Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Origins of a Play

A play idea is a gossamer thing. It begins, deformed, in the primordial darkness of one’s subconscious, awaiting a spark from above. A new idea to ignite in the heavens and dive down below, creating a chemical reaction. For a play idea is never one idea, it’s an interconnected set of molecular ideas that bind to each and create their own energy. Old ideas are fomenting beneath the surface of consciousness; and finally a new idea—the right new idea—brings them to life.

Beneath my surface in primordial darkness sat ideas about intimacy, about whether truth was necessary for intimacy or if lies could produce the same bond. About language, which can hold both truth and lies, power and weakness. About the damage that can come from compromising one’s integrity. What these ideas needed was a spark.

About a year ago my fiancée, who’s a bit of a history buff, reminded me that Truman only had a high school education. He’d attended a semester or so of college, but that’s all. And I was struck by two things: first, how a farmer’s boy managed to become president of the United States without higher education; and second how a president just three months in office could have made the decision to drop an atomic bomb. The weight of that decision. I realized I had many preconceptions about this, but no real knowledge of the event.

My favorite question as a playwright is “how did we get here?” I often see the end of my plays very clearly—before anything else is in place. Then the beginning appears; it’s the middle that’s murky. I knew Truman’s beginning, of course, and I knew how the story ended. I had strong feelings about them already. An important rule of playwriting is to never write plays about things you have black and white feelings for. The work comes out lopsided, lacking dramatic energy because there’s no real opposing force, and you’re inclined to preach. It’s a rule almost as important as always write plays about things you have black and white feelings for. Not that all plays should fit into that category, but if you feel that way about something you should write about it. If it’s that clear, that simple in your mind, you haven’t explored it and you don’t understand it. Getting to know characters I find distasteful is some of the most rewarding writing I’ve done, and some of my best. Characters who stand for things I don’t like will always have clearly independent rhythms in their speech; I have to find the truth about their viewpoint, what is honest and sincere. I grow, and their characters are often more richly three-dimensional. Writing about characters you deeply admire is a rather sickly experience in comparison.

The Truman I knew from history books was beloved for ending the war, for always speaking plainly, and for keeping the interest of the average working man at heart. I had my doubts about the first point; during the course of my research I developed a new appreciation for the second point, his tendency to “speak his mind.”

In order to do his character, and that moment in time, justice, I realized I had to get some distance on it. In doing so, the characters of Will and Mel arrived. Truman became Harry. Harry could be more human, less constrained by our predetermined expectations of him; he could symbolize more than himself. The Harry of my play isn’t supposed to be an exact replica, a precise personification of Truman. I don’t think that’s possible; there were only a handful of people who ever really knew the complete man because he was a complex and somewhat guarded fellow. His biographers might claim that they knew him by his deeds and actions, but in the 1990s our knowledge of those deeds began to shift with the release of declassified documents. It raised questions about the events, and thus the man. I became fascinated by those questions, and they became one of the focal points of the play.

But the play is equally about Mel and Will (who never leaves the stage). They bring forth the older questions about intimacy, truth, language, and integrity. In the end, they became the heart of the play, a passionate, violent, and lyrical organ within the framework of history.

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