Pam Gems, British Playwright Who Brought Historical Characters to Life, Dies at 85

Obituaries   Pam Gems, British Playwright Who Brought Historical Characters to Life, Dies at 85
Pam Gems, who found stage plays in the lives of persons as diverse as French chanteuse Edith Piaf and English painter Stanley Spencer, died on May 13 at her home in England. She was 85.

Pam Gems
Pam Gems

Ms. Gems' forte was the bio-play. He first work for the Royal Shakespeare was Queen Christina, a 1977 work about the Swedish monarch. Shortly thereafter, she achieved wide fame and success with Piaf, a musical play which starred Jane Lapotaire as the iconic and tragic French singer. The play transferred from the RSC to the West End, and then to Broadway, where it ran for five months in 1981, and won Lapotaire a Tony as Best Actress in a Play.

She would return to Broadway in 1997 with Stanley, a sprawling drama that followed the life and marital misadventures of mid-20th-century English painter Stanley Spencer. Anthony Sher starred in the drama. The play earned Ms. Gems a Tony Award nomination, but also had the unhappy distinction of being the final play produced by the then-floundering Circle in the Square Theatre.

In 1999, Sian Phillips starred in Ms. Gems' portrayal of German film icon Marlene Dietrich in Marlene; Phillips had, in fact, commissioned the play from Ms. Gems after several critics had compared her looks and style to that of the film actress. Like Stanley, it had a short run on Broadway, but won the author another Tony nomination.

Born on Aug. 1, 1925, in Bransgore, Hampshire, England, Pam Gems studied psychology at Manchester University. She didn't begin writing until she was in her forties, producing work for radio and television. Though largely known for a handful of plays, Ms. Gems was very prolific, turning in many adaptations of other playwrights' work. Her other original plays, which very often included a healthy sexual component, included Camille, The Blue Angel, Mrs. Pat, Nelson, The Snow Palace, The Danton Affair, Aunt Mary, The Treat, My Warren and Ladybird, Ladybird. Her subjects included King Ludwig II, Guiseppe Galibaldi, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Lord Nelson, Ethel Merman and King Arthur's Guinevere.

That her writing often focused on famous women was no mistake. "I had always been stage-struck and loved the theatre," she said in an interview, "but I had to find a way of justifying something that I loved so much but which at the same time seemed to me to be frivolous. I started to go to lunchtime theatre when I have free time, [and] I found there were no parts for women… I thought: now I can justify sitting at home and writing. I'll write parts for women. It was just as simple as that." Stanley won both the Evening Standard and Olivier Awards for Best Play. But, more often than not, actors profited more from Ms. Gems' plays than Ms. Gems herself. Lapotaire, Sher and Phillips raked in plaudits, while the author sometimes made do with lesser praise. "Miss Lapotaire's performance burns with such heartstopping intensity that one never questions her right to stand in for the 'little sparrow,' who died at age 47 in 1963; one embraces her instantly and totally," wrote Frank Rich of Piaf in the New York Times. "While it is far more difficult to embrace Mrs. Gems's rather frail play, I guess we can't have everything. Piaf often obeys the dramatic cliches of rags-to-riches-to-rags showbiz sagas."

Still, the play has proved durable. Recently, the Donmar Warehouse’s 30th anniversary revival of Piaf won its star Elena Roger the 2009 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical. It transferred to the West End and was subsequently revived in Spain and Argentina.

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