As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Epic hardly begins to describe the scope of Constance Congdon’s plays. Her first play had 30 scenes and 57 characters. Tales of the Lost Formicans is presented as a documentary produced by Aliens, set in the suburbs of our defunct civilization. Casanova, her recent play produced at The Public Theatre, covers 73 years in 19 scenes set between Paris and Venice. Her themes are equally ambitious. Casanova opens with nothing less than the challenge of, “What-is-LOVE!”
Craig Gholson Tell me about your fascination with Casanova.
Constance Congdon Although I didn’t do this consciously, I think it’s quite natural to want to deal with very strong, male power figures, to attempt to figure them out. There’s something very, very attractive about them. My first play was about the warrior king Gilgamesh. He was blind and a jerk and I had a lot of sympathy for him. It’s a wonderful, wonderful story. Native American, based on my Uncle Glenn, was another incredibly strong, powerful male figure. And then Casanova.
Casanova started out very simply in that I thought I’d take Casanova’s Homecoming by Arthur Schnitzler and turn it into a play. It’s a very dark, wonderful story. Then I thought, You know, I should read Casanova’s “Memoirs.” So I got this collection, translated by Gribble from Arthur Machen, expurgated beyond belief. It has an introduction by Erica Jong that says, Don Juan hated women, but Casanova really loved them. And I don’t blame her because from reading this book, which is a big picaresque romp, you go, “God, what a great guy!” That’s when I started writing the play. Then I thought I should read the unexpurgated version and, of course, that’s when I hit all the heavy-duty stuff.
CG How long does it take to read twelve volumes?
CC A really long time. It gets quicker because there’s so much repetition. It’s just one affair after the other, after another, getting kicked out of one country after another.
CG Are the memoirs good?
CC Yes. They’re well written … just incredibly redundant. He really has the novelist’s mind, the ability to memorize all the details of a scene. But what he lacks is the emotional import of things. In any case, that’s where I got all this heavy duty stuff about fucking twelve-year-old girls, and buying girls, and raping girls. And he’d tell them as funny stories. It just horrified me. But every once in a while he’d almost have a moment of self-realization. He’d be taking care of some poor victim of some other man’s abuse, a pregnant woman being left with him, having a child and dying. And he would get the sense that things weren’t quite right, but not enough to ever change his own behavior. I started out liking him and then I just started to hate him. And the fact that this occurred at the time when our country was founded, in the supposed Age of Enlightenment, mortified me. The ideas of our founding fathers obviously didn’t include black people or women or anybody but straight white men. I hate to sound strident, but that’s what it came down to, right before me in black and white.
CG Did it present any problems to have to write about someone who you loathed? I can’t imagine wanting to spend so much time with someone I didn’t like.
CC Yes, I stopped writing. I wrote Tales of the Lost Formicans. I wrote two plays for children. My friends, and my husband, who never reads my scripts but certainly heard me bitch and moan about the whole thing, were very supportive. My friend Helen Sheehy, author of the book on Margo Jones, said to me, “Somewhere, you do have some compassion for him, Connie.” But I just couldn’t find it. (laughter) I eventually did, but it’s a guarded compassion. It’s not the compassion I felt for Gilgamesh or even my Uncle Glenn, but a general human compassion?—Yeah, I guess.
CG Do you think Casanova’s behavior is anachronistic today? Do you think that men could get away with the kinds of seductions that ruin lives now?
CC In America, it might be a little harder, simply because there’s permission to call people on it. You’re not considered a bitch by calling a guy on this stuff. And there’s more of a support system. When I was growing up, there was no support system, none. If you wanted to bitch about your boyfriend, you were by yourself, really. But in the world? Absolutely. In India, they burn brides. In Africa, 90 million young girls have their clitoris removed and their vaginas sewn up so much they have urinary problems. It’s heinous.
CG Those are examples of male-instituted societal policies. How about interpersonal seduction?
CC I still think men run seduction. Women are talking about trying to get some control, but I still think men control it. Women still try to find control in the old ways, basically through hyperemotionality. It sounds grim. This is based on me observing my son and his friends and their girlfriends and having long talks with a couple of men in the cast of Casanova. We still have such a long way to go to try to understand how to run the male/female love relationship. Among the young, girls don’t call boys and ask them for dates. That’s not the norm. To a great extent, guys run the courtship in the early part. Of course, after that, it’s a battlefield, like every other human relationship.
CG In Casanova, Marcoline says, “Women. They tell themselves that they are loved. That they will be loved tomorrow. And the biggest lie of all—that they will be loved when their beauty fades.” If those are the lies that women tell themselves, what do you think the lies are that men tell themselves?
CC The parallel would be that men will be loved even when they don’t have a job anymore. Because the deal is that the woman is beautiful and fertile and the man is the breadwinner.
CG Maybe you think men don’t tell themselves lies in relationships.
CC I’m sure they must, because I certainly have sat up a few nights with male friends when they’ve been devastated. And my son has certainly been devastated a couple of times. But …
CG You haven’t a clue.
CC I haven’t a clue.
CG I was surprised by your statement that your plays centered around these strong-willed men. Because in my thinking of your work, I thought your typical protagonist was the 40-year-old, manless woman—Casanova’s daughter Sophie who must come to terms with her dependency on men; Cathy in Lost Formicans—the divorced mother adrift in alien-populated suburbs; Arleta, in Native American—in love with one man, but having to use another to escape. Even Georgia O’Keeffe is portrayed primarily at the points in her life when she is separated from Steiglitz. Those seemed very much to me the typical Congdon protagonists, not the men.
CC I like to think of the women as the protagonists but somehow it doesn’t fall out like that. In dramatic literature, until there were more women playwrights, the point of view was male. And there’s something essential about drama that I find frustrating because my life and the life of women is different in some really large ways than men. There’s something about the life of men that somehow seems more dramatic.
CG Because the typical male life is about action. And if you’re trying to dramatize something, you need some strong action. Historically, women aren’t associated with that.
CC Right. They’re reacting to things. For example, when one of my best male friends from childhood had the moment where he broke with his father, it was a yelling argument. They nearly had a fight. There’s no doubt it would make good theater. But when I had that moment with my stepmother, it was only a look. How could I make people in the back row see that? I’d have to use symbolism like glass breaking. It’s a movie moment. But I write for the theater. We weren’t going to be breaking furniture. We weren’t going to be duking it out.
CG Characters are constantly traveling in your plays. Casanova from Paris to Venice, Arleta in Native American from Colorado to Florida, Georgia O’Keeffe from New York to New Mexico. Evelyn in Lost Formicans says, “I figured it out. We’re going to get in the car… It worked for our families for 200 years. We’ve started in New Jersey and Massachusetts. We’ve managed about a state every two generations.” What are these characters hoping to achieve by traveling?
CC There’s something essentially American in the idea that things will be better in the next place you move to. The way to make it better is to move. Modern society has made that a way of life, whether we want it or not. The average job change is every five years. The average family moves once every seven years. We have a transient society. In the case of my family, there’s no sense of history. I just found out where my grandparents came from a few years ago. No one told me and I didn’t ask. It was not something that we talked about.
CG I think that Americans are afraid of the skeletons in the closet, where Europeans revel in them. Europeans pride themselves on inbreeding and hemophilia.
CC We also came here to start anew.
CG Because our histories were so shameful. We were all criminals or outcasts, unless we were part of the initial four hundred.
CC And who wants to admit to that in this day and age? One of my family members decided to do a family history of one part of my mother’s family. At the top of the page, it said, “Meek was a slave trader.” I didn’t even look at it for five years, I was so mortified. Although I found out that Meek married into the family, it was still mortifying.
CG But your characters also very much resist change. Evelyn says, “I’m afraid to close my eyes. Change happens so fast.” When they’re on the road they seek out the comforts of the familiar—malls and Big Boy restaurants. Even for Casanova, it’s the comfort of a masked ball.
CC He took his world with him.
CG He wanted the best of both situations where you feel like you’re changing, but nothing changes.
CC Yes. Evelyn’s dilemma is the fact that change is happening. She’s in her early fifties. When you think of her generation and the generation before and everything they’ve seen, I don’t know how they’re all sane. And, of course, some of them aren’t. When some members of my family were born there were no automobiles and now we have the Challenger and we’re giving out condoms in high school.
CG All of which is enough to keep one moving. As Evelyn says, “We used to be nomads. It kept your mind off of it. Your husband says it’s time to leave and you leave. You don’t have to find a reason to go on.” So travel functions as a way of keeping busy and distracting yourself. What do you think people want to distract themselves from?
CC Essential questions for which there are no answers anymore since the church has finally completely died. Questions about senseless death, about losing a child. In America, we don’t invest in structure for fear of being trapped. Consequently, it’s very difficult to know what to teach your children. Absolutely every single thing is questioned. You just can’t give your child something and go, “Believe in this.” Essential human emotions and motives, the very nature of the human beings, are all questioned. Love of parents is tainted with the tremendous amount of knowledge we have about the amount of child abuse. And we should know all these things, but it’s difficult figuring out a way to give values to the next generation so that they feel they are living in some place where human beings are worthwhile.
CG Earlier plays like Native American and A Conversation with Georgia O’Keeffe seem very much concerned with defining a national culture. O’Keeffe insists she’s an American painter. “I am an artist. Period. I am not a woman artist or a female artist or any segregated term except ‘American.’ I’m an American artist.” Your more recent plays are European in the case of Casanova and intergalactic in Lost Formicans. What does this shift represent to you?
CC For a while, I was very concerned about being American because it seemed as though people around me were less interested in that and didn’t want to claim themselves as Americans. When I moved East, I was called an “Amurican” by New Yorkers, meaning I’m not from New York. It’s important for every artist to deal with who they are in terms of nationality, your country, family. I don’t know if that’s gone away or not. Being an American is an epic thing to be.
CG Depictions of androgyny and cross-dressing appear frequently in your work. Arleta comments on her daughter Eugenia’s style of dress: “How many men do you know who are attracted to women who work as garage mechanics? Who wear men’s shirts with the sleeves torn out of them?” Bobo, a transvestite in Casanova, is one of your more vivid characters. These are characters very concerned with transcending gender. Do you think people can transcend gender?
CC I wanted to transcend gender and finally decided it was impossible for me. But I think gender can be transcended.
CG And you think it’s desirable?
CC I don’t think you have to live there all the time, but to be able to get out it is really necessary to have full relationships. I didn’t really want to be a girl. But my father or mother never once said to me, “Girls don’t do that.” I never heard that in my house. They raised me to not think about those things. Obviously, when I hit puberty and hit the world, it was just horrifying. So it comes out of my own biography to an extent. My mother died when I was nine. Six months later, I had my first period and at the end of the year, I was wearing like a 32B bra that looked like it was made by a sail maker. I was mortified. Agnes de Mile talks about being encased in flesh after puberty and that’s exactly how I felt. I felt like my body had betrayed me. I stopped growing, stayed at 4-foot-9-and-3/4- inches and I ended up looking like my mother. But no one had prepared me for it. I started wearing my hair really short. I’d put on several t-shirts to cover up my breasts because I just couldn’t take the abuse for having them. I wore flannel shirts and blue jeans and tried to remain a cowboy. My friend Jim and I would go out together and people would ask me if I were a boy or a girl, and I was really flattered by that. Now I’d be upset, but at that point it was really cool for me to be considered a boy. And Jim would periodically answer whatever he felt like, “She’s a boy. He’s a girl.” It took me a long time to come to terms with being female. So part of the idea of transcending gender came out of my own struggle. I felt trapped in gender. As a child, I had felt tremendous freedom. Although other kids excluded me from things because I was a girl, or expected me to do some things because I was a girl, in my own house, my parents never gave it any credence. I knew that those people were wrong. So it was very traumatic to suddenly become this other, incredibly female person. I knew that I was the same person inside and, of course, that’s all it took to ask myself these essential questions. There’s a mutual recognition between myself and those characters, an instant equality, because we’re at the same political place in the world.
CG It’s also an inherently theatrical world. A world full of masks and costumes. A world in which the world’s most famous seducer falls in love with a girl who’s passing herself off as a castrato.
CC In Casanova’s Memoirs, the things I was drawn to were the androgyny things. And he was, too.
CG I don’t think you can choose to focus so much on one thing, that one thing being sex, and not push those boundaries as far as possible. Otherwise, you would’ve gotten bored quicker. Maybe there’d only have been six volumes. What function do you see your plays having?
CC Oh boy. Being a creative writer there’s a need to speak. In an atavistic way, it’s what people used to do late at night or after drugs or alcohol. They would speak their history or sing their song. That need is very strong in me. I hope that my plays are connected in a spiritual way to something true and ancient and real and lasting. That’s what I search for.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.