It is to my eternal shame that since I passed my English Literature ‘O’ level, I can count the number of plays that I’ve read on the fingers of one … finger. But during our recent visit to the Coronation Street studios, Elaine and I had a lengthy chat with Connor McIntyre (the man behind the villainous but undeniably compelling Pat Phelan), and he spoke with such passion about his craft, and in particular a play by Steven Berkoff entitled “Harry’s Christmas” that I acquired a copy of a book containing the aforementioned work and yesterday settled down to break my adult play duck.
“Harry’s Christmas” is a monologue; and even I was capable of working out the identity of the lone character and the time of year when the scene was set. On paper, it is not a lengthy composition, but it is a deep, dark and complex piece of work that I found difficult to read, probably because there were moments to which it was uncomfortably easy to relate.
Harry is approaching middle age, single, evidently lonely, and quite obviously suffering from a mental health condition. The “condition” is represented in the text by capitalisation; a companion with a powerful voice that can (and will) persuade Harry to analyse anything and everything that will lead him to question “why”?
The power of that unseen companion is magnified by the timing of the play. Remove any element of childhood wonderment and Christmas leaves you with ample time for introspection. Harry judges his life’s achievements as a number. The number is six … the six Christmas cards that Harry received.
But add four more from the previous year and Harry would reach double figures, and “ten would be acceptable”. Harry’s struggle for self-justification is already taking shape. The notion of cards defining life is absurd, but how many of us already see something of ourselves in Harry?
All Harry wants is to be “normal”, but Harry sees himself as “UNBEING”, a word that his mind takes great delight in defining: “LONELY, UNPOPULAR, UNLIKED, UNDESIRABLE, UNBEFRIENDED, UNKNOWN, UNCARED FOR, UNINTERESTING …”
The desire to “reach out” becomes irresistible. “Give us a ring sometime” … a meaningless message in a card … “DO IT…”
What could be simpler than picking up a phone? Harry’s confidence ebbs and flows as his mind exerts more control. Eventually he rings Jack. Jack needs to ask Harry’s surname. Harry thanks Jack for the card. Jack tells Harry his wife sent it.
SHIT, SHIT, SHIT, SHIT, SHIT…
Harry rings Clara. He “loved” Clara … Clara is out.
All Harry has to do is ring his mother if he wants to talk. All Harry has to do is switch on the television if he wants to be distracted from what is becoming more than just seasonal misery. But these are “easy options”. Harry wants more than a guarantee. He wants to know that someone cares—someone who doesn’t have to.
He rings Annie. The call is a disaster.
SHIT, SHIT, SHIT, SHIT, SHIT…
Harry’s mind tightens its grip. If life is nothing more than “SLEEP, WAKE, SMOKE, EAT, WATCH, DIE”, then why bother? Harry’s mental state is clearly in decline. How can receiving six cards lead so quickly to believing death is better than being lonely and miserable?
It’s a steep downward spiral, but the sound of the phone ringing suddenly creates a positive surge of hope. This could be the call that changes everything … somebody wants Harry … somebody needs Harry…
It’s a wrong number.
Harry’s attempt to reach out to a total stranger is literally pathetic. The descent gathers pace and Harry lies to his mother about having friends over for a party and renames the television a “flickering idiot box”. The one person and one inanimate object to whom and which Harry could have reached out at any point are all-too-readily discarded, as a final call to Clara is answered by her partner.
Harry decides to take a few pills—just to sleep through Christmas. As the tablets take effect, Harry believes he has the strength to contact Clara and simply invite himself to share her Christmas. And that is the sum of his courage … making a phone call. And now that Harry is the dominant negative partner (“I’m a coward”), his mind simply states the opposite (“NO YOU’RE NOT”). Clever…
The possibility of objective clarity disappeared the moment the first pills were swallowed. The descent accelerates with every subsequent tablet, and as they start to take effect, Harry suddenly imagines he is with Clara. Everything is perfect … until he feels her slipping away; and the sudden panic in Harry’s mind (It’s cold … it’s dark … where … are … you?”) coincides with Harry taking his final breath.
The play ends with three simple words: “Harry is dead.”
There’s nothing much more to say. That is literally the end. The reader is left to wonder just who (his mother notwithstanding) will genuinely mourn Harry’s passing. How many people will go to his funeral? And if they go, do they go out of duty, or because they care? And if they cared, why didn’t they just take a minute to send him a Christmas card? Four more could have been the difference.
This play isn’t good; it’s thought-provokingly good; it’s frighteningly good. The way Harry’s mood swings so far and so quickly is superbly realised; as is the fascinating and destructive struggle between Harry and his own mind. Whatever combination of factors resulted in Harry becoming quite so lonely and isolated is largely irrelevant; what strikes the reader is the fact that it only takes something trivial to tip the balance.
For me the gathering momentum of the fall is summed up by Berkoff’s use of the three-dot ellipsis; my second-favourite piece of punctuation—after the em dash. It gives the impression of uninterrupted (maybe even uninterruptable) flow towards a conclusion that the readers can see long before the play’s protagonist. Of course, I could be totally wide of the mark, but I was always told that if you argue your point well enough, you could never be proven conclusively wrong.
Advice I clearly didn’t take when I barely scraped a ‘C’ in my English Literature ‘O’ level…
Maybe some of us know a Harry. Maybe some of us feel some connection to Harry. All I would say is don’t wait for Christmas—it’s good to talk and it’s fine to ask for help.
Richard... Jack of some trades... you can guess the rest