How do you write about a legend? Especially a legend who is still alive? R.J. Downes, a Toronto-based playwright, decided to take on Ray Bradbury, one of the most celebrated fantastic-fiction writers of all time, and his bonne vivante wife, Marguerite. The resulting drama, “Without Whom,” currently running at the Toronto Fringe Festival, is a fictionalized version of their relationship, with names fudged and facts tinkered with. In real life, Marguerite financially supported Ray’s early writing career, and the two remained married for 56 years, until she passed away in 2003. Downes, a prolific dramatist, helped produce the script for the Fringe, and plays a supporting role onstage as well. Weird Tales correspondent Robert Isenberg had the chance to hear the playwright’s thoughts the weekend of the show’s premiere.
WEIRD TALES: Your describe your play as a story about love beyond death. What first attracted you to this theme?
R.J. DOWNES: Death has been the underlying work in all of my work (plays and fiction) since I started writing. I’m fascinated by endings. It doesn’t have to be a physical death; it could be the death of a moment, the death of a relationship, the end of childhood, that sort of thing. Also the idea of life versus death is an incredible thing. We spend our whole lives struggling towards goals that are ultimately futile. Very few people are remembered for what they did in life, the sacrifices they made, but without that struggle onwards, that push up the endless mountain we wouldn’t find those moments that make this short life so worthwhile.
Love beyond death is an extension of my main theme because that is really the only way most of us in this world will live on once we die, in the hearts and memories of others. The people we love and those who love us are the ones that keep our memories and our accomplishments in this world from being forgotten entirely even after we’ve passed on to the next.
WT: The play is inspired by the relationship between Ray Bradbury, fantastic fiction writer, and his wife, Margarite. How do you describe their marriage?
RJD: What really inspired the play was not actually Ray Bradbury himself but rather his wife. On his website there is a write up about Maggie, written when she passed away, which talks about her life and the things she did to help Ray’s career in the early days. It is a beautiful memorial to a woman that helped the development of one of the world’s greatest imaginations – but it is written by Ray’s biographer Sam Weller and not by Bradbury himself. In fact nowhere in print could I find anything about her passing away written by the man himself. The play was borne out of the silence of that man. A man who has never stopped writing about the things he loved and hated. A man who apparently wrote a short story a week for most of his life. A man who even now has not retired from putting pen to paper. And yet not one word about the passing away of the woman who was by his side from the beginning. Either he is too self-absorbed to bother to say anything or her death hit him so hard that it actually silenced the man.
The play was my attempt to fill that silence. The marriage depicted in the play is a guess at best. There is very little out there about their marriage outside of the wonderful biography The Bradbury Chronicles by Sam Weller. Also, while a lot of the facts of characters and their life together came from the Bradbury’s, the bickering and fighting that happens in the play is actually based on the relationship of my girlfriend’s father and his third wife (who incidentally and quite ironically are also named Ray and Maggie)
WT: What is your own relationship with the Bradbury canon?
RJD: When I was a teenager, I’ll admit that I thought Bradbury’s writing was a bit childish and naïve, but going back to it as an adult I found not only a powerful joy and sadness and yearning for younger, more innocent times, but an incredible poetry. He plays with words, his loves them, the sound, the rhythm of a sentence. While he has written quite a bit of actual poetry, I find that his fiction is its own form of poetry. He has an incredible ear for language.
For a long time I had a small collection of his older paperbacks which I never really looked at but in recent years I’ve found myself going back over them and also buying up anything of his in print that I didn’t already have. There are some excellent hard-backed collections of his later short stories that stand up in quality to his earlier work.
WT: What are your feelings on (literal) consciousness after death?
RJD: I don’t really know what I think about consciousness after death. I don’t think about it much. Like the character of Ray Monarch [the equivalent of Bradbury) in the play, I’m mostly obsessed with finishing all of the things I want to write before I die. If there is an afterlife however, I don’t think it will be anything we can imagine with our limited view as human beings.
WT: How did you begin this play? How has it evolved?
RJD: The play began with the photo of Maggie Bradbury from the website. In it she is holding a lit cigarette and laughing/talking. Something in me told me there was a story to be found in that photograph. I think that night I wrote the first few pages and then set it aside because I didn’t know where it was heading. I then began reading Ray’s biography and looking at some of the people and relationships around me. Things started to unfold from there. It really began to get a life of its own when I left the Bradbury’s behind and let the characters explore the reality they inhabit. They have their own story to tell and while the play contains some elements of Bradbury’s life it also contains its own elements of fantasy. Some of Ray Bradbury’s best stories are fantastic tales filled with veiled autobiographical elements. This play is not a biographical work, but rather a fantastic tales with veiled elements of his life and my own.
WT: What are your hopes for this play, post-Fringe Festival?
RJD: Seeing that we are doing the Toronto and Hamilton Fringe Festivals and I’m producing the show and acting in it as well, as [the character of] Harlan the literary agent, I haven’t had a lot of time to think about what’s coming next. Almost as soon as the run is over I have a reading of a full-length murder mystery I’ve written to direct for The Village Playhouse, but after that I’m not sure what my plans are. At this point I don’t know what the future holds for this play. I would love to see it done in a larger venue. It is a one-act play however (running about 50 minutes) so outside of the festival circuit it would most likely have to be performed along side another one-act play. I do have quite a number of other one-act plays, but currently not one that would suit playing side by side with this one – but you never know what will come.
Correspondent Robert Isenberg is a writer, actor and playwright based in Pittsburgh.