Len Cariou Mano a Mano With Ernest Hemingway

Len Cariou Mano a Mano With Ernest Hemingway El Sordo on his naked hilltop, bombed and machine-gunned through an endless hour by three Fascist planes he knew how to die. Manolete taunting 2,000 pounds of bull to come closer, closer, just a millimeter closer he knew how to die. Francis McComber, after running from the lion, the loss of manhood, standing his ground with a rush of joy in the face of a charging buffalo suddenly forgot to be afraid to die.

Now, in 1959, for the man in the white beard, the creator of all those and many other people we have known the best part of all our lives, it is five years since "the Swedes nailed me with their goddamned Nobel Curse." He takes another drink, clambers barefoot on and off a table, flourishes a cutlass, a baseball bat, a fishing pole, a shotgun. Puts gun in his mouth. Takes it out. Two years from now the same man will put a gun once again in his mouth, not here in Cuba, up there in Idaho, and this time will pull no, not pull, as a hunter, a soldier. He's known better than that since he was 7 years old. He will squeeze the trigger.
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El Sordo on his naked hilltop, bombed and machine-gunned through an endless hour by three Fascist planes he knew how to die. Manolete taunting 2,000 pounds of bull to come closer, closer, just a millimeter closer he knew how to die. Francis McComber, after running from the lion, the loss of manhood, standing his ground with a rush of joy in the face of a charging buffalo suddenly forgot to be afraid to die.

Now, in 1959, for the man in the white beard, the creator of all those and many other people we have known the best part of all our lives, it is five years since "the Swedes nailed me with their goddamned Nobel Curse." He takes another drink, clambers barefoot on and off a table, flourishes a cutlass, a baseball bat, a fishing pole, a shotgun. Puts gun in his mouth. Takes it out. Two years from now the same man will put a gun once again in his mouth, not here in Cuba, up there in Idaho, and this time will pull no, not pull, as a hunter, a soldier. He's known better than that since he was 7 years old. He will squeeze the trigger.

"Ain't none of us gonna get out alive," says the Ernest Hemingway who onstage at off-Broadway's Douglas Fairbanks Theatre in Papa is given flesh and voice and human dimension by Len Cariou in white beard and thatch of white hair that are not the actor's own. The gut is his own, as are the firm jaw and the strong, solid vitality.

"What's different about this role," says Cariou, winner of a Tony Award and nominations for shows Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Applause that also called upon his large gifts as a singer, which this one does not, "is that you're always onstage by yourself, alone. I did it once before, 15 or 20 years ago, in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, an adaptation of a Peter Handke novella about the Holocaust. The difference now is that there are a lot of laughs in this piece, while there were none, literally none, in that one."

Yes, a playgoer and Hemingway reader remarked, a lot of laughs but the last laugh is Mr. Death's, right?

"Oh yeah," said Cariou, chewing on it for a moment or two, then refining it: "Death, the ultimate referee."

Hemingway all his life was obsessed by the suicide of his father; four of the novelist's own siblings took the same exit. "No way I was going to end up as my old man," he blusters in the play as the real Hemingway had done on the typewriter. One wondered whether Cariou had had any experience of suicides in his own immediate family.

He lit a cigarette. "No," he said. "Never that kind of personal situation. But in all the classical plays I've had to do, I've come up against it several times. Outside of my family? Yeah, a few. Not with a gun. I've known a couple of people who drank themselves to death. I lost a couple of real good friends just the past couple of years." Short pause. "Younger than me, too."

Papa is a play by John deGroot, Pulitzer Prize winner as a journalist for his coverage of Kent State in 1970. An earlier draft by deGroot was done in Chicago and San Francisco by the late George Peppard some ten years ago. It then sat in a drawer until Cariou took out an option on it in 1992. That's when Cariou started reading or rereading all the Hemingway he hadn't much had time for since high school back in Winnipeg. "I liked him, but I can't say I was a devotee."

DeGroot, who went back to work on the play, also gave Cariou a reading list of books about Hemingway. And Cariou, during tryouts in Florida, actually met one of Hemingway's sons. "A small little guy, must have got the wife's genes," the actor said with a smiling growl that might have been manufactured by Papa H. himself. The production of a new, revised Papa first in workshop, then in Florida, then in New York reunites Cariou with director John Henry Davis, who had staged Mountain, a 1990 Off-Broadway drama starring Cariou as William O. Douglas. Drama apart, Cariou bears quite a physical resemblance indeed to that rugged, nonconforming Supreme Court Justice.

Winnipeg is where the future Tony winner was born (in 1939), youngest of the five kids of George Cariou, a Breton who'd come over to Canada at the turn of the century with wife Molly Moore Cariou, herself as Irish as the day is long.

"She was a singer. I found out very late in her life that she would have liked to be a professional singer. When she discovered I could sing, she pounced on me, sent me off for lessons. I started out as a boy soprano. It was John Hirsch who a long time later" but long before that director came to Lincoln Center "cast me as Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts, up in Manitoba, the first straight play I'd ever done. I went for it hook, line and sinker.

"My father? He worked for the Minneapolis Moline Farm Machinery Corporation. They retired him at 65. I think that's what finished him. He didn't need to retire; he could have lived another ten years. But he just got sick and unhappy and died. What a fucking crime."

So there is some relationship between yourself and the man in the play?

"Yep," said Len Cariou tersely. "Yep." Or as Ernest Hemingway put it in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald: "We [are] all bitched from the start." In the meantime there are one or two things to be said, one or two things to be written, and quite a few of them are said with grace, fury and savage wit these nights on the stage of the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre on New York's 42nd Street.

-- By Kathie Henderson