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The turtle, the librarian and the Barbie dolls

The life of a demented and bigoted hypochondriac provides Jonathan Miller with an unlikely triumph. But hurry - only 55 of you can see it at a time

Kate Kellaway
Observer

Sunday May 26, 2002

Camera Obscura Almeida rehearsal rooms, London N1

camera_obscura-almeida_program_coverArthur Inman wrote 17 million words. He wrote about a life that wasn't a life. This eloquent, bigoted, demented American diarist put himself under hotel arrest for decades - he suffered from extreme hypochondria - and, like a literal Yankee cousin to Proust, wrote about America and everything that did and didn't happen behind the drawn curtains of his room.

Was his mighty tome his tomb? He yearned for publication, perhaps as a projected end to loneliness. He sought young women, too. He would advertise for them to read and talk to him - and would fondle or sometimes have sex with them - and record this as compulsively as he did everything else. He kept his diaries between 1918 and 1963, the year he shot himself.

 

camera_obscura-almeida_1_sheet.jpg (65988 bytes)On the face of it, this would not seem like a subject for a play: static, verbose, disagreeable. But Camera Obscura is a fantastic piece, written by Lorenzo DeStefano and meticulously directed by Jonathan Miller.

It is out of the ordinary in every way. For a start, it is being performed in the Almeida's rehearsal rooms which seat only 55 people. This almost removes the sense of being at the theatre; there is, instead, a feeling of disquieting involvement.

We are in the dark, watching occasional, forbidden light (Inman abhored the sun) falling across a room that, at times, recalls an Edward Hopper interior, complete with an atmosphere of tense irresolution. The unexpectedly robust pleasure of the evening is in trying to make sense of Inman's psychology.

camera_obscura-almeida_flyer-back.jpg (155224 bytes)I revelled, too, in the language, which is as agile as Inman himself is immobile. He hazards weird, decadent generalisations. He seldom has an ordinary response to anything. He looks like a cross between a turtle and Oscar Wilde, beached high on his hospital bed with whisky, pink pills, girls who resemble Barbie dolls and an uncanny wife - Evelyn - as his companions.

Evelyn (Diana Hardcastle) is as hard to fathom as he is. She looks like an elegant, sauntering librarian, dressed in black, as if registering her husband's living death (after his suicide, she switches to cream). She is a fashion plate, a bemusing combination of infidelity and devotion. Inman has a harsh, comic instinct, telling her at one point: 'You look like you're getting all your exercise writing cheques.'

Other visitors come and go, like flies alighting on a decaying fruit. His interest, he more than once maintains, is in the hidden and the unseen. This becomes our concern, too, as we consider him in darkness and in a posthumous limelight.


Camera Obscura, The Almeida Rehearsal Room, London

In bed with Arthur Inman

Review by Paul Taylor

27 May 2002

camera_obscura-almeida_pixThe tables have been turned on the excellent actor Peter Eyre. Earlier this year, as Kenneth Tynan paying court to Louise Brooks in Smoking with Lulu, he played the visitor of a legendary recluse. Now, in Lorenzo DeStefano's fascinating play Camera Obscura, he plays the legendary recluse who is being visited, skilfully switching from bedside to in-bed manner.

camera_obscura-almeida_pixThe show is based on the real-life diaries of Arthur Crew Inman (1895-1963), a moneyed American who made a kind of art form of his phobias (to light, noise, John F Kennedy etc) and took the principle of room service to quite extraordinary lengths. Unwilling to leave his darkened apartment in the Garrison Hall hotel, in Boston, where he had bought all the neighbouring flats in a doomed effort to eliminate disturbance, he advertised in the press for "talkers" to tell him the story of their life. Some of the females who responded were fondled; others had full sex. The diaries therefore became an informal and unpublished Kinsey report avant la lettre. His live-in wife put up with his behaviour.

camera_obscura-almeida_pixThe photo of a testy-looking, toothbrush-moustached Inman in the programme suggests a peppery, wired-up individual. Eschewing impersonation, Peter Eyre converts the character into a great tragicomic creation, his demeanour reminding you more of the flabby Wilde, and his seductively low-key Southern drawl, of a Tennessee Williams faded belle. The dimpling, little-boy bids for pathos are as outrageously manipulative as his innocent-seeming curiosity when he's pruriently quizzing his lady visitors about the precise sensations felt during the female orgasm. There's something at once floppily invertebrate and strong-willed about this whisky-swigging, politically bigoted self-made invalid who takes such a calculatedly childish delight in tape-recording every embarrassing session. To be goosed by him would be like being molested by a tenacious blancmange.

camera_obscura-almeida_pixYet the play and the performance help you to see why so many people remained loyal to him – not least his wife, whose oscillation between exasperated affection and the desperate desire for some freedom and dignity is beautifully captured by Diana Hardcastle. The hypochondriac's gently insistent air of total entitlement would very quickly, you feel, enslave anyone without his paradoxical strength of character. But that manner covers a terrible pathos.

camera_obscura-almeida_pixThe play is shaped in the life-in-the-day-of format, and it happens to be the day, in 1963, on which he took his own life. The consequences of his warped manner of existence crowd in on him. Through a succession of encounters, which the expert shading of Jonathan Miller's production prevents from ever feeling like a desultory straggle of visits, Inman makes some painful discoveries. He forces his wife into revealing her 30-year affair with his doctor and friend, Cyrus Pike (Jeff Harding). His sinister, Orton-esque Dutch manservant (Richard Brake) turns out to have passed on one of the incriminating diaries to his landlords, raising the threat of eviction from his cocooned redoubt. And not just the living come to pay their disrespects. Causing him to curl up in a foetal heap, his cotton-baron father pops back from the dead to remind Inman of his vain attempts to become a poet, derisively quoting the awful doggerel and its vicious reviews.

And yet this failed artist, this Proust without the excuse of a great novel, left a vast literary legacy: 17 million words in 155 volumes of diaries. It can only be a compliment to the play, production and cast that they have left me avid to get hold of the published extracts.

To 8 June (020-7359 4404)


Diary of a nobody

How did a housebound hypochondriac write a 17 million-word journal? And why has Lorenzo DeStefano turned it into a play?

Lorenzo DeStefano
Guardian

Wednesday May 8, 2002

camera_obscura-almeidaWhy bother, one could ask, with the rantings of a semi-invalid holed up in a crumbling apartment hotel in a dying American city? What use are his unsolicited opinions on world affairs, his ambitions for literary immortality, his calcified Victorian ideas on race and natural selection, his obsession with young girls? In the case of Arthur Crew Inman, I found his ramblings very useful indeed - once I had overcome my initial revulsion in order to look further into his self-made shadow land.

camera_obscura-almeida_pix_5.02-kathy_w_mike-a_in_bed.jpg (31563 bytes)I first encountered the 17 million-word diary of this transplanted resident of Boston in 1985, the year Harvard University Press published a two-volume set entitled The Inman Diary: A Public and Private Confession. Edited over a seven-year period by Daniel Aaron, a professor of American literature at Harvard, Inman's diary easily qualifies as the longest ever written by an American and perhaps by any citizen of any land.

Covering the years 1903-63, Inman's social observations range from his favourite subject, the American civil war, through the onset of the nuclear age up to the assassination of John F Kennedy. It becomes clear early on that this failed romantic poet meant these vast outpourings to ensure him the kind of literary fame that eluded him during his sleepless days and nights in apartment 604 at Garrison Hall, the building he hardly left for 50 years. His desire for the spotlight rears its head throughout the diary.

"I wish there was a way I could know right now whether it's been worth the immense effort and nervous perseverance I've spent trying to maintain the highest quality of this work, its honesty. If the diaries of Pepys, Casanova, Boswell and Rousseau have proven of interest to future generations, why not mine?"

camera_obscura-almeida_pix_5.02-therese_massages_arthur.jpg (28478 bytes)Some would say that this is inordinately high company for a scribbling nobody to keep, even in his own mind. And yet, taken as a whole, The Inman Diary stands up quite well alongside those great chroniclers. While one quickly tires of his endless hypochondriacal moanings - "right thumb sprained, coccyx badly bruised, both arms a constant useless agony. What a bruised, squirming semblance of a thing I am" - it is the truly democratic nature of Inman's diary that most impresses me.

Instead of the self-centred epic of the mind that it threatens to become, the work is radically transformed by the people Arthur met after moving to Boston in November 1919. By placing personal ads in the city's papers for over 40 years, he reached well beyond the confines of apartment 604 to a surprisingly diverse and fascinating range of fellow humans.

"Wanted: Talkers & Readers - Have you imagination? Can you read or talk rapidly and interestingly? Have you had unusual, dramatic or exciting experiences? $5.00 per hour to amuse an invalid author (more if your speech is superlative)."

camera_obscura-almeida_pix_5.02-ws_evelyn__arthur_in_bed.jpg (29740 bytes)By including the hopes and dreams of the anonymous shopgirls and clerks and travelling salesmen who responded to his lure in great numbers, Inman broadened the scope of his work without a thought for social rank or educational accomplishment. What interested him most was a cracking good story well told, the effluvia of lives he could barely imagine on his own.

"At last count I have chronicled the lives of more than 1,000 people within these pages. They are not what you'd call great people. For the most part they are of the common, everyday variety. Yet they are far more interesting to me than persons of wealth or so-called "class"."

By pursuing his passion for recording the passage of time, Inman meant to ensure not only himself but these fellow citizens a measure of the immortality he felt they all deserved. Of course, the diary's eventual publication 22 years after his death was nothing but a distant hope throughout his long, unquiet life.

"I wish to explain, in the unlikely case that this diary should ever be deemed to amount to more than the paper it is put upon, the broad theory of its organisation... I delve back into my past and set down all the odds and ends I can remember, so that in the fullness of time I shall have painted the parts of a connected frieze, parts of which you, dear readers of the future, will have to put together."

camera_obscura-almeida_pix_5.02-ws_arthur__henry.jpg (27466 bytes)And so I did. With Daniel Aaron's expert guidance, a design began to emerge. Absorbing this diary - overwhelming in scope, yet delicate in nature - was like plunging head first into a frigid pool. Daunted at first by its sheer size (1,600pages even in its abridged form), I swam on, pulled forward through each entry by the emerging voice. Almost every one hinges upon Inman's opinions on everything from the price of soap to the bloated reputation of one of his favourite enemies, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Inman spared no one his poisoned pen, even his wife of 40 years, Evelyn Yates Inman. She emerges, for me, as one of the great female figures in contemporary non-fiction. Her long-suffering role of nursemaid, cajoler, co-conspirator and loyal friend to her ill-chosen man brings to the diary a much-needed domestic reality without which it would lose much of its appeal. Arthur's opinion of her, alternately scornful and full of praise, chronicles one of the most strangely functional marriages, real or imagined, ever set down on paper.

camera_obscura-almeida_pix_5.02-evelyn_sitting_at_table.jpg (15084 bytes)"What a pale personality Evelyn has, so many predictable little gestures of speech and action. And homely as a stump fence in the dark... Is it possible to live with any degree of closeness to someone and not hate them on occasion?"

When Evelyn showed Arthur love, performed some useful function for him or simply accepted him for the difficult but lovable creature he had become, his views on her changed.

camera_obscura-almeida_pix-5.02-arthur_sitting_on_bed.jpg (30287 bytes)"Ambivalence aside, Evelyn is the sweetest child in all the world. I am, in fact, of the humble opinion that my wife is a treasure among treasures, the hub of the wheel of my existence. I guess I love her more than I had any idea. Admitting it is not unlike having a tooth pulled. Funny thing, love."



camera_obscura-almeida_pix_5.02-jonathan.jpg (39754 bytes) After beginning a correspondence with Aaron in the mid-1980s, I slowly began to see the dramatic potential hidden in the elephantine folds of the diary. After several years of spadework, writing outline after outline to try to create some definable storyline, in the mid-90s I had to actually tackle the job. By chance I came upon the idea of setting the play during the last few days of Inman's life. Hanging this vast memory piece on some kind of structure seemed essential to keep the attention of an audience, for whom Arthur's taciturn nature and outrageous opinions might be enough to drive them from their seats. Likewise, any attempt to oversanitise the man would be to ignore one of Arthur's most strenuous demands of any "editor of the future".

"One day you will know my world more intimately than you do your own, will have mapped its texture, its Chinese box construction. Should you choose to emphasize my whiny, rotten qualities, so be it. If I am made out as some kind of genius of solitude, I will likewise go along. But if you attempt to nicen me up I will come back as a ghost and seek revenge on you as one who has cheated me of my rightful place in history."

camera_obscura-almeida_pix_5.02-evelyn__pike.jpg (19325 bytes)Not wanting this curse upon my head, I have tried to present the man warts and all. I have turned lengthy diary entries into what I hope are cogent scenes, rendering monologues into credible dialogue between what were once living, breathing people. Naturally, what is on display in Camera Obscura is but a fragment of these people's lives. One would need scores of Forsyte Sagas to even begin to encompass the girth of what Inman left behind. In this incarnation of the play, however, brevity is a very good thing.

· Camera Obscura is at the Almeida Rehearsal Room, London N1, from Monday. Box office: 020-7359 4404.

For the Guardian Online article "DIARY OF A NOBODY" by Lorenzo DeStefano, click here

For the London Observer review "The turtle, the librarian and the Barbie Dolls", click here

For the London Independent reviews "In Bed with Arthur Inman", click here

For the British Medical Journal review, click here

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