John Ford Noonan by Stuart Spencer

“You can’t be great when you value greatness, when greatness, rather than the fulfillment of your talent, is your aspiration.”

BOMB 28 Summer 1989
028 Summer 1989
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John Ford Noonan. © 1989 by Nancy Noonan.

John Ford Noonan’s new play, A Critic and His Wife, gave me the opportunity to discuss with him some of the ideas and feelings behind his writing. We met in his apartment as he was midway through spring cleaning—half the place was pristine and tidy, the other half a colossal mess of manuscripts, books, and winter clothes.

Stuart Spencer There’s probably a playwriting adage somewhere that says if you write a two character play, the two characters have to be very different. How are the critic and his wife different?

John Ford Noonan Well, he’s practical and she’s intuitive. He wants to write this novel as his dream. He has an idea how things should be but you can’t be great when you value greatness, when greatness, rather than the fulfillment of your talent, is your aspiration.

SS When you say “practical,” do you mean intellectual as opposed to emotional?

JFN Yeah. I think the thing that really centers the play, for me, is that he wants to be familiar in the world, and she wants to be intimate. She keeps saying “This is a room we must be honest in.” That’s the key for me. She wants, through all the writing and everything, to be intimate with him, and he wants to stay familiar, which is at hands-off distance. Everything he does is about that. He hides behind the writing, he won’t admit his anger.

SS You, the writer, are angry in this play also.

JFN Well, I must say I really get mad when I see familiar art that pretends to be intimate. You see it in commercial movies. They want to be familiar and fraternal and chatty, and it’s not intimate at all; it’s not personal. It’s a bunch of bull, and it really gets me angry. It’s where emotional strings are being pulled in the audience rather than the truth being told by the material.

SS How do critics respond to that sort of thing?

JFN Critics are fooled. I think the personal and the intimate scares them, and the familiar and the cerebral turns them on. And that makes me real angry. I don’t know what to say about it.

SS Then where does the critic’s obligation lie?

JFN I think the awful part is, critics pick people they think are worth promoting. If they can’t figure you out and, pick up on your beat, they don’t promote you. I just did a play in LA with Richard Jordan, called My Daddy’s Serious American Gift, that I think is really wonderful. I mean, I’m sure it has flaws and needs more work, but it’s just a wonderful, spirited play: the little kid trying to save her father from destroying himself. And the LA Times critic, who’s liked previous work of mine that was much less interesting, was thrown by where this play came from. It was as if you walked into the house dressed as me: I would find it really fascinating, but most people would go, “What the fuck’s he doing?” And yet, it’s still Stuart and it’s still your feelings.

SS So you came in with a new set of clothes.

JFN Yeah. It threw her and it made her real uncomfortable. ’Course, my problem is, I come away terribly hurt from all the rejection. I mean, I want to be liked, and so the whole thing gets really confused.

SS The way you’re talking, you don’t write because you want to be liked.

JFN No, no, no, of course not. But a really good critic evaluates in terms of the material—accepts it on its own terms and judges it in its own terms. If I say, “I’m Stuart Spencer and I run a hundred-yard dash in 11 seconds,” that’s what the review’s about. You can’t say he was supposed to climb the mountain. You can’t say he was supposed to pick his nose. You can’t say he was supposed to masturbate. The artist defines his own terrain, and then you decide how well he enveloped or inhabited his own world. You can’t decide you don’t like the world. That’s the thing that’s so incompetent and wrong about them.

SS So their obligation is really to the material.

JFN Yeah.

SS Do you ever approach a subject that you are very interested in, and then find yourself dealing with it intellectually and not emotionally?

JFN No, I do the reverse. I think sometimes I’m too emotionally into it and I forget the intellectual part. I mean, when I write about something, I’m emotionally compelled by it. If I’m not, I can’t write about it.

SS So if you are anyone in this play, A Critic and His Wife, it’s the wife.

JFN Yes. But I also like the critic a lot. I like these “stiffs,” as I call them. I’m not put off by them. In fact, I got the idea for this play when I used to do plays with Joseph Papp. I did a lot of openings and I’d see these guys hanging out. And they’re really lost. I can watch their eyes and see they are. And they all collude, they all want to make sure they’re right. They’re like a bunch of overweight fraternity guys who want to be hip. I mean, that’s all cheap stuff, but spiritually it’s true. What they don’t understand is that the person who’s creating this stuff is laying his ass on the line. I mean, it’s his life. And you’d think it was a salad they didn’t prefer.

SS Aside from the observations you’re making about art and the creation of art, the play is also personal.

JFN I’m gonna be honest to you—there’s two sides of me. I love to be intimate, but I have a terrible problem with it, and I basically prefer the familiar. So I put my two sides in operation, you know. I mean, I’m having a terrible struggle in my own life with it right now. I like to be at a certain hand’s-off distance. And yet, when I write I seem to be able to break through that, but in life I’m having a horrible time. I mean, no one ever comes up to this apartment much. I’m trying to work on it, you know. It’s very, very powerful stuff. I’m not gonna make like I’m a hermit. But I just like loud bars and lots of music. But what I really need is something like a friend who can just sit around and talk with me. So I get very conflicted. And that’s where the play comes from. I hate to admit it, but it’s true. The critic wants to walk through the park and have people admire him. And there’s a part of me that’s the same, and I don’t like it.

SS Because that’s merely familiar.

JFN Yeah. Everyone saying “Oh, there goes Big John, aha, he wrote this play I really like.” The truth is, though, you have to have the other side, too, and that’s what the play’s about.

SS You’ve split yourself into your two parts.

JFN Yes.

SS Did you consider it a feminist piece?

JFN I don’t know what that means. Either you’re a person or you’re not a person. I mean, feminism is an important issue, but it’s not a person. It’s a political stance, you know? An actress who once read the part said when the woman got mad at the man and hit him, that her feminism couldn’t allow that. I said, If you get pissed off at anybody, you hit ‘em. You deal with it later, you know? I mean, I don’t go around hitting people that are smaller than me, but that impulse is certainly in me, and I can put it on the stage and nothing’s wrong with it. She was just prejudging it. Maybe something scared her.

SS When you run into that problem in a production, what do you do?

JFN You must take responsibility—and I don’t do this very well—of saying, “You shouldn’t be in this play, because you can’t commit to what this is about.” See, that’s what casting is, finally, if anyone ever wants to know it: Typecasting is spiritual types. I could play Hamlet, even though I’m not talented enough, because I’m cerebral. Many great actors aren’t cerebral and can’t play it. If you haven’t got it, you can’t do it. Dustin Hoffman can’t do Death of a Salesman. There’s no sadness and loss in him at all. He’s all a winner, he’s all a little guy, always in the boat floating forward. He lacks the tragic side. I’m not putting him down, he’s a wonderful actor. But if you cast a play in which you’re spiritually wrong, then you can’t do it.

SS You’ve created this world in which the written word is not only read but is passionately received by its readership. People in the play come to depend on the critic and his wife for their insights into art and life, or both.

JFN More her than he. She becomes the female voice of downtown New York.

SS Now, can American society—even New York society—be realistically rendered this way? Or is that a fantasy?

JFN I think it’s a fantasy. I’m not sure. I mean, you’re giving me a look like you know an answer I don’t know.

SS I’m wishing it were real.

JFN It’s a dream. When she retires from writing for that one year, and they appear outside Sardi’s, chanting, “Please don’t go, please don’t go, we need you,” I do think we need words that badly, so I make up the fiction of it. And I believe in rock’n’roll the same way. There was a certain time in music, when it really was in your gut and hit in your heart. I don’t think it is much anymore, but it was once. And I think all the arts can be that, and I think if you don’t believe that you shouldn’t be in ‘em. I helped start a band once called Pinhead. When we’d come onstage we’d say, “If you don’t want to kill somebody, get outta here.” I mean, kill someone psychically.

SS In other words, just to admit what’s true.

JFN Yeah, if I say I want to kill you, I won’t have to. If you live what’s true, you don’t have to do anything. I think it’s the denial that makes everyone go crazy, you know.

SS Well, there’s the other side of the argument, which is that people really do desperately need words, but that they’re inundated by words that are of so little consequence that they begin to think that words are just intellectual devices. But if they really had people writing the way the wife is writing in the play, and if those people were taken away from them, they might really go out in the streets and yell and march up and down and say “Don’t stop writing those words.” So that part of the play is most real.

JFN Yeah, that’s my intention. The woman’s more my heart and my feelings and my voice, and the guy’s more me and my behavior.

SS The wife finds her life’s redemption in her writing, does she not?

JFN See, one of the things that happens in writing, when you’ve held a whole life inside it comes out in an incredible way. This play is actually based on a well-known critic and his wife. She left him, and having left him was very successful. But when I imagined the play I conceived of having to keep them together. The thing that was interesting about her was that a lot of females—or female spirits, it could be men, too—who hold in a long time…it’s like the thing with great writers whose second language is English. It’s so loaded up with importance, it’s so felt, it’s so important to them that they bring a whole kind of import to it. I mean, she’s writing essays like, “Tired of Not Being Touched Anymore” and “Shall We Kill Men?” All these thoughts that people carry, and she happens to be able to verbalize ‘em in an incredible way. But I think a lot of people have the gift that don’t let it out. A lot of people parade the gift who haven’t had it at all.

SS This discovery is not only her redemption, it also becomes a curse.

JFN Yes, because she can’t do it for that long. It’s the curse of fame. Fame is a conspiracy. She becomes so famous so fast that she becomes conscious of the obligation to make up another great thought next week, as opposed to say what’s going on. I mean, right now I’m going through a lot of personal pain and I’m very terrified. Now, that’s much more important to share with you than some highfalutin idea I can invent. When you become famous, there’s no space left for this kind thing, like: “I feel I really screwed up today, man, I can’t do it.” She has to write this essay every week. And finally she realized it’s burned her out, and that she has to get back to being ordinary. You’ve got to be ordinary to be extraordinary. The courage just to get up and not be Stuart Spencer or John Ford Noonan or David Mamet, or Frank Rich or Sam Shepard, or Shakespeare—just be a person getting up and eating a goddamn sandwich. And that whole thing gets really carried away in our culture. So she gets caught, and then she regains it again. She always will regain it, she has to have it. She needs the truth. A lot of people want to be good writers, a few need to. And she needs to, and he wants to, and that’s the problem.

SS Actually, I got something else. I didn’t feel that fame was her problem. I thought it was that she had invested so much into her art, into what we perceive as a noble attempt at becoming utterly honest and utterly truthful, that she ends up becoming like her husband.

JFN I think that’s the thing in the play that I really have to get into in the second half. One of the hardest things I find artistically is making two acts go together. It’s very hard. I think it’s a big moral, aesthetic question, which is, “Can people change?” A one-act has a single linear action toward a single end. So one-acts are about driven action, but two-acts and full-lengths are about complication and change. And a lot of people don’t believe in change. Or something in our culture just doesn’t accept it.

SS Somebody said that the difference between human beings and God is that God always wants things to change and human beings never do.

JFN That’s the whole struggle.

SS The universe is always changing, but we’re always holding onto the old.

JFN We want the known. I don’t want to change, but I have to. I want to write those kinda plays. They’re very hard to write.

Stuart Spencer is a playwright whose work appears at Ensemble Studio Theater.

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Originally published in

BOMB 28, Summer 1989

Featuring interviews with Patrick McGrath, Craig Lucas, Mary Ellen Mark, Isabel Toledo, Guy Gallo, Gary Indiana, David Kapp, Bobbie Ann Mason, Roland Legiardi Laura, John Ford Noonan, Roni Horn, and Richard Edson.

Read the issue
028 Summer 1989