Methuen Drama’s Modern Classics series showcases landmark plays from around the world. Drawing on the Modern Plays series, which launched in 1959, Modern Classics celebrates plays from the contemporary repertoire by world-leading dramatists and presents their work in a definitive edition, alongside new introductions by leading scholars and industry professionals. Recently relaunched with striking new covers and fantastic authors such as Amelia Bullmore, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Ayad Akhtar and James Graham, they’re perfect for anyone wanting to deepen their knowledge of the plays from the modern dramatic canon.
The following extract is from Elizabeth Kuti’s new introduction to Di and Viv and Rose by Amelia Bullmore, publishing in February 2021 in our Modern Classics series
The final words in the script of Di and Viv and Rose are ‘dancing for dear life’. It’s a stage direction describing the play’s final image: our three eponymous characters, doing just that. That ‘dear life’ should be the final words of the play’s published script is very appropriate, because life is the play’s main concern – the dearness of it, the sweetness of it, yes – but also, as the phrase implies, the danger. If you are doing something for dear life, you are doing it frantically, desperately, to ward off the threat of death. Amelia Bullmore’s play is the story of a friendship between three women over nearly three decades; they are the only characters we see onstage, and their story involves much pleasure, plenty of laughter and some ecstatic dancing. But there are also dangers that come, unpredictably and chaotically, from left field: they include rape, unplanned pregnancy, serious illness, disability and death. So the play is as much about the jeopardy and risk of ‘normal’ life as it is about joy: ‘dancing for dear life’, by the close of the play, must be seen as part of a whole state of existence – one that embraces dancing but also includes loss, fear and grief.
How do you structure a play where the subject matter is the ‘normal’ stuff of life, tracked over nearly three decades? In most real lives – as opposed to those represented in the theatre – good fortune and disaster tend to strike indiscriminately, without inevitability, logical causality or preparation through a careful building of tension in a beautifully crafted first act. Bullmore’s play is beautifully crafted, though its simplicity may appear artless; unusually, though, its most devastating and influential plot events follow the arbitrary logic of life by consisting of unpredictable accidents of fate – a criminal act, a road accident.
It is also an unusual choice in playwriting to make friendship both the theme and the shaping narrative structure. As a three-hander, the play discards everything else in favour of devoting its stage time entirely to the bond between Di and Viv and Rose, so that the friendship narrative itself becomes the plot and the controlling principle of the evening – an unusual principle in that this connection is one without blood or familial ties (the more commonly depicted bond in drama). The friendship examined here is a horizontal and lateral connection without intergenerational tensions, as these are three women of the same age; without the complication of sexual attachment; and with no shared common goal or need, other than the accident of their meeting at university. The narrative thread that determines the events onstage and that holds Bullmore’s play together is, as its title (apparently) guilelessly tells us, the story, from beginning to (nearly) end, of a friendship, composed of the trio of Di and Viv and Rose: their first encounters with each other, their formative three years at university from 1983 to 1986 (the material of act1) and then, in act 2, a telescoped journey that leaps through the years from 1987 to 2010. Amelia Bullmore has said the forward, linear, chronological ordering of the play arrived naturally and organically:
As I remember it the structure arrived straightforwardly. It was always going to go forward and forward only and I knew I needed to set them up pithily. Get them installed in Mossbank quickly. I wrote the opening sequence to be performed in front of a cloth, almost like a routine. I knew the forging period at Mossbank could take longer and that once that spell was broken, the following years could and should and would have to be visited in a series of leaps.
In this forward-moving, linear plot design, the ‘point of attack’ in playwriting terms (the moment at which the play begins) is the meeting of the three in 1983; the action moves forward chronologically but with time gaps, leading to the concluding event of the play, which is the dissolution of the trio, with Rose’s sudden death. After that point, the story of the three, the group that was ‘Di and Viv and Rose’, is over, because it no longer exists – or at least, it exists only in the hands, and memories, of the remaining two, Di and Viv. How they handle this legacy is the concern of the play’s wrenching final beat.
The impact of the death of Rose almost destroys the friendship altogether – and if you are looking for conventional dramatic structure or a dramatic question, this is where you find it: whether the love between these three, the thing that was ‘Di and Viv and Rose’, will somehow survive, or whether it will be thrown away, lost or forgotten. This sense of jeopardy fills the last few pages of the final scene with great tension and leads to a moment of crisis. Hurt, isolation and miscommunication – those perennial dangers that beset friendship – almost kill off the story of Di and Viv and Rose, in a painful culminating explosion of anger and sadness. In the play’s final scene on a hillside, the two bereaved survivors of the friendship teeter on the brink of ending it altogether: ‘Let’s admit it and call it a day and have one less thing in life that isn’t true’ (act 2, sc. 9, p. 86). The friendship is now a duo not a trio, and this change almost scuppers it. Friendship, like everything else that we most treasure in life, is fragile, easily torn, easily lost; it has a life, and it dies if starved of the oxygen of forgiveness, generosity, effort, care. The ideal friendship narrative, that ends only in death, rarely materializes. However, lifelong friendship remains such a precious and rare treasure that we want Viv to fight for it, as she does at the end – because the play, if it works, demands that we become so emotionally invested in the friendship that to see it end in anger and recrimination would feel close to tragic. To terminate the friendship and part in acrimony would feel like a desecration of the dearness of shared life, shared attachment and memories, which their dancing encapsulated. It is a desecration to which the survivors Di and Viv come perilously close.