Patrick Hamilton: the tormented genius whose play inspired the phrase 'gaslighting'

·6-min read
The English author Patrick Hamilton
The English author Patrick Hamilton

Patrick Hamilton stands as one of 20th-century literature’s more intriguing and elusive figures. It’s almost 60 years since his death, and 80 years since the publication of his best-known work, Hangover Square, the title a pun on London’s Hanover Square and a signpost to the book’s pub-land milieu.

He was the author of 11 more novels, and penned two substantial hit plays, Rope and Gaslight, which enjoyed successful lives on screen too.

You can’t say that he’s forgotten. And in some ways, he’s more ubiquitous than ever – the much-used phrase “gaslighting” derives from the subtly destructive mind-games conducted by husband against wife in his 1938 thriller (played by Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in the subsequent film).

Now the first book in his great trilogy about 1930s Soho and its environs – Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky – has been adapted by the award-winning choreographer Matthew Bourne for a show - The Midnight Bell - that is touring the UK until late November.

Billed as a series of “intoxicating tales [about the] darker reaches of the human heart”, the production, like the book, centres on the patrons of the fictitious Midnight Bell pub in Fitzrovia, who gather nightly to pour out their passions, hopes and dreams.

Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from the 1944 film Gaslight - Alamy
Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from the 1944 film Gaslight - Alamy

It’s a world which Hamilton – who died of cirrhosis of the liver aged 58 in 1962 - knew at first hand. He started drinking heavily and regularly circa 1927, while in his twenties - haunting pubs in Earl’s Court, Chelsea, Soho and around Euston Road.

By the end of his life, his drinking was the stuff of legend – glasses of Guinness in the morning, gin before lunch, whisky after tea, a post-war intake that apparently rarely fell below about three bottles a day.

The roots of Hamilton’s dependency on booze are many: in his formative years, a volatile father and a mentally frayed mother (who committed suicide in 1934), and a lack of financial security; later, physical frustration - his first marriage was a sexless one. And there was a disfiguring accident in 1932 when a car rammed into him in Earl’s Court.

The Midnight Bell catches some of the highs of unbridled bibulation. With women absent come 10 o’ clock, the bar turns into a lexicon of male inebriation: “They were talking drunk, and confidential drunk, and laughing drunk, and beautiful drunk, and leering drunk, and secretive drunk…”

Matthew Bourne's The Midnight Bell - Johan Persson
Matthew Bourne's The Midnight Bell - Johan Persson

The repetition might seem heavy-handed, but it attests to Hamilton’s rare ability to conjure atmosphere. You’re there with him, surveying a scene no less hectic than Hogarth’s Gin Lane. And, as with that picture, despair lurks too. In Hamilton-land, there’s always a need for one more round, the better to anaesthetise the anxiety besetting what the author Michael Holroyd calls “London’s defeated classes – the insignificant, the needy, the homeless and the ostracised”.

Jenny, a prostitute with whom the barman Bob becomes obsessed, had a real-life model. In an inhibited, idealising way, young Hamilton mixed with the “courtesans” of Soho, and had a one-sided, essentially platonic involvement with a lady of the night called Lily Connolly. She exploited his infatuation to extract money from him. The end of The Midnight Bell finds Bob, penniless and hungover, lying in misery in a doss-house. He heads for the docks, hoping for new horizons.

Nothing so benign occurs at the climax of Hangover Square. Published in 1941 and later hailed in the press as “one of the great books of the 20th century”, Hangover Square, like Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, is written in a drolly detached style and explores the shabby crevices of London life and the dark, despairing alleys of the human heart.

It also features an unrequited obsession, in this case between near-skint bohemian George Harvey Bone and actress Netta, from whom George tries to elicit something more than cool indifference. But, instead of sinking into self-pity like Bob in The Midnight Bell, George - who suffers from an identity disorder that renders him quasi blotto - resolves to murder the object of his desires, the showdown symbolically occurring just as Chamberlain declares war with Germany.

That wider, grim context means that, as well as being an invaluable social documenter, Hamilton – a theoretically committed Marxist – might be held as a political writer too. It’s tempting to draw comparisons in that regard with his contemporary, George Orwell. But his distinction lies in what makes him seem messier than his peer: his interest in tangled psychology.

Whereas Orwell extrapolates from world events and envisages future torture chambers in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Hamilton achieves a queasy comedy of distress by showing that our capacity to torture each other needs no state intervention.

His characters are lonely, lost souls, whether they attempt to connect or not, whether they drink themselves silly or no. Still they hold out hope, still they’re disappointed; they’re preyed upon, and, adding to the agony, know as much, but can’t help themselves. They’re from a bygone age, yet actually seem very close to our own atomised times.

In The Slaves of Solitude, his 1947 evocation of wartime suburban England – modelled on Henley - a meek secretary, Miss Roach, is bullied on a daily basis at her lodging house by a typical Hamiltonian monster – the Nazi-sympathising Mr Thwaites who has “the steady look with which as a child he would have torn off a butterfly’s wing”.

In Rope (1929), much admired by Harold Pinter, two young murderers conduct a dinner party with the friends and family of their victim, whose corpse lies in the chest they’re eating from.

We’re cruel beasts, and it’s awful, and sometimes it’s awfully funny, Hamilton tells us. His work repays attention.

Perhaps that thought has struck Stephen Sondheim for one; as a youth, the creator of Follies and Sweeney Todd was enraptured by the 1945 film of Hangover Square, which turned George into a mentally disturbed classical composer-pianist, and its score by Bernard Herrmann.

Perhaps American musical theatre’s genius will retrace his steps. Even if that proves a false trail of supposition, in Hamilton’s fascination with scrabbling lives, tormented souls, the desperation beneath the woozy veneer, lies an invitation to us all.

The Midnight Bell is at Sadler’s Wells Oct 4-9, and touring until Nov 27. Tickets:

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