“It was a marriage celebrated for its nervousness and unhappiness,” said director Robert Goldsby of the 17-year union of poet T. S. Eliot and his first wife Vivienne. Their relationship is at the center of Michael Hastings’ “Tom and Viv,” having its Los Angeles premiere Saturday at the Odyssey Theatre.

“Eliot was a great poet,” said Goldsby, who stepped in four weeks ago after original director William Ball withdrew from the show. “He was the spokesman for an entire generation that was alienated and despairing, anguishing over the fragmentation and disconnection in their lives. He wrote about that fragmentation--and wrote that way too: took pieces from other poets, classical sources, street dialect, and made an art form out of that collage.”

Although Eliot’s work serves as a backdrop, the story is primarily of his life with Vivienne, beginning in 1915 (their meeting in London) and continuing through 1947 (her death in a mental institution, where she’d been committed by Eliot several years earlier).

“It was one of those marriages that never should’ve happened,” Goldsby noted. “Vivienne’s mother tried to stop it, because she knew her daughter’s mental history: that she couldn’t lead a normal life, was unstable physiologically (a long-term menstrual problem, only worsened by a succession of powerful prescription drugs).”

For Eliot, Vivienne Haigh-Wood represented respectability. “One of the reasons he married her was to be a part of that upper-class, Edwardian circle. He was on the run from St. Louis and wanted very much to be a European. And she wanted to go along with his life: She helped him write poetry, they ran a magazine together, went to parties.


“But there was a pattern of sexual incompatibility. Vivienne would do all these wild things, embarrass him publicly. They became increasingly estranged: She wanted to be a part of everything, but Eliot (who felt that to be an objective writer, he had to dissociate himself from his own personality) couldn’t share himself. In those days, people stayed together because people stayed together: They just didn’t get divorced.

“Hastings (whose other well-researched “critical fiction” subjects have included Idi Amin and Lee Harvey Oswald) uses as many facts as he could find. So throughout the play are lines that were actually spoken by Vivienne or Tom; others are completely fictional.”

It’s a balance of truth and make-believe, real life and art which the New Jersey-born director believes transcends the essentially negative subject matter.

“Art is not the same as life,” he emphasized. “Art can take a story that’s painful--say, Mr. King Lear, who’s 80 and treated badly, ends up dead and everything’s terrible--but it’s one of the most sublime, exhilarating works of art in the world. Eliot’s poetry, which is extraordinarily bleak, painful and depressing--'I have heard the mermaids singing each to each, I do not think they will sing to me’ (from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”)--is also exhilarating.

“Even ‘Tartuffe’ (the critical and popular hit he staged at Los Angeles Theatre Center this year) is a terribly grim story. If you follow the logic of the play, Tartuffe should win. The only reason he doesn’t is because of the preposterous ending Moliere tacks on: having the messenger come from the King and save the family. But even though it’s a comedy, you feel that you’ve understood something about human relationships.”

That understanding, that illumination , are themes which drive Goldsby in real life as well.

Married for 35 years to actress Angela Paton (last seen at LATC in “Alpha” and “Happy Days”), Goldsby--who began his career as an actor/director at Columbia University--went on to spend 25 years on the drama faculty at UC Berkeley. That professional stability allowed this father of three to pursue many outside projects: at the Actor’s Workshop, the American Conservatory Theatre--and at his and Paton’s Berkeley Stage, which presented 60 original pieces between 1974-84, “until people just stopped wanting to see new plays.”

Undaunted, the pair has relocated to Los Angeles to begin new lives in the theater, test out their options. Success and failure, Goldsby stressed, are not at issue: “We do what we do because we love the process. We love the work .”