Monstrous Invisible is an upcoming play about H.P. Lovecraft that is showing at Theatre Aquarius this weekend.
By Kevin Somers
Published May 23, 2013
Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft is one of the most influential horror, fantasy, and science fiction writers of the 20th century. Stephen King cites Lovecraft as being responsible for his fascination with "weird fiction" and the greatest influence on his writing.
John Carpenter's The Thing is an open homage to Lovecraft's At The Mountains of Madness, a novella about terrible things, accidentally, uncovered on an Artic exploration. Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho, was a protégé and admirer of Lovecraft.
Lovecraft was born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, and died there 46 years later, poor and obscure. Admiring contemporaries, to whom he willed his catalogue, made certain his work lived and, by the 1950s, Lovecraft's literary legacy was firmly fixed.
Numbingly prolific, Lovecraft wrote fiction, poetry and literary criticisms, as well as science and travel pieces. He was also an epic epistolarian, penning approximately 100,000 letters to friends and contemporaries, most of whom he never met. It's estimated that 20,000 of his letters survive and several collections have been published as books.
Lovecraft's childhood prepared him well for a career in creating horror and weird fiction. Both his parents suffered from mental illness. Lovecraft was only three when his dad, after a psychotic episode, was admitted to Butler (psychiatric) Hospital. Lovecraft's father remained institutionalized until his death five years, later.
Lovecraft was raised by his mother, aunts, and grandfather. As an only, sickly child who missed much school, Lovecraft's prodigious literary gifts were nurtured and indulged through reading, writing and story telling by all the adults in his life.
In 1919, suffering from depression and hysteria, Lovecraft's mother was also interned at Butler Hospital, where she died two years later. Not spared the family curse, Lovecraft suffered night terrors. It is reported that the young man, after his grandfather's death in 1904, retreated from the world and had little contact with anyone but his mother for years, while he wrote, madly, producing mostly poetry.
Lovecraft didn't graduate from high school, due to what he later described as a "nervous breakdown." Although fixed in Rhode Island, Lovecraft's brilliant, brittle mind obviously took him to fascinating places, as well as to Hell and back, again and again.
In a letter to Rheinhart Kleiner in 1917, Lovecraft noted the relationship between his craft and his illness:
As to letters, my case is peculiar. I write such things exactly as easily and as rapidly as I would utter the same topics in conversation; indeed, epistolary expression is with me largely replacing conversation, as my condition of nervous prostration becomes more and more acute. I cannot bear to talk much now, and am becoming as silent as the Spectator himself! My loquacity extends itself on paper.
As with Vincent Van Gogh, Lovecraft, it seems, tried to make art while making sense of the madness.
Hamilton playwright, Stephen Near, has had a long fascination with H.P. Lovecraft and a deep admiration for his work. We met, recently, to discuss his upcoming play about H. P. Lovecraft, Monstrous Invisible, at Theatre Aquarius this weekend.
"I've been reading Lovecraft since I was kid; he's been the biggest influence on my writing," Near said. "He was a great writer, but a horrible racist and anti-Semite."
Monstrous Invisible examines a lesser-scrutinized aspect of Lovecraft's life: his brief (two-year) ill-fated marriage to Sonia Greene, who was Jewish.
Lovecraft met Greene, who was seven years older, shortly after his mother's death, at an amateur journalists convention. They were married three years later, in 1924, when he was 34 and she 41. Lovecraft had always lived at home. Greene, a strong, independent woman, was first married at 16 and had been on her own since childhood.
A successful milliner, Greene was also an amateur writer and publisher, who donated money from hat making to small presses around New York. Upon their nuptials, Lovecraft moved into her Brooklyn apartment.
Almost immediately, however, Greene lost her job and the couple suffered financial hardship. She moved to Cleveland for work, and for the next two years, Greene mailed money to Lovecraft to pay rent and buy food. They never lived together again. Lovecraft later said he was so poor during this period that he could scarcely eat.
After two miserable years in New York, Lovecraft moved back to Rhode Island and lived with his aunts - again, until they died, before he died. Lovecraft and Greene, through correspondence, drew up an amicable divorce, but it was never finalized because Lovecraft never signed it.
Near said, "The play is an exploration of relationships. It takes place at the end of Lovecraft's life and he is looking back at things left unsaid, things left undone. There are end of life revelations. It's a dialogue between himself and the darker forces that plagued him; maybe it's his soul, or God, but he opens doors and relives parts of his past."
There have been a few version of Monstrous Invisible. In 2009, Near was commissioned to write a short play for a festival in Toronto, where he had lived and had been involved in theatre for 20 years. "It was well-received; a big hit," he said, with a smile.
Near moved to Hamilton in 2010 and, the following year, wrote a longer version for The Pearl Company's Canadian Theatre Festival. "Again, it was well-received," he said.
"Fast forward to 2012, and Theatre Aquarius invited me to participate in their New Play Development Program. It's been a great process," he said. "There have been countless drafts and endless rewrites, but I'm very happy with the script. I feel like it's close to being done, finally."
Of the Aquarius production, Near said, "I love his 'cosmic horror' and Monstrous Invisible is an attempt to present, on stage, what a Lovecraft performance might be like."
He took me to the Studio Theatre at Aquarius, this week, where a rehearsal was in full swing. Amongst those working - intently, intensely - were stage, lighting and sound designers, as well as illusionist extraordinaire, Nicolas Wallace. (I saw Wallace perform at the Fringe Festival two summers ago and returned the next night with my daughters, something that hadn't happened before and hasn't happened since.)
Director Luke Brown said, "It's very ambitious for a small show. We're working with an extremely limited budget. I've called in many favors and some talented people are really pitching in because they believe in the project." While I was there, the cast and crew were trying to get the lighting and fogging affects and effects perfect, while Wallace made paper fly.
Watching craftspeople, who love their craft, working collaboratively to put something significant together was magical. I asked Near how it made him feel. "I'm thrilled. As a playwright, this is pure joy," he said, but it was written all over his face.
Upon exiting, I spotted Martha Christianson, who plays Sonia Greene, outside the theatre and asked her opinion of Monstrous Invisible. "It's a fabulous play," she said, without hesitation. "I was reading it this week with my daughter, and in the middle, she stopped and said, 'Mom, this is fantastic.'"
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