Comedy = Tragedy + Time: A Chat With Natalie Haynes

Natalie Haynes

You know that bit of clip art your computer used to throw up when you typed in drama? The two classical masks, one happy, one sad? That’s sort of like Natalie Haynes’s career. Not in a bad way, though. Thalia, the Muse of comedy, oversaw her first act — as a hugely successful stand-up (she was the first woman to be nominated for the prestigious Perrier Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe). Now it’s Melpomene’s turn, as the Muse of tragedy, to take over for Act II. The Furies (St. Martin’s Press, 2014), just published in the States, is a clever synthesis of Greek tragic tropes and modern crime fiction, set largely in a pupil referral unit in Edinburgh. (Read my review here.) Her earlier (nonfiction) book The Ancient Guide to Modern Life (Overlook Press, 2011), with its irreverent but perceptive rediscovery of contemporary culture through Greco-Roman eyes, bridged the gap.

Natalie was kind enough to drop by the blog for a chat about Sophocles and Mickey Rourke, patricide at school, and the drunks of East Anglia.

Charles Arrowsmith: Hi Natalie, thanks for your time. So The Furies is ostensibly a book about what might happen when you mix Greek tragedy with troubled adolescents. Can or should a line be drawn in terms of what texts we teach our children?

Natalie Haynes: I think people tend to underestimate what teenagers understand. We forget, maybe, how smart we were when we were young… So I’d let them learn most things in school (I’d shy away from bomb-making handbooks and Mein Kampf, obviously). I think we worry too much about them reading Shakespeare, especially in the UK. You can find big ideas and moral dilemmas aplenty without reading Hamlet or King Lear. And Greek tragedies – in translation – are usually an easier read than Macbeth. I stand behind Alex’s choice to read Oedipus with her class: I think if you are going to win over recalcitrant teens, there are few better places to start than patricide and deviant sex. And teenagers – who have so little authority of their own, and are so often subject to the authority of others – know what it means to think about free will, more than most.

CA: What’s the greatest tragedy of modern times?

Mickey Rourke: Sophoclean?

NH: Well, I would argue that the first three seasons of HBO’s magnificent TV show The Wire are a perfect Greek tragedy. And the Mickey Rourke film The Wrestler (how did he not win that Oscar?) is pretty Sophoclean: a hero whose fatal flaw leads him to the exact behaviour which will cause his undoing. Hard to argue with Arthur Miller, too, especially Death of a Salesman. I can’t pick one. Sorry. My tragic flaw is clearly an inability to favour one medium over another. Could be worse, I suppose.

CA: Your first novel is a tragedy but your career to date has mostly been in comedy. How did the latter prepare you for the former?

NH: I’m with Woody Allen on this: comedy = tragedy + time. Aristotle would probably have had less of a problem with this than we do. He knew that comedy and tragedy are both cathartic. Tragedy prepares us for the worst things to come in our lives. It allows us to rehearse our responses to grief. But comedy is a different kind of catharsis: it allows us to laugh at other people’s tragedy, and perhaps ultimately laugh at our own. My particular kind of comedy was quite tragedy-obsessed, I guess. I am way happier onstage now I’m there to talk about Greek tragedy or Juvenal or something else classical. Worryingly, I think I am probably funnier now, too…

CA: As a stand-up comedian you must be well prepared for the SpeakEasy stage. What’s been your single worst moment onstage?

NH: I’ve blanked most of them out. A short memory is crucial for a comedian, or we could never go out of the house again. I have had some terrible gigs, though. Sometimes I was bad, sometimes the audience was bad, sometimes it was both of us. I remember the drunk man in Peterborough who stormed the stage and wrenched the microphone from my hands (nothing personal, he just wanted to sing). I remember going onstage the night my grandfather died, and being way too upset to fake being funny. I remember demolishing a crazy heckler, because I felt that he was threatening my gig (no excuse for being as poisonous as I was). Ah, memories. And people wonder why I prefer writing sad books…

CA: As a prolific judge of literary prizes, can you give us a feel for the state of the art?

NH: Last year, I judged the Man Booker Prize and then immediately began the reading for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (awarded to fiction translated into English). And I judged the Orange Prize in 2012. So I have read something like three hundred novels in thirty months, which I cannot recommend, unless you want to have the worst posture in the world. On the plus side, it is an amazing way to read a pile of books you would never have chosen in a million years, which has been great. They haven’t all been great, you understand. A lot of them were bloody awful. But it’s still good to read outside of your own taste. My conclusions are: publishers take the past more seriously than they take the future. They submit a lot (I mean a lot) of historical fiction for prizes. They don’t champion futuristic fiction anywhere near as much. In related news: comic novels are rarely as funny as they could or should be. Crime novels are hard to give prizes to, because they don’t stand up especially well to being re-read a month or two after a first reading. If I never read another novel set in or around the Second World War, it will be too soon. Quirky child narrators drive me mad. Quirky narrators with Asperger’s, ditto.

CA: What are the last three books you’ve read?

NH: I have just read (and reviewed) The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor, in which she unpicks myths and legends and histories of warrior women in the ancient world. Fascinating, and super-readable. Before that, I read Ali Smith’s How to be Both, which is insanely good: there are two stories which intertwine with each other. You can read them in either order, and the book is cleverly published so you have to open it up to see which one they’ve printed first. And before that, I read Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, which is a wonderful family and political saga, set during the Naxalite rebellion in India. Three great books in a row. I must be due a rotten one…

CA: Thanks so much for your time, and see you on the 29th!

You can buy tickets to see Natalie Haynes — alongside John Guare, Gail Sheehy, Marcelo Gleiser, and Andrew Solomon — in Inside the Lie at City Winery on September 29 here. You can buy Natalie Haynes’s debut novel, The Furies, at McNally Jackson.

The Chronicles of Fry

The_Fry_Chronicles-_An_AutobiographyMany times while reading The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry‘s bestselling memoir, I was forced to confront sadly the likelihood that the world will no longer need my autobiography. Not that he and I have lived the same life exactly. I haven’t written a dozen bestselling books or had a show on Broadway or been nominated for a Golden Globe or made a series of award-winning documentaries or presented a fantastically popular gameshow — or even published eighteen and a half thousand tweets, though at least I can realistically aim to. Nevertheless, I found myself so wholeheartedly agreeing with so many of his observations on life that anything I might have to say is now effectively redundant. We even share a passion for Ricicles.

But enough about me.

The Fry Chronicles, through a series of words beginning with the letter C, tells the story of Fry’s life through late adolescence and the first decade or so of his remarkable career. Cereal, candy, cigarettes, Cundall Manor School (where he briefly taught), Cambridge, coming out, [UniversityChallengeThe Cellar Tapes (the Footlights revue co-written by Fry that won the first Perrier Comedy Award in Edinburgh), cars, commercials, celibacy, and of course his colleague — “M’Coll” — Hugh Laurie, his best friend and the dedicatee of the book. There’s a wonderful moment, not quite their first meeting but the first time they find themselves working together, on the script for a pantomime of The Snow Queen:

[Hugh:] ‘Ah. Yes. Well, thing is. Footlights. I’m the President, you see.’

‘I saw you in Nightcap you were magnificent it was brilliant,’ I said in a rush.

‘Oh. Gosh. Well. No. Really? Well, er… Latin! Top. Absolutely top.’

‘Nonsense, oh shush.’


The excruciating horror of mutual appreciation out of the way, we both paused, unsure of how to continue.


Five minutes later Hugh and I were writing a scene together as if we had been doing it all our lives.

You read about people falling suddenly in love, about romantic thunderbolts that go with clashing cymbals, high quivering strings and resounding chords and you read about eyes that meet across the room to the thudding twang of Cupid’s bow, but it is less often that you read about collaborative love at first sight, about people who instantly discover that they were born to work together or born to be natural and perfect friends.

Herein lies the pleasure of reading a book by a person you’ve always loved about other people you’ve always loved. Fry’s memories of his work with Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, Emma Thompson et al make for fabulous reading. They’re also a welcome prompt to the reader to rediscover Fry’s brilliant early work. I particularly loved discovering his Dracula-inspired riff “The Letter” in The Cellar Tapes. His ear for comic metaphor and gift for punning are given full rein, as in: “Of all the hideously disfigured spectacles I have ever beheld… those perched on the end of this man’s nose remain forever pasted into the album of my memory.” See the full sketch here:

But, to deploy one of my favourite Fryisms, set fire to my legs if I give sir the false impression that The Fry Chronicles is a 400-page ball of pure light and joy. By no means:

Nobody seems to expect me to be shy, or believes me when I say that I am. I cannot blame them. I seem to move with such ease through the world. […] That is how people like to see me, be the truth never so at variance. It may be the case that I am a Jewish mongrel with an addictive self-destructive streak that is has taken me years to master. It may be the case that my afflictions of mood and temperament cause me to be occasionally suicidal in outlook and can frequently leave me in despair and eaten up with self-hatred and self-disgust. It may be the case that I am chronically overmastered by a sense of failure, underachievement and a terrible knowledge that I have betrayed, abused or neglected the talents that nature bestowed upon me. It may be the case that I doubt I will ever have the capacity to be happy. It may be the case that I fear for my sanity, my moral centre and my very future. All these cases may be protested, and I can assert their truth as often as I like, but the repetition will not alter my ‘image’ by one pixel.

Stephen Fry’s public revelation that he suffers from a form of manic depression and the Emmy Award-winning two-part documentary on the subject that he subsequently made (Part I and Part II) have revolutionised the understanding of mental illness in the UK. Now the president of mental-health charity Mind, Fry continues the hugely valuable work of awareness-raising through public activism and his writing. Although the events of The Fry Chronicles predate his diagnosis, the book is coloured by his interpretation, through the lens of his bipolarity, of his own behaviour (Cs again) — the credit cards, the cars, the country house, and, in the final page, a prelude of what’s to come in the next volume of the chronicles, cocaine.

Between now and such a volume, though, lies Stephen Fry’s guest appearance at the House of SpeakEasy. You can buy tickets for our March 18 show, “Are You For Sale?”, which also features Susan Cheever, Michael Friedman, Jay McInerney and Jeff Kinney, on the City Winery website here.