Lucy Prebble’s Dramas of High Anxiety

After Prebble narrated her peculiar first meeting with Solomon, she noted, “The story I told you was such a highly adrenalized event—biologically, that’s interesting. You often find that in traditional love stories—there’s a situation that is bonding because of its danger.” The encounter with the officer, we agreed, was a real-life version of the bungee-jumping

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After Prebble narrated her peculiar first meeting with Solomon, she noted, “The story I told you was such a highly adrenalized event—biologically, that’s interesting. You often find that in traditional love stories—there’s a situation that is bonding because of its danger.” The encounter with the officer, we agreed, was a real-life version of the bungee-jumping tale in “The Effect,” bringing Prebble and Solomon into charged complicity. (In the joke version, of course, Prebble would have fallen for the officer.)

Prebble is steeped in theatre history, which allows her to notice themes of archetypal drama in even the most comic scenarios. Jesse Armstrong, the creator of “Succession,” told me, “It wasn’t like we were constantly talking about Aeschylus and Chekhov, but we’d often say, ‘What’s the children’s-TV version of this plot? What’s the simplest, most graspable version of it?’ And equally sometimes we’d say, ‘What is the Chekhovian version of it?’ ‘What is the more tragic, Shakespearean version of this story, and what is it that would make it so?’ ” Armstrong went on, “Especially in the U.K., we can be a little bit embarrassed of being thought to be pretentious. Lucy is never pretentious, but she is willing to bring some quite big ideas to the table.” In the writers’ room, he said, Prebble had “a great, slightly bloodthirsty relish” for placing the show’s characters in painful situations. “She talks about ‘writing in red,’ and I think that means vividly, related to blood. She’s pretty unflinching about tearing at those vulnerable parts of characters—not in a sadistic way, but she’s just interested in human beings.”

Will Tracy, who edited the Onion before writing for “Succession,” told me, “She was as funny as anybody in the room, but she would step in a bit when the comedy writers led us down a path that had more of a sitcom flavor, and steer us back to ‘Let’s remember, this is a tragedy.’ ” For the series’ final episode, Prebble told me, “the tragic ending, as it was envisioned, was: Is it possible to show everything shattered? If the center of it is the family, is it possible to really tear them apart?” Prebble had pitched the idea that at the end of the show Shiv might be pregnant. (As it turned out, Sarah Snook, who played Shiv, was pregnant during filming.) Prebble told me, “There’s hope in this, in having a baby. But, actually, what’s awful, in tragic terms, is that you are just passing down something terrible, because Shiv’s relationship with Tom is so unsavable.” She went on, “From a political point of view, I was quite interested in Shiv, because in pregnancy there is a reliance you have to have on other people. That would be very challenging to her. In thinking, What’s the tragic end for each of these three characters?, Shiv’s great fear would be losing autonomy and power. And there’s nothing like having a baby to do that.”

When Prebble joined “Succession,” in 2src17, she feared it confirmed that her career had passed its peak, since she’d had difficulties getting her own television projects made. But “Succession” became a career highlight, and also a way of supporting less lucrative projects: Prebble credits HBO with underwriting her 2src19 play, “A Very Expensive Poison,” a trenchant exploration of the murder, in London, of the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko. Jesse Armstrong and Prebble knew each other slightly: they’d met at a comedy workshop where Armstrong spoke, and they’d been among a group that retired to a bar afterward. It was the day of the Brexit referendum, another highly adrenalized occasion to make a connection, albeit a professional one. “I like to think my job on the show was the only good thing to come out of Brexit,” Prebble wrote in an introduction to the published script of Season 3.

Among Prebble’s qualifications for “Succession” was the research she’d done about the finance industry while writing “enron,” which opened in 2srcsrc9, just a year after the financial crisis. It was a deliriously anti-realist drama about the sinister complexities of insider trading, complete with musical numbers and puppetry. Described by the Guardian as “an exhilarating mix of political satire, modern morality and multimedia spectacle,” the play portrayed the doomed firm of Lehman Brothers as a pair of conjoined twins who couldn’t decide what direction to walk in. London audiences welcomed a scathing romp about the perfidies of global capitalism. In 2src1src, the play came to Broadway, but it was clear to Prebble before the opening that New York audiences took the play’s sharp edges more personally: “During the first preview, a lady collapsed in the aisle during the intermission, and the other patrons were stepping over her to get to their seats. I’d never experienced an atmosphere quite like it. I had this tremendous feeling of ‘Whoa, the audience is quite angry.’ There was a part of me that thought maybe they were angry because the curtain went up late, and were afraid because this woman collapsed.” But in subsequent previews the audience was just as hostile to the play, even without a meddlesome medical emergency.

In hindsight, Prebble said, it was obvious that “what the audience wanted was ‘The Lehman Trilogy,’ a brilliant show, technically impressive—theatrically simple, though—that ends with a sense of how extraordinary it is to have built New York. This was not that show.” The fate of “enron” was sealed when Ben Brantley, of the Times, declared, “This British-born exploration of smoke-and-mirror financial practices isn’t much more than smoke and mirrors itself.” Prebble recalled the opening-night party: “When the Times review arrives, at maybe midnight, the caterers start taking all the food back, because everyone’s leaving, and they want to save as many hors d’œuvres as possible.”

enron” closed less than two weeks later, at a loss of millions of dollars. Prebble was devastated, particularly on behalf of the cast and crew, who were suddenly unemployed. “Now I look back at it—I wouldn’t say that it’s a cold show, but it basically says that the way we are all living is unsustainable bullshit, especially in New York,” Prebble said. “In retrospect, that’s quite a foolish thing to charge people hundreds of dollars to hear.” She went on, “But how extraordinary that I was able to make a play about losing people millions, and then actually do it? Anything I hadn’t understood about what I had written, I understood then.”

Prebble retreated to the U.K., where she was comforted by other British playwrights who’d met resistance on Broadway. “I got a beautiful card from Tom Stoppard,” she said. “I got a beautiful card from David Hare. I’ve never received as much kindness from people I didn’t even know knew I existed.” (In an e-mail, Stoppard told me, “If one goes to the theatre a lot, as I used to, pretty often one sees a play to like or love, but it’s quite rare to feel challenged as a fellow playwright. ‘enron’ and ‘The Effect’ did that for me—the sense of a play being dealt from a slightly different deck.”) Prebble observed, “We do a lot of things badly here—we do struggle with people’s success. But we do not struggle with people’s failure.”

In the U.K., “enron” became one of the few contemporary texts on the largely traditional English-literature high-school syllabus. (A sample essay question invited students to compare it with Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus”: “How far would you agree that in both ‘Doctor Faustus’ and ‘enron’ ‘we witness the sacrifice of intellect to the foolish pursuit of profit and delight’?”) In fact, Prebble told me, “Macbeth,” with its gradual accumulation of immoral acts, was a more important referent for “enron” than Marlowe’s play. Prebble said of her Shakespearean borrowings, “If you take something that has lasted an incredibly long time, and that everyone says is good, and then use that as a sparse backbone, you might be protecting yourself to some extent—or helping the narrative be stronger.” The notion that “enron” has entered the scholarly canon “makes me sort of want to cry,” she told me. “There’s a feeling of slightly bewildered pride and, I suppose, satisfaction that some sort of authority has been reached.”

Prebble was born in 198src and grew up in Surrey, southwest of London. Although her parents had conventionally middle-class occupations—her mother was a school bursar, her father a businessman—her dad had the kind of unusual background that makes a writer salivate. “He was brought up below stairs in a castle in Aberdeenshire, in Scotland,” Prebble explained. “His father was a butler, and his mother was a maid. His father died when he was very young, and his mother only a bit after that. He was given some help from the laird of the castle, and then he was on his own.” Her father’s story, she observed, had a fairy-tale quality: “Lots of talk of him romancing a shepherd’s daughter as a lad, and other things that sound like they are from another century.” A few years ago, she and her family went to Scotland to buy a headstone for her grandfather’s grave—there’d been no money for one when he died—and stayed overnight in the castle, which is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland. “We had dinner there as a family,” she said. She sent me a photograph of her father sitting stone-faced at a formal dining table, in a room whose damask walls were hung with oil paintings of someone else’s ancestors. In the image, he bears a striking resemblance to another Scotsman made good: the “Succession” titan Logan Roy. “We get a lot of that,” Prebble said, though she hastened to add that, although she knows something about powerful patriarchs who are proud of their Scottish origins, Logan Roy is thoroughly Jesse Armstrong’s creation.

As a child, Prebble was an avid reader, often of books meant for adults. “I remember reading, or trying to read, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being,’ ” she said. She was about nine. “There’s a lot of sex in that,” she went on. “I remember thinking, Wow, you wouldn’t be allowed to see any of that. But in a book nobody cares.” She also played a lot of video games, particularly enjoying those which involved immersive adventures, like King’s Quest. She still plays video games: a recent favorite is Alan Wake, a horror title about a blocked crime writer who gets attacked by possessed figures that shout at him that he’s a terrible writer. Playing these games, she said, “creates a sensation of relaxation unlike almost anything else—it’s most similar to the really intense state of reading, when it’s transporting.” The appeal, she suggested, is that a player is given both a goal and a firm sense of how to achieve it: “That’s like a tidier version of real life, where not only do you have to work out what you want, but the means with which you might achieve it are often unclear.” In a video game, “even if that world is horrific or combat-filled, it’s actually preordered and safe.”

Prebble is alert to the evolution of narrative in the digital age, and likes to think about how writers and directors might adapt to new technologies. She said, “Over the holidays, I was with my family and my nephews and nieces, and, like everybody, they now watch everything with the subtitles on—which I would never have predicted.” She realized that her relatives preferred to have more information available onscreen, to insure that they weren’t missing anything if their attention was divided. Prebble went on, “Like a wanker, I’m spending hours and hours on my stuff, carefully calibrating an actor’s performance in the edit, and they’re just watching it with subtitles anyway!” She observed this not in a spirit of curmudgeonly nostalgia but with an open, interested curiosity. “I’m thinking that now there might be a market for television or drama that’s the opposite of the grabby, ‘Something’s happening all the time, don’t look away!’ kind of thing—that Netflixy thing,” she said. She cited the example of “The Beatles: Get Back,” the Peter Jackson documentary about the 1969 recording of “Let It Be.” Watching that was more like listening to a chatty podcast: “You could wander away and come back, because there were lots of scenes of these incredible geniuses creating in a room together, but they were also being, like, ‘Shall we have some tea?’ ” It suggested to Prebble that she might want to experiment with “doing shows that feel like having a bath—where you just want to be in that environment for a long time.”

In 2srcsrc2, after receiving an English-literature degree at the University of Sheffield, Prebble became an assistant at the National Theatre, arranging hotel and dinner reservations for writers and directors, and wrote “The Sugar Syndrome” in her spare time. With the success of that play, she got an agent, quit the assistant job, and began writing treatments for TV shows, none of which got made. Eventually, she sold a production company on a project: “The Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” adapted from the blog by the pseudonymous Belle de Jour, which featured such spiky observations as “I don’t take cards. Where would I put the swipe machine?” Prebble said of the author, “She had quite a dark sense of humor toward what she was doing. I could see myself, or someone else, having that attitude toward doing something so difficult and complicated. The insights that she had felt really recognizable to me—about what the dangers of sex are, what the dangers of sex for money would be. It felt robust and rich in a way that normally that sort of thing doesn’t.”

Belle was played by Billie Piper, who’d become famous in the U.K. at the age of fifteen with “Because We Want To,” a pop-rap confection in which she sounded like the Spice Girls’ little sister. “Billie had come out of that pop world—that weirdly infantilizing and sexualizing thing,” Prebble said. “But artistically she’s really avant-garde.” (In 2src17, Piper won an Olivier Award for Best Actress for her performance in a radical production of García Lorca’s “Yerma” that reimagined the protagonist as a life-style blogger.) Prebble swiftly discovered, however, that the British network airing the show was less daring. “I had this idea for the second season about mental illness—a really high proportion of sex workers suffer from O.C.D., which I found fascinating,” she said. “It almost certainly has a relationship to working with strangers a lot, and safety and structure and insecurity around that, and hygiene. That felt to me really unexplored—the kind of consequence that is more common, but less talked about, than sexual violence.” Network executives balked: “That was deemed not fun enough. They wanted a lot of bounce and underwear.” Prebble quit the show after Season 1; Piper stayed on for three more. “I felt hurt. But we were both young,” Piper told me, in an e-mail. And the lack of control “made it a ship worth jumping for her.”

At Piper’s instigation, however, that truncated collaboration grew into what Prebble considers one of the most important relationships in her life. “Billie kept saying we should do something together, and I was quite wary, because I didn’t want our friendship to be damaged,” Prebble said. “With work of my own, I can be quite formidable, or maybe defensive and aggressive. I care so much about it that it’s an area in my life where I think I will push someone away. And Billie, very wisely, just kept trying.”

“This place is nice, but what would we really do if we lived here? Lie around and be happy all the time?”

Cartoon by Colin Tom

One day in August, 2src14, hackers posted intimate photographs of dozens of Hollywood celebrities on the Internet. Prebble told me that she was fascinated by how silent the stars were about this violation, “which was obviously because their people went into overdrive shutting it down online, but also because any mention of it would just increase visibility.” Prebble continued, “I always found that devastating and creepy, that they’d been told never to refer to it. You’ve been a victim of a crime, and then have your voice immediately taken away because it would immediately make you more the victim of a crime.” The coincidence of sexual and technological themes interested Prebble, as did the central trauma: “What if you have been living a seemingly quite contained, well-boundaried life, a structured life, and then it all gets completely overturned?”

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