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
If the characters in Richard Nelson’s plays seem like anachronisms, it’s only because they’re literate. But does that say more about them, or about us and our society? These are characters dealing with the commitment and betrayal of the individual self in relation to society, community, family, literature, and self.
Some Americans Abroad is currently playing at Lincoln Center, and in September the Royal Shakespeare Company will present Two Shakespearean Actors at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon. Nelson is currently working on the libretto of an opera concerning Patty Hearst to be composed by Anthony Davis.
Craig Gholson Not since Henry James has a writer so consistently focused on the subject of Americans going out into the larger world and the clash that that engenders to all sides. Did you have a bad experience traveling?
Richard Nelson No, not really. It’s a number of things. First, most of my plays have the sense of being an exile as their basis. They concern people who are out of place or out of time. Some Americans Abroad, Principia Scriptoriae, and Two Shakespearean Actors are all various people who are out of place or time. In Sensibility and Sense, it’s people who are out of time. They are displaced people. The sense of being displaced is very important to me and perhaps one that I, myself feel. It’s hard to have the concerns I have and not feel a certain amount of displacement and exile from one’s own country or time.
Another element that I’ve always been interested in dealing with is what America is, what it means to be American. One way of isolating that issue is to put such people in environments where what is American stands out. That was very much Henry James’s concern as well. Take the English response to Principia Scriptoriaeand Some Americans Abroad. Because the image of the ugly American is so alive in the world, English audiences are ready to look at some slob American ready to throw mega-bucks around the table or do some obnoxious thing. In Principia, they felt the play started that way because there’s this guy being bossy and condescending and pretentious. But by the end of the first act, the same guy is also quoting from his translation of The Seafarer. This was a journey that the English were very excited about making, but were amazed that they were making. In Some Americans Abroad, it’s very clear that those English teachers know a hell of a lot more about English culture than the English people in the audience did. So although it’s a very critical view of Americans it’s also somewhat sympathetic.
Between East and West is about a theater/film director and an actor’s wife. Sensibility and Sense is about academics and essayists. Principia is about writers. Some Americans Abroad is about academics. Two Shakespearean Actors, about actors. All these groups of people need art and use art in their lives. Art becomes a center where people come together or don’t come together. The optimistic part of my work is that I do think that culture or art is something that is rejuvenating, not only to a person but to a society.
CG Principia was a much bigger success in England than it was here.
RN It got a series of great reviews which established me in my position in the English theater. I was offered commissions by pretty much every major theater in England.
CG Was that unheard of for an American?
RN Except for a few odd exceptions like Timberlake Wertenbaker, I don’t know of any American who’s ever been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
CG Why do you think the reception was so much more supportive in England?
RN The assumption that characters must deal socially and politically in their lives is a given in the English theater. My work was with the ambiguity of that; how things have been intertwined and confused without a very clear division. A lot of people of the left are feeling a certain frustration because of Thatcher. As the characters do in Principia, they feel frustrated and confused. The characters in Principia are all good people, all people who are trying to do things, but watching things getting more and more entangled from good intentions. Having seen a decade of disaster for the left in England, I think people were feeling the same way. I think I touched on something that no British writer was really touching on. That’s my guess. On the other hand, I don’t know completely. I tried to figure it out and then decided not to try to figure it out.
CG What would you say is the difference between Shakespeare as practiced by the English and as practiced by Americans?
RN The biggest difference is that if you go to the RSC and watch Hamlet, that director and those actors will have each seen ten other productions of Hamlet. If they do Titus Andronicus, they’ve all seen two or three different productions of Titus Andronicus. Therefore, it’s not a unique event. Simply the fact of doing the work, accepting it as part of your culture, as opposed to some new or spectacular or unique event, makes the work different. It puts it in a stream, as just another stone in that cultural river. In the United States, it’s like the wheel is invented every time you do a Shakespearean play. You can’t get actors who’ve seen them, let alone played in them.
CG In Two Shakespearean Actors, you have the English actor, Macready, say to the American, Forrest, concerning the difference in their preparation to play Hamlet: “You study asylums and I study the play.”
In a number of guises, a recurrent theme in all your plays is what constitutes betrayal. In Rip van Winkle, Cockles betrays his uncle. In Some Americans Abroad, basically everybody betrays everybody else in one form or another. It’s at the center of Sensibility and Sense, in that Elinor’s memoirs are viewed by her lifelong friend Marianne as an act of malice. For all these characters, however, the largest betrayal they go through is the one to themselves. No matter what they do to any other individual, they ultimately end up betraying themselves in a far larger way. Do you think that the largest betrayals are against oneself?
RN Absolutely. One’s responsibility is to oneself and as one judges oneself and looks at oneself one realizes one doesn’t live up to the image or the goals or the moral positions one’s set for oneself. That’s a great betrayal that either one faces, or doesn’t face and very often avoids trying to face. And the avoidance is often the very act of betrayal.
Defining one’s position, where one is, who one is to another person, is very important. It’s something I think we all go through every day.
CG Or should.
RN In Sensibility and Sense, these two women have known each other for 50 years. There’s a lot of meaning in those 50 years. What’s betrayal to one person is not necessarily betrayal to another. In Some Americans Abroad, I tried to make it complicated enough so that the betrayals are very, very painful to the person who is doing it because they’re intelligent people. Yet they’re hopeless, because they don’t really know how to get out of it. You take the case of the Chairman of the Department, Joe, and Henry, the guy who’s going to lose his job.
CG The irony in that situation is that in Joe’s reluctance to betray Henry, Joe ends up betraying Henry to a much larger extent.
RN Absolutely. We’ve all had situations in life where we’ve had to tell someone something bad. You try to do it kindly. Joe says very clearly, “I wouldn’t want to give you a lot of hope, Henry” That’s more than enough in the code of the world to say, “I’m going to lose my job. I see what you’re saying to me. You’re being very kind.”
But what’s probably happened before the play begins is that Joe has come to Henry and said, “I’d love to have you on the school trip to England, but the budget is tight. It would have been a great time with you.” Henry hears that and goes out and buys two tickets that are probably non-refundable. So now, by just being polite, Joe’s stuck with having Henry spend a whole lot of money that he can’t afford to. This sense of being caught in a corner, trapped, of betrayal, is very much what that play’s about. And it’s very much about betraying yourself and wondering how it happened.
CG It’s about the veneer that holds society together.
RN Exactly. You can’t always be honest. With the exception of a couple of examples, none of the betrayals that any of the characters do in the play I haven’t done myself.
CG Did you get any flack for doing the book to the Broadway musical Chess?
RN I’m very interested in musicals. The first 15 to 25 times I walked into the theater in my life was to see a musical. My mother was a dancer. That world was very exciting. But from the time I was 18 until two weeks after Trevor Nunn called me about Chess, I don’t think I’d seen any musicals. I started to look again and it was an incredibly, wonderfully, exciting experience. Trevor’s a genius and I use that word very, very, very rarely. He’s taught me a great deal and he has very serious, artistic, aesthetic ambitions about the musical. Because he’s come from a different tradition, he doesn’t carry the baggage that we carry here about the musical form. He taught me to sweep all those things out of my head and to treat it in a different way. The musical form is being revolutionized inch by inch. Hopefully, in parts of Chess you could see what it could be. There were some very complicated book scenes in Chess that were done in a way which no musical had ever done before. The reason for that is that there has been a technological revolution. As Trevor says, in the 19th century, there was this very broad acting that we think of as hammy acting. The gestures were so large because there was gas lighting. To perform in gas light to a second balcony, you had to perform broadly. But as soon as electricity came in, the gestures and style of acting changed.
Now what’s happened to the musical is the microphone. If you want a contemporary sound in a musical, then you’re going to have to have an electric instrument. If you’re going to have an electric instrument, then you are going to have to have people miked because no voice can compete with an electric instrument. So if you want contemporary sound, then you have mikes. In this country, people complain about it. They nostalgically say, “I remember when Merman could hold a 1,500 seat house, but these days people don’t know how to project.” That’s a rather negative view of the technology. The positive view is that the dialog can be miked as well. You can create broken lines, broken sentences, lots of people speaking on stage at different times and control who’s heard. Dramaturgically, a completely new kind of book can be written.
CG The lawyer in Rip van Winkle says, “You don’t have to push a responsible man, they push themselves.” Yet many of the moralists you create are morally reprehensible. What would your definition of a responsible man be?
RN A responsible man is one who is responsible to himself. A man who questions his own actions in relation to his own sense of morality or his own sense of what is right and wrong. Such notions are either articulated or consciously thought through or emoted through, and are also continuously evolving. It’s through a relationship to that spine of morality that one judges, sees and defines oneself. To see oneself as responsible is to define oneself in relationship to one’s own moral concerns. It’s to one’s own self be true.
CG One myth currently in circulation is that writers living under totalitarianism are stimulated to do their best work; the corollary being that times of complacency produce complacent work. Do you subscribe to that theory?
RN Absolutely not. I just think it’s easier to define yourself in relationship to a clear enemy. It’s in times of muddiness when I think the richness and texture of life comes out. I wouldn’t call the Renaissance, Elizabethan/Jacobean England or the Golden Age of Spain times of repression as opposed to the Middle Ages. Because a writer or artist’s work is so dependent upon plummeting his own soul and conscience, under a totalitarian system, other people look to an artist or writer for guidance. We live in a time in America with profound pressures and confusions and richness and evils. They have become so intertwined with things that they are hard to differentiate or unravel in a clear, simple way. The myth that you mention is a desire for simple answers in a world that is not very simple. One looks at the history of literature or of art and those works that we still revere are the works that are not simple in their response.
CG In Principia, there’s a right-wing poet, Manuel Rosa, who although he’s right-wing, writes these incredibly exquisite love poems. What does a society do with its politically-incorrect geniuses—the Ezra Pounds of a culture?
RN Again, it’s a question of where art functions in a society. An artist is responsible for what he or she says, for what he or she writes. In the case of Manuel Rosa in my play, he has chosen not to write about anything except love. He didn’t choose to put his right-wing politics into his poetry. In the case of Pound, Pound certainly put his anti-Semitism into his poetry. It’s important that an artist be held accountable for what he writes. On the other hand, the nature of art is so full that the role of the artist is many, many-fold. A poet like Pound certainly has elements of his poetry which satisfy other impulses of the society. One needs to treat it as a complex issue as opposed to simply saying how could a man have such opinions on this, but write well on that and so therefore, he did not write well if he held such opinions. Let’s try to make him a freak and say he’s a crazy man and that the opinions he held are not real opinions. The richness of the creative act is that it can be contradictory.
CG One of the things that surprises me is the power of the written word within your work. The written word is presented as basically the most powerful force in the universe. In Rip van Winkle, a large part of the play hinges on a written contract that wreaks myriad destruction. In Principia, the written word is the criteria by which one is tortured or not. In Some Americans Abroad, the written word allows one to be publishable, i.e. employable. In Sensibility and Sense, it destroys longstanding friendships. In Two Shakespearean Actors, written words go so far as to actually cause a riot in which 34 people are killed. Do you really believe that in this day and age the written word can have such power?
RN Absolutely. How one expresses oneself is a major way in determining who and what you are. The last line of a radio play of mine called Eating Words is this writer saying, “You know, when I die,” and he is dying, “When I die, it’s not people I’ll miss, it’s their words.” There’s an element of truth in that. Words are people’s creative expression. Words are the way in which people present themselves, their ideas, their being to the world. That sense of the importance of words is the very basis of all my work. So much of my work is based upon the relationship between art and society. But I define art in a huge extreme—that creative spirit, that sense of expression that we all have whether we spend our time as artists or as bankers. That relationship is the way in which the health or the sickness of the society is often determined. If expressions are trying to be true or not trying to be true; are trying to be self-deluding or not self-deluding; full of lies or not. The health of one’s art is the health of one’s society and the health of one’s expression is the health of one’s mind and one’s soul.
CG I suppose what seems so shocking to me is that in our times, words have become ways of disguising what one really means to say or a way of saying something in terms that offend the least amount of people. They’ve become veils over what one really means. Words are not about communication anymore, they’re a way of wiggling out of saying anything. So, when I come across a reality constructed where words are like atomic bombs that go off in people’s lives, it seems shockingly unrealistic to me.
RN If you stood back in your life, I think you would see that words are little atomic bombs that go off all the time in your life. And in all of our lives. Even when we evade, we learn about ourselves; we tell a truth about ourselves. The truth of evasion. The way someone wishes to communicate to a world is the way they see both themselves and that world. That’s where the war zone is.
CG If that’s the illness, then what would you do to affect a cure?
RN I assume you mean me personally. I believe the world is such that it’s very complicated, very rich, very textured; quite gloriously so. Everything is intertwined. We all have a sexual nature, a personal nature, an emotional nature. We have our own ambitions and self-delusions. But we also have a political and social nature. Man is a social being. We don’t live in the wild alone. This instinct is part of who man is. So, to me, it’s important to place people’s social ambitions and political feelings intertwined with their personal ambitions, sex lives and old friendships. It’s all intertwined and that isn’t bad. My responsibility is to be truthful as to how I see the world and to teach myself to convey that truth as best I can. Social thoughts must be put back on the table for discussion without this concern that they are silly and of the past.
—Craig Gholson is a playwright and Associate Editor of BOMB.
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