Christopher Durang  by Craig Gholson

BOMB 20 Summer 1987
020 Summer 1987
Durang 01 Body

Christopher Durang, photographed by Susan Shacter, 1987.

A Christopher Durang survival kit to the pitfalls of modern life would be easy to carry: a laugh and a sense of irony. One judge of how effective his black satires are is that at least one of them, at some point or another, has managed to alienate some segment of the human race—the Catholic Church in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It For You All, psychoanalysists in Beyond Therapy, the Church, families, alcoholism, divorce and even Thomas Hardy in The Marriage of Bette and Boo. Durang even bites the hand that feeds him in wicked parodies of the theater itself in The Actor’s Nightmare (Noël Coward, Samuel Beckett, Shakespeare), and three one-acts currently being done at the American Repertory Theater, Ubu Lear (King Lear á la Alfred Jarry), Desire Desire Desire (Tennessee Williams) and A Stye of the Eye (Sam Shepard).

Craig Gholson What was so special about your mother’s sense of humor that you dedicated a collection of plays to her?

Christopher Durang There was a lot that was upsetting in the family and she had an ability, sometimes, in the middle of all that to find it funny. To see the extremity of it and suddenly to have the distance to say, “Boy, we’re all acting crazy now.” I valued that part of her sense of humor. The rest of the family had senses of humor when everything was fine, but she had the ability …

CG To comment on it while it was going on.

CD Sometimes. She found non sequitors funny. We had a relationship that had its downside and I enjoyed that she could get into Dada humor. There was one time … I was in college and she was very obsessive about wanting to put up a Christmas tree. I was about 20 then and I said, “I don’t want to participate at all.”

CG Was it just a decision between the two of you?

CD Yes, because at that point she had separated from my father and although there was an extended family, no one else lived with us. I refused to do it and she was pressuring me. So I said, “Alright, but we’ll have to decorate it my way.” So I put clothes hangers on it and a wig and clothes pins and rags. And she got into the spirit of it and that was our Christmas tree. I thought that was funny.

CG Were you an only child?

CD Yes.

CG That’s not very Catholic.

CD My mother had a few babies after me who died in childbirth.

CG That’s similar to what occurs in The Marriage of Bette and Boo. Do you have a sense of humor about your own work?

CD It makes me laugh quite often.

CG As you’re writing it?

CD Yes, sometimes. It’s a good sign when that happens. Maybe I’m not quite sure of your question.

CG I’ve seen several of your pieces which are parodies of other plays or writers—The Idiots Karamozov or your parody of The Glass Menagerie called For Whom The Belle Tolls.

CD Where did you see it?

CG I believe it was in the Ansonia Hotel.

CD Oh you did. How strange. So few people saw it, how did you?

CG I just went. I think one of the interesting things about you is that you seem to be open to different kinds of productions. It doesn’t always have to be American Repertory Theater or Playwrights Horizons. How did this production come about?

CD I sort of knew a couple of the actors.

CG Did you write it as a “one off?”

CD Yes. I had seen The Glass Menagerie that John Dexter directed with Jessica Tandy and Amanda Plummer. I saw it late in the run and I actually even liked it although the critics hated it. Nonetheless, I found that I knew the play so well that a couple of days later I found myself writing a parody of it.

CG My question is, I was trying to imagine somebody writing a parody of your work.

CD I see what you’re saying. I don’t know if I would have a sense of humor about my own work. A couple of times I’ve tried to think if I could write a parody of my work. And truthfully, I wasn’t able to come up with too much except for guns onstage and bouncing babies on the floor. I haven’t seen any parodies of me.

CG No, I think it’s hard. A parody of you would be a straight drama. Your later plays—Beyond TherapyThe Marriage of Bette and Boo—seem less manically frantic than earlier works like Titanic and The Nature and Purpose of the Universe. The anarchy has been interiorized in the characters and is less action oriented. Do you think that was the result of an aging process on your part or was it a shift in your concerns on a craft level?

CD When I look at some of the earlier plays years later like Titanic or The Nature and Purpose of the Universe, they really seem to have exploded out of my head. I still enjoy looking at them. Titanic in particular amuses me. But I think my unconscious was more at work then. Also in those plays, it’s not that I’m brimming over with hope, but I used to really be brimming over with despair. I think those plays had a nihilistic energy to them that came from a sense of hopelessness.

CG One of your early plays, The Vietnamization of New Jersey, is your only attempt at a political play. Does the idea of politics, which seems rife with the possibility of parody, not interest you?

CD I think it probably interests me. Politics interests me but … I’ve joined the Freedom to Read Foundation. Censorship issues interest me and the confusion around church/state issues also intrigues me. And the Supreme Court and their view on homosexuals and so forth.

CG AIDS is also a political issue. I have heard that you are writing a play concerning that topic.

CD Yes. It’s part of an evening that will happen at Playwrights Horizons this Fall if I write the third piece. So far there’s two monologues—one done by a woman with the umbrella title of “Laughing Wild.” I was trying to write a companion piece for the woman’s monologue and it ended up getting onto the topic of AIDS and the religious fanatics who believe that AIDS is God’s punishment of homosexuals. Half of it is finished. It’s probably 25 minutes.

CG You spend a lot of energy writing author’s notes explaining your intentions and desires. In reading the notes, one plea that emerges over and over again is make it “simple and direct.” It’s such a constant warning that it made me think there might have been one production that you found absolutely abhorrent.

CD Well there wasn’t just one production. What happened was that when I was in Yale Drama School, the first couple of productions I had as a student there were quite well performed. Actually, that’s where I met Sigourney Weaver. Most of the actors seemed intuitively to both keep it simple and to make it oddly believable. So even something like The Nature and Purpose of the Universe which is extremely exaggerated, nonetheless, the actors playing it would treat it as if they meant what they said. It was both funnier and “deeper” that way. It gave the audience a sense that people in life act in an exaggerated way, as they do. Then, shortly after these first very good experiences at Yale Drama School, I saw some other productions where I was really startled by how much the plays could change by the actors’ performances. In these productions that I don’t care for, actors brought to my already exaggerated play a sense of further exaggeration by acting in a super-childish or cartoonish way. The plays became shrill and unfunny.

CG To you or to everyone?

CD To me. Not necessarily to everyone. Sometimes it doesn’t bother the audience as much. Regardless, I must say it’s so hard for anybody—critic, audience or fellow writer—to look at a play and separate the production from the intention. I just went to a rehearsal of a production of one of my plays. A rehearsal that was very gross and had fart jokes all the way through it. If it stayed that way, you would presume that I wrote them. Surely they didn’t just add fart jokes, but they did. I’ve asked them to take them out and I think they have.

CG You mean it was just added to the physical production?

CD Yes. The piece is Ubu Lear and it’s a 20 minute fractured fairy tale version of King Lear told Ubu Roi-style. And I must say that in Ubu Roi, one would indeed consider putting in farts. So it wasn’t insane to put it in the play, but I didn’t like it myself. It didn’t strike me as funny. It became assaultive and unpleasant. However, I see totally the logic of a) trying it and b) if it was left in presuming I had written it that way. How would you possibly know that I hadn’t?

CG So for you to be responsible about your work, you have to make yourself available.

CD I try to make myself available for something if it’s a premiere or if it’s in New York. Other places I have to let go of it.

CG Where is Ubu Lear being done?

CD These are the plays that are being done at American Repertory Theater and they’re still in rehearsal.

CG Are all the plays on a similar theme?

CD They’re all theater parodies, not including the one you saw. One that’s a Williams’s parody called Desire Desire Desire, another one that’s a Sam Shepard parody called A Stye of the Eye. It’s meant to be a light and playful evening. I guess the other reason that I was writing those notes was that just in my experiences with production, I see the logic of looking at my work and saying, “It’s exaggerated and funny so I must act it exaggerated and funny.” I just happen to think it’s wrong. Imagine if Annie Hall was the same script but directed by Mel Brooks and starring Madeline Kahn. I prefer that people direct my stuff like Woody Allen directed Diane Keaton. That’s not to say I don’t like Brooks and Kahn, it’s just a different style.

CG It seems as if what you’re talking about is something you try to incorporate in your writing when you talk about that “double edge of farce and sadness.” You want an acting technique that corresponds to that double edge you are aspiring to in the text.

CD Right. I think that that’s true. Even in The Nature and Purpose of the Universe, an early, early play, the play is cruel and you laugh at all the housewife’s suffering when she’s psychologically tortured and occasionally physically beat up as well. But at the end of the play when God spares her life and she’s disappointed and wants to die, I want you to actually feel sympathy for the character. And if it’s been a cartoon performance, you can’t.

CG What characteristics do you think a Durang actor should possess?

CD Oh dear. The ability to say outlandish things in a normal tone of voice. The ability, though, also to have comic technique that in terms of timing and pace, lets a thing be funny at the same time that it’s real. I feel Sigourney Weaver is very good at that and also Dianne Wiest who just won the Oscar. She was in Beyond Therapy and has been in two other readings of mine. It’s a balance between letting the reality of the characters’ needs and tensions show through at the same time that it has just a tiny spin that lets it be funny.

CG Do you trust actors?

CD I like actors. There are some actors who have instincts for my stuff and then there are some who don’t. I once auditioned for a Noël Coward play. I was asked to and I happen to really like his writing, so I presumed I could do it. I couldn’t at all. I was totally wrong.

CG What was the problem?

CD His brittle style which I guess I don’t have the technique to do. At least I didn’t in this audition. It was very embarrassing. Likewise I think there might be some actors who might not be right for my work.

CG It’s funny you had trouble with that aspect of his work because I think the syntax of your work and his is very similar.

CD It does have some things in common and I agree, the syntax is the way in which … In my plays, the words really are written with a rhythm. And sometimes it’s actually the rhythm that’s funny or the certain understatement of something I said.

CG The parallel with Coward that I see is that neither of you are writers to whom actors can particularly look to for “motivation” in any traditional sense, so that when actors do encounter lines they don’t know where they’re coming from, they just have to stand up straight and say them.

CD That’s a good entre into a different way in which I think some actors have a better flare for my work. My characters sometimes make jumps that in life might be more true of a schizophrenic.

CG Or the non sequiturs of your mother.

CD Right. Or the non sequiturs of my mother. It wouldn’t have to be as far out as a schizophrenic. I remember that Kate McGregor-Stewart and later Dana Ivey in a different context (she was in Baby with the Bathwater) both said that in doing my plays they would just commit fully to whatever the intention of the line was and not get bogged down in working out what the psychological connection would be. The thing is, I think there is often an intuitive psychological connection that has to do with people who are either crazy or off-balance or unpredictable that I do see in life. But it’s not the kind of realism that one would see in On the Waterfront, a movie I love.

CG Yes, to be fair I suppose I should go around asking actors whether they trust Christopher Durang.

Let’s talk about Robert Altman’s version of Beyond Therapy and how it differs from the play itself. I jotted down a few things and was curious as to why those choices were made and who made them. First of all, maybe you can explain how you and Robert Altman worked together.

CD We didn’t work together. We ended up not getting on.

CG In pre-production or during the production?

CD Like a week after I signed the contract. It is ungracious to say that you don’t like something someone’s done, a production of your work. So I did keep quiet before the reviews came out, but now that the reviews have come out and the film is mostly gone, I don’t agree with what Altman did to it and I feel that he … well, I’ll say it—I feel that he is competitive with writers. He’s not with actors. He loves actors and they love him. I just finished working uncredited on a movie with Herbert Ross and every time I brought in what I thought was a good line, Herbert Ross was delighted, while Robert Altman even wrote his version of the script before I wrote mine—which even contractually is wrong.

CG You had a dual screenplay credit which made it appear as if you had worked hand in hand.

CD No. The only thing of mine in there is whatever remnants of the play remain, which is why I have a credit at all. Anyway, I wrote my draft of the script which I don’t even know if he read. He stopped talking to me because he was so upset that I didn’t like his version.

CG So you weren’t around during any of the shooting.

CD I thought I’d get an ulcer.

CG How about casting?

CD I thought his cast ideas were very good. I thought his film version of Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was good actually. I kind of liked Streamers. I liked other of his movies. I liked Nashville.

CG Has all this soured you on movies?

CD No. It’s a tough thing because the director is really the king of the movie. You know what else? I’m sure we’ll never wish to work together again anyway, but if he and I had worked on a new film that had nothing to do with the play and just started from scratch, it would have been much easier to get in sync with him.

CG You think that the director has more power in the movies than in the theater?

CD Yes. Starting contractually, in the theater, producers and directors aren’t allowed to change your work without your permission. But the writers in TV and movies are employees which is why they have a union and playwrights can’t have a union. Scriptwriters can be fired. And you can have 20 different writers on a project. And although a director can be fired, it’s much more rare. And indeed on the Herbert Ross film, I was writer number four.

CG Why would you want that work to be uncredited?

CD I would have been happy to have it credited. The Writers Guild does it by … when there’s more than one writer not working collaboratively they decide by who’s written the largest percentage of the movie and who had the most to do with character and plot. I, in a way, wrote additional dialogue.

CG Can you say what movie it is?

CD The Secret of My Success. I don’t know whether you’re supposed to say when you wrote something uncredited. But I had a very good time working on it.

CG You wrote a screenplay called The Nun Who Shot Liberty Valance.

CD Oh right. I wish somebody would make that one. I wrote that one for Warner Brothers. And I think it’s a very funny screenplay. It’s about Catholicism, the main characters are these two young guys and this girl just out of high school and their different crises of faith.

CG It’s not a Western.

CD No. It’s occasionally Monty Python-esque whereby suddenly we’ll be up in heaven and there’ll be scenes with the Blessed Mother. Sister Mary kept getting protested when it was playing, particularly in St. Louis, so in the screenplay the movie gets interrupted by this woman in St. Louis who doesn’t like it and wants them to stop filming it.

CG Let’s talk about this Catholicism bugaboo for a bit. Your clipping service must have had a field day over the reams of publicity Sister Mary generated. It’s a full-fledged cottage industry. We all know that the Catholic Church hasn’t gotten over you, but do you think you’ve gotten over the Catholic Church?

CD Gee, that’s kind of a hard question. I partially think of that play with the title Once a Catholic … because there’s a lot that you carry around with you. When I wrote Sister Mary Ignatius, I was not feeling angry towards the Church. Everything that’s in the play I had thought about and felt seriously about, but it wasn’t anger. It was more like, “Gee, isn’t it strange that I used to believe these things?” That was really basically how I felt. And when the protest of the play started, I was surprised. The thrust of it seemed to be that I didn’t have a right to say what I said aloud and/or if I said it aloud, the play couldn’t have any public money in it whatsoever. And since 98 percent of the theaters in America have some public money in them, that’s really shutting me up. I then became politically angry about it which I remain. I think it’s a very serious issue. And it’s not just about me at all. Once you start saying that people can’t say certain things, the list of pressure groups who could shut people up is endless. Then I became very disappointed that … for instance, it was scheduled for the Phil Donahue Show for awhile, they were to find a practicing Catholic to speak up for the play. Sometimes a liberal practicing Catholic will either like it a lot or at least say, “There’s some truth to it, although he leaves out the positive side.” I remember there was a priest who did like the play and when I tried to get him on the Phil Donahue Show he said, “I’m sorry, I can’t because I’m already in too much trouble with my Bishop for my ministry to gay people.” So it makes me think what a fascist organization the Catholic Church is. Now I actually hate the Catholic Church and I didn’t use to. I think the latest, the Vatican’s talk about homosexuality and then coming out against condoms in terms of the AIDS crisis … I actually look at the Catholic Church and think that the people who run it are evil. That doesn’t mean that everyone in the Church is, but I think of them as evil.

CG I have a friend who calls the Catholic Church a spiritual curvature of the spine, but even that seems to pale to the reality. If you’re not a Catholic, do you consider yourself a Christian?

CD No. I no longer believe in the divinity of Christ. Thus, I’m not a Christian. I have a lot of liberal liking of the humanitarian aspects of Christianity which is why many people are going to stay in the Church.

CG Almost everyone in your plays is a victim of somebody or something. And the victimization seems relatively arbitrary. Is that your reality? Do you feel like Diane in Sister Mary and believe in the utter randomness of things?

CD When I stopped believing in Christianity, I did feel that I had nothing to replace it with and so I did begin to feel that everything is random and I found that very depressing. It wasn’t willful on my part, I just didn’t find myself able to believe the one thing and replace it with anything else. So in a certain sense I do identify with a lot of what Diane says in Sister Mary. In my life, though, I don’t actually feel like I’ve been in a victim role. I wasn’t the scapegoat of my family and I wasn’t in school either. So I don’t personally feel like a victim and if there’s randomness in the world then we’re all victims of it, it’s not specifically me. I think the reason the victim stuff comes up is that I’m very attuned to psychological power struggles between people. Especially family members and how they play that out over and over and over. I saw a lot of that growing up. My beliefs seem to be shifting to some degree, although to what I couldn’t say.

CG You’re in a transitional period.

CD Yes, I really am actually.

CG I think some of your most frightening characters like Sister Mary or the parents in Baby With the Bathwater, are so lethal because they have this combination of wrongheadedness and power. It’s a fatal cocktail. They either operate from a system like Sister Mary that is so rigid that it makes you neurotic—if there isn’t an answer for it, you have to create an answer that’s as wrong as all the other ones—or in the case of the parents, their system is so free-floating that you don’t have any moors at all.

CD Right.

CG Who they remind me of are Amanda Wingfield in Williams’s The Glass Menagerie and Aunt Dan in Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon. Essentially they’re well-meaning. They’re just well-meaning in the way terrorists are.

CD That’s a good point. I like the phrase “the well-meaning terrorist.” I think my Sister Mary and Williams’s Amanda genuinely believe that they’re right. They just don’t believe that you have the right to feel differently. And they’ll basically stop you if they can. Which is really what I feel the protests against my play were about. That same thing. Growing up in my extended family, my grandmother and uncle forbade grown people in the house from speaking against the war in Vietnam. My uncle used to often say in arguments, “Well, you have a right to be wrong.” Which I must say is a very inflammatory way of pretending to be tolerant. Sister Mary sort of says you have a right to be wrong and then kills you.

CG What do you do with people like that, short of killing them?

CD I leave them. It’s funny, I also avoid them. My plays are perceived as being angry and, as I told you, I wasn’t aware of being angry when I wrote Sister Mary but I realize that that probably sounds like I’m very out of touch with my anger, which is perhaps true. I don’t find it easy to, one-on-one, express anger with someone. So leaving or avoiding is something I tend to do.

CG So you’re not a good fighter.

CD I can be, but I don’t like it. It makes me very uncomfortable.

CG It seems as if you would be because so many of your plays are arguments.

CD Right, that anger and argumentativeness comes out in the plays and I haven’t found a place for it in my life. Sometimes with a friend I can have a minor argument and feel so threatened, as if it has to go to Armageddon. It’s how people fought when I was growing up actually. Anger in real life is not comfortable for me as of yet.

CG Family, church, school, psychology, women—are there any authority figures you don’t have problems with?

CD I actually like psychiatrists. In Beyond Therapy I wrote about some of the misuses that can occur because one puts them in such a parental position. I like psychologists and psychiatrists. I think you have to, hopefully, have a good instinct about who’s smart and who isn’t.

CG The majority of your plays, by far, take place in a family situation either nuclear or extended. Do you think there’s any such thing as a well-adjusted family?

CD I have sometimes wondered.

CG The question is not whether all happy families are alike, but are there any happy families?

CD Gee, I don’t actually know. There’s certainly no perfect family. In retrospect, the family dysfunction that I saw a lot of was people denying that they felt a certain way, saying one thing and then actually acting out of the fact that they were feeling something else. Just for starters, if people can identify what they’re feeling and then act on it, that already makes something better. Most of us didn’t grow up around that. I think psychology has been a good influence because in my parents’ generation and my grandparents’ generation, there was a very rigid idea of duty that anything you did that wasn’t selfless should make you feel guilty. I’m very aware of all these people not doing what they want for 40 years saying it’s fine and inwardly raging.

CG Forming a tumor.

CD You’re right.

CG Do you ever worry you’ll go insane?

CD I’m very glad you asked me that. Yes, I do. Just recently as a matter of fact. I did worry about it in college. I didn’t really think of it as going insane. I wondered though whether I would need to be hospitalized for mental imbalance.

CG That’s a nice euphemism.

CD Insane makes me think of The Snake Pit and Olivia de Haviland. I never envisioned that as much as just stopping being able to function and simply having to be put in a hospital room where you stare at the wall. And people would occasionally come and shake a tambourine at you and see if they could get a response. I’m feeling very stable today. But last week I wasn’t.

CG Do you worry that as the nature of the reality we’re now experiencing essentially grows blacker, that you won’t be able to keep up? Your plays may get defused and in fact, may end up seeming almost naive.

CD Right. Well, I agree with what you’re saying and I don’t worry about it specifically for my plays. Some of the problems really are very overwhelming. That even may be one thing that keeps me from writing about politics in a certain sense. Nuclear proliferation is certainly a very real and important issue. I’m interested in it but I don’t, as of yet, have any idea how to write about it. On another issue, I was watching Channel 13 the other day and they had a program about what’s happening to the ozone layer.

CG The hole?

CD I felt so overwhelmed by what they were saying because I had no way of judging, no way of knowing which expert was right since they all disagreed. And the Environmental Protection Agency is actually the Not Spending Money on the Environment Agency. So yes, I find those things very overwhelming and I haven’t been able to write about them yet.

CG Do you in fact “hate and fear people?”

CD I must say that there was a little bit of a joke in the introduction to Christopher Durang Explains It For You All. Sometimes I hate and fear people in that way that gets out of proportion and passes onto everybody. And then I think there are people to hate and fear. I fear Ronald Reagan. I hate and fear Patrick J. Buchanan who now left the White House. He strikes me as evil. Can I be sued for that? It’s just an opinion, right? So yes, I do hate and fear some people. It’s not actually across the boards. Some days I like people.

CG You’re kind of whimsical.

CD I change from day to day.

CG Mercurial. I pulled this quote I wanted you to comment on. This is Mrs. Wallace, the psychiatrist in Beyond Therapy. “We’re all alone. Everyone is crazy and you have no choice but to be alone or to be with someone in what will be a highly imperfect and probably eventually unsatisfactory relationship.”

CD Well, I did write that. I used to almost believe all of that. It’s just that when I say everyone is crazy that means it’s a very bad day where the amount of crazy people in the world has spread out to the entire universe and it doesn’t seem possible to cope with anything. I do have friends who I like and don’t think of as crazy in the same way. I think we’re all neurotic. And I do think relationships are certainly difficult. Nonetheless, those lines in the play do get a laugh, so there’s something. It’s not as despairing as it sounds but I don’t not believe it.

Craig Gholson is a writer living and working in New York. Past plays include, Chaos in Order, The Floor of the Sistine Chapel. He is currently working on a new play entitled, The Mother.

Susan Schacter is co-author with Don Shewey of Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face, published by NAL.

Wendy Wasserstein by A.M. Homes
Wasserstein01 Body
Four Memories by Jonas Mekas
Jonas Mekas Dog 01

Disastrous screenings, Nam June Paik’s meeting with Bill Clinton, and time spent as a dog.

Jessie Stead’s You Are Now Running On Reserve Battery Power by Andrew Lampert
Jessie Stead

One of the highlights of the generous and sprawling Views from the Avant-Garde section at the recent New York Film Festival was when the dreaded low-battery warning appeared on screen amid intense flickering white light at the start of Jessie Stead’s latest video.

Thomas Bradshaw by Margo Jefferson
Thomas Bradshaw 01

Jefferson describes Bradshaw’s plays as treacherous territories peopled with high-achieving suburbanites and professors gripped by sexual and racial manias. Their most dangerous quality: they act on pure id.

Originally published in

BOMB 20, Summer 1987

Christopher Durang, Duane Michals by David Seidner, Steve Erickson, and Mona Simpson.

Read the issue
020 Summer 1987