“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.”
This powerful sentence appears frequently in Joan Didion’s haunting 2011 memoir, Blue Nights, and was repeated a number of times at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC on Monday evening during a special one-night-only reading from the book by renowned actress Vanessa Redgrave.
Blue Nights is the acclaimed and characteristically evocative follow-up to Didion’s classic The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir detailing her grieving process after the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. Blue Nights, published six years later, chronicled how she dealt – and continues to deal – with the passing of her then 39-year-old daughter, Quintana, just before Magical Thinking was published.
In their review of the book, The New York Review of Books wrote, “‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ Didion famously wrote in The White Album. Blue Nights is about what happens when there are no more stories we can tell ourselves, no narrative to guide us and make sense out of the chaos, no order, no meaning, no conclusion to the tale. The book has, instead, an incantatory quality: it is a beautiful, soaring, polyphonic eulogy, a beseeching prayer that is sung even as one knows the answer to one’s plea, and that answer is: No.”
But before writing Blue Nights, Didion turned The Year of Magical Thinking into a one-woman Broadway play. Redgrave, a close friend of the writer’s for decades, starred in the riveting adaptation, which won her a Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award nomination. Yet there’s even more that connects these two extraordinary women.
Like Didion, Redgrave knows what the pain of losing a child feels like. In 2009, her daughter Natasha Richardson died from an epidural hematoma that occurred during a skiing accident. Richardson, whose first marriage took place in Didion’s apartment, was a good friend of Quintana’s during their teen years – something that Didion remembers fondly in Blue Nights.
“Magical thinking is when we believe that the past can be reversed, somehow,” Redgrave said in a press statement. “Blue nights are when everything has a future. For many of us, that means our children. When the blue nights end, we each confront the ludicrous enigma ‘Why can’t I be who I was? Why can’t I wear the black tights and hooped earrings that made me feel I knew who I was?’”
She continued that she hoped that those who attended the event – including familiar faces such as Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Broderick, and Emma Roberts – would find “a curious solace – and laughter – in Joan’s strange encounters with those who try to assist us with coping.”
Hearing Redgrave deliver Didion’s moving words was, as expected, a deeply emotional and sometimes even difficult experience. The knowledge that these two women, previously bound together as lifelong friends and now as grieving mothers, added layers to the reading. “When we talk about mortality we talk about children,” Redgrave repeated, filling the Cathedral with that heavy sentiment that would define why the evening was so special.
“This was never supposed to happen to her,” Redgrave read from the chapter about Richardson, echoing a feeling she too no doubt constantly grapples with. Seated in an armchair, she lifted her gaze from the page and onto the audience as she spoke those words. Her delivery was calm yet heartfelt, with each syllable carefully pronounced to give justice to the full rhythmic effect of Didion’s stunning prose while simultaneously honoring the memory of their children.
The end of each chapter was marked with a short piece of music on the trumpet-flugelhorn by guest artist Jimmy Owens, 2012 NEA Jazz Master and leader of Jimmy Owens Plus. All of the selections he played were as somber as they were beautiful, emphasizing the lingering melancholic atmosphere that consumed the room each time that Redgrave turned the page. These interludes offered the audience a quick break to collect themselves before Redgrave began to read again.
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine also holds a special significance for Didion. Not only is it where Quintana was married, but it’s where she, John Dunne, and Didion’s mother are all inurned. The idea that her ashes were in the surrounding walls added a somewhat poetic quality to the reading, almost as if she, too, were present and listening to her mother’s touching homage.
A benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Cathedral Community Cares, the event underlined just how profound Didion’s legacy has become. Last year, she received the National Medal of Arts and Humanities from President Obama. And just last month, a documentary that her nephew Griffin Dunne is directing about her life and impact raised its initial $80,000 goal in just one day on Kickstarter.
Redgrave finished the reading by focusing on passages from the end of Blue Nights in which Didion recounts how she has managed to find meaning and purpose in a world that has robbed her of so much. “The fear is for what is still to be lost,” she read. “You may see nothing still to be lost. Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her.”
As a result of the poignancy of Blue Nights and Redgrave’s raw performance of its text, Quintana and Richardson will never “pass into nothingness” like “the Keats line that frightened her.” All those who were lucky enough to attend this incredible reading left firmly convinced on that score. They also left deeply moved, pondering many of life’s most difficult questions.
PHOTO | BRIGITTE LACOMBE