Unlocking the Mystery of Patricia Highsmith
By Diane Snyder
Peggy J. Scott on the challenges of playing the notorious crime writer
Peggy J. Scott didn't know much about Patricia Highsmith when she was cast as the late novelist in Joanna Murray-Smith's Switzerland. But between the play's world premiere at Hudson Stage Company in Westchester County last year and the current Off-Broadway run at 59E59 Theaters, she's become quite an authority on the controversial author, who's best remembered for her 1950s psychological thrillers The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train.
"She was quite a lovely woman when she was younger," Scott says, exhibiting a black-and-white photo of Highsmith that she keeps in a notebook. "I think the smoking and the drinking and the bitterness for the career that she wanted wore on her. And she did have a horribly difficult childhood. Her mother tried to abort her with turpentine and then told jokes about it."
Of course, Highsmith's tempestuous backstory makes her a fascinating if difficult character to play. Switzerland takes place shortly before her 1995 death in that country at age 74. At that point a nasty, reclusive alcoholic, she torments Edward Ridgeway (Daniel Petzold), a young man who says he's been sent by her New York publisher to beg her to write a final novel featuring Tom Ripley, the sexually ambiguous sociopath who starred in five of her books. What ensues is part biodrama and part game of cat and mouse reminiscent of Highsmith's work.
When rehearsals began last year, Scott found it hard to immerse herself in the darkness that engulfed Highsmith at the end of her life. "I think of myself as a much sunnier, healthier person than she was," Scott says. "And I had a few rehearsals where I just thought, this is not working."
After talking to a friend about her struggle, she decided to spend some time sifting through her memories to unearth difficult ones. "I don't think there's an actor alive who can't feel that I've worked so hard, why am I not more acknowledged?" Scott says. "You can always find things in yourself which are so hot that you just want to run away. The actor's job is to find the human being without judgment."
Scott could also relate to the feeling of being an outsider, as Highsmith was. Working with the Negro Ensemble Company and the National Theatre of the Deaf put the actress in situations where she saw the world from different perspectives. When she toured with the former, she was one of two white people in a company of 30, and when she went on the road with the latter, "they always assumed that because I spoke, I was the teacher or the leader."
However, despite being a lesbian decades before gay liberation, Highsmith wasn't as sympathetic to marginalized groups. In Switzerland, the character makes racist and anti-Semitic remarks, something the author was infamous for, and reveals a deep-seated animosity for the American literary establishment, which she believes devalued her work because of her gender.
Scott's research also included reading Joan Schenkar's biography The Talented Miss Highsmith and Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s, a memoir by Highsmith's ex Marijane Meaker. She also heard firsthand stories about Highsmith's misbehavior from Otto Penzler, an editor who once worked with her.
But while finding empathy for the author was key to cracking the character, Scott discovered that, in the end, she had to play Highsmith, warts and all. "I was looking for her to have some epiphany where she understands something larger than the small life she had led," she says. "But because I worked so hard to find her in me, I also had to realize that she was in many ways a very different person than I am, and to open up my mind so that I see her for who she was, not my idea of who she was."