As its title suggests, Philip de Gouveias play depicts the life of Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist and 1960s counter-culture icon, solely through the words of his six wives. It is an arresting and impressive piece of theatre, in which we learn as much about them as about him.
The play is presented as a series of monologues, with each wife conversing with a different person, the role of which the audience always takes on. Marianne chats with a party guest whilst her and Tim are still married; Mary speaks with a journalist years after they have parted; Joanna talks with Tim directly through prison bars, and Rosemary addresses a crowd to push for his release.
Through these exchanges we learn much about this multi-faceted man. He attracted (though hardly deserved) loyalty, was stubborn beyond belief, and was a proponent of the therapeutic benefits of LSD. But the play is not a comprehensive biography of Leary. Rather it is an exploration of how he was able to affect these six women.
For example, he tapped into Mariannes need to be seen as pretty, as much as he did into Rosemarys vision of the 1960s as a new dawn. Through skilful writing we learn that nothing is as it seems, and specific lines succeed in exposing much about the characters. Joanna proclaims that when she and Tim were arrested by the FBI in Afghanistan their smiling for the cameras was simply to mask their true feelings. The simple addition of the phrase Tim smiled a lot then says so much.
The framing scenario is Learys wake, at which five of the wives are present. After each monologue this scene is returned to, and we see snippets of interaction between two or more of the women. Interestingly, there is little sense of a bond between them. True, Joanna describes him as a bastard, and Rosemary says he put them all through a lot, but equally Joanna pleads with Barbara to go easy on him in her speech. The over-riding sense is one of suspicion between the wives, resulting from each still wishing to believe that they were special to him. To bond with the others, it appears, would be to accept that this was not so.
Overall, I would have preferred to have seen shorter monologues and more interaction between the women. This to me would have enabled the audience to contrast further their differing stances, although the strength of the acting enabled us still to learn a great deal about these. There really was no weak player, and all six commanded the audiences undivided attention as each, in turn, bore their soul over their feelings for the man.
Of course, the over-riding question is how the play leaves us feeling about Timothy Leary, at least in respect of his love-life. It would be all too easy to condemn him for being totally callous about others feelings, but the play is too clever either to suggest he was entirely responsible, or conversely blameless, for all that happened. One could argue that he drove his first wife, Marianne, to suicide, but there was surely something in her own character that contributed to her killing herself. This does not, however, mean that Leary was an innocent bystander.
Similarly, though some of these women had successful careers in their own right, to an extent Leary made them what they were. One also felt that if offered the chance to do it all over again, most of them would say yes. Nevertheless, Leary caused the women much suffering, and the ambiguity concerning how much choice they had over this is summed up by another beautifully crafted line. His final wife, Barbara, describes a mother haranguing Leary for encouraging her son, who went mad, to take LSD. She says surely we all have a choice about what we do, before adding Im not sure I agree with that.
The final scene sees the five surviving wives drinking a subdued toast to Tim as his dead wife appears behind a curtain. It would have been all too easy to have her rise from the dead to argue with the others, and it is a credit to the creators that that they opted for a far subtler ending: the light on Marianne going out just a second after it does on the others.
As the play reminds us, Timothy Learys catchphrase was “Turn on, tune in, drop out”. In respect of this production, I would recommend readers do the first two.