Andre Bishop on the intelligent craft of Arthur Laurents.
ANDRE BISHOP: You mean in terms of me knowing him? Not really that far back. I met him around the New York theater, but had never worked with him. I was involved in a reading or two of his Jolson Sings Again. And then I guess it wasn't again until fairly recently which was when we revived The Time of the Cuckoo at the Mirzi Newhouse Theater that I worked with him. And then we're planning on doing a new play [2 Lives] of his. I don't think I've known him for more than six or seven years.
GM: Why hasn't Jolson Sings Again received a New York run, or a production here? Personally, I think it's a terrific play.
AB: I know that its been under option to various commercial producers, and I don't honestly know what the answer is. I assume its still under option to those people. Commercial producers take awhile to get going; I think that top commercial producers seem to own the play.
GM: Oh really?
AB: From what I've gathered, but I think that they really want stars, or something.
GM: But it wasn't under option here, for Lincoln Center?
AB: No, because at the time we were doing The Time of the Cuckoo. Then the director that I thought would be good to do it, Dan Sullivan, I think that he and Arthur had some falling out. It just got complicated, let's just put it that way. Putting on a play is complicated enough, and then I got interested in this new play, and we don't do that many new plays here.
GM: What attracted you to 2 Lives?
AB: I thought it was very touching. I thought it was something that had not been written about before: two gay lovers who have been together for many years. I just sense that there's something moving, poetic and rather delicate, and sort of tender.
GM: How do you think it should be presented? Do you see it as more of a Chekhovian kind of play, or do you see it as more of a realistic play?
AB: No, it's hard because there are parts of it that are sort of realistic and current New York types, and then there are parts of it that are sort of imaginary and autumnal. I don't quite think it's Chekhovian, and there's the ending which is almost supernatural. Those are the parts I like the most; the nonrealistic parts. I think it probably should be done in a very beautiful, somewhat abstract setting, with older actors. Gay relationships between older people, be they women or men haven't really ever been presented much in the theater. La Cage Aux Folles aside, that was kind of a happy relationship too, the death of an older partner, that's something that hasn't really been touched on in the theater, to my knowledge. The end of a real marriage, between two men is...
GM: I agree, I think it's a very delicate play and a very beautiful play. It's going to need really first-rate actors. It seems it's the kind of play that could break very easily. It's going to need a perfect production to bring it off. It's a superb play; I think it's the best play he's ever written. Do you have it cast?
AB: No, nowhere near. I haven't even gotten through next season, much less the season after that. I know that Nicki Martin is directing it, and we're going to do it first at the Huntington Theater in Boston next spring. They've rented us a small theater that is somewhat configured like the Mitzi Newhouse. They'll do it there, and then we'll do it the following fall. I know he's talked to Tom Aldredge, who's a friend of his. We're really not that far.
GM: None of the people besides the director has been chosen? The scenic designer, nothing?
GM: Are you familiar with Laurents's play The Enclave?
AB: I think I saw it. Wasn't it done off Broadway?
GM: Yes, in 1972.
AB: It had a sort of Jazz score?
GM: That I don't know, I didn't see it.
AB: I think I saw it, but I must say I don't remember it very well. I'm not familiar with it because I don't remember it very well. I'm sorry.
GM: The Radical Mystique, which is more recent?
AB: I've read that or saw a reading of it. Arthur is in this very prolific period, as he obviously told you, and I practically can't keep them all straight. You know now I gather there's a new one with a peculiar title.
GM: Attacks on the Heart?
AB: No, Attacks on the Heart I read, about the two people, which I thought was quite beautiful. I read the one about the alcoholics [The Closing Bell], the title which escapes me, which I thought was pretty graphic. The new one that they're doing -
GM: At George Street? The Vibrator?
AB: Yes, The Vibrator.
GM: I didn't read that.
AB: I have not read The Vibrator. The Radical Mystique, was that done at Manhattan Theater Club?
GM: I believe so, yes.
AB: I didn't see it; I just read it.
GM: Do you think that 2 Lives is a breakthrough in gay theater?
AB: No, I don't think it's that at all. I just think it deals, just as you say, delicately and tenderly, with an aspect of gay life that heretofore has not really been brought to the stage; that of an elderly gay man and the death of his lover. There's really no difference between the death of a husband or wife and the death of a male partner. I don't think we've seen it on the stage, but it's not a breakthrough. There have been so many plays, the theater has so liberalized itself in the past twenty-five years--I don't really think there's anything through which to break anymore. I think it's all pretty much been covered, between English writers and American writers. There's never been this particular autumnal version, and Arthur being an older man and having had a long-term relationship, he emotionally knows the terrain very well. A lot of gay writers are younger and don't know the emotional terrain very well either because they have not had long-term relationships or they're too young to achieve that honesty.
GM: Do you think that the scenes that take place in that park should be done in sort of an other-wordly, magical way as opposed to a more realistic way?
AB: I don't know yet. I haven't thought about it yet. I'll know the answer to that when I start thinking about it some-time next February. I think that stylistic switches on the stage, in production, are dangerous. You know that any great writer, including Chekhov, veered wildly from farcical comedy almost to really despairing bleakness often within minutes, seconds sometimes. Audiences and critics today, I'm afraid, are not used to that. They think often that the director has a variety of styles or the author has a variety of styles and they don't acknowledge that we live our lives in a variety of styles. It's very human to go from laughter to tears and back in a short space of time. I think that if the play has a basis in emotional reality, I am not sure at this point that it needs a sort of otherworldly aspect and then going back--I don't know yet. Some of the play is in one of the character's minds and you're not quite sure if he's imagining he's hearing stuff or if he is actually hearing stuff which is v ery life-like I think. When people die, and we've all had parents or loved ones die, everyone tells about the experience they have of walking down the street and they think they see that person, or having a dream about that dead person, and its so real to them that they're not sure that they were dreaming. Or visiting graves of people and you know the graveyard scene, if when we're doing a stage play doesn't change. Anyway, I'm not sure about what you say, I tend to think it should be done delicately but realistically.
GM: What interested you about reviving The Time of the Cuckoo in the year 2000?
AB: I think any good play is worth doing again. In the case of this play, the reason I did it, besides the fact that I've always loved the play, is that I think we all make highly subjective and personal choices. I very much understood the emotional makeup of that leading woman, Leona. And I also did it for Debra Monk. I think occasionally one does a play for an actor or actress if the fit is right; it seemed like a really good fit.
GM: And she wanted to do it?
AB: She wanted to do it, and it wasn't my idea, I think it was Arthur's actually. And she and Arthur were interested in darkening the character, I mean he always said in the 1950's that Shirley Booth was ugly and Debra seemed to go for it in a really ugly, awful way. The intelligent critics criticized us and said the play could not sustain the sort of light comedy nature of the play and switch to that darkness and that kind of ugliness; that it was too fragile a vessel in which to suddenly let loose that stuff. I don't agree necessarily. So, the reason was I'd always loved the play and I thought it was a wonderful play for Debra.
GM: What about the themes or ideas of the play that attract you or continue to attract you?
AB: About The Time of the Cuckoo? It's the same old stuff; the danger of trying too hard in life, the desperate need to have an emotional life that one destroys any possibility of it; that I find fascinating. Certainly this character, I mean there are a lot of characters in plays and in novels that do this. What I thought was interesting was the period piece quality of it. This sort of ugly American in the fifties, as well as the spinster in American drama, be it this or The Rainmaker. I can't even think of all the spinsters in Chekhov for godsakes who are wonderful characters because they're essentially lonely, self-reliant, and resilient. I think the play hints at, though barely, the possibility that this woman in her mid-years has learned something about herself and therefore might conceivably change. I don't think people do change, so it's awful when you see people whom you're rooting for self-destruct whether in life or on the stage. It also has this American buoyant optimism and friendliness that undern eath isn't that way really; it is in fact rather dark, manipulative and selfish. One can look at her, the character of Leona, and see that kind of stuff. You have that going on in the White House now.
GM: It's certainly the darkest reading of the play I've come across. It's very convincing actually.
AB: I think Arthur wanted that. I think he felt that Deborah was the actress to do it; she's not unlike the character in some ways. She's a buoyant, outgoing and friendly person with a dark and lonely side to her. With her, this idea that he (Arthur) and the director had made it seem worth doing again. I love doing all these old plays. They're good old plays, you find new resonance in them. I don't mean that they're great old plays, obviously Lear will survive over the centuries. But this play should be seen again, I think.
GM: I missed it. How did the audience respond to The Time of the Cuckoo?
AB: Very well. By and large.
GM: Did you like the Katherine Hepburn movie?
AB: Yeah, I did. I think Arthur says it isn't true to the play and it glosses over this and that, but I did like it. I even liked Do I hear a Waltz?, the musical. I just find the whole story interesting; Americans abroad. Who knows why? I lived abroad for many years. I went to school abroad in the fifties, so maybe that's way I also liked it.
GM: Are you familiar with his other work, or is it unfair of me to ask about some of his other plays?
AB: You mean the older plays?
GM: Yes, some of the older plays.
AB: I'm not familiar, I mean, I'm familiar with Time of the Cuckoo and obviously I know Gypsy and West Side Story and La Cage aux Folles and Hallelujah Baby! and Anyone Can Whistle.
GM: Do you think he has a very enduring legacy in the theater?
AB: Yes. I think obviously as you said earlier, he's most known for the books to these musicals, two of them happen to be giant blockbusters: West Side Story and Gypsy, though neither one of them were huge successes at the time. They have become legendary shows, mostly through their revivals. They're the most famous shows compared to these plays. I think that his particular brand: urgent, concerned, socially committed playwriting is part of an American tradition. Same of them haven't been done, and I think the reason that some of them haven't been done is because he's been writing so many of them. There's just so many Arthur Laurents plays a season you can have. I don't know, he's funny--Sondheim will say because he knows him so well. Arthur is an odd hybrid in the canon of American playwrights because of these very serious and artistic, but wildly successful, musicals and then these plays. Well Terrence McNally writes books for musicals now and plays, and I suppose Alfred Uhry did write books for musicals an d plays, but there are not a lot of those musical playwright types. Moss Hart did it. But inevitably, the musicals, if they succeed, eclipse the play. If Arthur Miller wrote successful musicals, they would eclipse even Death of a Salesman. That's just the culture.
GM: Is it the culture that's responsible for so many of these serious plays not getting on or even not being published? That's the thing that I find very surprising, maybe naive, that they're not even published.
AB: That I don't know. I don't even know who Arthur's publishers are. There are very few--unfortunately from what I'm told, the publishing of plays is not what it was. They say there is no audience for it, though there must be cheap ways of publishing plays that still get distributed well.
GM: They're not even published by Dramatist Play Service or Samuel French.
AB: I don't know. I think what happened is that historically the non-profit theater sort of took over the job of producing new plays when Broadway, which .Arthur is a child of, was beginning to sort of fade as an arena for new work and certainly for young writers. So, what happened was that Arthur worked in the Broadway theater along with everyone else of his age and younger because that was the theater up until thirty years ago. He sort of wasn't hooked into this new non-profit movement for the longest time. Because it was also a young movement, it featured and showcased young writers, new writers. So that, in a way, I think, is part of Arthur's problem in being produced. He's an older writer who hasn't quite hooked into the non-profit world the way others have and perhaps non-profit theaters, many literary managers, or whoever reads these plays sort of think he's old-fashioned or something. I'm guessing because I don't really know this, but I think that's partly why those plays haven't gotten on to the degr ee that others have. And he's not the only writer to have suffered from this in my opinion.
GM: Arthur Miller gets on and Edward Albee gets on.
AB: They both get on now, but there was about a twenty year period when Edward had a very hard time. Arthur Miller, some of his new plays don't get put on, his old plays get put on. Robert Anderson, who keeps writing plays, is bitterly upset that no one will ever do them. The generation like Jack Gilber and oh God, I don't know who all, the next generation after Arthur Miller, Arthur Kopit, they have a hard time. The only one who kind of figured it out was Terrence McNally who had been a commercial writer, though mostly off Broadway, and had hooked into the non-profit theater after not writing for quite a long time. Arthur, I don't think did fifteen years ago, he did about eight years ago. And there is this great embracing of the new, not necessarily the young, but the new, whether its some young kid's first play, or Elaine Stritch suddenly is the new. Do you know what I mean? That's also the culture we live in and also these critics searching for a sense of context. The problem with working for a non-profit theater in a commercial town, which is New York, things are judged more for their commercial crediblilty than anything else.
GM: I'll ask you a sort of grander question: what do you think his legacy to the theater is?
AB: Intelligent craft, and the importance of it. That doesn't sound very high fallutin', I'm afraid, but it's incredibly rare. I think there's a great deal of talent, and there has been for years, in the American theater, but less and less craft. Unfortunately, despite all of the freedoms on our stage of content and form, there is a great need not just for talent but for knowing how to use that talent. I think that's Arthur's big complaint always. I used to not believe it when I was younger, but now I do as I get older. These plays from American writers, many of them seem to take forever to get into shape. Eight billion readings and nine million workshops, if it ever does get itself right; that may be a peculiarly American thing, or maybe because the non-profit theater is hospitable and these plays get handed in much earlier than they normally would have fifty years ago. If you go back in the library you see eight or ten drafts of Odets' plays before the Group put them on, and endless drafts of Williams eithe r from when he was young and trying things out or when he was older and rewriting all the time. I think intelligent, politically committed craft is what Arthur is unique at. And versatility, that too. He writes in a variety of voices and it's always well crafted, it's always literate, it's always urban to some degree. But, it's kind of everywhere. It's not autobiographical writing in the way that the generation who are now in their thirties and forties are writing. There are elements of Arthur and his life, obviously, in all his plays, or even an Arthur character, but it's not as Edith Oliver used to call a lot of young plays or young playwright's work, "my life-so-far plays". Arthur's plays are not "my life-so-far plays." I think that's something worth being a legacy.
GM: Who are the playwrights you think he most resembles?
AB: It's hard to say. I'm trying to think on my feet and I don't know if I can. Who would you say?
GM: Do you think his social plays are similar to Arthur Miller's for example?
AB: No. They're not as grand or as grandiose. They're not as mythic and they're not as emotionally epic as Arthur Miller's. Oh boy, I just can't think.
GM: That's a terrific point. I think they're not as emotionally epic and, isn't that lack of emotion what prevents them from getting produced? I sometimes think that if they were more emotional and more grand they would have an easier time finding an audience.
AB: It could be that. I think maybe Arthur, I don't know this, but I think maybe he writes--I mean he has a very big heart, he's a very sensitive man--but maybe he writes from an idea first. "Oh, I want to write about September 11th" "Oh, I want to write about old gay men and their partnership" "Oh I want to write about the blacklist." You know, maybe he starts with an idea from the outside in, as opposed to certain other writers who maybe start with a feeling or an emotion from the inside out. I don't know if that's true, I'm just guessing.
GM: Is his September 11th play, Attacks on the Heart a possibility for Lincoln Center?
AB: I don't think so, not at the moment. I loved it. You know we do at most three new plays a year, and usually two because we only do them in the Mitzi Newhouse theater. I just can't. As I told him, to be honest, I just have to do a diversity of writing here. If we had a third theater, but at the moment we don't. The Beaumont is just not right, though it is now going to be open again because Contact is closing. It's a Broadway house; it's a thrusted stage and it is not an arena to premier a play in my opinion. So, the Mitzi is it, but because we have so many members and so many subscribers, these plays have to run a long time. We can do at most three a year and usually not that.
GM: Thank you very much.
AB: He's a great guy, a wonderful writer, he's a great man. He's wildly controversial person, I suspect, but very sensitive, and very astute.
July 9, 2002
GABRIEL MILLER is Professor of English at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ. His book The Films of The Martin Ritt: Fanfare for the Common Man was published in 2000. His conversations with Martin Ritt was published in January of 2002.
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2003|
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