“When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
So wrote the Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, coining a phrase that has been taken as a badge of honour by authors from Philip Roth to Andrew O'Hagan and anyone who would mine private lives for richer fictions.
The playwright Nina Raine is not so sure. The daughter of poet and critic, Craig Raine, and academic and translator, Ann Pasternak Slater – herself the niece of Dr Zhivago author, Boris Pasternak – Raine was born into an exquisitely literary family. Her bother, Moses, is also a playwright; her godfather is the novelist Julian Barnes.
When a writer is born into a family of writers, apparently the family can just go on and on.
“In a way it’s better if there are more writers in the family, than just one,” Raine says, sitting down to a hot chocolate as an autumn chill shivers through Dublin. “If you’re in a family of writers there is a kind of code: you live by the sword, you die by the sword. Everything is fair game for material.”
When we meet, at the beginning of rehearsals for her Irish debut Tribes, she describes her as yet unproduced new play, provisionally entitled Stories, as "probably the most personal thing I've ever written".
So far, though, that honour has been widely considered to belong to Tribes, her third play, from 2010. Set among an uproariously caustic family of writers and intellectuals, it is, on the simplest interpretation, a play about voices.
The youngest son, the easy-going Billy, is deaf, which insulated him slightly from the cacophony of his home; the middle-child, a highly-strung Ruth, is finding her voice, literally, as an opera singer in unsympathetically bustling venues, for which her family have provided ample practice; and the eldest, the agitated Daniel, has a schizophrenic condition, struggling with additional voices in his head.
The dominant voice of the play, however, belongs to Christopher, an academic critic who subjects everything to his lacerating critiques. “Why can’t you move a step without an argument starting in this house?” asks Beth, wearily. “Because we love each other,” insists Christopher.
That might be a tough kind of love to bear for Raine, who has admitted she will do anything to avoid an argument. That Christopher is modelled on Craig Raine, a voluble and irrepressible iconoclast, is neither contentious nor, on his part, resented.
“My brother, Moses, and I have both used aspects of our dad in our plays, and he is taking it like a man,” Raine admits. “He literally views it as a piece of art. He criticises it as a piece of art. He has no vanity about aspects of him that might be recognisable. As a writer, you always thieve fragments from life. It’s like picking up a little shell of the beach. Then you can build something out of it.”
In his own criticisms, Raine has been constructive. “He says no, your business is not to be worrying about people’s feelings. Because otherwise you will never write.”
It works both ways: when Nina was pregnant, Craig wrote a poem titled Five Months which featured imagistic descriptions of his daughter's body. "The things that annoy you, actually, are the things that are invented: 'Yeah, but you haven't seen my breasts. You made that bit up'." Raine does not seem mortified, and she references a quote that may have come from Kinglsey Amis: "No one will ever be unflattered to appear in a piece of art, unless you suggest they're bad in bed."
Still, the playwright has worried before that people might get the wrong impression. In Tribes, when Billy brings home his new girlfriend, Sylvia, a young woman who is losing her hearing, a family dinner works like a baptism by fire. Christopher's blunderbuss mockery – towards Jewish people (the family is Jewish), northerners (his bêtes noire, despite originating there) and the Irish (one unnamed tritely lyrical novelist comes under sustained fire) – eventually undermines Sylvia's self-expression with its blast. "Are you asking me whether signing makes you a coarser person because signing is a coarse language?"
When the play opened in London’s Royal Court Theatre, in 2010, a friend of Raine heard it reviewed on the radio: “They’re saying they are monsters,” she reported.
“That’s not what I wanted,” says Raine, seeing this cerebral badinage as a kind of hubris that will eventually be tempered. At least you could never accuse this family of dishonesty. “It’s meant as a compliment to you that they’re not putting on an act,” agrees Raine. “This is an invitation to be part of the theatre of their life.”
For the Gate Theatre's new production, directed by Oonagh Murphy, Raine's play is being made to address another Tribe, here transplanted to Dublin: played by the silken Nick Dunning, Christopher remains English, retaining his suite of ebullient prejudices. Raine approves the move: in New York, the first American production made a near fetish of its English impersonations, while a movie option, that has since fizzled out, asked for it to be relocated to Manhattan. Productions in Hungary and Sweden, however, brought uneasy amplifications to Christopher's ironised anti-Semitic humour, while Raine still shudders at the memory of an ascetic production in Hamburg, staged in a gleaming white cube, for which the director had excised a pivotal moment without her knowledge – "the reason I wrote the play" – deeming it too sentimental. Different theatre cultures can feel like mutually incomprehensible tribes themselves, forever finding the other's language too coarse or mawkish.
It is not for nothing, you suspect, that against the inflexible pronouncements of a figure like Christopher, Raine is drawn to ambiguities, a richer source for theatre. (Similarly, in rehearsals she has learned not to speak first, loath to inhibit a cast's reading or to limit interpretations.) Her most recent play, this year's Consent, focused on a rape case, but concentrated on the way people frame competing narratives: "When people stand outside the court room and say 'We are disappointed with the verdict', all the feelings behind those completely inadequate words are so interesting to a playwright."
This may be why Raine has always been drawn to dialogue, with an ear her mother encouraged in her early. “I remember my dad saying, ‘Oh, so and so author can’t write a single good sentence’. I just thought, I don’t know if I know what a good sentence is.”
That might have been an inhibiting criticism for a writer born into a family of such exacting readers. But Raine found her tribe in the theatre. “The great thing about writing plays is that you are not necessarily required to write a good sentence: It can be a mark of your skill to represent someone who is inarticulate. I found that releasing.”
Nobody in Tribes could be described as inarticulate: the jousts and crosscurrents of its intellectual yak can recall the heady buzz of watching Stoppard at full tilt. But it is sensitive and alive to the quality of people's listening, to the idea that art, no more than families, requires more than words.
- 'Tribes' is at the Gate Theatre, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival, until November 11th