Ten years ago another actor told me that I was a doppelganger for Rudyard Kipling. It was the standard actor's motive for anything - OK, I'll play that one. A couple of years after I won an Olivier award for Our Country's Good in 1988, I asked for a play to be written about Kipling. Nobody wanted to know. It's only in the last four or five years that there has been a resurgence of interest -perhaps we are distanced enough from the Empire to be able to treat his complexities and writing in an objective manner.
So three years ago I decided to write a play about Kipling myself. I was determined to do something in which I could have a more complete intellectual involvement. The more I investigated Kipling and his family - the more I realised how much it tied in to my own experience. The death of Kipling's son, Jack, had a profound effect on him and the death of my sister had a similar impact on my family. Kipling's patriotic writing was part of the mood which made his only son join up to fight in the First World War. With short eyesight, Jack should never have gone into battle, but Kipling encouraged him and he was promptly killed in action.
About 15 years ago, my sister, who was only 22, had a brain haemorrhage. She was very much the third child and had enormous warmth and energy but it crashed around in every direction. After being nervous and tense through her teens, she found peace with a boyfriend and moved to a cottage in Scotland.
But then from nowhere came a headache, double vision, she lay down and was unconscious - dead. I remember so clearly the last time I saw her before she died. The red brown leather jacket she was wearing is fixed in my memory and she was as vivacious as ever. I was just 26 and it was a great shock. I was overwhelmed by a hundred different feelings among which was enormous guilt that I hadn't supported her enough and that I was lucky to be alive.
In the same way that my sister found happiness before her death, there is lots of evidence that Jack Kipling, in the brief time he was an officer, achieved an identity of his own.
My play is all about how a family reacts to the death of a child, how they cope with the layers of shock and what follows. What do you repress and what do you allow yourself to feel? The Kipling I was reading about tied in with my perception of my father and myself. My father has always had a seminal influence on me. I wasn't writing about a distant figure, it was a hybrid of Kipling, my father and myself. It was very exciting. We can all be dogmatic but we also have a soft sensitive streak that lives in parallel. It is a very complex mix. I understand Kipling; he has my father's combination of chill and hot passion.
It is so unnatural to lose a child. I know from personal experience because although I have two boys and two girls alive and kicking, a year ago we had a still birth. Two days before the baby was due, my partner, Julia, suspected that she had lost the heartbeat. We went to hospital and they confirmed that the baby was dead. We then had to sit in this labour ward at Guy's for roughly 24 hours. She had to go through a natural birth because it's healthier physically and psychologically. Through paper thin walls we could hear mothers celebrating the birth of live children. It's a crippling experience - particularly for the mother. It is so barren and arid. The reverse of everything that is natural. To give birth to death is really perverse.
When the baby was born, we had this perfect human being of tiny dimensions. We stayed with her for about three hours which was a bizarre reminder of that time with a live baby. Parents never recover from something like that, as Kipling's wife says in the play: "They stitch up the wound and go on."
We called our daughter Grace. We are trying to build her a Japanese-style garden at home. You can't imagine two less Buddhist human beings than my partner and I - but we're drawn to creating a place where we can not only think about her loss but also contemplate what life is all about. We'll put in a couple of simple rocks, maybe engraved with words than mean something to both of us.
So this play has extraordinary resonances from the point 10 years ago when I was told that I looked like Kipling. Originally it had the most base motives, a greedy actor who wanted to play a part. Now it's become something really very deep and personal. There's even a scene between Rudyard and his wife that I have written as a direct result of a conversation I had with my wife shortly after the death of Grace.
The people who survive these deaths, parents, brothers and sisters, carry on - but it can either destroy or mature them. Hopefully in real life and in the play, at least on a spiritual level, we have been strengthened. Kipling is not such a ranter, and hopefully I'm less dogmatic than I was before these experiences. The balance between my tough and soft sides has changed; hopefully the writing reflects that. I thought I was creating something that was cool but everybody tells me it is a gut-felt emotional play. Writing can be therapeutic but only if you stay honest and don't sentimentalise or hide the complexity of your feelings.
Interview by Andrew G Marshall
David Haig has has written and stars in `My Boy Jack' which runs until 22nd November at the Hampstead Theatre in London. Box office: 0171-722 9301Reuse content