- Roy Gumpel
- Carey Harrison
Forget the cicadas. This is the summer of Carey Harrison.
June sightings include a launch party for his new novel Justice at Woodstock's Golden Notebook; a fiction reading with Sparrow and Violet Snow at Inquiring Mind; a staged reading of his play "Hitler's Therapist" at the Kleinert/James; premieres of two more plays, "Rex & Rex" and "I Won't Bite You," by the Woodstock Players at the Byrdcliffe Theater through July 7. Next month, he'll perform at the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice. Oh, and he started writing a novel this morning.
Despite this fearsome schedule, Harrison is eager to meet for "a long lazy lunch" at the Little Bear. He cuts a dashing figure in a crisp lavender shirt and gray vest, with a small hoop glinting from one earlobe and a motorcycle helmet resting on the table beside him. (He rides a Harley Road King, about which he says, "I do my shopping on it. It's supposed to be roaring down the highway, but I go to the Hurley Ridge Market and fill the panniers with bacon and eggs.")
Perhaps less bacon these days—the formerly ursine Harrison recently shed 80 pounds. Somehow he still appears larger than life, with a dense silver beard and arched eyebrows tailor-made for expressing delight. His crinkly eyes recall his famous father, Academy Award-winner Rex Harrison, whose elder self he is playing in "Rex & Rex." But where Sir Rex was notoriously astringent toward colleagues, his son overflows with effusive praise. Mick O'Brien's young Rex is "extraordinary"; Holly Graff's performance as an incarcerated murderess in "I Won't Bite You" is "a searing experience."
Harrison's diction is eloquent; even aloud, he's well written. And then there's his voice. A velvety, British-accented purr, it's unmistakably an actor's instrument, and he mesmerizes with tales of running contraband for antiapartheid activists in South Africa with the London Recruits ("we were terrorists for Nelson Mandela") and being held at gunpoint by Moroccan bandits. He flies off on some dizzying tangents, sometimes laughing so hard that he lays his whole head on the table. But whatever aerobatic loops his discourse may take, the ground he returns to again and again is writing.
He's almost obscenely prolific, having written more than 40 plays, 16 novels, and 100 radio scripts and teleplays for the BBC. "Like the Old Professor in 'Uncle Vanya,' I'm a writing machine, a perpetuum mobile that can't stop," he says cheerfully. "As you get older, it's easier and easier to write, but that doesn't mean you write better. When you look back at the stuff you wrote before facility took over, you think both 'God, that's terrible; I'd never do that now' and 'How wonderful, how brave.' So you get both better and worse."
He rarely rewrites once a draft is complete. "It's molten for a day or two. After two or three days, for better or worse, there it is."
Harrison and his wife, Irish-born artist and designer Claire Lambe, founded the Woodstock Players in 2010 to stage his play "Magus," followed by Robert Kelly's "Oedipus after Colonus," Harrison's "Midget in a Catsuit Reciting Spinoza" and "Hedgerow Specimen," David Mamet's "American Buffalo," Samuel Beckett's "Endgame," and the current duo at the Byrdcliffe Theater.
Written expressly for Graff, "I Won't Bite You" is an intense psychological drama set in an offshore prison; Chronogram Poetry Editor Phillip X Levine plays the interrogator. For "Rex & Rex," Harrison wears multiple hats—playwright, actor, and son—though he's quick to say, "'Son' doesn't pay any bills as far as this play is concerned. It's either a good play or it isn't."
"It may be interesting for people to see a son playing his father—and writing his father—but the private and personal don't really form the motor of the play," he explains. "There are certain details of my life with my father, but they're only details; the main arc of the play is invented. I don't see it as a therapeutic exercise. You're hoping to make people laugh, hoping to make it a good play. In that process you have no sense of biography."
Nevertheless, he describes a moment onstage in which older Rex stands behind his younger self to give him a neck massage, something Harrison started to do as a boy and continued into adulthood. "I had invented a way to find some physical closeness with my father. He never asked me to stop, never brushed me away with a 'That's enough, now.' I'm very touched by that."
Harrison's mother, Lilli Palmer, was the second of Rex's six wives. After co-starring in The Four Poster, the couple built a villa in Portofino on the Italian Riviera, hosting such glamorous guests as Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier, and Greta Garbo. Harrison calls it "a blessed place. A pink stucco villa high on a cliff with a sweeping view of the Bay of Rapallo, looking down toward the Cinque Terre. You don't know what a gift you're being given as a child."
His just-released novel Justice (Dr. Cicero Books, 2013) takes place in the same terrain, though "I didn't set in Portofino, because it became Martha's Vineyard—a playground of the rich and famous. But I did want that rugged coastline and views. It's like a scent preserved in a bottle for me, that landscape. The book allowed me to open the bottle."
Indeed, Justice hums with descriptive detail: mules stumbling up "the old Homeric goat path," with its odors of "crushed figs mingled with dogshit;" the beee-bah, beee-bah of a distant bus horn; pastel houses with "bee-nuzzled cages of wisteria;" the buttery taste of just-gathered pinoli.
Miri Gottlieb is an English-born Jew who married an Italian count—the impossibly handsome, athletic Piero—raising a son with whom she shared a preternatural bond ("two bodies, one person," Harrison writes of his daughter Chiara, crediting her as "the miracle that inspired this book"). As the Nazis encroached, Miri escaped to England, leaving young Vittorio under the vaunted protection of his aristocratic name. But he was deported to Auschwitz by vengeful bureaucrat Renzo Cipriano, and now the grief-destroyed Miri has returned post war, seeking her own brand of justice. Looping backward through time, with meditations on guilt and complicity, the novel builds to an inevitable yet unexpected conclusion.
"Justice was my magical child, just as Chiara was," Harrison says with satisfaction. "It picked me up and carried me, as a book must. You surrender to it and say, 'Please take me home.'" A longtime professor at Brooklyn College, he teaches his students "the ancient concept of the muse informing everything. Creative power belongs to the muse—it doesn't belong to the artist."
He grew up surrounded by artists at work. "I saw my father making up as Henry VIII when I was five," he recalls. "I have very clear memories of his dressing room, of him putting on this ginger-colored beard." His viewing of Anne of the Thousand Days was fraught—at a climactic moment, when Henry slaps Anne Boleyn, he burst into tears and shrieked, "Daddy hit that woman!"
Harrison was 13 when his parents divorced; both remarried promptly. Between stints at boarding schools and Cambridge, he lived with his mother and stepfather (Argentinian actor and novelist Carlos Thompson) or with his father and his subsequent wives. "I adored Kay Kendall, to my mother's grief, because she'd stolen Rex."
Harrison and his German-born mother were rarely in synch. "Like many people, and many Jews, she had no interest in religion at all," he observes. "Yet she was a brilliant novelist and painter, and, of course, an actress, so the spirit expressed itself creatively in her, but she had no interest in religion as such."
By contrast, says Harrison, "I would like to participate in all religions."
This may explain his alter ego, Ustaz Omar Bey of the Moorish Orthodox Church, a syncretic religion claiming connections to Islamic and other teachings, with followers ranging from black militants to beatniks and Radical Faeries. Introduced to the renegade faith by poets Peter Lamborn Wilson and Robert Kelly, Harrison now holds the title Bishop of Woodstock. "Only the entirely tongue-in-cheek is entirely serious; it's a pataphysical concept," he says. "It's a delicious religion, and everything should be delicious, should it not?"
Harrison's back is tattooed from shoulder to waist with a quotation from Theodor W. Adorno's Minima Moralia, in the original German. The inking took "nine hours of absolute hell." It's designed to look like an open book, with his spine as the book's spine. "I love the idea of being a walking book," he beams, adding that when beachgoers ask what it means, "I say 'German philosophy,' and that ends the conversation instantly."
Carey Harrison learned German from his movie-star mother, Italian from childhood summers in Portofino, and French from attending the Lycée Français in New York. "I was just ridiculously, ridiculously lucky," he says with a beatific smile, noting that his brother Noel once told him about "a religion in the South Seas that consists solely of gratefulness. That's my religion. Every day, every hour, you thank your lucky stars."