being attacked by Romanian gypsies in Pamplona. I just have to ask you about that!
BGS: The actual story happened in Madrid. It was my first visit and my guide and friend, Stephen Drake-Jones (Chairman of the Wellington Society), had taken me to a well known street market called El Rastro. When some gypsies started brushing against us, Stephan quickly turned harsh, used the “F” word and shouted and gestured them away. He explained that the area was full of pickpockets and that the Romanian gypsies were the worst offenders. Later, one evening, on my own, I decided to explore a major shopping street near Plaza Mayor. It was filled with tapas bars, ice cream shops, vendors of all sorts and…you got it…more gypsies. In a moment of the utmost stupidity, I turned down a dark side street looking for an apparent shortcut. Instead I found a gypsy encampment. An old oil barrel blazed hellish warmth as a very, rough crowd lay scattered on flattened cardboard boxes and suddenly I was standing in the middle of it. With an agility born of nervousness and fear, I stepped on in that fast gait that tries to look slow and in control. I fooled no one. Every eye was on me but no one moved. Soon, I was around the corner and back in the crowded street of shoppers. I breathed slowly, looked around and saw no one. Being brave was not on my mind. I walked quickly in the direction of the subway. That’s when I felt the “butterfly”. Something was fluttering around the cuff of my trouser. As I looked down, a face at ground level was withdrawing. His hands had been floating up and down my trousers in an attempt to distract me. At the same time, I felt a tug at the leather shoulder bag I was carrying on the opposite side. With the strength of at least seven Hercules (No, make that eight.), I tightened the grip on the bag and remembered what Stephen Drake-Jones had told me. I drew myself to my full height, still gripping the bag, waved my free arm threateningly and screamed HELP as loudly as I could. I then shouted, POLICIA, POLICIA, pointed a finger at the two culprits and continued shouting, THIEF, PUTA (whore), F__K OFF! By this time, every shopper, every shop owner was staring. The thieves slinked back and with extended palms, made a gesture of conciliation. For a moment, all was still and then I gestured them away. Thankfully, they disappeared into the darkness. One more second of quiet and the crowd erupted into applause. Suddenly, briefly, I was a hero…and I have never felt more like Ernest Hemingway than at that precise moment. Of course, I quickly smartened up and got the hell out.

Later when I related the incident to Stephen, he complimented me in the usual expert manner, “That was really a dumb thing to do, Brian.” I agreed and promised not to walk alone in dangerous areas, even if I did know the secret words. For whatever reason, whore and the “F” word are particularly offensive to the gypsies.

I did meet some other gypsies in Pamplona but they were simple con artists. They travel in pairs, two women. One precedes the other with a sprig of juniper which she gives to you in an apparent gesture of good will. The second woman then approaches with a story of luck attached to the juniper and proceeds to tell your fortune. When finished, she makes it obvious that you are expected to pay. If you refuse, the second woman joins in and the harassment is loud and embarrassing. Most people pay to get rid of them. When I was approached my guide and translator was with me so the foregoing situation did not materialize. We did, however chat about luck and I showed them my lucky Hemingway stone from Walloon Lake. Immediately, one of the women shouted, “Oh, good luck!” and snatched the stone from my hand. She then lifted her dress in each of those very private areas and rubbed the stone thoroughly over breasts and groin. When finished, the other woman repeated the process and returned the stone with many thanks for sharing my luck. When I returned to Canada and told the story to my wife, she said strongly and clearly, “Wash that stone and wash it now”.

AB: On a travel forum for Spain, one man wrote “Hemingway has fallen out of favor in Spain. He was associated with another time as has bullfighting.” Do you think this is ture?

BGS: I can only note that many parts of Spain currently oppose the continuation of bullfighting, at least in its current form. Recent polls show that only 30% of Spanish people approve of bullfighting. In Catalonia, over 180,000 signatures filled a petition to outlaw the practice. The government, however, subsidizes bullfighting, the royal family is divided on the subject and many supporters remain from the Franco regime which promoted bullfighting as essentially and uniquely Spanish.

My experience has not been with the opponents of the bullfight. In Madrid, I attended and studied the art of the corrida. My attitude prior to this visit was negative. Afterwards, I became a convert. Not only was I enthralled by the pageantry but I was impressed by the quick dispatch of the meat, some to restaurants and much to the needy. The death of the bull, after a lifetime of luxury, was more humane than many of the slaughters that put food on our tables. And, of course, the bull got to fight back. Just ask Jose Tomas whose recent goring made international headlines. I was also amazed at the surgical precision of the on-site abattoir. Clinically dressed and armed with samurai-like tools, the staff skinned and prepared the meat for delivery in a matter of minutes. It was clean, it was efficient and it is what you do to meat in order to eat. Hmm…didn’t really mean to get into this issue but I am a convert. Many will never be converts. I know this and Ernest knew this.

If Pamplona is any example, Ernest Hemingway is as popular as ever. They recently held an international look-alike contest. 7000 people crowded the Plaza del Castillo to watch. When I was there for the Running of the Bulls, people would pass in the streets and shout, “Hello, Hemingway.” In a restored palace, a large display of poster size photos from Hemingway’s last visit drew healthy crowds. I was also presented with a published book containing Hemingway’s Toronto Daily Star article on Pamplona in both English and Spanish. Believe me, Hemingway is alive and well in Pamplona.

AB: How have you incorporated or dealt with Hemingway’s tendency to exaggerate and tell lies?

BGS: The great English actor, Lord Laurence Olivier, once stated that an actor’s career is based on his ability to lie. Like Olivier, Hemingway often changed a truth into a dramatic lie for the sake of his writing. In his public life he was prone to some lies and much exaggeration.

As a young man, he spoke to a high school audience and suggested that he served with the blood thirsty Arditi in Italy. These soldiers were so tough that, when wounded, they would stuff the wounds with cigarette butts and keep on fighting. As a former liar and as an embellisher of dramatic moments, I have seen the truth of lies in my own character. Look inside your own youthful memories. How many times did you lie or exaggerate in the service of your developing ego. For famous authors, those exaggerations become further exaggerated through a constant retelling and reshaping by secondary sources.

In my play, The Death Factory, I deal with some of Ernest’s WW II extenuations of the truth. How’s that for a euphemism? I tell of commanding a group of partisans called his “irregular cavalry,” of storing arms in his room at Rambouillet, of issuing orders through a US army colonel, of liberating the Ritz Hotel and Shakespeare and Company and I show him defending himself to the Inspector General. Yes, he lied to the Inspector General but the lies were based on positive actions. Hemingway was an excellent scout, a tough interrogator and a man capable of true leadership. His work did help prepare the way for the Free French Forces. I have fun with these exaggerations but, always, I return to a man with many heroic attributes.

I also intend to look at the lie of self-deception in my final play. Ernest easily succumbed to the folly of flattery and a pretty face as witnessed through both romance and marriage. It is at an older age, however, that he builds a sad, personal fantasy. He did not age well and, like so many of us, he wanted to capture a youth that was lost; consequently, he formed an unrealistic attachment to the young Italian countess, Adriana Ivancich. My studies have uncovered some eyewitness accounts of Adriana that will clearly reveal her side of the relationship. I will present those views in the play.

I do not approve of lying. I did too much of it as a young man and I finally learned the hard lesson of the damage that is done. In my plays and in the stories of Ernest Hemingway, however, I absolutely revel in the grandness of the exaggeration and I attempt to present it as a glorious and joyous attempt to make life bigger and richer than it might otherwise be.

AB: What is the best part about playing Hemingway over and over again?

BGS: It is wonderful to have a best friend. Like a child with an imaginary playmate, a playwright lives inside his head. As an actor, I expand this inner reality into words and performance. Often, I feel as if I am sharing the stage with all the people in Ernest’s life and with Ernest himself.

When I get it right, the performance that is, I feel an extremely strong bond with my audience. We are, in that unique Zen way, at one and for them I become Ernest.

AB: One of the benefits of having an interest in Hemingway seems to be the forming of friendships with Hemingway aficionados all over the world. Has this been true for you? Tell me about the friendships you’ve made because of EH. 
BGS: I have made and continue to keep many friends through my Hemingway endeavours. Here are two friends and I apologize to the many I have not mentioned:

Lorian Hemingway – Lorian is an exceptional talent and I am both proud and humbled to say that we have helped each other on numerous occasions. Her Short Story Competition is one of the best in the world and each year I enjoy either hearing or reading the winning entry. Lorian is a very special friend and it is our spoken and unspoken understanding of her grandfather that makes this friendship special.

Bob and Debbie Orlin – Aside from their own fine talents, Bob and Debbie joined me in the presentation of my very first Hemingway play in Key West. They prompted, helped with set-up, worked security and provided complete moral support. Bob and Debbie have never let me down and they have worked every show that I have presented in Key West. Hemingway said that the best way to find out if you can trust people is to trust them. I have found someone to trust.

I have also had the pleasure of being assisted by many Canadian Embassies and Consulates throughout the world. Because of policy and confidentially, I will not mention any names here. Know though that some of these people have become close, personal friends. I have also formed a strong and positive bond with the Consul General of Cuba.

AB: You have six separate Hemingway plays – which one is your favorite to perform? Why?

BGS: Honestly, I have no favourite. Because of the chronological approach, I view the plays as one long continuum. Briefly, I will mention a point of personal enjoyment for each play:

Hemingway On Stage

Part I – Sunrise: The Early Years

At the end of this play, I talk about the death of Catherine Barkley and her child in A Farewell to Arms. When the lights come up for the curtain call, there is not a dry eye in the house. For an actor, this is a humbling moment of dramatic power.

Part II – The Lost Generation

When I speak of Ezra Pound, I digress and explain how Ernest worked to have him freed from a mental hospital and even provided some money for Ezra to return to Italy. It is the compassion of such deeds that impress me.

(In Venice, I discovered that Ezra if buried on the cemetery island.)

Part III – Death in the Afternoon

I actually hired a bullfighting aficionado to coach me for an onstage recreation of the bullfight. This gentleman had trained for the corrida but he told me that he lacked the true courage needed to face the bulls. I too could never face a bull but as an actor, I can. What a thrill to wield the banderillas, to spin the capa or capote in a veronica, to carefully hold the muleta before the estoque or sword is inserted…and then to finally….guess you’ll have to see the ending.

Part IV – The Man-Eaters

My plays are subtitled, The Road to Freedom. Here, I devote an act to the Spanish Civil War and there is a heartfelt pleasure in portraying a struggle devoted to stopping Hitler and Mussolini.

Part V – The Death Factory

Although the same fight for freedom continues from the previous play, I deal with Ernest’s relationship with his son Jack or Bumby in this play. I enjoy playing the compassionate father who truly cares for his children.

Special Edition – Hemingway’s HOT Havana

This special edition play is not a part of the chronological series. It was created to blend with some Cuban music and dance but works well as a stand alone presentation of stories. I always have a great deal of fun when I do this show. The audience must enjoy it too. Key West has asked for a return engagement at this year’s Hemingway Days Festival in July.

AB: You tell me about some of the Hemingway Festivals and events you’ve attended. Certainly they must differ from Key West to Norway – do they celebrate different aspects of EH?

BGS: I have to point out that I have never been to a Hemingway Festival other than Key West. I have been to certain literary festivals where Ernest was honored. For Instance:

The Stratford-upon-Avon International Festival of Literature – A featured theme of this festival was a celebration of the “angry young man” of British writing. Fortunately for me, the director of the festival, Steve Newman, was a Hemingway fan and felt the name would draw some added attention. Colin Wilson, author of The Outsider and one of the original “angry young men,” paid me the great compliment of asking for an autographed copy of my script. He was more interested in Hemingway than anything else. I wasn’t even angry.

Ordkalotten International Festival of Literature, Tromso, Norway – The director of this festival, Lene E. Westeras had seen one of my performances in her travels and invited me to participate in the theme of the festival – violence in literature. I had the pleasure of helping open the festival with excerpts from The Death Factory and later, I gave a full performance of the Havana play. On the last day of the festival, I conducted a session on the machismo of Hemingway. Interestingly, many were interested in the sad ending of son Gregory’s life and what level of latent homosexuality could be applied to Ernest. Being Scandinavian they were very open to all concepts. Another conversation involved a lady who was had visited Finca Vigia in Cuba. I was later told that she was the leading candidate for Minister of Culture in the next election. Indeed, Ernest has fans everywhere.

AB: In one write up, you say, “Spiritually, I have become a friend of Ernest Hemingway and Ernest and I will be friends forever.” I think you have hit on something that a lot of people feel when they become truly immersed in his life. In fact, many of the people I talk to spend an enormous amount of time and money on this relationship they make with Ernest Hemingway. My blog and your plays, Bob Orlin’s paintings and the Hemingway sites and discussion boards – these are all labours of love. Can you expound on why this is so?


BGS: This question is reminiscent of others where you asked about the continued interest in Hemingway. The life of Ernest Hemingway detailed the events of the first half of a century. He was born into “interesting times” in a town of “broad lawns and narrow minds.” As he escaped his limitations and lived through the years he became a symbol for everything that is missing in most of our lives of “quiet desperation”. Today, I travel the world primarily because of Ernest. Both research and performance provide opportunities that were very limited in the past and are now constantly expanding. Ernest Hemingway gives me a richness of soul that I never fully possessed before. His life, in a sense, is like a guidebook on how to be a man. Some chapters are from the Boy Scouts, some are from the manual of war and others offer much understanding and exploration of relationships. If you read this life carefully, very carefully, you will note that many mistakes were made but if you are wise enough, you will see much evidence of the development of the compassionate nature. I cannot speak for others but I can say, without equivocation, I am a better person because of my relationship with Ernest Hemingway.

AB: In another interview for the Miami Herald, you say, “Hemingway has become my hero. You cannot write with his sensitivity and be the person he’s accused of being: a womanizing, alcohol-abusing man with bad behaviour. He’s very complex creating more than most of us will in 10 lifetimes.” How do you reconcile some of those things that Hemingway is accused of, and did you deliberatly set out to dispel some of the myths about him?

BGS: For every human being, there is a time to be weak and a time to be strong. What defines us is the strength of our caring. Whenever I read too many articles, especially those cheap Hemingway mystery novels that immerse themselves in negativity, I think of two things, two letters written by Ernest:

The first letter was sent to Gerald and Sara Murphy after the death of their young son, Baoth, at age 15 from meningitis. Ernest wrote that letter with a deep compassion that provides immense insight into the act of grieving and into the loss of anyone whom you have loved. Most of all, I was moved by his advice for continuing and living life, “We must live it, now, a day at a time and we must be very careful not to hurt each other.”

The second letter came near the end of Ernest’s life and was sent from the Mayo Clinic. It was to Fritz (Frederick) Saviers, the nine year old son of Dr. George Saviers. Fritz was in a Denver hospital and suffering from viral heart disease. The boy would live another six years. Ernest would be dead in two and a half weeks but he spoke of meeting and joking about their hospital experiences together.

It is very important to know that you can make a decision about your own life…a deadly decision, in deadly “Ernest”…but it doesn’t have to make you feel any different about the lives of others. You can still care and hope and Ernest always knew that a child’s life was precious.

These letters give me my solace. These letters give me my belief in the goodness of Ernest Hemingway.

The main myth I dispel is the misconception that Hemingway would write while drunk. I love to point out the discipline of someone who, for much of his life, would rise at dawn and write until lunch. It is that discipline that allowed the production of great literature. What I will add is that I truly wanted to find a noble Hemingway. Anyone, in examining a life so vast, can find anything that satisfies a particular end or interpretation. My end was nobility and I found it. My Hemingway is a hero!

AB: Tell me about the feedback you get from your plays.
BGS: I have received two negative criticisms. Once, a group of religious fundamentalists said that my work was vulgar. This reaction was based on two things, the use of phrases like “son of a bitch” and references to the fact that Ernest had sex. I now check I.D. at the door. If their driver’s license has the letters RF, the owner is refused entry and given a free ticket to Creation Land. The other criticism came from a group of recovering mental patients. They did not mind the vulgar aspects. They did, however, object to the perceived sexist attitude toward women. Strangely, they laughed, applauded and gave me a standing ovation. Only later, after some conversation amongst themselves did they post a notice saying that my play supported abuse and that it reminded them of the horrors of their own relationships. Since I thought they had viewed a comedy and distinctly remembered their robust laughter, I was surprised to discover that I had written a tragedy. I don’t think William Shakespeare ever had this problem.

Otherwise, the feedback is consistently positive. I am meticulous about my work and a perfectionist. Before any show faces an audience it is fully rehearsed and previewed. That’s when the flaws are worked out. Each play requires both writing and acting. If you don’t rewrite and redirect the acting, the result will be weak. Much of the success is just plain hard work.

The greatest compliment I ever receive is when another professional comes up after a show and says that he or she was transported. That word means that they were totally involved in the play and that the performance was totally believable. Another way of stating this is to say that the audience forgets the play as a play and becomes fully involved in the story and the action. Critical faculties are set aside because of the involvement. Sometimes an average audience member will tell me that for a time, he genuinely believed that I was Ernest Hemingway.

I am also amazed at how many people ask about Ernest’s writing after seeing my plays. They constantly tell me of being inspired to go out and read the works of the master.

AB; If you could do anything with EH, what would it be – betting on horses, fishing for marlin, patrolling for U-boats?

BGS: None of the above. If I could, I would meet with Ernest, and share some of the modern understanding of alcohol, of depression and of the side effects of various medications. Might even suggest avoiding a barbaric technique called ECT. But I cannot do that.

Since I cannot do the above, I might as well ask for something else, much simpler, that can happen, at least it can happen in my imagination. All I would ask is to sit quietly with Ernest on the deck of his boat, the Pilar, calmed by a gentle breeze floating over a peaceful view of a beautiful blue Gulf Stream. We would share cool drinks, sigh a few sighs and I would look at him and say, with the utmost affection, “Well done, old friend, well done.”

AB; Brian, is there anything else you would like to add?

BGS: I am pleased to announce my participation in a major scholarly event. Recently, I met with the Director of Museo Hemingway (Finca Vigia), Ada Rosa Alfonso Rosales, in Cuba. I am proud to confirm that, on behalf of the museum, she commissioned me to produce a brand new Hemingway play for the “13th International Colloquium Ernest Hemingway” in June of 2011. The museum will secure a Havana theatre for the world premiere (Tentative title: The Last Lion).

Following the completion of the final play of the Hemingway On Stage series, I intend to revive and seek more performances for the original plays. I will then concentrate on having the plays published in both print and audio versions.

If strength permits, I will also attempt a massive public performance of the entire series in one long presentation with appropriate breaks for meals and rest.

Finally, let me end with one of your favorite quotes:

As you get older, it is harder to have heroes but it is sort of necessary.”

briangordonsinclair 2010 Hemingway On Stage


AB: Thank you Brian, well done!