Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

‘A Famous Poet’s Wife’ Montage © Dr Donna Fitzgerald

The little known story of Vivien Haigh-Wood – author – and wife of TS Eliot

When Women’s Voice booked Stade Hall to celebrate International Women’s Day on Sunday 12 March, the organisation looked for a woman-led project that wanted to use the hall that evening. Writer, performer and director Rosanna Lowe was excited to stage a local performance of Vivienne Sometimes – an interactive production led by writer and illustrator Dr Donna Fitzgerald. Erica Smith visited Lowe to talk to her about the performance and why she was drawn to explore the life of Haigh-Wood.

Writer and performer Rosanna Lowe

Rosanna Lowe is an exciting woman. She has been a professional writer from the age of seventeen when she won an award for a prescient radio play about climate change; she was an undergraduate at Cambridge University then trained as an actor at Jacques Lecoq school of physical theatre in Paris and is now an established theatre director with significant productions under her belt, including Madame Bovary and The Jungle Book.

She has taught everywhere from Eastbourne to Malaysia and has lived in remote parts of Nepal, Mexico and Guatemala – often in the company of nuns. More recently, she studied story-telling at Emerson College. Last summer I saw her perform for the first time and was both entranced and terrified by her performance as she switched from one character to another.

Lowe moved to Hastings about eight years ago where she has worked with MSL Productions to facilitate stories about the America Ground and runs creative writing projects with ArtsOnPrescription in Hastings and Little Green Pig in Eastbourne. She has experienced both mental and physical health challenges – which is partly what drew her to take on the role of Vivien Haigh-Wood.

‘Hyacinth’ digital montage by Dr Donna Fitzgerald

Vivienne Sometimes was written by Dr Donna Fitzgerald, an academic at the University of the Creative Arts in Canterbury. She was awarded ACE funding for the project, which emerged from a strong body of visual work. Her script was in an unusual, montaged format, and she was looking for an actor who would understand how to perform the role.” Lowe explains.

Vivienne Sometimes is a multimedia show, conceived and written by Fitzgerald with projections by Donna Fitzgerald and Stuart Dodd. It incorporates performance with live part-improvised music by Sam Bailey. Historical photographs of Vivien and her surroundings are used with artistic alterations. The story takes us chronologically through Vivien’s life, from the dance in 1915 where she first met the young TS Eliot, through their ill-fated marriage and ill health, to her death in Northumberland House Mental Hospital in 1947. The script uses a postmodern montage style, drawing on snippets from Vivien’s diaries, letters and short stories, as well as lines from The Wasteland. It is a funny, furious and moving exploration of the challenges of a marriage problematised by physical and mental health challenges on both sides and by the tensions between caring responsibilities and a creative life.

“When Donna asked me to play the role of Vivien Haigh-Wood I was fascinated. At University I had specialised in Gender Studies during Virginia Woolf’s life-span (1882–1941). Woolf and Haigh-Wood Eliot met many times – but I had never heard about her, even though she was a published author.”

Avenue, illustration of Haigh-Wood © Dr Donna Fitzgeald

Woolf was not impressed by Haigh-Wood. She felt TS Eliot had married beneath himself, and despite her own mental health challenges and the patient support of her husband, she showed no empathy for Vivienne’s struggle with her mental health. On 8 November 1930, Woolf writes in her diary: “Oh – Vivienne! Was there ever such a torture since life began! – to bear her on one’s shoulders, biting, wriggling, raving, scratching, unwholesome, powdered, insane, yet sane to the point of insanity, reading his letters, thrusting herself on us, coming in wavering trembling… This bag of ferrets is what Tom [Eliot] wears round his neck.”

In 1933, Eliot arranged a formal separation from Haigh-Wood after 18 years of marriage. His Anglo-Catholic faith was so strong that he would never divorce her, but he hardly made contact with her again. Vivien was committed to Northumberland House mental institution in 1938 and remained there until her death, nine years later, aged 58.

Neither Haigh-Wood nor Eliot had good health, and they often had to care for each other through their marriage. In 1921, both Vivienne and Tom had nervous breakdowns and the couple spent three months in Margate where the first draft of The Waste Land was written.

Together with Ezra Pound, Haigh-Wood was the first to recognise Eliot’s genius and to back him in no uncertain terms. ‘I provide the motive power’, she told Eliot’s brother, ‘I shove’.

Lowe tells me, “Vivien loved music hall and had a great ear for colloquial language. You can see from her notes on an early draft of The Waste Land that she encouraged Eliot to improve his original draft. I feel she made The Waste Land more characterful and more reflective of real voices, more authentic. The multiplicity of voices that The Waste Land is famous for is very much part of her influence.”

Rosanna Lowe on stage as Vivien Haigh-Wood

There is also a local connection to Haigh-Wood and Eliot. When they married in 1915, only three months after meeting, they spent their honeymoon in Eastbourne and visited Pevensey Castle. Later, Vivien cared for her father, the Royal Academician Charles Haigh-Wood who retired to Warrior Square in St Leonards and lived there until his death in 1927.

Buy your tickets for Vivienne Sometimes online here. Tickets will also be available on the night, concessions are available for £5 and full price tickets are £10. 
The performance begins at 6pm.
Stade Hall, 20 Rock-a-Nore Road, Hastings TN34 3DW.

An exhibition of visual material generated during the project – photographs, illustration and animation, will run at Hackney Archives from 24 March to the end of April 2023.

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Posted 20:29 Tuesday, Mar 7, 2023 In: Performance

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