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Timberlake Wertenbaker, playwright, on an iris

GB Tell me why you chose an iris.

TW It’s a very beautiful flower but it’s also a very mysterious flower in a lot of ways. It has these connotations with Ancient Greece and even Egypt because Egyptian conquerors brought them back from Syria. Iris was the goddess of the rainbow and the daughter of Thaumas, which means marvel or wonder. She was also the messenger between gods and men and there is something about the iris that feels like a message. They were planted on the graves of women to guide the goddess to those graves, so irises are very female somehow. I love watching them grow because unlike other flowers that bud and then flower usually overnight, the iris is more like an animal. It takes a long time to flower. It starts as a cocoon and begins to have a few petals showing, then days later it stretches out to the whole flower. It’s unusual and rather wonderful to watch this happening.

GB Do you have a favourite type or colour?

TW I plant them in my garden and explore different colours. The tall bearded iris has been cultivated and they’ve developed an extraordinary range of colours. There’s no such thing as a red iris but there are flaming oranges and some that are almost black.

GB So there is something a little man-made about them?

TW Well most flowers are cultivated even though they all start in the wild. The iris has changed its shape a little but t hasn’t changed the basic six-petal form with three standards, three sepals and these beards, which come out from inside the flower like a tongue and are often a different colour. These are apparently quite useful for pollination. The Fleur de Lys is based on an iris. It was King Clovis who started that and then the French Kings from Louis VII took it up. I grew up in France so I’m very familiar with it.

GB Do you believe in universal beauty?

TW I do, and the iris grows almost everywhere. An iris is always an iris, unlike a rose. If you’re interested in a Platonic Ideal, this is so true of the iris. There are very few other flowers that look like it at all. Then there’s the Platonic notion of the one and the many. Most flowers look good in a group but the iris looks extraordinary if you just have one. The leaves are like fortresses with one single flower coming from between them. Painters have portrayed it that way. Some painters like Monet, did swathes, Van Gogh did vases of irises. Georgia O’Keefe did this one iris and it was described as very sexual and like a vagina, which she denied. I think that is missing the point of her painting even though they are quite feminine.

GB I interviewed John Mullan recently who said that for him to find beauty in something, even in the natural world, it has to be “percolated through the human imagination.” Is that your experience of the iris?

TW Not at all. I do think I fell in love with them gradually, as one does, but I think what’s wonderful about the iris is that it presents itself like a painting because it has these colours and shapes so it already makes a very strong statement. It has always attracted painters. They’ve appeared in Egyptian tombs and in the palace at Knossos. I think there’s a dialogue between the art and the flower itself.

GB Do you think that visual art can add anything to the beauty? Is a Van Gogh painting of one as beautiful as the real thing?

TW The Van Gogh is a beautiful painting in itself and then, as a painting does, it makes us look at things differently. You can have a sense of the iris through the painting or it can make you want to look at one again. It is always this dialogue, particularly with Georgia O’Keefe because she goes so close in. She tries to get into the mystery of it.

GB Do you think mystery is beautiful?

TW Mystery is attractive.

GB Richard Feynman famously said that an artist friend of his said that he would always find flowers more beautiful because he sees them as an artist whereas a scientist takes a flower apart to the point that it becomes dull. Feynman vehemently disagreed with this and said that knowledge could only ever add to the beauty, rather than subtract. Do you agree?

TW I think that the artist should have said that evolution is a mysterious thing, particularly the evolution of plants. The more you know, the more interesting they become and understanding the complex way in which insects pollinate them won’t stop you from looking at an iris again and finding it equally mysterious. I wrote a play about Darwin so I’m extremely interested in evolution. It’s endlessly surprising.

GB What’s your view on why we might have evolved to appreciate beauty and create art?

TW I would have to leave that to the scientists, but I think there probably is a reason that we appreciate beauty just in and of itself. It probably has to do with the fact that we’ve evolved as a civilized people, so to survive as a group we would have to have a common appreciation of things. Some people say that art is mimetic and is meant to be magical. For me, we need to have a common language .With flowers we have the smell which is our most primitive sense. Irises were considered medicinal and they also have a very fine smell so perfumes made with irises feel very light.

GB Does beauty come up in your work?

TW Yes, it comes up a lot. In one of the early plays I wrote called The Grace of Mary Traverse, there’s a moment when somebody sings that transforms the whole scene and in fact makes someone change because listening to this takes them from despair to hope. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, partly from reading Plato in my youth and being in love with the Phaedrus and Keats’s notion of truth and beauty. I think there’s an amazing consensus on beauty. Most people find nature beautiful even if they don’t like some flowers or animals.

GB Does beauty come up much in the theatre world? Do directors ever talk about beauty?

TW Not enough. I think the Modern world (and you can see it in contemporary painting as well), is quite skeptical about beauty. In theatre there are so many other things to think about, but in fact, the really great directors create moments of great beauty on the stage, even in a scene about war, despair or murder. Sometimes I’ll look and see that just by moving these two people here a particular director has created something that gives us great pleasure to watch. Certainly directors are unconsciously aware of beauty. Lighting is important. Scenery less so as you might have reason to make scenery that’s quite ugly. But the stage itself is an object of beauty. If I hadn’t chosen an iris, I would have chosen an empty stage. They were built to allow beauty to emerge, even if that’s not the primary reason you go to see a play.

GB Did you find beauty in the war scenes in War and Peace, when you were working on your radio adaptation?

TW Yes, because of the people in the battle scenes. Tolstoy is clearly horrified by war but there are moments of moral beauty or moral courage that he talks about. I don’t like the idea of finding a depiction of war beautiful but it’s always a question of humanity coming through the horror that they’ve created.

GB I became obsessed with the battle of Borodino in War and Peace.

TW He’s written it so well. As the battle starts, Pierre wonders at the beauty of the scene before him enhanced by the smoke of gunfire. Then, of course, it turns to horror. Later, there is this particular moment when Pierre has been made prisoner. He’s walking almost barefoot in the cold and has this sudden sense of incredible freedom when he’s able to look at the landscape around him, the forest, the stars and own their beauty. I also read recently in Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning that concentration camp inmates would call each other out to admire a sunset.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

TW – I think we know what it means or at least we have a sense of it. If you deny it because of any kind of extremism you become rigid. I don’t know if a suicide bomber for instance, really can appreciate beauty. I think it takes us to a place within ourselves which is bigger than ourselves. You can’t look at beauty and still be self-obsessed. Whether it’s beauty that’s evolved or been painted by someone, it takes us beyond our little selves. It’s very important to have an antidote to rigidity.

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