84 Charing Cross Road must have been one of the easiest and most difficult plays to write. In one sense, the play is little more than the recitation of letters between a New York writer, Helen Hanff, and the urbane, self-effacing, and long-suffering bookshop owner at 84 Charing Cross Road, London. The exchanges took place during the post-war years, the ration coupon years, the re-building of the great metropolis and the end of Empire years. Hanff and her epistolary comrades became loyal confidants both because the bookstore had what she wanted in books and courtesy, and because, in return, she sent Care packages to relieve her friends’ distress. The play is easy because it attempts no more than the direct presentation of the letters, letters read from opposite sides of the stage. The invisible wall separating the characters is never broken. The play is difficult because no resolution is possible; the line cannot be crossed; the anxiety can never really be palliated.
The play recalls Blanche DuBois’s poignant line: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” even as it declares that, under circumstances of our own making, the greatest of intimacies may develop between people who never meet.
This last condition—permanent but estranged intimacy—provides the dramatic tension, the sadness, and the heroic stature of the play: we plumb every exchange for the announcement that Helen will visit London. We demand that the terrifying gap at the center of the stage, the place where the two sets are inexorably separated, be closed. We want them to touch, to clasp hands, to become lovers, to marry and found a chain of bookshops called Number 1 Fifth Avenue/84 Charing Cross. But that’s a Tom Hanks movie, isn’t it?
I have, with some variation, a friend like this. Fifty years ago we lived (I think this is right) in the same residential college. DP was easy enough to spot. He’s about twelve feet tall, and his red hair outshone anything the Avon lady might offer you. I don’t recall that we ever spoke. After college, he served in Vietnam; I went to drama school. After service, as far as I can glean, he went west; I went to the Midwest and then the Far East. He became expert in matters agricultural and has traveled to remote places like Tajikistan to tutor local farmers in the arts he’s mastered. I taught literature and what I took to be humane letters. He keeps mules about whom he speaks with such affection that I crave reports on their adventures as often as he writes to me. I report to him about my travels, my delight in antiquities, and he replies with adventures of his own and a determined pleasure to soak up my travelogues. He may be the most civilized man I know.
If we have seen each other since 1966 it would have been, unwittingly, in a departure lounge at Heathrow. (He would have been sitting down and wearing a slouching hat.)
We began writing some years ago when, out of the blue—a completely Mediterranean blue, I think, since I’m writing this on the ferry from Naxos to Athens—DP sent a note appreciating my book of ‘encounters’ with Han Shan, the Tang Dynasty poet. He kept the book, he said, on his bed table and tried to read a few poems every night. Later, I imagined him reading these Chinese mullings to the mules. Such a braying that trio might make!
Since then, I believe he’s told me many secrets and has simultaneously kept confidences it would be unseemly to share. Call it the Charing Cross Reserve, a kind of post-war shrugging off of the unendurable. So I don’t pry and, as in this letter, I let my affections travel by a most public and indirect route.
You can tell, can’t you, that he is ill and that I grieve for him. I would send him bales and bales of hay for the mules and whatever ration coupons he requires. He writes to me, he keeps faith, he has been both present and absent for half a century, and I am weighted and buoyed by it.