By Tim Benjamin | June, 2015 (written for the tour programme for the opera Rest In Peace, explaining the origin of the opera’s single character, Ezdeyev)
When I was a child, I lived in London with my parents at the vicarage provided for my father’s work. Often, homeless men (I don’t remember there being any women) would arrive to seek help - food, tea, clothing - or simply friendly conversation. There was ‘Michael’, there was ‘Ginger’, and there was ‘Mr Watson’.
Mr Watson (we never learned his first name) was quite tall, thin, heavily bearded, probably middle-aged, and always wrapped in a long coat. He was keen on warm socks, tea and biscuits, and talking. A conversation with Mr Watson involved less of a dialogue than a diatribe; once safe on our step with a mug of tea he would hold forth at high volume with his back to you, as if addressing a larger audience. He had a sharp sense of the absurdity and ‘wisdom’ of official decisions. Mr Watson’s apparent problems with mental health and alcohol dependency rendered these rambling, raucous speeches quite terrifying to my seven-year-old self, and I remember fearing for my mother’s safety as she listened patiently, socks and biscuit-tin in hand.
But he was, while disturbed, quite harmless, and basically good-natured. It never occurred to me, at the time, to wonder what led Mr Watson to his mental state, to a life on the road, and to our vicarage. It is only now, decades later, that I find myself thinking about the childhood Mr Watson might have had, what torment he endured in his adolescence, and where he spent his final days. After around the age of 8 or 9, I never saw him again.
Chekhov’s Life in Questions and Exclamations is not about a homeless man, but it could be. Something in the story reminded me about Mr Watson, hitherto forgotten by me for years, and I re-imagined Chekhov’s character as a Watsonian figure named ‘Ezdeyev’, but set in the near future. Nothing, unfortunately, has changed in this “future”, but being the future, this would mean that Ezdeyev is alive, invisible among us, and on his final descent.