First published on 17 Sep 2012. Updated on 21 Nov 2012.
In a collection of essays published in 1985, Barry Oakley, an author, editor, teacher, playwright and one-time zoo attendant, reflected that "everything seems to happen to me relatively late: puberty, marriage, my first novel not published till I was 36 and my first play performed at 37."
Well, he who starts late must also finish late, and at 81 years-young the "semi-retired" Oakley is still scribbling, well past an age when many of his contemporaries have put away the pen and ink for good.
His new play, Music, premiering at the MTC in November, is about Jack, a retired academic dying of brain cancer. As Jack begins his gentle slide from the mortal coil, he's overcome by an unusual desire to speak honestly with his wife, a professional pianist. She responds in kind, and with the help of malt whisky and evocative music, she and Jack re-live the most important memories of his life.
It's a light tragedy, or what Oakley calls "a tragedy with jokes". Though not strictly autobiographical, like all Oakley's work since Bedfellows, 1975, there's a strong introspective element. "There are things taken from my life that I hope are transmuted in the play," he says.
Death, unsurprisingly, is a prominent theme for the octogenarian. "I don't so much think about it, but I have an awareness of it, virtually all the time," he says. "You're reminded in the physical sense, in the feeling of decay, but psychologically and emotionally there's an autumnal dimming that you can't escape."
Nevertheless, he's kept the sense of humour that for so long has distinguished him as a comic writer. "I suggested to the MTC marketing people that they use the line PLAYWRIGHT BACK FROM THE DEAD! But they said I shouldn't talk like that," he laughs.
And the writing continues unabated. "I don't think I'm slowing down," he says, "though my wife doesn't agree." In November, as the curtain opens on his latest play, he will also publish a new memoir, Mug Shots. "So I'm reasonably active, all things considered."
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