The resonant voice of Vanessa Redgrave echoed off the hallowed walls of the cathedral: “What greater grief can there be for mortals than to see their children dead. Euripedes said that. When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.”
Redgrave was reading from Blue Nights, an evocative memoir by acclaimed author, and close friend, Joan Didion. The one-night-only performance on November 17 was held at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. At Redgrave’s request, the evening benefited Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Cathedral Community Cares.
Blue Nights is an account of the death of Quintana Roo, Didion’s daughter with husband John Gregory Dunne. In the novel, Didion shares her struggle, as a mother and a writer, to cope with this assault on her emotional and physical resources just two years after her husband passed away.
Redgrave drew a connection between Blue Nights and Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which Redgrave performed on Broadway and in London’s West End.
“Magical thinking is when we believe that the past can be reversed, somehow,” Redgrave said. “Blue nights are when everything has a future. For many of us, that means our children. When the blue nights end, we each confront the ludicrous enigma ‘Why can’t I be who I was? Why can’t I wear the black tights and hooped earrings that made me feel I knew who I was?'”
Redgrave and Didion share the horrific experience of having adult children precede them in death. Didion lost Quintana in 2005. Redgrave’s daughter, Natasha Richardson, died in 2009. The actress, the author and the venue have long shared an extraordinary affinity: Richardson’s first marriage took place in Didion’s home; and The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is where Quintana was married, and where Quintana and Dunne are inurned.
In a 2005 benefit for Broadway Cares at the Cathedral, Redgrave performed an adaptation of Didion’s earlier memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, after its highly acclaimed run in New York and in London.
For the special Blue Nights reading, Redgrave was joined by guest artist Jimmy Owens, 2012 NEA Jazz Master and leader of Jimmy Owens Plus, on the trumpet-flugelhorn. “I feel the life that Joan Didion went through was the height of the saddest of the blues,” Owens said. “All the life elements worked out because she was strong in her thoughts and emotions and knew she had to continue in her life. Music is always a part of our life’s emotions and can help bridge many personal situations. I was honored to be able to share my music, my emotions, as part of the evening.”
Redgrave hoped those who attended the special reading found “a curious solace” and laughter in Joan’s strange encounters with those who try to assist us with coping. “Joan wrote, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,'” Redgrave said. “That’s why I wanted to read from Blue Nights in the Cathedral.”
Photo by Monica Simoes