Jon Robin Baitz by Stephen Gaghan

BOMB 85 Fall 2003
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Jon Robin Baitz. © 1988 Rob Morrow.

Robbie Baitz is a little bit of a communist in the way that Tolstoy was a little bit of a communist. He is fascinated by the backside of power and, I believe, could be as precise and loquacious in ripping Napoleon a new one as Count Leo ever was. From his very first play, The Film Society , set in a South African boarding school, to his two latest plays, The Paris Letter and Chinese Friends, Baitz has looked at systems: systems in turmoil, systems in decline, systems losing the battle of self-perpetuation, systems waiting for a good idea to sweep them away. In his cosmology, systems are the opposite of love. Communication and connection and moment by moment truth-seeking are the goal, and the false idols placed before this duty must be swept away, shredded, incinerated, the ashes scattered and then burned again.

Baitz is a nihilist in the service of love. He is also a conversationalist without peer, a throwback to the time of, say, Talleyrand, when words mattered, really mattered, when the skill of speaking concisely and melodiously, being read and heard simultaneously, could take you from drawing rooms to running Europe—this is how Robbie speaks. He is tousled and boyish, but not professionally so. He is generous as a friend and ruthless in the protection of his time. He has recently moved from New York to Venice, California, and purchased the perfect home. He has been a professional playwright for 20 years and sometimes it seems he knows everyone on planet Earth. He is a kind person, and this kindness spills all over his work. His characters, often towering figures who have dominated the lives of those around them, builders of systems and believers in their own mythologies, are pilloried, sure, but pilloried with affection, pilloried with kindness, pilloried with love. Robbie Baitz: Pillory with love and then just love.

Stephen Gaghan Isn’t it funny that when we’re in town we have lunch or dinner at Cora’s Diner three times a week, and now that we’re supposed to have a conversation—not converse, but have a conversation—for BOMB, we’ve resorted to email.

Jon Robin Baitz Because we have both been otherwise engaged for the past month, you in trying to put together the pieces of a new movie, me trying to cast a play and write a play, we have definitely lost the face-to-face pleasures of talk with pauses, shrugs, smiles, frowns, and the sounds of teaspoons stirring sugar into coffee cups as backdrop and punctuation.

SG I think as I write these questions I’ll pretend you’re sitting across from me drinking coffee in one of Cora’s bland ceramic mugs. Robbie, you’re a deeply moral writer. Like Edward Albee, weirdly, if Albee were Jewish and un-straight. Yet your work is marked by the absence of true believers, and while there is rarely the unqualified statement, there is often the startlingly unqualified question. I’m thinking, by way of example, of the exchange in The Paris Letter where Sandy says to Anton, “Don’t you get tired of living your life so utterly prescribed within the narrow confines of a sexual delineation for your entire identity?” To which Anton retorts, “Don’t you?” and then accuses Sandy of a kind of bastardized assimilation—a beautiful phrase, but the economy of this exchange suggests a deep understanding of both sides of the street … what you get from being the only Jewish kid at an Anglican boarding school in South Africa.

JRB Writing is such a dangerous avocation, when it comes to your image of yourself. Moral playwright. Queer playwright, slickster, hipster, schtickmeister, pedant. The connotations upset me: sententious, lecturing, hectoring, scolding, etc. I am a confused playwright. I am, yes, homosexual, but find heterophobia as prevalent as homophobia. Not a moral writer, please. An uncomfortable one. I want to run medicine and food and cash and DVDs and peanut M&Ms to the rebels, not write plays. (Too squeamish for guns.) Edward admirably declines to be relegated to the flaccid role of gay playwright. He is impelled by foggier lenses, more jagged edges. And I like that. Plus I guess we share an interest in language and power and families, don’t we?

My Jewishness is pretty much only lit-cult Jewishness at this point, I think. Most organized religions give the impression to me of a disfiguring pedestrian bafflement: deficient and sodden, Not Good Enough. My Jewishness is by way of a tribal recognition of the irony and whistling in the dark of Babel, Kafka, Roth, Bellow (not late ossified Bellow, but early exuberant Bellow). Jewish in that sorrow and its handmaiden, paranoia, rule over the heart so ruthlessly.

Regarding what happens on both sides of the street, I have no faith in certitude, either moral or intellectual. Sexuality is fluid and fungible, but in The Paris Letter, the adamant positioning of the two men in question, their lifelong duel/love affair does equal damage to both. The self-ghettoization and repression works both ways. In that play, one man, Sandy, has shut out his impulse to love and have a sexual life with other men and, in the 40-year span of the play, rives himself with despair, has a loving and entirely platonic marriage and assimilates himself into a sort of monied morbid dignity in a strata of New York society, resulting in suicide, murder, financial ruin. Sexual repression will do that, won’t it? His opponent, Anton, has made do with the pleasures of a fabulous sybaritic life of fucking, of food, booze, friendship, romance and gentle civility, so that now in his third act he goes home alone every night to some kind of lacquered red chinoiserie furniture, probably, a cat named Thomas, perhaps, and anticipation of the next time his services are needed as a walker on the arm of New York society ladies. He has friends, he says, and a little pin money, and he seems scared to death.

How to live? I ask, how, please, someone tell me. Honestly, quietly, affectionately, sure. But how? I write from doubt and confusion, inchoate stuff only coalescing on the page. I know so little and suspect so much. People speak. People test the waters with words and with verbal stunts. Language is so often about dominance, isn’t it? Belief takes vast reserves of energy and is a draining and perpetual act of will. Being gay; okay—in that play there’s the looming presence of an old age spent alone. Nobody to witness, side by side, no children to bustle through with grandchildren, and maybe that’s all changing now—maybe—but on the other hand, personally, I am slightly left cold by the adaptation to overtly heterosexual models, the aping desire for licenses and rings (I am talking about the need for rituals invented by others, not the obvious right to totally equal protections under the law).

SG I believe the marriage model is outdated. To run after it seems to me like racing to catch the last steamboat from Saint Louis to New Orleans. I wish we could just put a stake in the whole ossified Christian ritualized marriage-before-God bullshit and start actively, without supernatural deities being invoked, seeking another methodology. Throughout your work humor comes from the recognition that one’s ideals might possibly, when no one was looking, have slid into remission. Do you feel you live up to the ideals your characters often, in beautiful subtext, deride each other for having failed?

JRB No. No. But nor do I take a totally Lutheran view of it. Nor Miltonian. Nor Zen. I live up to personal obligations as best I can; I live up to the really rather joyous task of being responsible toward the people I love. When I fail at that, which is often, I make amends. Because I love the little family I’ve made. My characters, however, tend to live in guilt and rancor over their contorted rationalizations, their diminution of power and grace. They tend to live in disappointment at the shocking extent of their failure. (Or else they find their earlier naïveté hugely comic and contemptible. I am obsessed by sensitive men who turn hard in response to the pain they feel at being sensitive.) They wake up from numbness to excruciating existential pain. And then they adjust. I do not. I am fueled by self-disgust, but I am not ruled by it. It’s not that I think every position has an opposite, nor is it that I believe in balance, but rather that life prepared me, by way of a combination of factors ranging from—yes—being the dark-haired American adolescent Jewish homosexual at an all blond, all blue-eyed white South African boy’s school in the 1970s, and dripping in complicity with the apartheid regime, to being the privileged son of corporate multinational parents, all the foreignness, LA and New York—yo-yoing for a life of deep ambivalence. Gay, Jew, moralist, stricken, romantic, whatever; I want to be sure of my own guilt before I pronounce the guilt and innocence of anyone else.

SG You write women beautifully and I am convinced that every man who can write women beautifully is borrowing something of his own mother’s voice. As a further goad to this non-question, I’ll say that perhaps my favorite scene in The Paris Letter takes place between young Sandy, who is having his first love affair with a man, and his mother, Lillian, who has come into Manhattan to give him diamonds that he can cash in to pay for the therapy that will cure him of the homosexuality that she is only beginning to suspect. In the most offhand way, she mentions her cousin, who was rather public in his eccentricity and was given shock treatments. He hung himself in a boathouse. Mothers and sons, veiled murderous impulses. Is it possible your own mother is something of a muse?

JRB Yes, she is. I don’t know how to answer this. My mother is very much alive, and my job is to not make trouble. Mrs. Baitz is changing, at age 73, a widow, suddenly having to take care of herself, impressing the hell out of me, while I still worry about her. She recently asked me if I had ill feelings toward her, which were discernible; she inquired of me whether I knew if I might sometime “stop writing these women” who might be sort of like her. Ten Unknownsjust played in LA at the Taper, and she went with all her friends. They were concerned enough that we had to have this big talk. She demanded to examine a particular scene where the character refers to his mother as “a cunt,” and then work through the earlier plays. It was light, but it was somewhat threatening to me. I tried to remain calm, because truthfully, she has a point. You know, we do use these people in ways that sometimes I think we don’t fully understand. “Fiction,” I explained, “is a kind of totalitarianism, a land where children are demigods and parents are powerless. Nothing is as it seems, nothing literal makes its way into …” and so on. She didn’t buy it.

But yes. She has contributed vastly to my personality; both of us struggling to understand, struggling to fit in, both believers in makeup, and sometimes she takes to her bed for long periods. Fragile to a fault. I share some of these tendencies and have made good and bad use of them in fiction. She’s not so much a muse as she is a half-me.

But 41 is not 14. The adult vagaries begin to solidify and the outline of weakness becomes fixed and hard. So you recognize and concede: a hard life. She was unloved by her own mother, which hits very hard, not just unloved, but tormented, lots of woes and trauma and brutality, and she developed some very necessary but very unproductive means of survival; an occasionally very sly little girl in a grown-up body. I love her. She’s struggled and done well, and tried to make amends. I protected her quite a bit from herself when I was little and even that didn’t protect her from herself. She had very formidable storms inside. And generationally, she had somewhat limited options, perhaps. She recently told me, over one of our quiet dinners (Monday nights at a hamburger place), that she hadn’t been a good mother when I was a child, but she thought she was now. I smiled. I’m 41. It felt quite good and sort of funny. “Now?” I said. “Now?” She shrugged and had a sip of her Campari and soda. There was so little to say. I’ve written this thing a few times about mothers, my thought being that they can give their sons a particular kind of courage or belief in themselves that fathers are almost chemically incapable of providing to their sons until they are a little older. And by then? I think I definitely felt at times that I was at risk of dying and there was somewhere another way to live. Now we can have hamburgers and I can take her to the movies and she can make me laugh. I’m still scared of her. But she’s very kind, and she’s got a lovely nature, and I swear to god, I’ll miss her terribly when she’s gone. Muses are so rare.

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Jonathon M. Woodward and Patrick Breen in the West Coast premiere of Ten Unknowns by Jon Robin Baitz, directed by Robin Eagan, at the Mark Taper Forum, April 2003. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

SG I suppose I was being a little, I don’t know, veiled, with the mother question and that’s a beautiful answer, particularly about the type of courage they give us. When I began writing, the first thing I wrote, if I remember correctly, was a one-act play. And I wanted to be a playwright. This is when I was seven or eight. I told my mother my idea and she said, “My, it sounds wonderful, it really does, but please wait until I am dead.” After months of hemming and hawing I agreed. But then what happened is by failing to write the thing and perhaps expunge or exhume and rebury some of it, instead I bury her voice into everything I write. I’ve only recently noticed this, but the voice is so varied and southern and idiosyncratic and land-poor and land-rich and aristocratic and anachronistic and more interesting than most of what I hear today, I’m just endlessly in her debt, and although I’ve never told her that, she tells me all the time.

Next question. What does it mean to have ideals today when so much of cultural esteem seems to flow directly from the power that comes from money?

JRB That you’re dumb. Power flows from money. Ever was it thus. And it’s easy to lose sight of the people working for justice, for human rights, for the written word, against wage slavery, etc. But they’re there, and they’re all around us. In Major Barbara, George Bernard Shaw tied philanthropy to the fortune of an arms manufacturer. John D. Rockefeller anonymously funded hospitals and colleges but is remembered as an oil titan, not a Samaritan. My ideals have to do with stuff like spending/raising money for the arts and protecting artists. It’s where I feel useful, effective, happily, dreamily idealistic. There is, in The Paris Letter, this thing where the corrupt sociopathic young money manager/crook dreams of being André Malraux. He dreams of making America beautiful much in the way that Malraux, when he was the French Minister of Culture, had buildings in Paris cleaned. Facades matter, you know. He is me, striving for subversion, with a dream of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. (He gets distracted along the way by the abiding need to have an Eric Fischl painting, a loft on Duane Park, movie-star clients and a parrot. He can’t help it: he is of our time.)

Also, I toy with a little daydream about Crime and Punishment so as to shake the rats out of the palm trees; all white-collar criminals whose mischief has resulted in the breaking of the backs of the less fortunate. The Ken Lays, the WorldCom guys, the Global Crossing people, are publicly ruined and humiliated beyond repair, broken forever, all assets seized, they are shamed and cowed and no damn jailhouse conversions to the Lord for them. They never get forgiven. They are like Prometheus, chained to rocks, livers pecked by eagles.

SG I must say I disagree here. The public humiliation of the Ken Lays is a bread and circus thrown to the masses so that they don’t revolt and begin sharpening the guillotine. Their assets aren’t seized; they remain richer than you could ever imagine. They do not do significant jail time, that’s for the sucker, penny-ante guys like Waksal. No, the big guys have been spreading the love since the time of Nixon, his pals, his deregulation posse that made all the shenanigans possible. Those guys are still in power, have been in power since Eisenhower was freaking out about them, and they not only forgive, they brush under the rug. Ken Lay, for instance, will have a half billion dollars stashed away, his untouchable homes in Florida and out of the country, and he will lie dormant for a couple of years, but then he will return by giving money quietly, he will return by raising money publicly, he will start appearing on lists of “pioneers” or “crusaders” or “Argonauts” or whatever they’re calling them, people who have raised a billion dollars for whatever political party is their affiliation, and then he will be back on boards of directors and running the family private equity fund and dancing in the coconut bra at Bohemian Grove with Kissinger on the tambourine. No, the amazing thing about our acquisitive class is they so embody our most powerful dreams that we forgive them almost immediately and rehabilitate them even before they are sentenced. Watch, just watch, how Ken Lay is let off the hook. It’s happening already.

JRB Yes, I agree with you totally. But when you and I run the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and carry out a night of the Long Knives; when that happens, well, you know, when … but in the meantime we’re just these fucking writers.

SG Robbie, you prefer not to be labeled, but at the same time, in your work, which is fast approaching a Large Body of Work, it seems there is a consistent, underlying message, which is people should at least try to be loving and honest and if they aren’t, then Old Testament style ravages will befall them pronto. This strikes me as moral, even deeply moral, and not such a terrible label anyway, but remember I’m from Kentucky.

JRB Fair enough. It’s not terrible, but I sometimes worry about being a snooze-fest.

SG You have two new plays. The Paris Letter feels to me like a finished Major Work of American Theater, while Chinese Friends is still evolving. Did one jump out fully formed while the other is more experimental in nature? What is the influence of the collaboration with directors and producers, the first readings? How much will a work change from its maiden voyage out of the typewriter to its debut at, say, the Taper?

JRB The Paris Letter is concerned with the survivors, the benefactors and the victims of a sexual revolution, and was banging around in my head for a couple years; not one word on paper, not even the title, which I already knew would refer to an apologia written by an exiled American who has caused almost infinite pain for the people he loves back home in the States. So the ideas were there, or rather, the money part of the play was; the sexual part came later. Initially there was a pull to write “about”—a word I mistrust; it relies too heavily on cogency and the literal in order to sustain its support, so then I was compelled to “explore” the flow and ebb of currency, power and the diseases that thrive in the tidal pools around dough. To have fun with the turn-of-the-century criminals in full play—the divisions in New York growing more apparent all the time, along with the almost autistic indifference of a generation or two of overfed Manhattanites. There had been a fascinating case of a young money manager who bilked celebrity clients, movie people mostly; movie people with attention deficit disorders, to be precise. And that story, sort of like Trollope’s London society in The Way We Live Now.

For me, though, plays are ignited by scraps of conversation drifting into range when I’m not paying avid or particularly conscious attention. Something must bother me before I can summon the concentration necessary to write a play and see it through. I had been somewhat elliptical or cautious about sexuality in my work. And it had started to bother me. So there it is. I’m colicky about what I’ve dodged and why, comfortable in the fiscal/systemic part of the equation, uncomfortable when it came to the drives and fires underneath. What are people? A collection of their actions, over their words, really. (With writers, often their actions are their words.) So I was mulling over all that, and trying to arrive at an entry point. A pal reported a conversation he’d had; he wanted to hire someone to work for him, someone with impeccable qualifications, and when he told his business partner (they’re both gay), the partner inquired, “Are you fucking him?” My friend hotly responded, “You know, I can have relationships with men that do not involve fucking.” Silence as the partner mulled that possibility over, considering. “Can you?” he asked. “Hmm.”

And it found its way as a bit of sound collage into my planned play. During the same period I had just read The Gay Metropolis, a short, sharp articulate study of gay life in New York, as well as Martin Duberman’s Cures, after NPR’s This American Life did a breathtaking piece called “81 Words,” about de-pathologizing homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual—the measure of “normalcy” used by shrinks. I had thought there was a play about psychiatrists in it, but then realized I had no interest in psychiatrists, just patients caught in a political struggle. And I was writing about money, and I had no time to start anew. The two things sort of came together in my head as I was lying in bed. I got up in the morning and started to write. Four weeks later I had a draft.

As for Chinese Friends, I wrote the first draft in three weeks. Flat out. This play explores the secret language of men in power. The presumption of almost all ideology, the bruising failure of the left to match the savagery and cunning born of the marriage between the neo-cons and the far right, i.e., Wolfowitz and Perle in bed with Ashcroft, Pat Robertson, et al. The play takes place sometime not too far in the future and imagines a failed, ousted left regime (a futuristic Carter administration, but with a Machiavellian staff of pragmatists) who are now plotting their return. And it’s supposed to be a dark game. The play. A black entertainment with some razor-sharp turns. Figuring out the mechanics of such a play is very hard to do—whereas The Paris Letter essentially is what it is.

It’s always different. I like workshops. Rewriting and having the generosity of smart actors who are willing to leap in and try to make sense, and help you make sense, of the patterns and narratives, the secrets in the thing—very helpful. I’ll do this a couple times, try not to run dry on it, and then see what sticks. Put it up. Throw your bread upon the waters. And always I remind myself that plays lead to other plays.

SG You once said, “I’ll keep writing about the decreasing power of the individual and the increasing responsibility of the individual. I’m in pursuit of something, and it’s a long-term notion.” I hope I know you well enough now to finally ask: What does this mean?

JRB The giant American distractions have vanquished dissent (middle-class dissent, say). In this country we now have an unbridgeable divide, a gulf between the interested and the indifferent. Unfazed by the Actual, the Real, desensitized to the point of complicity with a government that is operating outside the law, trampling the constitution, for instance. The responsibility of the individual: if nobody asks how many civilian casualties there were in Iraq, if those faces are not in the New York Times as prominently as “Portraits of Grief” (the little thumbnail bios of Sept 11 victims), well, all these abdications, which are natural, just human nature, are able to accrue with more and more consequence because stakes are so high now. All things around the globe are connected. I am thinking of the news—profit centers for the most part—whether they acknowledge that or not (and most do) when it comes to most of the major outlets. Just as all politics are local, so too is all numbness global now. I think humans feel a lot less than we give ourselves credit for. I think we can turn away from a lot more than we can bear to acknowledge. Who today at CNN, AOL/TimeWarner, the networks, the Times— who is taking on John Ashcroft’s Justice Department? The INS and their paramilitary operations? Who in the mainstream media today is really tearing into the thorny problem of Dick Cheney and Halliburton and the war machinery and the money? Our human numbness feels more and more to me like a fatal ironic demonstration of character as fate; what fate awaits the becalmed and bloated? It’ll end badly. Good Germans, all of us, to one degree or another, but complicit.

SG It seems like you’re constantly going back to South Africa metaphorically.

JRB It keeps coming back to me. The segregation, my own comfort level there, the merging and clash of racial politics with sexual politics, an identification with the oppressed and the oppressor all at once. Had I grown up in LA, I’m afraid I would have been a television writer of a particular sort. But South Africa made me who I am. Being party to, not mere witness to, pure and simple state-run racism, the subjugation of entire peoples, is the genesis for my interest in how systems operate and how we lull ourselves into letting them operate with impunity. I write about that as much as I do parents and children; they’re exactly the same thing.

SG In your work you have questioned the meaning or lack of meaning of same-sex sex and how to balance the pursuit of pleasure with graceful aging. I don’t mean to be coy, but as we head into our forties, does this discussion become more acute? Is it different for the straight community?

JRB Not coy. I think about this all the time. This discussion looms large. Sorry, but I miss things: the pleasure of watching a child grow up, pride in having passed something along, added to what’s good in the world. (Who cares about plays and movies?) You have two beautiful children, and one of the things I love to do is go with you and your son for pizza. It feels so damn comfortable. Now, as for Children. Of course now being gay doesn’t preclude having children anymore. Personally I worry about bringing up a child by myself. It’ll have to be soon. I hope I keep working and have love and friends, family as it were, all around me. I imagine myself as some sort of beneficent philosopher king, no longer Hamlet, but Prospero at the end, all forgiven, all amends made, bitter melded with sweet. Rage subdued, fairness restored. Dispensing gifts and reconciliation and truth. Boring people to tears. Curtain.


—Stephen Gaghan is a writer and director whose feature scripts include Rules of Engagement and Traffic, for which he won the 2000 Academy Award, Golden Globe, Writers Guild of America Award, and British Academy Award. He wrote and directed the film Abandon (2002),and his new film Syriana is in preproduction at Warner Brothers, with George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh producing. Gaghan won the 1997 Emmy for Best Dramatic Writing for an episode of NYPD Blue. His fiction and essays have appeared in Esquire, the Iowa Review, the New York Times, and Newsweek.

Paula Vogel by Mary Louise Parker
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This year Paula Vogel amassed a small mountain of awards for her new play How I Learned to Drive, which premiered at the Vineyard Theatre, directed by Mark Brokaw. Like much of Paula’s work, it handles brutal themes in a seductive, almost musical way, winning the audience with truth and irreverent humor.

Alfred Uhry by Paul Rudd
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Uhry’s first play, Driving Miss Daisy, won a Pulitzer Prize. His Obie-nominated play, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, is a poignant and hilarious encounter with an Atlanta family of German-Jewish descent just before the outbreak of WWII.

Constance Congdon by Craig Gholson
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Epic hardly begins to describe the scope of Constance Congdon’s plays. Her first play had 30 scenes and 57 characters.

Originally published in

BOMB 85, Fall 2003

Featuring interviews with Sol Lewitt, Vera Lutter and Peter Wollen, Rikki Ducornet and Laura Mullen, Edward St. Aubyn and Patrick McGrath & Maria Aitken, Jon Robin Baitz and Stephen Gaghan, Gina Gershon and Dave Stewart, EL-P and Matthew Shipp, and Suzanne Farrell.

Read the issue
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