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A portrait of the artist – ‘A Bright Ray of Darkness’

February 14, 2021
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I’m always leery when I engage with a creative work from an artist who is operating outside their usual purview. It’s not that I question the ability to branch out – I’m a firm believer in the artistic power of multihyphenates – so much as that I recognize how difficult it is to excel in one aspect of creation, let alone more than one.

And so it was with trepidation that I approached Ethan Hawke’s new book “A Bright Ray of Darkness” (Knopf, $27.95). Specifically, I’ve been burned by actors-turned-novelists before, so you understand my caution. Hawke has four books in the rearview (though distant – it’s been 20 years since the last one) but I hadn’t read any of them, so again – maybe the most interesting part of the book is the name attached to it.

I needn’t have worried. Hawke has crafted an engaging work of literary autofiction, a story clearly drawn directly from his own personal experiences, yet rendered in such a way as to not feel bound to his life as it was lived. It’s something that many writers – many talented writers – fail to pull off, but he manages it quite deftly.

This tale of an actor struggling with his shifting reality – moving from a world of movie stardom to the Broadway stage, torn between accepting his crumbling marriage and striving to reassemble it – and making sometimes questionable choices in the process is tightly woven and densely packed, a meditation on masculinity and the value – both external and internal – of the redemption he seeks through his art.

William Harding is famous. He’s been a small-m movie star for half his life, but he’s trying something new – Broadway. Specifically, playing Hotspur in a production of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV.” All the while, his personal life is falling apart. He was unfaithful to his wife, a beloved rock star whose fame is exponentially greater than his; they’re divorcing. The press is having a field day, with William being raked over the coals. He’s living in a hotel and missing his two kids, seeing them too infrequently.

But while his world is collapsing, he’s fully embracing the process of the play. Never taken seriously as an actor, William wants to excel. He wants the direction of J.C., the celebrated directorial innovator. He’s surrounded by big talents like Virgil, the legendary figure of both stage and screen playing Falstaff, a brilliant pain in the ass. Edward, the stage veteran playing King Henry, becomes a mentor figure of sorts for William. Basically, everyone challenges William to prove himself – and he accepts.

Offstage, it’s a different sort of spiral. He’s using booze and sex and drugs to cope with his circumstances, trying to figure out how to feel about any of it, stumbling through the world, preoccupied with self-loathing. Everything is a disaster and he doesn’t know how to fix it … or even how much of it he wants to fix.

Look, it isn’t hard to connect the dots here. This is a very literal example of writing what you know, a consideration of real-life events in a fictionalized manner. Autofiction requires a degree of self-involvement, but it only really works if there is also self-examination. “A Bright Ray of Darkness” works.

It works best when we get to share in the process directly surrounding “Henry IV.” I’ll admit to a little bit of a personal bias – I played Bardolph in a summer production many years ago – and I generally love Shakespeare. There was a verisimilitude to the rehearsal stuff, and as someone who has spent his share of time backstage, that side rang true as well. There’s a vividness to it, to watching William’s efforts to rise to the challenges of Hotspur and resisting the fear of criticism and the siren song of approval, all while surrounded by outsized talents and personalities.

The more personal side of the narrative – William’s gradual acclimation to the idea of his marriage truly ending – is just as engaging, but a little less fun. That’s not to say we don’t have some laughs with (and at) William; they’re just colored by the accompanying sadness. Whatever broken thing is inside William, it’s when he’s alone that it fully occupies him.

It comes to life – all of it – through the telling. Hawke manages to treat the various excesses of the situation frankly while never making things overly sordid. His obvious love for the stage is infectious and accurate, as is his affection for the sorts who populate that world. And exploring the idea of what it really means to be a good father and husband, a good friend … a good man, showing vulnerability and accepting responsibility.

“A Bright Ray of Darkness” tells two stories, bringing to vivid life the excitement and pressures of big-ticket live theatre alongside the slow and sudden dissolution of a seemingly perfect life, as well as the moments of overlap, when the worlds bleed together. It’s a thoughtful and honest piece of writing; Hawke invites us to share in a most intimate account of passion and pathos. A shining shadow of a book.

“In faith, it is exceedingly well aim’d.” – Hotspur, Act I, Scene III (Henry IV)

Last modified on Sunday, 14 February 2021 13:59

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