Set in the Villa i Tatti outside Florence in 1937, under the menacing shadow of Mussolini, The Old Masters explores the turbulent relationship between the famous art historian Bernard Berenson and the notorious art dealer Joseph Duveen, as they edge towards and explosive final encounter. The Old Masters was originally published as The Pig Trade.
The Old Masters was first presented at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre on 4th June 2004 by Greg Ripley-Duggan with Duveen Productions and Ted Tulchin in a Birmingham Repertory Theatre Production. It then moved to the Comedy Theatre, London, in July 2004. The cast was as follows:
BB – Edward Fox
MARY – Barbara Jefford
NICKY – Sally Dexter
FOWLES – Steven Pacey
DUVEEN – Peter Bowles
Director: Harold Pinter
Designer: Eileen Diss
Costume Designer: Dany Everett
Lighting: Mick Hughes
Sound: John Leonard, for Aura Sound
The Old Master was performed at the Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven, January 19 – February 13, 2011
Berenson – Sam Waterston
Duveen – Brian Murray
Mary – Shirley Knight
Nicky – Heidi Schreck
Fowles – Rufus Collins
Directed by Michael Rudman
Set Design – Alexander Dodge
The Pig Trade is about the turbulent relationship between the art expert Bernard Berenson, and the art dealer, Joseph Duveen. It is set in I Tatti, Berenson’s famous villa outside Florence, on a summer’s night in 1937, with Mussolini at the height of his power, the Barbarians at the Gates. I started to write it as a screenplay about four years ago, fiddling about with it for months, with diminishing interest and belief, until I abandoned it. My problem was that the heart of the story could only be revealed in the course of an epic confrontation between the two morally crippled Titans, which I couldn’t write, perhaps because I knew in my bones that however I approached it, and against my every decent inclination, it would come out stagey. The solution, as a friend pointed out, was to write it for the stage, which I did. The first scenes, establishing Berenson and his household, his wife Mary, his mistress Nicky and Duveen’s emissary Fowles, came easily enough – in fact I spent a great deal of unnecessary time in their company, in scenes that don’t appear much in the final play, simply because I enjoyed them so much, and because they delayed the moment when I’d have to get down to my dramatic muttons, with the entrance of Duveen. This comes just after Berenson has had a rather complicated domestic evening, full of love, anger, apprehension and sex, and is now alone in his study, making peace with himself, ready for a final, restful spot of work. He adjusts his lamp, picks up a folder, the door bursts open, the detested Duveen enters, Berenson looks at him aghast, Duveen opens his arms to embrace him – I simply couldn’t get myself past Duveen frozen with his outstretched arms, Berenson frozen aghast. I did the approach again and again, first changing the closing exchanges between Berenson and Nicky, then changing Berenson’s actions in his study, finally providing Dureen with offstage footsteps and coughs, hoping that eventually I’d just find myself writing him into the room and the opening lines of the conversation, their last conversation together, the heart of play. I stopped, waited for a week or so, started, stopped, waited, started, stopped, waited, started, stopped – one night very late, or one morning very early, with my eyes closed, so to speak, I leapt.
Duveen bursts into the room, stretches out his arms. Berenson lets out a laugh of incredulity.
Duveen Happy Birthday, BB!
It wasn’t Berenson’s birthday, actually, but I could sort out why Duveen thought it was, if he did think it was, later, or I could just cut the line or perhaps even decide that it was Berenson’s birthday after all – I could do any or all of these things, easy-peasy, now that I’d got them to talk at last – in fact, the problem thereafter was how to get them to stop. The Pig Trade is the only one of the four plays in this book not to have been produced on the page in a previous form – in fact, at the time of writing, not to have been produced at all, although it most certainly might be, some time between now and then, depending on the availability of actors, theatres, producers, directors, honesty and money.
P.S. I’ve recently started looking at The Pig Trade again. I suspect that the version published here may merely turn out to be another draft, under the wrong title.
Published in Simon Gray: Plays 5 by Faber Contemporary Classics
The Old Masters is now available as a Faber Contemporary Classic in Simon Gray: Plays 5. To order a copy on special offer at 25% discount please contact Faber and use the code GRAYPLAYS.
The Old Masters is also published in the following edition:
The Old Masters (Faber and Faber 2006 ISBN 0-413-40420-X)
Simon Gray wrote an earlier version of the same play entitled The Pig Trade. It can be found in the following edition:
Four Plays (Faber and Faber 2004 ISBN 0-571-21988-8)
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