Love Letters

Original London West End Production 1990 (Robert Wagner / Stefanie Powers and George Peppard / Elaine Stritch)

1st London West End Revival 1999 (Charlton Heston / Lydia Clarke Heston)

Play by A R Gurney. A funny, perceptive and moving play that traces the 50-year love affair between two friends whose relationship and lives are observed through letters that pass between them from youth to maturity.

Playwright A R Gurney explains how he came to write this play: "Love Letters began as a series of finger exercises which I improvised in the process of teaching myself to use a computer. These came to cluster round a story. Once that took shape, and once I had embraced the form, I found the play easy to write. I wasn't at all sure it was stage-worthy, however. My first instinct was to have it published, but a swift rejection from The New Yorker magazine persuaded me try it on the stage. I asked an actress friend to perform it with me as part of a lecture series at the New York Public Library, and there we discovered how the play worked in front of an audience. From then on it quickly found a stage life, first in New Haven, then in New York, and finally in a number of other cities, here and abroad. We also quickly discovered that because the play is read by actors seated behind a desk, it requires much less rehearsal time than the conventional drama which is memorised and staged. Indeed, the night we opened in New Haven, the leading lady was suddenly called away to a film commitment, and we hastily had to substitute another actress, who after a short rehearsal proved more than competent in the part. Because the play proved to be so resilient to the vagaries of casting, we soon established a kind of 'mix-and-match' procedure, enabling actors to accommodate their performances in Love Letters to their other commitments. In New York, Los Angeles and Boston, we changed teams every week. In other cities the stints have been longer or shorter. As the play has continued to run, it has been cast with a wide range of actors from the stage, screen and television, from people in their eighties down to their twenties. The performances may vary tremendously, but most have their own intrinsic validity which illuminates the play in exciting ways.

"Love Letters would seem to be a play about writing. It may also be about other things, but the idea of writing holds it together. Writing, for example, is a kind of salvation for its hero, Andy Ladd. He even says as much in his long letter to Melissa toward the end of Act One. Writing enables him to express feelings he never could articulate otherwise, and to make shape and order out of a world which seems vastly removed from the cosy, protected enclave in which he grew up. Writing to him, also, is the only way to escape from the restrictive prison of the self, and the only way to extend himself toward the woman he loves.

"Melissa, on the other hand, senses the problems inherent in writing. She knows instinctively that words can be deceitful as well as sincere, and that letters can be a way of avoiding human contact, rather than reaching out. She struggles mightily most of her life against Andy's attempts to induce her to play the game by his rules, and does what she can to respond on her own terms, by using drawings, comic strip slang, the telephone - anything to assert herself against the persistent seductions of Andy's pen.

"Writing may be what brings the two lovers together, but it is also what keeps them apart. In the end, Melissa is destroyed by a relationship which in a sense has become too dependent on the written word. Andy, on the other hand, continues, even after Melissa's death, to find relief and comfort in writing, and can at least imagine her love and forgiveness through the process of writing to her mother at the end. It is curious that I should have written this work, devoted as it is to the scratch of pen on paper, as I was learning to leave that sound for the tap-tap impersonality of the word processor."

A R Gurney's other West End plays include Sylvia.

Original London West End Production 1990

Previewed 24 September 1990, Opened 1 October 1990, Closed 17 November 1990 at the Wyndham's Theatre

The original cast featured Robert Wagner as 'Andy Ladd' and Stefanie Powers as 'Melissa' (up to Saturday 22 October 1990). George Peppard as 'Andy Ladd' and Elaine Stritch as 'Melissa' (from Monday 22 October 1990 to Saturday 17 November 1990). Directed by John Tillinger.

1st London West End Revival 1999

Previewed 6 July 1999, Opened 8 July 1999, Closed 1 August 1999 at the Haymarket Theatre

The cast featured Charlton Heston as 'Andy Ladd' and Lydia Clarke Heston as 'Melissa'.

"For years, A R Gurney's soppy show has been a vehicle for pairs of stars to do between mini-series. Elaine Stritch and Jason Robards, Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers and now senior citizens Charlton Heston and his wife Lydia Clarke Heston. The first thing you discover is that they can both read which is good news, since apart from sitting side by side at a desk, that's all they do... Lydia Heston is spry - giving lots of knowing twinkles and the odd raunchy expletive. Charlton is less spry. He has a habit of bowing his head over the desk as if he was about to doze off, and his teeth and hair are fascinating. Still, knowing that this Hollywood pair love each other in real life makes it all rather heart-warming. Last time the show was over here a director and designer were employed. This time they didn't bother. That's because there's no play as such, or any set, or acting as such. Still, bless 'em both, I say." The Daily Express

"Charlton Heston was once Hollywood's walking and talking (though not necessarily at the same time) definition of rugged masculinity. That, however, is not the phrase which most readily springs to mind while watching him in the latest star vehicle to trundle into town. Love Letters is the Hello! of theatregoing. Okay, so there's no room for a kidney-shaped swimming pool, but in all other respects AR Gurney's little money-spinner - sorry, play - offers the chance to see not one but two celebrities in the flesh... Gurney's startlingly disingenuous programme note tells us that his play 'began as a series of finger exercises which I improvised in the process of teaching myself to use a computer'. By the end of this torpid evening, you realise that there is a greater truth buried in Gurney's remark: this isn't writing, it's typing... The secret behind the bemusing success of this preposterous guff is simple. Love Letters doesn't even abide by the old rule of "learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture", as the actors spend the entire performance seated side-by-side behind a table reading the script. In other words, it's a radio play: a weak, dully polite one, with barely adequate renditions... The best thing about it? The theatre is air-conditioned." The Independent

"When I die and go to Purgatory (en route to the other place) and try to make up with the actors I have been most rude about, first in the queue will be Charlton Heston... At least this time round, in a boring duet of love letters with his own real-life wife - hold the stampede at the box office for, yes, Lydia Clarke Heston, in spectacles - he doesn't actually try to perform. He just sits there, in a blue suit and red tie, rifling through some dud correspondence with a woman he never married but loved all his life. Poor Lydia, his real wife... He and Lydia sit there reading missives at a couple of lecterns. At a big wide table. Did you go to the theatre, or did you sign up for a celebrity talk-in? Chuck and Lydia are microphoned. They look like a couple of geriatrics sucking up to a Saga Holidays outing on a cheap cruise liner. And who cares anyway about these old Wasps with no sting? He becomes a Senator. She doesn't. They don't marry, They stay in love. You get my drift. Gurney's gift as a wonderful playwright, the Ayckbourn of the States, is totally betrayed... With the Hestons, it stands a fair chance of becoming the Most Boring Play ever seen in the West End. And certainly the most boringly performed." The Daily Mail

"Watching a giant of the cinema struggle on stage is as distressing as the thrashings of a beached whale. Why Charlton Heston, an Oscar winner for Ben Hur and star of more than 70 movies, feels it necessary to subject himself and his one and only wife, Lydia Clarke Heston, to the critical flak they have received for Love Letters, I cannot imagine. But every barb is well-deserved - it really is a tedious evening. A.R. Gurney's two-hander is not so much a play, more a dramatised reading, with a couple sitting behind a desk and recalling their lives and long-term love through the voluminous correspondence they have exchanged over the years. Their scripts are open on lecterns in front of them, so they don't even have to learn their lines. It's a handy vehicle for performers of a certain age but the Hestons, particularly Chuck, turn what can be a touching piece into a funeral oration. To compound a considerable felony, the programme contains a biographical note on 'actor, spokesman, public servant' Heston of quite awesome pomposity. One takes no pleasure in seeing giants reduced to something smaller than life. Mr Heston really should leave us to the memories of that chariot race." The News of the World

Love Letters in London at the Hayamrket Theatre previewed from 6 July 1999, opened on 8 July 1999 and closed on 1 August 1999