Writing ‘A Prolonged Kiss’ / Jonathan Gibbs
Jonathan Gibbs discusses his short story in Issue 12. You can listen to Jonathan read the opening of the story here. ‘A Prolonged Kiss’ has since been shortlisted for the prestigious Sunday Times / Audible Short Story of the Year Award.
‘A Prolonged Kiss’ is a story that was a long time coming. It grew out of an idea that I’d had many years ago, when, in my twenties, I was a theatre reviewer for Time Out magazine. I used to go and see two, sometimes three shows a week, mostly in venues on the London fringe. It was hugely enjoyable, but it used to bug me that I was seeing plays at a very particular point in their evolution, on ‘press night’, no less, which is about as far from a usual performance as it’s possible to get.
Even without the press night stresses, however, I was only ever seeing a snapshot: one single performance. How cool it would be, I thought, to go back and see a play every night for a week, or over the whole run. You would be able to watch the production change and grow – or shrink – and tease out what the factors were that caused this. There might be one-off accidents that changed the dynamic (someone having a bad day at home, or a particularly unresponsive audience), or else things might develop more organically, as the performers settled into their roles. This could be negative, of course, as grudges spilled out from backstage to onstage, or it could be positive, as actors’ extra-sensory communication blossomed and bore fruit. At the very least, I thought, they would want to keep things changing, to stop themselves getting stale, or bored.
I think I may have pitched this as a feature idea to one of two arts editors, but to no great effect. Either it was too idiosyncratic, or it would be hard to do without doing it at great length, or it would hard to find a production that would be willing to put itself under my critical microscope. In any case, the idea died, or went into hibernation.
And then came alive again.
In 2016, when I went to the National Theatre in London to see The Seagull, as part of the Young Chekhov season, directed by Jonathan Kent. I can’t remember now whether the idea had started its process of regermination when I bought my ticket to see the show, but I do know when it clicked into place, only this time as a short story, rather than a piece of journalism. It was with the kiss that kickstarts the story, forms its lengthening centre, and even gives it its title.
The star attraction in that 2016 production was Anna Chancellor, who was in fact brilliant as Arkadina, the “the now past-it actress whose country house they’re all staying at”, but it was Trigorin and Nina that I knew would be the characters in my story – or rather the actors who play them, again and again, night after night. I wrote the first draft quite quickly, settling at once on the perspective of Sophie, the young actor – straight out of drama school – who plays Nina, and who isn’t in love with Colm, who plays Trigorin, exactly, but is certainly in love with the idea of acting, of what it can mean to give yourself up to the manifest contingencies of performance, and the power that this gives you, over yourself (you might be seduced into believing) and over other people (ditto).
I remember the writing of it as being unalloyed pleasure. (A depressing maxim: stories are easier when the ideas that underpin them have been gestating for… decades.) Ancient half-thoughts about acting and the theatre came creeping out of suspension and found their way in profusion onto the page. There is some gentle satire there, for sure – of actors and their self-absorption – but that satire is only salt to the real meat of the story, which is love of theatre, and its transformative power.
It’s the communality of theatre that gives actors that power. And it’s the genius of Chekhov that he can, as Colm says, “put characters on the page, who to all intents and purposes are a step away from cliché, and turn them into living, breathing people. And take real, living, breathing people, and turn them into clichés.”
Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall (Galley Beggar Press) and The Large Door (Boiler House). His short stories have been anthologised in Best British Short Stories 2014 and 2015, and shortlisted for the inaugural White Review Short Story Prize, and he curates the online short story project A Personal Anthology, in which a weekly guest picks and introduces a dozen favourite stories. He teaches creative writing at City, University of London.
Image by Jo Mazelis.