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
“The characters that I create have to create their own happiness or search for their own happiness. It’s not given to them. They’re happy people, but they have to fight for that happiness.”
Dark and savage, wry and mordant, Keith Reddin’s sociocultural-political plays are slices of Americana gone bad. Plays such as Life and Limb, Rum and Coke, Highest Standard of Living, and Big Time have been produced at the Public Theater, Yale Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, Playwright’s Horizons, and EST. At the Manhattan Theatre Club, his most recent play, Life During Wartime, is at once his most brutal and most hopeful—a story of love and machinations at an Alarm Company interrupted by the increasingly twisted ruminations of John Calvin.
“The world is a terrible place filled with terrible people and I am one of those people. Sometimes I want to destroy everything that is beautiful and good.” —Tommy, Life During War Time
Craig Gholson Your work is so specifically American and yet the director you’re most closely associated with is Les Waters, an Englishman known for his work at the Royal Court and director of a number of plays by Caryl Churchill. How did that relationship come about?
Keith Reddin In 1985, the Public decided to do Rum and Coke. Joe Papp calls up and says, “It’s about time we start talking about directors. I’m going over to England and I’m going to give it to Les Waters.” I said, “Well, it’s specifically an American play. It’s about American history, and pop culture, and jargon, and cultural icons. I don’t know how he’s going to relate to it.” Joe Papp calls back about a week later and says, “I gave it to him. He liked it so he’s doing it. He’s the director.”
CG I didn’t meet Les until the first day of auditions, but it worked out that we got along great together. In some ways, his being British helped because he had an objectivity to the events and wasn’t bringing any political slant to it. Some people feel that it’s more European or English in that the productions are a bit removed. But both he and I like that.
CG Having seen you as an actor, when I read your plays, I hear them in your voice.
KR The writers that I’m attracted to most all had experience as performers, or continue to: Wally Shawn, David Mamet, Sam Shepherd. These were the people that were influencing and exciting me. And I don’t think it was an accident that they started out as performers and that they really loved acting and actors and were trying to write actor-pieces. That once they started working with a core group of people that connected with their work, they wanted to continue that relationship. I found that I do that myself. There is a number of people who’ve done four or five of my plays because they get it. I start writing for them as well as writing the ideas of the play. I start hearing it in their voices in addition to mine.
CG Although you acted in Throwing Smoke, I can’t recall your having acted in anything else of your own.
KR I think that was the only thing I ever acted in.
CG So, it’s a conscious decision not to act in you own work.
KR First of all, when it’s a new play, I don’t feel like I can wear both hats. I can’t watch the play and be in it at the same time because my energy and my focus is split. I just can’t do it. And secondly, whenever I do readings of my plays or read sections out loud, I hate it. I think they’re terrible. So I ran away from that.
CG But all the performer/playwrights you mentioned perform in their own work.
KR Maybe some day down the line when I feel confident enough about my writing and my performing. Or if the play has been done a number of times and I don’t have to worry about the text or I feel confident that this play can support a bad performance by myself, I will appear in it. Otherwise, I’m going to steer clear.
CG Do you ever want to direct?
KR That was the next thing I was going to say. There is no way. I think playwrights should not direct their own work. And constantly, time and again, this point is proven to me by playwrights that I respect who feel like they have to direct their own work.
CG However, one can understand why they make that choice—because they’ve been burned by bad productions.
KR There are very few good directors, but you just keep searching them out.
CG The ideal situation is to find a director that you can really establish communication with—like Beckett and Alan Schneider, A.R. Gurney and John Tillenger, Craig Lucas and Norman René—and then you get the best of both situations.
KR Like working with Les. You stick with it because you say, “We’ve got a line of communication and we’re lucky.” I got burned plenty of times, but I never felt like the next step was to take the reins. It’s just too many responsibilities in terms of having to be guidance counselor, psychoanalyst, set designer, and acting coach.
CG What’s your work process like? Do you take a long time?
KR I take a long time thinking about it, and doing a lot of reading, a lot of research. And then I write the play in about three weeks, very fast. There are some playwrights who write it in a weekend. Alan Ayckbourn thinks about a play for a year and then he writes it in two days. And I know some people who take months or years to write a play. I think about it and then it gets to the point where I can’t sit still and not write any more. For me, writing starts when I can’t not write anymore.
CG The majority of your plays are historical plays in that you set them within a specific point in history. Rum and Coke, for example, examines the Bay of Pigs invasion. Life and Limb deals with post-Korea America. What research does that entail?
KR For Rum and Coke, a lot because although it’s not a docudrama, it’s very factual. I had to find a lot of the background material in books on the Bay of Pigs. I went to the Museum of Broadcasting and looked at all the documentaries and news reports of that time. I interviewed a number of people. And I then wrote a play that was six hours long. (laughter) I had too much information. I wanted to write a play with fictional characters interacting historical characters. So it was a process of cutting down on the historical/factual and balancing that with the fictional play that I was writing.
CG For example, it’s a fact that the CIA funded prostitutes for Cuban freedom fighters in Guatemala.
KR That’s true. The most bizarre stuff in Rum and Coke is true. I tried to make up bizarre stuff, but I couldn’t. As I kept doing research, it kept getting weirder and weirder. I finally decided to have the CIA guys talk about the actual plans for assassination and disinformation, the crazy scene with LSD and hiring Mafia hit men to kill Castro…the CIA did the work that my imagination couldn’t compete with.
CG Did all this research convert you to any of the conspiracy theories?
KR I follow the Don DeLillo Libra scenario. (laughter) Rogue CIA-people using Oswald and having a double and then pinning it on him. And possibly on the Cubans, getting back at the CIA for trying to sabotage the Bay of Pigs operation.
CG You seem particularly fascinated with the CIA.
KR Who wouldn’t be?
CG I’m not.
KR To me, they represent the all-powerful operation that is post-war America. When we came out on top in 1945, that was called the beginnings of the American century. The CIA represents the good and bad about America—putting its finger in every pie, disrupting governments, keeping a watch on everyone and feeling that it was our position, if people got out of line, to disrupt that. To involve ourselves in other governments with the feeling it’s our role to stabilize the world order.
CG Destabilize the world order is more like it.
KR They represent what America’s been doing for the past 45 years.
CG Within your plays, the CIA does definitely represent a certain mindset, which might be termed clinical paranoia. I think that if one weren’t already paranoiac and read the body of your work, one might end up being paranoid.
KR Yes. But I think we all enjoy a good conspiracy. Again, in the playwrights that I’m influenced by and attracted to, that seems to be a similar theme. Richard Nelson has situations where things are not what they seem, they’re huge machinations by governments and forces at work that we begin to become aware of; and the English political playwrights like Howard Brenton, David Hare, and Trevor Griffiths. It’s all about individuals caught between these great powers and these great organizations that we barely know what they’re up to.
CG It’s much more European subject matter. There aren’t too many American playwrights that deal in that arena.
KR Most American playwrights write television. They don’t write plays.
CG But even someone like David Mamet doesn’t set his work within overtly political settings, or even within history, for that matter.
KR He did write his conspiracy play, which was The Water Engine, where a man has an alternative to gasoline and the big motor companies take him over and wipe him out and destroy him.
CG He wrote a conspiracy play, you write conspiracy plays.
KR Although I’m not like Len Jenkin, who thinks there is an interplanetary conspiracy at work, beyond our awareness. (laughter) But “conspiracy” is a theme and mindset I’m attracted to.
CG In a way, a metaphor is a conspiracy, because it’s looking at something and seeing another implication. In that way, writing is a conspiracy.
KR The main theme of my plays, and I think of most plays in one way or another, is betrayal and coming to grips with that. That we say one thing and we do another. That we want something from somebody else and they’re not going to give it to us when we ask, so we have to go around that sideways. I’ve found, the more complicated the play, the deeper the conspiracies and the betrayals are between people.
CG The world you depict is one of shattered idealism, both politically and romantically, all across the board. It’s actually a pretty fearsome place.
KR Yes, it’s a depressing place. But I’m not writing anything that’s very far from what I see out on the street. The criticism that I get, not just in reviews but when people talk to me about the plays is, “I like your plays, but I don’t feel sympathy for a lot of the people.” Or, “Your people are always disillusioned in the process of the play.” Or, “People are betraying other people, they’re cheating on each other, they’re destroying one another.” I feel like that’s the way the world is. I guess that’s my world view—that it really is a gruesome, violent world.
CG When I was thinking about all of your characters, I tried to pick one that I thought could be considered happy. And I couldn’t. Can you?
KR Happiness comes at a price, and never comes easy. I don’t think that there’s such a glib thing as a happy person. I think I’m a happy person. I’m creating the work that I want to. I can make a living at it. And for the most part, people aren’t telling me what I can and cannot write. That doesn’t mean that I’m blissful. Or I’m Zen. I’m very un-Zen. I feel whatever happens, we cause to happen. Or unhappen. The characters that I create have to create their own happiness or search for their own happiness. It’s not given to them. They’re happy people, but they have to fight for that happiness.
CG I couldn’t find any depictions of those people within your work.
KR Well, they’re happy for about a scene or two, and then I bring a hammer down on their heads.
CG Which is a good segue into one of the major themes of Paula Prentiss movies. It’s the detritus of popular culture they’re lugging around, using to establish boundaries, desperately clinging onto. Is that the role you think history takes in our lives?
KR I don’t know if it’s history so much, but it’s certainly popular culture. We have this huge bag of popular culture that we carry around. We’re a generation which is constantly bombarded with information and television and media. However much we like to think we can turn that off, it’s a big burden that we carry around. The characters sometimes vomit out all of this culture and history that they’ve been bombarded with and are lugging around. But when people talk about whether the plays are historical or political, I’m from the school of thought that believes that every action is political action, a historical action, whether we think of it overtly as such or not. It’s part of our makeup. Especially now, because we’re overwhelmed by all this input from the media.
CG Do you think that all that information is there to replace something—possibly spirituality—that got lost along the way?
KR I agree. Life During Wartime is, in some ways, trying to search back to some basic feelings, basic needs, basic connections. Because I do feel we’ve lost that and that it has been replaced with TV Guide, Movie of the Week, and People Magazine.
CG Why did you pick John Calvin to represent this dilemma?
KR Because in some ways, John Calvin represents the CIA and what America is. In many ways, most of American thought—our basic work ethic, our basic Anglo-Saxon outlook—came from Calvin. Before I started this play, I was reading a lot of philosophy and reading Calvin from the 15th century struck a lot of chords in relation to what is being discussed right now. Not only in terms of art, but also in terms of the violence of the world that we live in, the way that we act, what kind of choices and non-choices that we live by. He plugged into a lot of things that were on my mind and also seemed to become very relevant to what I wanted to say about America now.
CG What counterbalances it is the humor. It is a bleak and harsh view of the world by laughing.
KR I understand that. But when you ask me to name a character who is happy, I am hard pressed now that I think about it. I think of all the characters as struggling for happiness. You know what’s interesting? I think of myself as a very American playwright. And when you look at the words that set the American way of life, they are “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It’s not happiness, it’s the pursuit of happiness. We have the freedom to pursue happiness but that doesn’t mean that we’re guaranteed to get it. Happiness is very fleeting; that’s a very American theme. We very rarely, if ever, find it. But I enjoy that we have the freedom to pursue it and I think that’s what all the plays are about.
CG The pursuit of happiness does not, however, mean that the pursuit is doomed.
KR From my point it is.
CG You would say, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…
KR …but you’re never going to find it.”
CG I felt Life During Wartime was more hopeful than previous plays. It has a vaguely “Singing in the Rain” ending.
KR Yes. The person that Tommy loves is dead and he has no career or anything to look forward to and yet somehow, in a lot of ways, he’s happy because he’s able to go on and he’s looking forward to what’s out there ahead of him. I like to believe that each individual can make his own way in the world. We have that power, but we very rarely exercise it.
CG The great thing about Life During Wartime is that it really does bring to the forefront everybody’s responsibility and culpability and complicity in everything that happens to everybody. Now that’s conspiracy!
KR But, as you said, it’s so easy to be co-opted or corrupted. That’s the temptation to avoid.
“The principal combat we must wage is against ourselves and our vices, no matter how much sweat we fail under the burden.” —Tommy, Life During Wartime
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