"The writer is double...and they argue": Reading The Lady in the Van

I’m making an effort to read more plays, screenplays, and graphic narrative these days, trying to get more literate in the genres. I have a tendency to read these too fast, whizzing through the “blank” spaces, and missing entire dimensions of meaning. (This is a problem I sometimes struggle with even in straight prose, reading too fast and cheating myself out of subtext or even plot—once in college, reading Proust, I somehow missed that World War I had happened and had to go back for it.)

I want to take a moment this week to recommend Alan Bennett’s screenplay for The Lady in the Van. This is one of those densely multi-genre works that it’s lots of fun to work around in your mind—the screenplay to the film adaptation of a stage play based on Bennett’s actual life. (From the jacket copy: “…the true story of Bennett’s experiences with an eccentric homeless woman, Miss Mary Shepherd, whom he befriended in the 1970s and allowed to temporarily park her van in front of his Camden home. She ended up staying there for fifteen years […].”)

There’s a lot to enjoy and to ponder in this screenplay, and perhaps it’s an ideal trainer for someone like me, trying to build the muscles that go into reading drama. It has a small cast, a narrowly focused setting; a straightforward plot. Yet its themes and scope are larger-than-life, the events tinged with the magic that goes along with any believably true story that still seems profoundly unlikely. It’s also easy to imagine Dame Maggie Smith in the title role—which in turn eases the experience of reading, the main pillar of the cast imagined for you on the cover. (Whether this is good or bad may be open for debate.)

One of the screenplay’s most striking elements is one that I’m not sure if I’d warm to on screen (I look forward to finding out!), but that I’m fascinated by on the page—the bifurcation of the film version of Bennett into two people, the same actor playing both roles: “Alan Bennett” (“the self who does the writing) and “A. B.” (“the self who does the living”). “And they talk,” Bennett-the-writer says in the screenplay’s first pages. “They argue.” Which they do throughout the film, apparently bickering on-screen—A.B. heckling his full-named alter ego for writing too little or not interestingly enough; Alan Bennett firing back that he’d hold up his end of the deal if A. B would live a bit more interestingly. (“‘Put yourself into what you write.’ How? We’re both so fucking tame.”) One of my favorite moments in the screenplay is a stage direction that comes in the middle of a speech: “[Alan Bennett] throws his notebook at A. B.” There’s something fascinating and relatable here about the two- or in fact many-headedness of writing, the echoing and contradictory anxiety—and the selfishness; one major question throughout the screenplay (and considered by both Bennetts) is whether they’ve befriended Miss Shepherd out of some relative of kindness or rather because she gives them something interesting to write about. (He does not want to write about her, insists Bennett—“she’s just something that’s happening.” He wants to write about spies.)

Is our subject matter too familiar, too well-trodden; or too desperate? Too sentimental? Too shocking? Are we living interesting enough lives to write about? Are we carving enough space from our lives to write? These are questions that haunt us as writers, and it’s fascinating to see them literally dramatized in Bennett’s screenplay—especially with the benefit of retrospection, which lets the questions be (somewhat) answered.

I’m hoping that keeping this conceit in mind will be useful to me in reading, especially in reading drama—and in writing as well. And I’m looking forward to seeing the film version of The Lady in the Van, in order to see how all of this is embodied and animated on screen. This is the first time I’ve ever read a film’s screenplay before seeing the film itself—I liked reading it very much, and I’m curious to see whether I feel the same way about watching it. This is a story that has gone through so many filters and versions already, from life to page to stage to page again to screen. What is added and lost with each adaptation? How many ghostly Alan Bennetts are crowding the room at this point, arguing over the right way to do things? How many versions of ourselves do we each invite to the table, accidentally or on purpose, when we sit down to compose?