I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Theater, traditionally, has been the place where social mores are thrown onto relief. Society—encompassing both the microcosm on stage and the audience off-stage—are there to look at themselves. Questions posed are not always questions answered. What resonates is the memory of questions; posed before the words were ever spoken. The characters in James McLure’s plays demand an emotional commitment from their audience, but catharsis, our release from their dilemma is suspended. Responsibility, purgation does not take place in the theater but remains as an act after the play is over.
Betsy Sussler Do you identify with the women characters in your plays? The first plays, Private Wars and Lonestar, were all men.
James McLure Private Wars was the first play and it was a three-man play about guys in an army veteran hospital recuperating from Vietnam wounds. Lonestar is about three guys in a small West Texas town—one a Vietnam veteran returning to this town and picking up the pieces of his life. But the companion piece to Lonestar is another one act play, Laundry and Bourbon, which is about the three women in the lives of the three guys. They’re two different acts, they don’t intermingle on stage. It’s male and female bonding. But in Lonestar one of the huge offscreen presences is the guy’s wife—she’s very, very important to the play because ultimately the play is about her and an affair that she has had with one of the characters on the stage.
BS She influences the play but her character is developed through the voices of the men.
JM Yes, and in the companion, she is a central figure. Light farce—I mean it is a comedy but it has substance to it.
BS You have a play that’s down at the McCarter theater in Princeton this month [January, 1983]?
JM The Day They Shot John Lennon … that play is about the crowd that formed outside of the Dakota after Lennon was shot, and within this crowd that you see on stage are several groupings of people who represent different cross sections of American types; there are five main groups on the stage who are responding to this event. One of the groups is three kids from Westchester County, affluent 16 or 17-year-old kids that have come in from the suburbs to be there. Another group is a guy and a woman in their early thirties, who had been to Woodstock and are strangers who meet there. There’s lines like … the woman from Woodstock has this great sense of rage: “We’re killing our artists, the people we really need. If anyone is going to change the world it’s going to be an artist, not a politician.” A great sense of feminist anger and ’60s anger, whereas the young girl from the suburbs also has an anger but it’s a completely unformed adolescent anger.
BS There’s no rhetoric to support it.
JM Right. One of the kids says, “I can’t believe it. I’ve been listening to this man’s music all my life, ever since 1975.” That’s as far back as it goes for them. Whereas, for the Woodstock people it goes all the way back to ’63, almost a decade. So it’s a whole different reference point.
BS Do you get obsessed with your characters?
JM No, but it’s an interesting word that’s coming into the vocabulary more and more. You especially see it in terms of the arts and artists where you see on the back cover blurb of a novel. “AN OBSESSIVE …” Well, I don’t know. I think something that’s obsessive isn’t healthy, because then you’ve lost perspective.
BS What I mean … When you act a character or when you become involved with a character, it’s a sense of being. There’s not a time lag between what you are and what that character is.
JM I don’t know that I do that. I like to keep a perspective on what this character objectively would and would not do. Especially, say with the John Lennon play where there are nine characters on stage, all with different points of view and opinions. It’s very important that you don’t load the deck on one character so much so that his or her opinions seem to hold sway or take precedence. There is one character in the play who is closest to me in opinions—the 30-ish woman who went to Woodstock—but even some of her opinions and perspectives are wrong or misguided.
BS And yours are always right.
JM That’s the point. Some of my opinions are obviously wrong or prejudicial. For instance, there are a group of Vietnam veterans on the stage as well and she gets into an angry confrontation with them because they are not responding to this event in the same way that she is—there’s a lot of miscommunication. Basically they’re talking about the same thing—that we should be living in a world in which no one is held back because of race, sex, or …
BS Do you think your plays are moral? Do you want morality in your plays?
JM Yes, they are always striving towards how to behave more decently as human beings—if that’s moral.
JM There’s a sense of emotional character involvement, and hopefully that’s the way the audience will relate to whatever the themes are. They will get emotionally involved in the characters rather than just sitting back in the audience and going, “Oh well, I agree with the argument,” or, “He has a good point.”
BS Do you think the act of writing gave you that objectivity you talk about because most actors do let themselves become obsessed with the character?
JM Maybe. I don’t know. Actors—they are not all like this but a huge number of modern actors feel that unless they become obsessed or so emotionally involved with their character that they almost drive themselves nuts, that somehow they aren’t doing their job.
BS That’s a pretty American way of acting.
JM Whereas, Stanislavsky always said that you have got to see where your character fits in the play and you are not doing your job as an actor unless you understand the entire play. You have to do that before you can figure out what you as one element of the ensemble are trying to do.
BS There is something that happens in acting. When you start rehearsing you’re blocking and reading the lines, but you are also acting them out and then comes that moment when everyone has just gotten their lines memorized … and all of a sudden you lose everything, and you have to start all over again which is actually where the actor is playing from moment to moment.
JM That’s a rather good way of putting it. When the play becomes a play rather than a series of individual performances or individuals worried about how am I doing, rather than how are we doing.
BS But that only comes when it’s been committed to memory. What part does memory play in your writing?
JM I don’t know. I keep a notebook and go back to look at things jotted down six months ago and realize, Yeah, that worked its way into the writing but I wasn’t conscious of that … You write down a dream that you had or something that you saw on the street and then you forget about it but it surfaces maybe six months or a year later in the work and it’s interesting to see where those echoes come from.
BS What about notebooks from six or seven years ago?
JM I’ve lost most of them. I have one from high school and another from college but those are so long ago it’s like going back to a different country or reading a different author.
BS You didn’t abruptly stop acting and start writing.
JM Three years ago I was out there on stage at The Public theater in a play called New Jerusalem by Len Jenkins, a great play and I had a great role in it but concurrently Lonestarwas opening in Louisville (at The Actor’s Theater) and it got great reviews and national press, so one day I flew down to see it and I was coming back through Pittsburgh and the plane got held up and I was 30 minutes late for curtain. I got to see my show that afternoon and be in a show that night but that was the last play that I acted in. After that Lonestar came to New York and I’ve just been concentrating on my writing.
BS What about directing?
JM I’ve only directed two of my plays. The other productions were strictly myself as playwright. There was a director there and his interpretation is the one that goes on the stage, not mine. I can make suggestions, but it’s ultimately the director that makes the play work—in his or her way, not mine.
BS And you must accept this, be able to let go.
JM That’s how the theater works, yeah. I mean, I could direct my own plays.
BS Do you want to?
JM Yes, on certain productions I do. I would kind of like to direct this production of Thanksgiving, but I didn’t want to direct the John Lennon play. It needed a lot of re-writing during rehearsals so it would have been too much work and also it’s a very directorial piece because there are nine characters on stage who, for a great deal of the play, don’t react. You need a very strong director to make that kind of static material work.
JM No, duologues and groups of characters talking—basically strangers who meet in a crowd and show a series of emotional connections through this event. I began to write the play because I was living across the street from The Dakota when Lennon was shot and for the next week I spent a lot of time in the park, observing and listening to people talking. Some of the dialogue that you heard among strangers was incredible. I saw a guy and a girl talking. They were about 31, early thirties, and the dialogue went something like this: the guy said, “Isn’t this terrible?” And she said, “Awful. Just disgusting. I couldn’t go to work today.” “Oh, me either.” “Where do you work?” “Oh, I work on the East Side.” “Oh, yeah? Really? So do I.” “I work in the seventies.” “Oh! I work in the eighties.” And suddenly it became a conversation about let’s go and have a drink.
BS Do you eavesdrop as a matter of course.
JM I think all writers do. You have to. It’s the only way you can really hear.
BS That’s what I was talking about when I brought up memory … how much you use.
JM Well, that’s the other thing. As a former actor, you’re trained to observe people and real human behavior so you can use that in your stage work.
BS It allows you to have compassion for just about anyone.
JM That’s the thing, because you realize there isn’t any character you can play without sympathy—all characters are sympathetic. There is a humanity in everybody that is important as an actor to discover. If you’re playing Richard III, even though he was a mass murderer, there’s still something very human about him and it’s your obligation to discover that. Playwrights of ideas are a problem for me because ideas are only interesting in so far as they come out of character, a character I can believe in or care about. For instance, I can think of a great piece of dramatic writing like Schulberg’s On the Waterfront but it could have been just a sociological text about corruption.
BS Do you have another play in mind now?
JM There’s one play that I’ve always wanted to write about Joe McCarthy. I don’t know that I’ll ever get around to it, it’s a very ambitious play. The trouble with McCarthy is that there are no sympathetic characters involved. They are a very shady lot. There are two characters in the John Lennon piece, two Vietnam veterans, who first appeared in my play Private Wars, and then they reappear a few plays later.
BS A Balzac trait …
JM In Private Wars, the time span is about 1974 or ’75, two years after the Vietnam War, and they are still recuperating in the VA Hospital; but now, in the John Lennon piece, we’re catching up with them in 1980. So it might be interesting to write a play about them in another three years. To see where it goes from there.
BS You have a commitment to your characters …
JM Well, two Vietnam veterans …
BS There are political connotations. Do you know many people who went to Vietnam?
JM I didn’t go; I had several high school buddies that went and it was interesting to see how their lives were ripped apart and how they came back and put it all together again …
BS Have they?
JM One of them has. And he deals with it with a great deal of black humor. I mean, he’s realty a funny guy—he can tell horrendous combat stories and make them funny.
BS Do you find yourself torn between cynicism and humanism?
JM Sure, I don’t see how you can be a thinking person in this society and not realize that we have serious problems in this country and the world that we don’t seem able to solve. One of the 17-year-old kids in the Lennon play screams out, “They’re going to blow up the whole world before we even have a chance to do it,” and one of the other kids says, “What do you mean? Do what?”
BS Blow it up.
JM (laughter) Yeah. And he says, “Well, whatever it is you do when …”
BS Have you ever had a situation where an actor has changed your lines substantially during a performance?
JM Through malice? (laughter) If somebody goes blank—any way they can get out of a situation you understand. There’s a great George Kaufmann line—he sent a telegram loan actor backstage, he said: “I was at the matinée today and noticed all of your improvements in the text. Please cut them.” In Lonestar, there was a moment where the actor said to me this is something that my grandfather always used to say and he told me the line and it meant a lot to him and it was approximately the same line I’d written—it was changing it but it was something the actor could really work with. In the printed version of the text I went back to my way but for the production, it was his little moment … if an actor has 35 little moments …
BS Have you ever wanted to act in your own plays?
JM Only in readings. There’s an advantage to that and a disadvantage. You cut yourself off from the possibilities of better choices. I know the line readings the way I would read them, but there might be better line readings, other things that I can’t hear. So the advantage of having another actor read them is that you have an option, you get two voices rather than one. Many times I’ll prefer the rhythm in my head but until I hear another actor work with it, I’m not sure.
BS There is a difference between writing for text, which is to be read, and writing to be performed.
JM Yeah, if you’re a good playwright you’re writing instinctively for the stage performance. You’re just going to have to rewrite it if you don’t. And again, it’s that old phrase of having a good ear. If you have a good ear for dialogue you’re way ahead of the game. Some playwrights draft—you were talking about someone like Mamet. Mamet is experimenting with language. Some of his plays, like Sexual Perversity in Chicago—he obviously used his good ear to recreate in a poetic way but still very much in the sense of this is the way people talk. Whereas you come to something like The Woods, and nobody talks like that but he was doing some special thing with language and it spurned the poetic possibilities of speech.
BS Do you have a preference? Which are you most interested in doing? Are you interested in both?
JM I’m more interested in capturing. Maybe it’s a cheap choice, but I’m more interested in capturing the language of the people. When you’re successful and really catch the way people speak, there is a vitality and a poeticism to it anyway. DeNiro, in Raging Bull, came up with a great malapropism—obviously something, knowing the way he works … I bet it was something he overheard. The scene was this: the first wife is cooking the steak and he keeps telling her, “You’re cooking it too much. You’re cooking it too much. I’m tellin’ yah, stop cooking it. You cook it too much, it defeats it’s own purpose.”
Betsy Sussler is Editor of BOMB and a filmmaker and actress in Off-Off Broadway.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee