(Chris Wiegand’s interview appeared in the Guardian, 6/6/2023; Photo: Adrienne Kennedy with her son Adam in 1969. Photograph: Jack Robinson/Getty Images.)
The great American playwright, who made her Broadway debut last year aged 91, recounts what happened when she adapted a John Lennon book for Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre
In the mid-1960s, Beatlemania swept through the New York home of playwright Adrienne Kennedy. One of her sons, Adam, would sing I Want to Hold Your Hand; his older brother, Joedy, talked of the Fab Four as if they were the centre of his world. It was a tough time: Kennedy had just separated from the boys’ father and they were about to leave their apartment. But for the eldest child, “the Beatles were all that were on his mind,” she remembers. He treasured his copy of John Lennon’s book In His Own Write, a collection of poems and tales, which she read herself.
“Somewhere in those months of turmoil and Joedy’s passion” Kennedy decided to adapt the book as a play. It was a project that would take her to the heart of London’s theatreland and bring Kennedy both joy and pain. And, in a neat case of symmetry, she revisited this period of her life four decades later in her 2008 play Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles? which is presented as a conversation with Adam. “He asked me again and again those questions,” she says. “Finally we decided he would tape my answers.”
This month the one-act play has its UK premiere in Chichester, starring Rakie Ayola and Jack Benjamin. Kennedy, who rarely gives interviews, agrees to answering questions over email. Expansive replies come back speedily, often richly lyrical and idiosyncratically punctuated. Her sense of wonder is still palpable at a chain of events that led her to cross the Atlantic in the 60s and watch a first run-through of the play sat next to one of her heroes, Laurence Olivier: “He. Held. My. Hand.”
Once she had hit upon the idea of adapting Lennon’s book, Kennedy’s New York theatre connections helped her to make contact with Victor Spinetti, who had been in A Hard Day’s Night. He arranged for Kennedy and Adam to meet Lennon who she remembers running into the room for their meeting, sporting an orange jacket. He was “happy to see us”, she remembers. “His face. His eyes so very intense.” The Beatle looked, she says, like a scholar of classical music or a lost language. He was quiet, very serious, and treated her with “a certain deference” that made a big impression on her.