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Two for One

  • The New York Times critic, Paul Fussell, hailed the British novelist Evelyn Waugh as “one of the heroes, perhaps one of the saints, of verbal culture."  Joseph Roccasalvo's two-act drama, “Waging Waugh” is rooted in the writer's meticulously structured prose.  This intellectually gratifying play appropriately links the author to his beloved Catholicism.  Waugh could be a cruel man, mercilessly ridiculing peers whose efforts were not up to his exacting standards. Many claimed he died of snobbery.  Roccasalvo preserves Waugh's sardonic wit and exquisitely inflammatory prose by centering the play in the writer's obsessive crafting of words.
    Lucie Mauro, Chicago Sun-Times.
  • It was one of those unforgettable artistic moments: a studio reading of “Waging Waugh,” a one-person play capturing the personality of the late British novelist Evelyn Waugh.  Waugh enjoys renewed popularity today because of the successful made-for-television miniseries of his novel, Brideshead Revisited. A convert to Catholicism, he was among a handful of novelists who produced Catholic novels that were acclaimed by Catholic and non-Catholic readers and critics. In “Waging Waugh,” the audience meets a pompous yet intriguing Englishman, a master of words, loyal to his understanding of Catholic theology and tradition.  He is aristocratic and decidedly pre-Vatican.  Yet this two-act play is ironically American.  In the first act, we see Waugh preparing to embark on a visit to the United States.  In the second act, he triumphantly returns from his visit to regale the audience with his humorous, acrimonious, and prophetic impressions of American life.  The author of this jewel of a play, Joseph Roccasalvo, is also a novelist.  He is aware that through the years many personalities have been portrayed on the American stage through one-person plays: Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, and Edgar Allen Poe.  Even Jesus Christ has appeared on stage through performances of the four gospels. For sure, Evelyn Waugh is one of the colorful characters on Catholicism's roster.  Joseph Roccasalvo recreates this unique personality on stage. “Waging Waugh” deserves to be in the company of other notable one-person plays that have graced the theater.
    Peter Gilmour, U.S. Catholic.
  • Joseph: Thank you for the privilege of working with your wonderful play, “Waging Waugh.”  I pray that Waugh will find a long and happy life in the theater.
    Nick Patricca, Professor of Drama, Loyola University, Chicago.
  • I received a copy of your opus “Waging Waugh” and enjoyed reading it.  I think you were shrewd in choosing 1947 for the focal point of the presentation, which allows you to focus on his masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited, and to bring in the Hollywood trip.  Since Waugh became deeply neurotic toward the end of his life, it was wise to choose the earlier time in which to set your play, and then work back to previous events.  Theatergoers would not enjoy an evening with the later Waugh.  They certainly will enjoy spending time with Waugh at the triumphant period in which you present him.
    Eugene Phillips, Professor of Film and Literature, Loyola University, Chicago. 
  • English novelist and journalist, Evelyn Waugh, is brought back to life by playwright, Joseph Roccasalvo, in a solo performance.  Waging Waugh, essentially a literary entertainment in the style of The Belle of Amherst and Mark Twain Tonight, is a genteel but by no means a gentle portrait of one of modern literature's most complex figures.  Waugh was a scathing satirist of upper-class amorality, a writer whose ironic, detached style masked a maelstrom of emotion.   Autobiographical texts were particularly valuable to Roccasalvo, a teacher of comparative religion, who's written several novels.  He is making his playwriting debut with a work peppered with beautiful phrased bitcheries.  Roccasalvo has stitched these musings into an impressively seamless conversational tapestry. Over the course of two acts, Waugh lives up to his self-description—“three parts misanthropic, one part gregarious”—as he waxes dyspeptically eloquent on a variety of subjects.  His greatest concern is the alarming deterioration of English literature and language.  Interspersed are reflections on Waugh's relationships with lions of a bygone age: Somerset Maugham, Nancy Mitford, Thomas Merton, and Oxford aesthete Harold Acton. Underlying all his talk is disdain for the general sad state of “the Century of the Common Man” in “a world made uninhabitable by scientists and politicians.” Waging Waugh is a big step in the right direction.  Roccasalvo may be a newcomer to playwriting, but his choice of Waugh as a subject combining donnish eccentricity and manic-depressive moodiness is dead-on.  If Waging Waugh is to have a future, the script will need to attract a star of some magnitude.  But for now, Waging Waugh is an interesting, well-written visit with one of literature's crustiest curmudgeons.
    Albert Williams, Chicago Reader

SETTING: The curtain remains up throughout the play. The action takes place in Waugh's home, Piers Court, in the town of Stinchcombe, North Dursley, Gloucestershire. The stage suggests a spacious, high-walled library. Distributed at intervals around the room are Evelyn's Victorian paintings in elaborate gilt frames. The library's carved shelves jut out in bays paneled in dark green. The front of each bay forms a supporting pillar, whose shaft is rectangular and whose capital is topped in the Doric style. The effect is classically beautiful. The library's arrangement is also practical. It provides room for Evelyn's large collection of reference books and leather-bound manuscripts. The library's recessed area forms an alcove where in front of a solid wall of books sits a partner's pedestal desk. Strategically placed on it are a Victorian ink pot, pens with nibs, and the famous silver copy of the Glastonbury bowl. Into it, Evelyn flicks his cigar ash while writing. Arching above the desk is a draftsman's lamp, which is raised or lowered as needed. Downstage is a trestle-end library table on claw feet, its pedestals carved with acanthus leaves. It is stacked with unopened packages, parcels for mailing, books, and manuscripts. The floor is covered with an Aubusson rug of palmette design that runs the extent of the stage.

TIME: It is January 1947. Evelyn enters stage left from outside the library. He wears a three-piece suit open at the jacket, his watch fob prominently in view, and sports a white carnation boutonniere. At forty-four, he has gained transatlantic celebrity. Small in stature, scarcely five foot six, he is somewhat corpulent. His hair, parted on the left, has a soft sheen. The unflinching blue eyes are his most salient feature. He exhibits what Harold Acton once described as a faun-like look with “curved sensual lips” and “wide-apart eyes, always ready to be startled under raised eyebrows.” They quickly assess each situation, isolating what is desirable and what is readily dismissed. His rich, fruity voice is one of his greatest charms, while his spoken English is as elegant, incisive, and rounded as his written prose. Never hesitating in search of a word, his speech is an exuberant flow, his language imparting freshness to the most pedestrian ideas. Since he completes each thought to his own satisfaction, he cannot be pressed to augment a reply. In middle age, his blunt ability for truth telling demolishes or reduces to silence when he is not being charming or outrageously funny. With an unlit cigar in hand, Evelyn calls back over his shoulder.