My continuing fascination with Heathcliff

Heathcliff has vexed audiences since his creation, over 160 years ago. He’s found in Liverpool as a dark and dirty foundling and ends his days as a powerful landlord that owns both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. The foundation of the novel starts with his appalling treatment at the hands of Hindley Earnshaw, and Heathcliff’s passionate bond with Cathy. When Cathy prefers to marry Edgar Linton for his position and eloquence, Heathcliff vows vengeance on Hindley, the Lintons, and their children. This engrossing story of the rise and fall of Heathcliff makes him one of the most fascinating characters in all of literature, and now that story is being brought to life on stage.

When we first meet Heathcliff in the novel, he is surrounded in mystery. He is first described as a ”solitary neighbor that I shall be troubled with” and we are left with the impression that, although he seems to be of the gentry, there is some hidden menace lurking underneath his cool exterior.

Throughout the novel, Heathcliff defies expectations and leaves us with haunting questions. Is his brutality simply a manifestation of his thwarted love for Cathy Earnshaw? Should we be searching beneath his ominous behavior? Does his wickedness conceal the heart of a romantic hero? As I have stated before in this blog, I longed for Heathcliff to show his hidden virtue like so many other romantic heroes of his time.

However, Heathcliff only reforms himself in his death. His malice throughout the novel is so severe it is hard for readers to see him as redeemable, despite his passion for Cathy Earnshaw. His violence towards Isabella is completely vicious. He entertains himself by how much abuse she endures. Joyce Carol Oates, a literature critic, had an interesting observation on the matter, saying, “Emily Bronte does the same thing to the reader that Heathcliff does to Isabella, testing to see how many times the reader can be shocked by Heathcliff’s gratuitous violence and still, masochistically, insist on seeing him as a romantic hero.”

Gregory Isaac, a humble actor who politely thanks everyone in the room after every rehearsal, transforms himself beyond recognition into the hard and foreboding Heathcliff. I have often sat in the audience and thought to myself “Um… where did friendly, amiable Greg go and who is this brutal malicious man who happens to share his face?” I was able to email him a couple of my questions, and was delighted by his responses. (It even got a little nerdy towards the end, which made my day—have you seen the shirt I’m wearing in my picture for this blog?) I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

TIFFANY: What was your first reaction when you found out you were cast as Heathcliff? Had you read or heard of the book before this production?

GREGORY: We spent a month or so reading and studying the book when I was a Junior in high school, and I remember clearly having a difficult time getting into it. It’s very easy to say that none of the characters are sympathetic, the story is so dark, and the actual novel is written with a framing device that is a story told within a story (and sometimes the point of view is removed to yet another story within that). It was all a bit too much for me to enjoy when I was 16. (Luckily, we aren’t toying with all those framing devices and points of view for this production.)

So, once I found out I had been cast, I really had to go back into the material to rediscover it. In addition to re-reading the novel, I started looking around for essays and criticism to offer me some perspectives on the material. Almost 20 years later, I was able to find value that I hadn’t appreciated before, but overall, I don’t know that my evaluation of the book was terribly different. My job, though, isn’t to evaluate Bronte’s writing, but Heathcliff himself. And the more I read, the more interested I became in him.

Of course, I also discovered the rather large, passionate and active fan base that the novel still has online, and otherwise. I found pages and pages of original artwork, essays, spin-off stories and tributes all created by rabid Wuthering Heights fans. I was surprised, when I mentioned to friends that I would be working on the show, how many of their eyes would widen a little, the tenor of their voices change and they would utter quietly, “Oh, I looove that book.”

It didn’t take long for the task to begin to feel rather intimidating. Could I live up to a fan’s expectations? Would I be able to do Heathcliff justice? At an early rehearsal, Nick Vidal, who is playing my son, Linton, told us all that whenever he told anyone what show he was working on, the first question every time was, “oh, who’s playing Heathcliff?”

So, you know, no pressure.

TIFFANY: What makes Heathcliff such a compelling character? Why do you think his character is still infamous after two centuries?

GREGORY: He is not necessarily compelling or infamous on his own. I think it’s really the combination of Heathcliff & Cathy (and, by the by, I think if Heathcliff himself knew you were trying to split the two of them up like that, he’d punch you in the face, commandeer your personal fortune and burn your house to the ground).

Honestly, because the novel as a whole doesn’t seem to have quite the same effect on me as it does on many others, I may not be entirely qualified to speculate about his place in literary history. I don’t believe he was the first character of his type ever written, but he is certainly from an era of writing when romantic literary conventions were being turned on their ear. That made it possible to write a character who is unbound by scruples and is free to pursue the woman he loves by absolutely any means necessary, and to revenge himself on anyone who may keep her from him, up to and including the woman herself.

That is a powerful kind of love, and the dark implications are only more compelling a couple of centuries later.

TIFFANY: What was it like building the character of Heathcliff? What were the challenges and breakthroughs you discovered in the rehearsal process about Heathcliff?

GREGORY: The first thing I had to accept is that Heathcliff is not the “hero;” not in the literary sense or otherwise. He is, rather, as much an “anti-hero” as any character ever written. In fact, given a slight change in the point of view of the story-telling, he would simply be the antagonist of the novel; the vengeful villain who attempts to tear apart the lives of just about everyone he knows. In the novel, Bronte spends no time dissecting the hows or whys that formed Heathcliff. He simply is. (Pre-Freudian storytelling, I guess.) So, I had a list of decisions to make for myself about those things. (Decisions I’m still refining even now.)

The first big Heathcliff door opened up for me, creatively, at an early rehearsal for movement with our director, Elise, and our Cathy, Lindsay Leopold. The production uses a vocabulary of movement at certain junctures to enhance the storytelling, and that physical relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff is a big part of that. We spent a couple of hours exploring that physical relationship in a dance-based way, which made it all a very tangible thing for me. The sense memory of that early rehearsal is still present for me and informs so much of what drives me as Heathcliff. I consider myself very fortunate that Lindsay jumped into that process so quickly and fearlessly right from the start. It helped, too, that she really is a dancer – whereas I’m just an actor who once took dance classes while in college. I was able to be inspired by her natural skill and experience. (If anything is happening within that movement that looks graceful or interesting, it is probably to Lindsay and Elise’s credit, not mine.)

TIFFANY: Heathcliff’s love for Cathy Earnshaw is legendary. What do you think of Heathcliff and Cathy’s bond?

GREGORY: It is their bond that drives everything about the plot. It dominates them so completely that it spills over beyond themselves and sweeps up every other person their lives touch. And I think it may be more correct to call it a “bond” than “love”. Not that it isn’t love, but it isn’t a “romantic” love, or a “sexual” love. It is, somehow, larger and more basic than that. I suppose it goes on a shelf with the Romeo and Juliet kind of love (or, you know, Han Solo and Princess Leia), because it is the kind of love that is larger and greater than even life or death (or the carbonite freezing process).

Everybody, at some point in their life, has fantasized about having a love like that, or believed that they already had it. (And maybe they do.) And that’s why the story persists. Hopefully we’re carrying the mantle of that legend successfully.