Ethan Hawke Pens a Valentine to Theatre in A Bright Ray of Darkness

His new novel is also a prayer for the stage and a reminder of the healing power of performance

Ethan Hawke at the Texas Film Awards in 2016 (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

The protagonist of the novel A Bright Ray of Darkness is a 32-year-old movie star whose marriage has gone from failing to collapsing – his fault: infidelities – just as he's starting a prestige project: a staging of Shakespeare's Henry IV on Broadway. The author is Ethan Hawke, a movie star who was about 32 when his marriage to Uma Thurman collapsed – his fault: infidelities – and he played Hotspur in a high-profile production of Henry IV on Broadway. It may be straining credulity to say that any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental, but to see the book as simply a roman à clef for the thespian set is to miss Hawke's motive for writing it. As was said of Hamlet (also played by Hawke, in Michael Almereyda's 2000 film), "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't."

So since we're speaking of Shakespeare: In A Bright Ray of Darkness, protagonist William Harding tells of his first encounter with the Bard at age 12 watching Laurence Olivier's version of King Lear on public television. An hour in, he was "stupefied with boredom," but "then the play's spell was cast," and by the end, he was sobbing. "I didn't understand Shakespeare, but I loved it. I loved the mystery of not knowing something that was clearly so masterfully created. It seemed to promise that answers might exist, for those willing to pay attention."

That wasn't exactly how it happened with Hawke in life, but it does echo his response to a Lear he saw at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, one with Hal Holbrook as the king. Then 22, Hawke had gone to support his Dead Poets Society castmate Robert Sean Leonard, who was cast as the virtuous but tortured Edgar. "I spent the first part of [the show] fighting off sleep," Hawke says, but then "it just took me over. At the end, I was incredibly moved and wasn't sure why." That deep feeling followed him backstage, where he got to help wipe off Holbrook's makeup. "I became aware of the ancientness of my profession," he says. "The makeup. The poetry. It's an ancient art form."

Now, by then the young Hawke had already been engaged in theatre for almost a decade – in high school productions, yes, but also in a professional production of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan at the McCarter Theatre. And the year before he saw Lear he'd made his Broadway debut in Anton Chekhov's The Seagull. So the stage was really where he was born as an actor, and he always made time for theatre even as his film career took off.

But he didn't necessarily plan to write about it. For Hawke, writing was a break from acting and the collaboration that goes with it. "When you climb in other people's skins for a living," he says, "it's nice to have your own art project for a while."

And as he was climbing into other people's skins in Reality Bites, Great Expectations, Gattaca, Before Sunrise, Tape, Training Day, and a dozen other films, Hawke did have two of his own art projects: the novels The Hottest State (1996) and Ash Wednesday (2002). But when the books came out, Hawke the writer discovered that readers kept seeing Hawke the star in them. "Reading the reviews – and most of them were very kind," he says, "it became clear to me that no one could get over that I was an actor. The notoriety that I'd gained as a performer. They're reading it with these characters I'd played in their heads." In Germany, on tour for the second book, Hawke mentioned this to a publisher. "He said to me, 'Your problem is you're not a famous writer, you're a famous person who writes.'" The publisher told Hawke that he wouldn't get past that perception of him "until you stare it in the face" – that is, put yourself on the page. All of you.

That advice led Hawke to the one subject he felt he knew better than probably any other writer: acting. He could detail not just how it's done but what it feels like to do, all its thrills and anxieties, passions and fears, the work with other actors and directors and crews, the routines and jokes and mishaps – all of it. "My joke," Hawke says, "was, 'I'm gonna do for the actor what Melville did for the whaler.'" The novel would be set in the theatre, and Hawke immediately had a vision for its architecture: five "acts," with scenes taking place on the first day of rehearsal, dress rehearsal, first preview, opening night, a two-show Wednesday, and closing night.

"I saw it clearly," he says. "And then I struggled." For starters, he kept impossibly busy with acting, so the book took a back seat. "In between jobs, I'd write 30 pages and then it'd sit for a long time. I can't tell you how many times I thought I'd burn it."

But the book wouldn't let him. "If I could not do it, I would. You know how they say novels aren't finished, they're abandoned? When you're making a film, you have a shooting schedule, and you make the best out of it. You don't have that with a book. There's no time an intelligent person thinks, 'It's perfect,' and stops writing. [Writing] is not something I ever want to do. But then I'll be sitting on a plane and I'll hear these voices, and these sentences start to come. So I didn't want to give up on it."

The theatre novel remained an off-and-on project for Hawke for nearly 20 years. But one saving grace of that drawn-out process was that Hawke did more theatre in that time – much more: Stoppard (The Coast of Utopia), Rabe (Hurlyburly), Shepard (True West, A Lie of the Mind), Chekhov (The Cherry Orchard), and Shakespeare (Macbeth, The Winter's Tale, and, of course, Henry IV) – and from it gained more experiences he could draw on for the novel. Such as the time he was onstage with Richard Easton in The Coast of Utopia and Easton collapsed from a heart attack, allowing Hawke to turn to the audience and ask in all earnestness, "Is there a doctor in the house?" (There was, and Easton survived, although his heart had stopped for 11 minutes. After having a pacemaker installed, he even returned to the show and finished the run.)

It was finishing the miniseries adaptation of James McBride's The Good Lord Bird – which he created, co-produced, and starred in – that led Hawke to complete the book, now titled A Bright Ray of Darkness, in 2020. And the closing of theatres by the pandemic made the book all the more meaningful. "In my mind, it's a love letter to the theatre," he says, "to the healing power of performance," and this was a time when people need reminding of that.

So is William Harding just a thinly disguised Ethan Hawke? Without question, A Bright Ray of Darkness includes elements of Hawke's life. But they're there in service to that ancient art form that has such a hold on the actor/writer/director. The best evidence of its grip on him may be a moment from the book's Act II, scene two, which takes place on the night of first preview. William is backstage suffering a hardcore case of pre-show nerves. So he kneels and prays to St. Christopher. What begins as a solicitation for himself expands generously to encompass theatremakers across space and time. Here's how it ends:

"I pray for all the theaters everywhere across the earth – the ones in the war zones, the ones in the basements of mosques, or in the parks of Argentina, the ones in the West End and the ones in Tokyo – for in them lies the possibility for some kind of magic, mystic, holy conjuring.

"Just as thought leads imagination, imagination leads consciousness – and the theater is the living consciousness of the world. There is a healing imaginative dance between the audience, the light, the music, the rhythm of a few carefully chosen words, the spontaneous gesture of a certain actress's left hand. A dance that announces: WE ARE ALIVE. TODAY, MAYBE NOT TOMORROW. THIS IS REAL, THIS IS NOW. This is my prayer: that I may be present for this evening."

To which we say, amen.

A Bright Ray of Darkness

by Ethan Hawke
Knopf, 256 pp., $27.95

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