A big, archaic word is at the center of the literary mystery “Ghost-Writer,” which is being staged this month by Bethesda’s Quotidian Theatre Company, the non-profit professional theatre in residence at Bethesda’s Writer’s Center.
The word in question? Amanuensis.( Pronounce it like this: ə-ˌman-yə-ˈwen(t)-səst.) What does it mean? A person who writes or types another’s words. During the “Mad Men” era, that would have been a secretary. These days, we’d call her or him an administrative assistant, although most of us are fully keyboard proficient and do our own typing.
But in “Ghost-Writer,” from Philadelphia-based playwright Michael Hollinger, novelist Franklin Woolsey hires Myra, a typist to whom he dictates his fictional tale. When he dies suddenly in mid-sentence, Myra continues unspooling the tale. Is she taking dictation from beyond the grave or is she making it up?
“The word was new to me,” admitted Stephanie Mumford, a Quotidian co-founder who plays the third party in the play, Woolsey’s widow Vivian. “But the play intrigued me because it’s about how a relationship develops.”
“The writer can dictate his thoughts to the amanuensis, and she types, and we see how her typing up the text spurs his thought process,” she added.
Director Laura Giannarelli, a longtime fixture in the metropolitan area theater community as an actress and director, loves the play because it shows the mostly solitary creative process of a writer in action. She was familiar with playwright Hollinger’s work. “When Stephanie and Jack [Sbarbori, the theater’s other co-founder] at Quotidian asked me if would like to direct it, I jumped at the chance. I’ve been in a number of [Hollinger’s] plays and I just love his writing: the way he approaches the play and the love that he has for all of his characters.”
Set in the early 20th century, between about 1909 and 1920, “Ghost-Writer” is very loosely inspired by American-British novelist Henry James, who, at the end of his life, used an amanuensis to transcribe his later fiction. Mumford terms it “the perfect play” for Quotidian “because we do plays about finding the truth and beauty in the everyday or the drama and comedy in the everyday life. Also, it’s very subtle.”
So subtle, Giannarelli hopes, that viewers will leave with plenty to mull over. “The mystery of the play is what’s going on,” the director explained. “Is Myra a kook? Is Myra a fraud? Is Mr. Woolsey really whispering in her ear from beyond the grave? That’s the question that we get to roll around in our brains while watching the play. Afterwards, when we go home, one friend might say, ‘Oh, she’s really making it up,’ and another friend might say, ‘No, I really believe it’s supernatural.’” Both Mumford and Giannarelli agree that it’s wonder-inducing ending is the sign of a good play.
Giannarelli continued, “What I think is very inviting about ‘Ghost-Writer,’ is that it’s really a fascinating insight into the creative process because Myra, the typist, or as she calls herself the amanuensis, a somewhat arcane word that we don’t use much anymore … sits at the typewriter while Franklin composes and dictates his book to her.” She points to several scenes in the play where the audience watches the creative process unspool.
“When he’s dictating and she’s typing, he’s composing on the fly,” noted Giannarelli. “I think it’s fascinating, particularly for people who have written or who aspire to write to watch that, even as a fiction, unfold on stage. The way that he chooses one word over another, or chooses the punctuation, is really an intriguing look at how that creative process works.”
Photo Credit: Clay Teunis
Quotidian’s co-founder Stephanie Mumford takes on the role of Mrs. Woolsey.
After Woolsey dies, he remains on stage – is he a ghost, a memory or a flashback? Much is left for the viewer to decide. As Myra, the amanuensis, sits in the room finishing the book, Giannarelli said, she waits for the words to come via inspiration, apparition or something else. The playwright includes, too, an unseen character, a visitor who observes her from a distance.
Thus Myra performs, for the visitor, who Giannarelli, the director, places in the middle distance, unseen, and for Mrs. Woolsey and for the audience. Mrs. Woolsey jealously struggles to determine how intimate this typist’s relationship with her husband was, lending more than a hint of a love triangle to the play.
“Myra is not speaking directly to the audience. She’s speaking to a specific visitor who is there to observe and investigate her process,” the director said. “And she explains to him that, no, she’s not writing the book. She’s waiting for the words and she doesn’t know where they come from.”
Mumford, who plays Mrs. Woolsey, the widow, has enjoyed discovering the layers of this character, who once took dictation for her novelist husband before being replaced by an amanuensis. Now she must contend with a new woman, who is in some ways was clearly vying for an intimate relationship with her husband and his creative legacy. “I’m having fun with the wife,” Mumford, a retired government intelligence officer, said, “because she has some comic moments and [playwright] Hollinger writes such likeable characters.”
“It’s an intriguing show,” Mumford added. “It’s been a wonderful experience working on it.” And one that will keep audiences guessing — and, perhaps, adding a new word to their vocabulary.
Quotidian Theatre Company presents Michael Hollinger’s “Ghost-Writer” from April 5 to 28 at The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. Shows start at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Join the director and cast for a special talk back with playwright Michael Hollinger, on Sunday, April 14. For reservations and information, call 301-816-1023, email email@example.com or visit www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3820735. Patrons, age 30 or younger, pay $15 for all Friday performances; use code 30&UNDER.