Jon Robin Baitz’s plays are about confronting allegiance—allegiance to one’s government, to political activism, to one’s family, to one’s friends, and ultimately, allegiance to one’s self. The emotional and physical landscape of these plays is that of the expatriate. In The Film Society, directed by John Tillinger last spring at The Second Stage, a group of South Africans confront their government’s colonialist policies at the antiquated private school at which they teach. In Dutch Landscape, set to open in January at the Mark Taper Forum directed by Gordon Davidson and starring Marsha Mason, the expatriate dilemma is brought into the family in the form of the price a family pays for its exile; the cost of a child exiling himself from his family. Dutch Landscape is the first part of a projected trilogy which goes from Africa to Holland and finally ends up in Malibu. His first play, The Big Picture has been optioned by Emanuel Azenberg and Ulu Grosbard for a production next year.
Craig Gholson What’s Dutch Landscape about?
Jon Robin Baitz It’s about an expatriate American family living in Africa. A husband and wife, a couple that met at the height of Jack Kennedy’s New Frontier, at the height of Camelot, and joined the Peace Corps. It takes place in the mid-’70s. The chill has set in. They’ve gone from working for the Peace Corps in Brazil to working for an American multinational marketing milk in Africa. Specifically, it’s come down to marketing baby formula.
CG There was a notorious incident involving rancid powdered milk sold to Third World countries.
JRB In fact, it was Nestlé and they marketed baby formula in the Third World very irresponsibly as a substitute for breast feeding. They didn’t take into account the horrible realities of the dire poverty in the Third World that would necessitate diluting baby formula way beyond its nutritional value rendering it useless. They would buy a tin of baby formula and try and stretch it out to last over months. The babies would die of rickets and malnutrition. And the mixed signals, the confusing messages were mind-boggling—salespeople dressed as nuns, salespeople dressed as nurses, billboards and posters that said, “Baby formula is better than breast feeding.” Finally, the situation reached the point where Nestlé was going to get kicked out of certain countries in northern Africa. It had reached the point where there was a World Council of Churches and a World Health Organization-sponsored boycott.
CG Is this the incident the play is based on or is this a similar scenario?
JRB No, it takes its vague historical cue from it. It is a backdrop for the play. The play is about trying to work one’s way back home after having left home many years ago.
CG Home being America.
JRB Yes. And it’s a play very much about America and Americans, about the shifting political tapestry between the ’60s and ’70s. And really more than anything else, it’s a play about the disparity between external politics and family politics. The discrepancy, the relationship between the two. It’s similar, in a sense, to The Film Society which is a play about the way in which people discover their politics. I think Dutch Landscape is a continuation of that idea—of the accent of our politics, of the reality of our politics versus the positions we take, the ideologies. But more than any of those thematic desires of mine to deal with those themes, it’s very much a play about the life of a family, what the lies of a family mean and do and an attempt to make peace with that.
CG Your father was an executive at Carnation, right?
JRB That’s right.
CG It sounds vaguely autobiographical.
JRB You take what you’ve got.
CG Have you found a difference in working in the theater in Los Angeles as opposed to New York?
JRB It’s funny, I did The Film Society in London and someone asked me that. No, I haven’t found a difference because for people who work in the theater there is a kind of common ground. I have a feeling that the pool of actors in New York is much more interesting. I know that for certain. Young actors in New York tend to be in New York for much more interesting reasons than young actors in California. There is an acting problem out here that you have to deal with.
CG Have you had to fend off TV actors?
JRB Yes, and finally Gordon and I found ourselves at the last minute on a plane to New York. It was inevitable in a sense. I thought that was fascinating really. Young actors came in here to audition but it was as if their capacity for honesty and truth had been drained out of them systematically by television and movies. You look at young European actors like the kid in My Life as a Dog and he has none of that; he just has that raw honesty. I think there is something very polluting about television and maybe that’s felt less in New York. But that’s about as much of the New York/L.A. comparisons I think I can make.
CG Have you succumbed to the screenplay urge yet?
JRB No. It’s not like that for me. I’m not a screenwriter at all. It takes everything I can muster to write a play. It takes three years to write a play for me. I don’t have the visual sense or the pacing sense to be a screenwriter at all. I love watching movies and I love the movies and I would love to be able to do that because being a screenwriter is like being the aristocracy of our century. But I can’t do it. I’m committed to plays. I’ve started to learn about the theater, about the way a stage works. My agents will read this and get very upset.
CG Would you allow The Film Society to be produced in South Africa?
JRB I would allow it. I know Fugard has made a very impassioned plea against the cultural boycott. I would never want to do that.
CG To withhold your work.
JRB Who are you withholding it from, who are you hurting? You’re hurting people who are desperate for a connection to the outside world and desperate for some kind of real connection.
CG Do you ever go back to South Africa?
JRB No, I don’t. I feel like I’ve left that behind in a way.
CG Having spent six years in South Africa, can you ever imagine staying away from America for that length of time again?
JRB Yes, and I vow if I ever hear the words “President Quayle” my address will be in Tuscany. No doubt about it, I can’t imagine this country polluting itself any further. I could see myself leaving America very easily. I see an increasingly illiterate, self-hating society trashing itself, doing ourselves in. There’s no silence in this country, there’s no quiet. There’s a terrible noise, an incessant racket.
CG Most American childhoods are nationally transient—state to state. Your childhood was globally transient—Brazil to South Africa to Holland. What effect did that have on your writing?
JRB I think what happened was that I felt so foreign so often that I became very adept at observing. I learned a kind of short hand. Because you’re a foreigner, an alien really, you have to decode all of the customs and the manners, not just the language. So you begin to feel terribly detached which is not a good thing. And it had that effect upon my writing initially. You start this little dialogue with yourself about what things mean and then suddenly you’re 20-something-years-old and you’re continuing that dialogue on paper.
CG So it basically established a proscenium in your consciousness.
JRB Precisely. I like that.
CG Do you still feel like an expatriate?
JRB I’m sitting by a swimming pool and there’s a sort of David Hockney kid walking by me. And the frightening thing is I feel frighteningly at home. I don’t feel like an expatriate in place; I feel like an expatriate in time. I feel disconnected slightly.
CG It seems to me that you’re a writer who’s very much involved in storytelling. Is a strong narrative something that you insist upon for your work?
JRB Yes, it is. I don’t put any value judgments on not doing that, but for me that ridiculous Joan Didion line from The White Album: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” resonates. I need a narrative compass. I feel very connected to a very traditional storytelling.
CG So you never went through an avant-garde period?
JRB No, I was surrounded by it, but never really . . . I cut my teeth at the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival and Workshop. It’s this sort of Sam Shepard, Irene Fornes, Murray Mednick . . .
CG Where is it?
JRB It used to be out here in the California mountains. It was a little bit like Under the Volcano with tequila.
CG With more tequila.
JRB And answering machines.
CG At the time The Film Society opened, you, personally got as much press as the play itself did. Half of the reviews dealt with the play and the other half said how you were a “talent to watch.” How did you react to that?
JRB (long pause, laughter) Grateful. Encouraged somehow. Relieved. Detached from it. Trying to not think about that too much because I was going to continue writing regardless.
It’s frightening. You feel that this is not about me. My life does not seem real. There’s this other reality and there’s this other person that they’re writing about. It doesn’t make my life any better. It doesn’t make my work any better. It doesn’t mean I can relate to people with any more ease. I’m grateful for it and then finally try and dismiss it because it’s dangerous. I don’t really enjoy it or think about it.