Mrs. Updike by Margaret Heffernan

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Mrs. Updike by Margaret Heffernan (2013).  Dir. John Dove.  Perf. Eileen Atkins, Charles Edwards.  BBC Radio 3, 18 Jan. 2015.  BBCiPlayer to 18 Feb. 2015.


Adam Begley’s recent biography of Updike (2014) creates a portrait of a writer totally committed to his art at the expense of everything and anyone else.  Even as an adolescent he felt detached from “home,” despite the best efforts of his over-protective mother and easy-father.  On the other hand Updike spent his entire life trying to discover a form of identity that he could be happy with; he played various roles – father, husband, celebrity, farm worker – without being satisfied with any of them.  He strove for a sense of belonging, but could never discover it; in the end his fiction became a shield from life’s realities, rather than an embodiment of them.


John Dove’s production suggested that many of these shortcomings could be attributed to Updike’s over-protective mother Laura (Eileen Atkins).  From a modest background, she spent her life trying to create an ideal environment for Updike to become a poet.  She persuaded the family to move to an isolated farm in Pennsylvania, where the youthful Updike would have plenty of time to write on his own.  She dominated her husband Wesley (Stuart Milligan) to such an extent that he had very little opportunity to develop a close relationship with their son.  Yet Laura was not without ambition; when not looking after John, she tried to cultivate a writing career of her own, spending long hours over short stories and other literary forms, some of which were eventually published in The New Yorker.


The action began with the adult Updike (Charles Edwards) returning to his mother’s farmhouse for an unscheduled visit.  Although frequently to explain the reason why he had come, he seemed especially reluctant to respond.  It was only later that we discovered he had turned his back on his wife and four children and chosen to marry someone else.  Through flashbacks we found out about Updike’s rather unhappy childhood; his resentment at being forced to move to the Pennsylvania farm; his futile efforts to relate to his math-teacher father; and his attempts to prevent his mother from controlling his life.  Even when he became a celebrity (following the publication of Rabbit Run in 1960), Updike still felt in some way inadequate; that he had somehow failed to live up to his mother’s expectations for him.  A successful novelist was in many ways inferior to a poet (which is what she really wanted him to be).


The only way to deal with such problems, Updike found, was to write about them in his fiction – a strategy that antagonized his mother even more.  Having spent her entire life trying to forge a close relationship with him, he was now refusing to talk to her, but rather solving his emotional problems through the highly public medium of fiction.  She could not understand that this represented an attempt on Updike’s part to escape from her influence.


Stylistically speaking, Mrs. Updike had strong links to other family dramas such as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, whose characters end up tearing the emotional life out of one another, yet realize at the same time that they are inseparable.  Despite her attachment to her son, Laura resented his success; Updike, on the other hand, could never convince her that she had little or no talent as a writer.  When Updike left his family, his mother failed to realize that she might have played a significant part in the decision; an emotional cripple, Updike could seldom relate to those around him.  On the other hand, Updike offered scant criticism of his mother’s writings; it was as if he resented her attempts to muscle in on his creative domain.


In the end, the two of them set aside their differences – at least for a brief period – and went out on the porch of the family farmhouse to enjoy the last moments of a summer’s day.  Yet we got the distinct sense that this was only a brief truce; in a short while they would continue to snipe at one another.  


Sometimes Mrs. Updike proved quite painful listening, as we understood how the closeness between mother and son prevented them from appreciating one another’s shortcomings.  Ably performed by Edwards and Atkins – despite the fact that their American accents appeared forced on occasions – the play offered a penetrating portrait of an ultimately destructive relationship.