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The Sins of the Father – Scottish Review of Books
by Joseph Farrell

The Sins of the Father

November 11, 2014 | by Joseph Farrell

In The Father, August Strindberg’s harrowing account of the protagonist’s descent into paranoid insanity, the problem that initially obsesses the Captain is how to control Laura, his wife, and have her comply with his wish that their daughter be educated as a teacher and not as an artist. Laura counterattacks by announcing she has informed the doctor her husband is insane, and telling him he has ‘fulfilled his function as an unfortunately necessary father and breadwinner’. Most damningly, she malevolently suggests that he has no rights over the girl since he is not really her father. It is this accusation that disorientates the man, sending him to consult the Bible and writings of classical authors to find great men undermined by similar fears and causing him to conclude that ‘we men have no children’. Undoubtedly Strindberg’s play was prompted by his own misogyny, for he was one of the few writers deserving a label now too casually attached to many male writers, but the Captain’s conclusion is one which Alan Cumming might be glad to share, even if his problem is the opposite. He wishes to detach himself from a father he views, reasonably, as odious.

Cumming is one of the most outstanding actors in a gifted generation who are Scottish by background but cosmopolitan in ambition and achievement. He has won prizes and plaudits on both sides of the Atlantic, has addresses in New York and Edinburgh, and took an active part in the referendum campaign in support of the Yes side. His awards include an Emmy for the long-running TV series, The Good Wife, and a Tony for his portrayal of Emcee in Cabaret. In recent times he has given deeply moving, bravura performances in two NTS productions, as Dionysus in The Bacchae and as Macbeth in what was virtually a one-man version of the tragedy.

In Not My Father’s Son, subtitled ‘A Family Memoir’, he makes references along the way to his jet setting life style, mainly to say how he enjoys the unreality of long-haul flights and the hours spent in luxury airport lounges since this is a parallel, ethereal dimension where he is free of demands and pressures. Celebrity interviews and fawning profiles are the stuff of his day to day life, as are the equally common hatchet jobs which the tabloids feel obliged occasionally to deliver. There are passages on filming in Cape Town, on appearances in Cannes with Patti Smith (who was ‘prone to spitting’), references to work in cinema, TV or theatre all naturally woven into the narrative. These are infrequent, and anyone expecting an excited, glittering account of the joys and torments of celebrity status, or a chronicle of a rise to the top had better take the title and subtitle seriously. The acting success features mainly as an obstacle to the completion of the central aim, which is Cumming’s attempt to come to terms with his upbringing on the Panmure estate near Carnoustie, and specifically with his relationship with his father.

Scottish literature contains many depictions of dark, scowling, dominant, silent men, sometimes embittered by the sheer inadequacy of their own lives and in consequence driven to cow and terrify their families. William McIlvanney has produced such figures in The Big Man or in Docherty, while other writers as dissimilar as Thomas Carlyle or the Red Clydesider, David Kirkwood, in his memoir My Life of Revolt, have given puzzled, awed portraits of their fathers in an attempt to understand the men they had themselves become and, almost incidentally, to provide insightful depictions of Scottish, Calvinist manhood. None of these men from fiction or biography displays the sheer vileness of Alex Cumming. This is a deeply unsettling, upsetting chronicle of domestic power as exercised over his wife and two sons by a man whom Alan Cumming comes to describe as unbalanced, neurotic and insane, and in a sense the reader will hope that it was so and that his conduct was not more freely willed. Today’s culture is not at ease with the terminology of evil, and prefers to attribute the characteristics which in other times would have been described as wicked to some form of mental defect. Strangely, that was how Macbeth, a sick inhabitant of a mental hospital not of a prison cell, was presented in Cumming’s masterly performance.

Cumming senior imposed a reign of domestic terror, never showing affection, making his sons convinced of their own worthlessness, dolling out beatings, inculcating an atmosphere of fear which only lifted when he left the family home of an evening to pursue one of his innumerable affairs. In these circumstances, Alan and his brother instinctively devised strategies to avoid causing disturbance or provoking further outbursts of rage. The opening section, which sets the scene and the tone as effectively as any novelist could do, reads:

‘“You need a haircut, boy!”

My father had only glanced at me across the kitchen table as he spoke, but I had already seen in his eyes the coming storm.

I tried to speak but the fear that now engulfed me made it hard to swallow, and all that came out was a little gasping sound that hurt my throat even more. And I knew speaking would only make things worse, make him despise me more, make him pounce sooner.’

In this case, the trigger was an innocent request for a glass of water, which led to Cumming being dragged to a shed, bent over a bench and having his hair cropped with clippers normally used for sheep shearing. To describe the father as dominant or even tyrannical is inadequate for a man with totalitarian control over the psyche as well as over the body, leaving Alan and his brother as cowering wrecks, physically afraid in boyhood and quivering in adulthood at the memory of the treatment they had received. What drove this man, Cumming asks – cruelty, cowardice, madness? Other products of such a background might have drowned among the flotsam and jetsam of lost humanity, but Cumming in the most important respects escaped, and is able to write that he now lives a life of joy and is surrounded by love, particularly due to the happiness felt in his same sex relationship with his husband. 

The book is written in a colloquial style and with a sprightliness of touch which clash with the dark subject matter, and moves back and forwards in time, with chapters headed Then followed by others headed Now, that is 2010, when he participated in the BBC programme, Who Do You Think You Are? That experience seems to have been the inspiration for the book, but the programme focused on the astonishing, tragic life and death of his grandfather, a decorated WWII hero who disappeared from the family after the war and who perished later in Malaya in mysterious circumstances which the programme’s researchers clarified, with due dramatic effect.

The discussion of Cumming’s father is a refutation of the notion that fiction can access deeper truths than those revealed by history or biography. In his anxious soul earching, the actor probes the contradictory emotions of the human animal and lays bare his own soul while questioning his father’s motives. Even when the parents separated and Cumming has freed himself by moving away, his father continues to act with unimaginable malice. Supposedly worried by the impact on his son of what might be revealed by the TV programme, he put about the tale that his animus towards his son derived from the knowledge he was not his father, but the result of one night’s adultery by his mother. However improbable, the allegation caused turmoil but DNA analysis revealed that it was a calumny. This result created further agitation in Cumming’s mind, for the possibility of not being his father’s son was welcome, but now he was confronted with the need to disown him by an act of the will. The book is an act of catharsis.

The process of self-liberation is intertwined at a deep level with Cumming’s life as an actor. He wonders if the boyhood need to practise concealment and impose masks on himself, as Pirandello says all humans do, endowed him with that pixie-like quality which critics have noted in his performances. But drama and life overlapped more intriguingly, and painfully, in 1993. At that time, he had been married for seven years to the actress Hilary Lyon, whose name is not mentioned in the book, and they decided to start a family. Every month’s lack of success was a relief to him, as the very idea of fatherhood tormented him and he worried that he might turn out like his own father.

At the same time, the pair were appearing together in England in Hamlet. He writes that his own predicament gave him fresh insights into Hamlet as a youth who did not want to be in Elsinore, who longed to return to university, who faced estrangement from his girlfriend, who was sickened at his mother’s speedy remarriage and who had no wish to avenge a father he had never particularly been close to. Hamlet’s conduct was thus a wholly rational response to an impossible situation. Any connection with a vision inside Cumming’s head was scarcely accidental. As it happens, I saw that production and did separate interviews with the couple at the time. If memory serves, Lyon told me that she was struggling with the motivations of Ophelia, who was not a modern woman, while Cumming’s declared problem was the cruelty which Hamlet showed towards Ophelia, particularly, he said, when Ophelia was played by his wife. The production itself crackled with the youthful energy Cumming brought to the part. The soliloquies, especially ‘To be or not to be’, came from the very core of a troubled, baffled youth who could not understand how he had got into this mess, while the burial scene was marked by blustering bewilderment. This was decidedly no country for young men, but this was the point when his career took off. Hamlet was followed by Cabaret, which transferred to Broadway, where it was acclaimed. Hamlet and Emcee, what a duo of parts for someone struggling with his past and his identity!

Horrifying but enthralling and always gripping, this book is a case study of a survivor and not a rounded autobiography. Alan Cumming the actor deserves separate treatment in a biography, but respect for him on stage will be enhanced by this knowledge of where he came from.

Not My Father’s Son: A Family Memoir

Alan Cumming

Canongate, £16.99, ISBN 978 1 78211 544 1, 294PP

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