Described in the Dublin Evening News as ‘one of the most accomplished writers of our time,’ Carey Harrison was born in Britain and raised in the United States where he has spent the majority of his working life. He began as a stage playwright, following in the footsteps of his actor parents, Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer, whom he first watched in a series of Broadway productions from the age of 5 onwards. While at college he wrote Dante Kaputt!, a play subsequently staged at the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester, and its reception led to a job at the National Theatre of Great Britain, run by Sir Laurence Olivier. There Harrison trained as a director under Olivier, Sir Peter Brook and Sir Tyrone Guthrie, while his first plays were performed at the National Theatre and the acclaimed experimental venue of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh.
He has gone on to complete 42 plays for the stage, most recently Seven Favorite Maladies of Ludwig van Beethoven, for the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, with Justin Kolb as Beethoven.
Following his debuts as a stage playwright, Harrison wrote close to a hundred scripts for a variety of British TV broadcasters, primarily BBC Television, including 17 hours of Masterpiece Theater. He also wrote some forty plays for BBC radio, winning or being nominated for many of the radio drama prizes then available in European audio drama, including the Best Play award of the Berlin Academy of the Arts. Thirty-seven of his plays have been broadcast in translation, as far afield as South Korea where his play about a psychotherapist and a patient with a morbid fear of waking up in his coffin, The Psychiatrist’s Tale, has been repeated many times – as it also has, for reasons unknown, in Eastern Europe – since its first broadcast in 1989.
Harrison began writing novels in 1968, and his fiction has been published by Heinemann, Macmillan, Penguin, Minerva Books and Skyscraper Publications in the UK, where he has received numerous grants from the UK Arts Council, and the Encore Award from the UK Society of Authors, and by Holt, Ivy Books, and Dr. Cicero Books, in The US. His work has been translated into thirteen languages.
His own search for adventure has taken him to the Middle and the Far East for extended periods of time, and to South Africa as one of the London Recruits – the subjects of a recent book – who acted as undercover freedom fighters for Nelson Mandela’s ANC, while Mandela was still imprisoned on Robben Island. At this time he became, less adventurously, a prize-winning dairy goat farmer for a dozen years, and Editor of the British Goat Society Year Book, while continuing to write and teach.
Harrison has been a prolific book reviewer for The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Sunday Times, The London Review of Books and other journals. His monthly essays for The Vocabula Review on contemporary language trends and college English, with digressions into matters more esoteric, such as Proust’s use of verb tenses, won him two nominations for the Pushcart Prize for Journalism.
His childhood introduced him to a number of languages, German at his mother and grandmother’s collective knee, French as a student at the Lycée Français in New York, and Italian by virtue of the home his parents built in Liguria (the landscape featured in his novel, Justice), when he was six. He has published translations from these and other languages, most recently from the Arabic of Firas Suleiman in the Arabic poetry magazine, Banipal.
As an actor, many of his performances have been in his own plays, either on stage on both sides of the Atlantic or recorded in the UK by the BBC, for whom he played Sir Isaac Newton in his play, Newton in Love, and Alfred Lord Tennyson in his play, The Water Cure. He has also appeared in Shakespeare, as Claudius in Hamlet, and as Leopold Bloom in Lunch with Mr. Bloom, both of these on the Dublin stage; also as Donnie in Mamet’s American Buffalo and as Hamm in Beckett’s Endgame. At the off-Broadway venue, HERE, he played Oedipus in Robert Kelly’s Oedipus After Colonus; intersecting with the New York City avant-garde, he has worked with Kirk Wood Bromley and with Dan Safer’s acclaimed dance troupe, Witness Relocation, most recently appearing at Café La Mama (where 40 years earlier his play, Lovers, was staged alongside Leonard Melfi’s Birdbath) as Sir John Mandeville in Chuck Mee’s Eterniday.
Harrison taught at Essex University in Britain, during his goat farming days, and in the U.S. at the University of California, San Diego, the University of Texas at Austin, and Cornell. For the past 18 years he has been Professor of English at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.
He was recently commissioned by the San Francisco Opera to write an opera based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, with music composed by Nolan Gasser. In March 2013 their opera premiered in San Francisco to full houses and a clamorous response, and three further opera houses are scheduled to stage The Secret Garden. Harrison and Gasser are working on a new opera, The Sphinx in Love, from a libretto by Harrison.
He is married to the artist Claire Lambe – they recently celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary – and they live in Woodstock, New York, with their youngest daughter, Chiara.
Alongside his work as writer and teacher, Carey Harrison is the Bishop of Woodstock in the Moorish Orthodox Church, under the name of Omar Bey. As the Bishop, Harrison hosts a talk show, Roll on the Radio, for its sponsor, rollmagazine.com, at 5 pm every Saturday on WHVW, the best radio station in the nation, located in Poughkeepsie, New York. WHVW, a station mainly focusing on music recorded before 1970, and recently written up in the Wall Street Journal as ‘a station broadcasting from a sepia-toned past’, can be heard on 950 AM or online at whvw.com.