Finding My Grandmother
Photo: Joan Marcus
In November 2009, actress and playwright Lynn Redgrave debuted her solo play Nightingale, inspired by her famous family. Sister Vanessa and late niece Natasha Richardson are perhaps the most well-known members of her clan, but it was her maternal grandmother, Beatrice, who moved her to write this play. Before she passed away from breast cancer in May 2010, Lynn Redgrave talked about the genesis of Nightingale and about what she loves about storytelling.I love graveyards. Reading the names, the dates. Imagining lives long gone. Back in 1979, I found my paternal grandfather's grave on the top of a hill in Australia, unmarked, but with documented evidence that he had been there since his death in 1922. I contacted a stonemason and brought the news back to my dad, the great actor Michael Redgrave. He had never known where his father Roy was buried. "What shall we put after his name?" I asked him, between mouthfuls of Dover sole at the Savoy Grill. "Actor," he said.
Fast-forward to 1999. My life as I knew it had just ended after 32 years of marriage.
The fallout for my kids and me was terrifying. I visited my mother and sister living together in the part of London where we grew up. An early misty morning, gray and sad.
I found myself in the graveyard of the church where my maternal grandmother, Beatrice Kempson, was buried. This was a chilly woman who had been difficult to love. But I absolutely had to find her. I hadn't been there in 40 years or more. And to my shock and dismay she was gone. Without a trace. Name and dates washed away by acid rain. A blank slate. I had not cared enough to visit her resting place before that day. But now in the turmoil of my new life, the thought of not being able to reach back and hold hands with the woman who gave life to my mother, and to us, was devastating. Who was she? No career, so no achievement to be noted in a newspaper or on a plaque somewhere. Obliterated. I literally sobbed and called out her name. No answer!
In the year or so that followed, I began to think about the millions of women whose lives were restricted by the times they lived in. The sexual repression. My mother had told me that Beatrice had told her that the honeymoon night was awful. She knew nothing! Zero! Zip! And my poor virgin grandfather Eric whispered to her, "I've got something really awful that I have to ask you to do!"
I had already written and performed Shakespeare for My Father, my first play. it ran for four years in all, 10 months or so on Broadway in 1993 followed by other performances across the country and in Australia, Canada and England. In the play, I tried to find a resolution to my relationship with my long-gone father. I have a huge collection of letters from people who would say things like "My father was a Brooklyn taxi cab driver, but last night I saw myself and my dad on that stage." I had written a play with a universal theme.
Learn the similarities between Shakespeare for My Father and Nightingale