Gary Oldman is here: He is the Oscar-nominated actor for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the brilliant performer in such films as Sid and Nancy, State of Grace, Leon: The Professional, Immortal Beloved, and this year’s The Dark Night Rises. We sit tonight with Mr. Oldman to talk about his latest theater production, A Glimmer of Light: The Last Days of Jonathan Swift, a tale about the final days of the celebrated Irish author and the hospital that was built in accordance with his last wishes. Here is a look at our interview:
Atelier Balbec: What can you tell us about the last days of Jonathan Swift?
Gary Oldman: He was in a great deal of pain, severely depressed, and, of course, anxious about the immediate future. It was a time when his friends were trying desperately to keep—what should I call them?—unsavory characters from praying on his fortune, as they had been forced to declare him unfit to live on his own—in other words, not precisely sound of mind, really)— a few years before he died.
AB: Was it during this time that he came up with the idea of St. Patrick’s Hospital?
GO: No. But, the idea seemed to have been flourishing in his mind for quite some time before his death. You must realize that Dr. Swift was horrified by the prospect of becoming mentally disabled, and was rather keen to the needs of those who were already tormented by mental illness. So it was in 1731, actually, 14 years before his death, that he wrote in Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift: “He gave the little wealth he had / To build a house for fools and mad, / And showed by one satiric touch / No nation needed it so much.” Of course, at the time he had other duties to attend to, but the idea was there.
AB: Do you believe that he was hoping to build, if you will, a secure shelter for more than just people suffering from mental illness?
GO: I don’t know, I did not have the opportunity to speak to him (laughter). No, in all honesty, it’s impossible to say whether he intended for this place to be more than just a hospital for the mentally ill. Yet, we can certainly theorize, based on the research me and colleagues did, that he also intended, in somewhat of a fanciful way, for this place to serve as a retirement home, of sorts, for people who… have had enough with the world, to put simply. Individuals who may not have been precisely insane, yet who, for one reason or another, found it unbearable to live within the confines of what we like to call “civilized society”.
It would be well to remember, though, that Dr. Swift was a misanthrope. In other words, a man who avoids human society and who generally despises men, to put it in the simplest of terms; so, it would only be natural that a man like him would take the time to, at the very least, construct a place inside his head that offered protection from the rest of the world. The idea of living in this ideal hospital would only seem natural at a time when he could absolutely not afford to own a luxurious abbey—or his very own castle (laughter).
AB: We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s birth at the magazine. The author was known for suffering from severe depression and other ailments. As you may know, he took his own life in 2008. Could an ideal hospital, like the one Dr. Swift hoped to create, have helped to prevent this?
GO: Well, I am not entirely familiar with the with the works of Mr. Wallace, and we were not friends, so I’m not, perhaps, the best person to give an opinion on this matter. Although I can say that it is not a secret anymore—not in the least—that fame, especially fame on that sort of level, allows for an immense pressure and sense of responsibility to settle in. You’re constantly expected to deliver. Not only that, you must promote your work. And if you’re a man of a deeply sensitive constitution—as I’m sure Mr. Wallace was—who cannot handle the constant demands of work and fame, then… I would be inclined to say that there is a possibility that, yes, this ideal hospital, this supreme refuge, could have been more beneficial than, you know, a run-of-the-mill psychiatric hospital.
AB: Fair enough.
GO: Look, again, I cannot comment extensively on Mr. Wallace, but from the research we did for the production, we know that that Dr. Swift could’ve benefited greatly himself if his ideal hospital had existed in years prior to his violent mental decline. Not everyone can survive out there, and it is considerably harder—no, almost impossible even—for an artist suffering from mental illness to keep up with the rest of society. I understand that most people would not agree with the prospect of taking care—some would say “pamper”—of someone simply because he wishes to retire from society. “Leave him be, he’ll toughen up!” and all that… nonsense. Well, some people don’t toughen up. Some people die a terrible death. And some of these people happen to be brilliant individuals. It’s just not fair.
AB: Was it difficult to cast an actor willing to put himself in the shoes of a writer who is not only severely tormented, but also thinking about taking his own life?
GO: Oh, of course! But Jeremy Lynn—wonderful, wonderful stage actor—not only was willing to play the part to the best of his abilities, obviously, but also to accept the physical and emotional burden that haunts you well after you have removed the costume and the makeup. Most actors can tell you that they are not comfortable with assuming a role that follows them all the way to the peace and quiet of their homes and families. But Jeremy has been superb, so we’ve been very lucky to have him with us in this production.
AB: I understand that you, the cast, and the rest of the crew will be coming from London to New York in the summer, correct?
GO: Yes. We’ll be at the Gielgud Theatre until May 23rd, and then we’ll begin performing at the Walter Kerr Theatre in August.
AB: Thank you, Mr. Oldman.
GO: My pleasure, as always. Thank you.
By: Andrés Ordorica
Image: Reblog: Eleanor Shakespeare