Before I Am Lost – Camden Fringe preview

Beatrice Vincent’s show Before I Am Lost opens at the Etcetera Theatre on 16 August. It focuses on a specific point in the life of the poet Hilda Doolittle, better known as H.D.

I asked Beatrice a few questions about the show.

Rehearsal photo by Lucy Ioannou
Rehearsal photo by Lucy Ioannou

Why has H.D. been such an inspiration for you?

Throwing me in at the deep end there! How long do you want this interview to be?

In all honesty I think there’s an element of her coming into my life at the perfect time; I studied English Literature at university, and we had one lecture on her in my second year, I think.

The main poem I remember looking at was The Master, written during her work with Sigmund Freud in the 1930s. It’s lengthy and complex and beautiful and essentially boils down to her saying, “shut up, Sigmund, I like women.”

Having only recently accepted that I, too, was somewhat less straight than I initially thought, her refusal to have herself and her sexuality dismissed was something that I had desperately needed.

Of course I went straight to the library, took out the fat volume of her selected poems, and set to reading. What really struck me about her work is how ahead of her time she was in her world views. I’m constantly harping on about how she was doing in 1918 what Carol Ann Duffy is praised for doing now – she described the experience of being a well-educated young woman as being in a bell jar before Sylvia Plath was born. This is the mother of women’s poetry as we know it today.

I could talk about her all day, about her intelligence and her artistry, but more than anything else there’s just something about her writing that makes me feel less alone. There’s that wonderful scene Alan Bennett wrote for The History Boys, where Hector says, “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead.” H.D. really brings these words to life for me, so I want to bring her to life for other people who might benefit from knowing her and her poetry.

Female poets are often dismissed as odd, dark or disturbed. How do you bring your subject to life and avoid these stereotypes?

It’s a tricky subject, as most people’s first ports of call for female poets are figures like Plath and Sexton who are famous for their darkness.

What I love about H.D. is that she refuses to ever really descend into that kind of despair – of course there is pain and anger and deep sadness in her writing at times, but there’s always resilience as well. 

In terms of bringing her to life and avoiding those female poet stereotypes, I think it’s as simple as giving voice to the woman herself. Because she’s so little known, a quick Google search and a read of her Wikipedia page will tell you almost nothing about the real woman she was.

I’ve been hugely frustrated in my research process for Before I am Lost, reading introductions and notes on her work and her life all written by men. It’s a subject I talk about in the show itself – the way men historicise women. They tend to focus on the despair, on the fragility, or completely erase these and make the woman into an infallible saint.

That’s why I’ve been hugely grateful to her for writing autobiographical novels. I read HERmione, Asphodel, and Bid Me To Live as research for the show, and they’ve been immeasurably helpful in painting a vivid picture of the woman she was. Obviously you have to take novelisations with a pinch of salt, especially her Hermione novels, but it’s generally accepted if she hadn’t changed the names in Bid Me To Live, she could have called it a straight-up autobiography.

I think very few writers just do all the research in one block and then all the writing, so I already a fair number of ideas and lines scribbled down when I read the novels. This meant I had a few wonderful moments where I would come across an image or a feeling she had written that I already had in my draft, and as corny as it sounds, those really felt like gifts saying “you’re doing okay, you’re getting this right”.

Of course we can never truly know everything a historical person would have said and felt, but I can say with certainty that the H.D. I’m presenting in Before I Am Lost is real and honest and human.

How is your show informed or influenced by the avant garde writing movement in which H.D. was a major participant?

It’s something I must admit I would struggle to pin down – writing her spoken voice is obviously a far cry from replicating her written voice, but I like to think there’s still a poetic quality to the text of Before I am Lost.

More overtly I think this influence is mostly felt in the presence of the other writers themselves in the play. For example, H.D. was heavily influenced by Pound in her early life, so his voice is one that the audience hears, and because of how well documented their relationship was, most of what he says in the play he said in real life.

H.D.’s life revolved around literature, whether contemporary or canonical, so that’s something I’ve tried to bring in as well. She’s constantly quoting – I’d be really impressed if an audience member caught all of the literary allusions that are in there!

Image from flyer of Before I Am Lost
Image from flyer of Before I Am Lost

H.D. had a long relationship with fellow creative Bryher, who was heavily involved in helping refugees escape from Nazi oppression. Although your play is set in 1919, does their relationship inform your work in any way?

This is an interesting question as it’s been something we’ve really battled with in the rehearsal room. As I was already a huge fan of H.D. when I began the writing process, I was aware of her relationship with Bryher and the things they achieved while together.

In doing the research for this particular show, I concentrated on the period before Bryher and H.D. meet, and their very early relationship, but I wasn’t quite able to rid myself of the knowledge of who H.D. would become in her later life.

When rehearsals started, Ross [McGregor, director] had to say to me, “you love her too much, she’s not as strong as you’re playing her” and he was absolutely right. I was playing the H.D. I had first fallen in love with – the woman who argued with Freud about lesbian love, who wrote, “woman is perfect” – but that woman hadn’t quite been born in 1919.

There’s still strength in her, of course, but she hasn’t completely embraced it yet. I think Bryher was a hugely positive influence on H.D. and is certainly a big presence in the show, but I’ve had to constantly keep in mind that their relationship is only just beginning, and the defiance that I think Bryher nurtured in H.D. is only just starting to take form.

On the surface the play is about the birth of H.D.’s daughter Perdita, but if we’ve pulled it off right then it’s just as much the birth of H.D. herself, and Bryher plays a big part in that.

What should Camden Fringe audiences expect from Before I Am Lost?

Turning up for a one person show is always a risk, I know. Putting yourself in one performer’s hands is a huge leap of faith, and I’m so grateful to all the people who will be putting their evenings in my hands over the next week.

Although now I’ve gone through the process it feels disingenuous to claim it’s just me that audience is trusting with their time: this show is the product of so many people’s hard work, not just my own. I’m really lucky to have friends who are incredibly talented and generous with their time, so I’ve never felt like I was on my own with this project.

So in as far as I can call it a one person show, I feel this is different to others I’ve seen, mostly because it’s not addressed to the audience.

The conversation is between mother and child, so it’s very intimate. But there’s also an immediacy to it – she’s in labour for the duration of the show, so there’s absolutely a sense of the clock ticking. And her belief that she’ll die in childbirth means that she’s more honest about her emotions and about her experiences than she would otherwise be.

I should probably note that we’re talking mid-stage labour, where a modern woman would think “maybe I should pack a bag and go to the hospital now,” so they don’t need to prepare themselves for an hour of blood and screaming (though my housemate insists this would be a selling point).

H.D. was a major force in the Imagist movement who is often overshadowed by the more showy Ezra Pound. Do you feel that female poets will ever find their rightful place in the canon?

I certainly hope so! That’s why I wrote this play, after all. It might just be because that’s my area of interest, but it seems like pulling brilliant women out of obscurity is something that’s really in vogue at the moment.

Obviously Morgan Lloyd Malcom’s Emilia had been a revelation for a lot of people (and going to see it was actually a really important moment for me in the writing process for Before I am Lost).  I’m hoping this trend continues as more than just a theatrical fad as I know there are so many works out there that deserve to be read.

For my part, I’m hoping that I can bring Hilda Doolittle out from the shadow of Pound or Lawrence to stand on her own two feet as she rightly deserves.

Now I’m thinking perhaps our next show will have to be about Felicia Hemans (she sold more books of poetry in the 19th century than Byron. He hated this, look her up).

What’s next for Cobalt Theatre?

The big question! I’m hoping that this won’t be Before I am Lost’s only outing. My aim with the show was to bring H.D. into the light, so I don’t think I’ll feel totally satisfied by a 5 day run in a 40 seater theatre, even if I end up selling out every night.

There’s no solid plans as yet, but I’m definitely keeping it in my back pocket for when the next opportunity arises. I’m not at all done with Hilda Doolittle – in twenty years I’ll be back with a two hander about her conversations with Freud, but as someone in my mid-twenties I don’t feel ready to write that yet.

In terms of the more immediate future, I’m trying to balance writing with keeping up acting work and the day job as well, but there are more than a few things I’d love to get off the ground properly. Now I just have to pick which one goes first!

Rehearsal photo by Lucy Bower
Rehearsal photo by Lucy Bower

My thanks to Beatrice for her time – Cobalt Theatre‘s production of Before I Am Lost runs at the Etcetera Theatre 16-20 August at 6.30pm. You can purchase tickets here.

Incidentally, I’m rather excited at the prospect of seeing a further play about Felicia Hemans, a very neglected voice among some fabulous female poets of the 18th and 19th centuries (and when I am in my late sixties, I’ll be there watching the two-hander between H.D, and Freud!).