THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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Thank you for your time Alexander. Where in the States are you from, and how did you find yourself moving to Devon, in the UK?
I was born and raised in New York City. I was seven when my mother died, and I went to live with an Aunt and Uncle in Princeton. In 1954 when I was twelve my father remarried Martha Gellhorn, settled in England and brought me with him to live with them.
We have lived mainly in the UK ever since. My wife is English. There was the chance of a temporary job in Princeton University in 1986, but since I had tenure it seemed better to turn it down. But it was a near thing.
Your CV makes for a fascinating read, you've been involved in writing, journalism, academia, and have even served as chair of the NSubF Committee which advises the UK Government on the disposal of Nuclear Waste from Submarines. How would you sum up your career and work?
I had an eccentric and not very good education, but I was lucky enough through my father and stepmother to be in on literary circles and met nearly every well-known literary figure in the UK who was around in the fifties and sixties. Poetic drama fascinates me, as does philosophy. But I regard it as a duty to write and publicise information on nuclear fission.
Your latest work sees your play My One True Friend on stage now at The Actors Centre. Can you tell us what the play is about?
My One True Friend is about a) racism, and also b) that true friends pop up in crises when you need them most. Who they are is often surprising.
What inspired you to write this particular story?
The plot and theme came into my head years ago as a short story. The idea of an elderly woman planning for and anticipating her birthday party - and no one comes, seemed sad and poignant: worthy of the catharsis generated by a good enough play. That was the challenge, and so the idea turned into drama.
In one interview that's available in full from your website, you discuss the importance of empathy as a "glue" for society, and how theater has an important role for society. How does this focus manifest itself in My One True Friend?
Lady L's ‘conversion' from harridan to friendship with Kapenie is, it seems, a good example of the ‘glue’ which holds society together. It is the opposite of ‘enlightened self-interest’. Without this glue, our aims and achievements can lead to the latter. Loneliness and lawlessness could result.
Our good deeds can thus become anti-social. We need empathy and tolerance to survive. This is, I think, the great conundrum of living in a large family and a larger society.
You've also raised important topics in other works - earlier this year your play Do You Love This Planet was also on stage in London. What's your view on the big issues like this facing the US and UK, and is it comforting to see more energy behind environmental movements?
Many dramatists come up with ingenious plots. However I think armageddon and the holocaust, are so threatening, it is as though we were sleep-walking off a cliff, and the other topics therefore pale into insignificance.
How has your academic experience in science, particularly physics, and philosophy helped in your work as a writer?
Physics and philosophy have made me conceptually more aware of the human condition, and therefore (I hope) given me the chance to put the dramas I work on into clearer human perspective.
For example, Lady L is a harridan yes, but she is also acutely aware of poetic sensibilities, and these sensibilities lead her to her one true friend.
What do you hope visitors to My One True Friend take away from the experience?
Not just in My One True Friend but in all my plays I’m looking for - there is the hope of touching - a catharsis that will translate itself through the drama to the audience, so that they go out feeling a little better about themselves and humanity in general. As the poet Robert Frost said ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’ (for reader substitute ‘audience’). I think there is far more chance of this with a heightened dialogue. Theatre is the one artistic medium where this is possible. If heightened dialogue is sufficiently used, theatre can stand out from the other artistic disciplines as a distinctive and necessary cultural enterprise.
A question we often ask - where in the UK would you recommend Americans visit when they're here, and why?
Julian Assange in prison, and if you can get a hold of him, John Pilger.
After this play, what's next on the horizon for you?
A play which is already racing through my head is a drama about an anti-nuclear committee who have won a prize, and don’t quite know how to handle the situation. It will be intended as a comedy with a serious undertow.
Finally, what's the best thing about being Alexander Matthews?
I have been lucky enough to travel intellectually through ideas. This is much more exciting and adventurous than the physical variety. For example my latest book on cosmology argues that consciousness is manmade by a series of lies. It is not in our brains but is absorbed by learning these lies. The book also argues that our vocabulary is no longer adequate to outline what we now know... and also the most absorbing point to consider is that science throws up more questions than answers at the cosmological level.