The Select Equity Group Series on Theater
I first saw Will Eno’s work in the mid-’90s at Saint Mark’s Church in the East Village. The playbill announced his new short play McDuff, Caesarean. When it was time for Will’s work to go up, there seemed to be a longer pause than necessary, and some confusion in the rustling off-stage. This was ended by the squeaky wheels of a metal cart that he was pushing gently onto the stage. On the cart was a slide projector and a can of Coke. He told the audience that the lead in his play had gotten sick at the last moment and that he’d show pictures from his recent trip to Scotland instead. Here I was, imagining some gruesome play about a botched birth. “McDuff” and “Caesarean” in the same sentence? With or without the Macbeth reference, it had to be bloody and wrong. When the lights dimmed and Will started to speak we went from being an experimental theater audience to a bunch of strangers in Will’s living room. He went on for 15 minutes about the people he met in bars, restaurants, on the train, pictures of old things, bright things, and new things. From the threat of gruesome birth and possible death to sightseeing through Will’s eyes, in a simple, transformative move. Over the years we’ve collaborated on many video projects and have sustained a conversation about the arts, sports, people, and what it’s like to be here. Here are some of those conversations.
The interview took place in several locations. These are excerpts from the various conversations. Once an excerpt was chosen, it was used in its entirety and no edits were made.
Window seat. Howard Johnson’s restaurant. Times Square, New York.
Will I almost never eat eggs, these days. I don’t know why.
Will Well, you say something. You’re working from notes, Joe?
Joe Just some. There’s stuff I don’t want to forget.
Will Let’s title this “Stuff Joe Don’t Want to Forget.”
Joe I don’t think it needs a title. Anyway, here we go. I have a lot. All right. I just saw the Los Angeles debut of your play, The Flu Season, at the John Anson Ford Theatre. One of my favorite scenes is at the end of the play when the DOCTOR gives either advice, guidance, or inspiration to a young MAN who is being released from the psychiatric hospital. The entire play revolves around an in-hospital love affair between this MAN and a WOMAN. But for these crucial lines the DOCTOR is wearing a bandage around his head and jaw. You can’t understand hardly anything he says. Apparently he had been attacked by a swarm of bees. Here I was, in this darkened theater, having witnessed this character’s relationship to the WOMAN painfully and awkwardly fall apart. I was hoping that the DOCTOR would give the MAN, and me, some words of wisdom on how to cope with the unexplained and sometimes cruel ways of the world. But no, he mumbled and slurred the delivery. I was cracking up in my seat, even though none of my questions was answered by the DOCTOR. So in a roundabout way I’ve come to my first question for you. Have you heard this quotation by Groucho Marx about his working method: “I look for the purest misery in the most perfect joke?” That is the first question I’d like to ask you. And then the second would be, How did you come to writing plays?
Will I never heard the Groucho quote. But, yeah, exactly—misery with a little twist, something for the family. As to the bee stings, Julia Kristeva talks about the need to shatter language in order to arrive at a discourse that is closer to the body and to the emotions. Bees were a convenience, with respect to the shattering. You’re always looking for a—
Next Table Over Is that digital?
JoeThe tape recorder? Yeah.
Next Table Over It’s tiny.
Joe It’s pretty small.
Will I think it’s necessary to believe that feeling and meaning can survive—and in fact, be derived from—whatever ruptures you can cause in the language. One time I was in a church, uptown. It was raining and I had just gone in to, you know, I was just trying to get—
Next Table Over Sorry. Excuse me. How much can you record on it?
Joe I’m not sure. A lot. I borrowed it.
Next Table OverAre you from here?
JoeHe is, I used to be. Kristeva also talks about the dissolving of the sign, about how—
Next Table Over You guys are doing something, sorry, but, is there a good electronics place around here?
Will I don’t know. There must be.
Joe So. You were in a church?
Next Table Over We’ve been all over. Today, we go out to Ellis Island.
Joe I mean him.
Next Table Over I was wondering. I was like, “Who is this guy?”
Will(laughter) This is Joe. So, oh—the church. They have this welcome book you can write in. It just had the date, but no year, and when they got to December 31, they’d just flip it over to January 1 and start over, with stuff from January 1, the year before. So you could see years of entries for whatever day it was. It was worn out and all smudgy and scribbly. This one entry said, in very sympathetic handwriting, “Jesus, heal my stomach.” And then there were a lot of other things: “God bless Mrs. Murphy,” “A long happy life for Aysa,” “Peace in the world tonight,” things like that. Then there was the same handwriting, again, way lower down the page: “Jesus, heal my stomach.” At least a year or two in between the times it was written. She came in on the same date. I think it was a her. That was real writing, man. A tiny little thing like that, some scribbled little human handwriting, with the huge cathedral ceiling 50 feet above it. That was language, you know, the vowel sounds, the consonants. And that poor person, holding her stomach, pleading with her savior. (To Next Table Over) Just these tiny words.
Next Table Over That sounds awesome. Is that near here?
Will It’s on the East Side . I don’t remember where. You know where you should go is Saint Thomas on Fifth Avenue. It’s a really beautiful one.
Next Table Over Great. Saint Thomas.
Will53rd Street. It’s sort of touristy but it gets quiet. It gets almost spiritual.
Joe Groucho had another one: “It isn’t necessary to have relatives in Kansas City in order to be unhappy.”
Next Table Over Groucho. “Duck Soup.” We’re down from Rochester. (His check arrives.) Thanks, guys. Good luck.
Joe Okay. Have a good day.
Will Bye. (Next Table Over leaves.) “Down from Rochester.” I like that.
Joe I know; it’s nice. It sounds like a serious truth.
Will Yeah, like an aphorism. At the end of the day, we’re all down from Rochester.
Joe I liked that guy’s sweatshirt.
Will This is what I like about the world. It just keeps asking you, “Here is another aspect. Do you see it? Are you listening?”
Will You know? “Will you be kind? Will you be gentle?” Sometimes that just seems like the whole thing. Try to be kind for the rest of your life.
JoeLet’s go walk around. We should get outside. (to waitress) Could we get our…thanks.
Turkey-hunting trip to central Florida. Under an oak tree.
Joe Good to get out of the madness of the Big Apple and into the countryside, non? Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Will I don’t think of you as a person who quotes from people a lot.
Joe I’m just trying to interview you. I don’t normally use index cards in life. I listened to the first part and we were talking about Kristeva and the shattering of language, and about how meaning will emerge from this shattering. I think that this is why I tend to be attracted to art that looks more like life, more like the messy, dirty, unpredictable miasma. We can see the fissures and failures inherent in the artwork. This is in sharp contrast to artwork that is clean, tight, assured; artworks that have answered all their questions already. This latter work tends to look like other contemporary art. And I said, “looks like” art. Maybe another stronger word would be to say that I am attracted to art that, using a term from the theatrical world, “acts” like life; art that seems to move in puzzling, violent, meandering ways. I still have another scene from The Flu Season in my mind, the scene where the PROLOGUE, who appears regularly throughout the play, as does the EPILOGUE, has a breakdown; he is trying to come to grips with the fact that the MAN in his play has suddenly, for no reason, completely changed, completely fallen out of love with the WOMAN character. The main narrative thread destroyed. What can he do now? The play, his play, is fucked! We’ll just have to press on then, there’s still a whole other act in the play coming.
Will Yeah. Shhhh…
Will Did you hear that?
JoeWait. (pause) George saw some deer last night. No turkeys, though. (pause) So how do you come to terms with narrative structure in your relation to the shattering of language, and the creation of meaning? The two seem somehow at odds, which is probably the most exciting thing about it. Do you see narrative, in play form, as somehow like a body?
Will Probably any two things, by nature of being things, of being themselves, are at odds with each other. So, yeah, it’s all fine lines to ride. The fine line between narrative and universal violence. Between gesture and self-reflection, and representation. I think you’re right; it’s exciting. Everyone working away in the basement on a Unified Theory. It’s frustrating, and exciting. The whole Universe is probably, like you said, at odds with itself. Which is probably why it’s been such a success. It’s perfectly at odds. Do you remember that time we got up to hunt at four in the morning, three days in a row, and, on the third day, we got out to our spot and just fell asleep there for the whole morning? Tons of guns and ammo and two camouflaged figures, quietly sleeping. That picture, that scene, I think that’s a fairly good picture of nature. Of the sleepy, heavily armed nature of Nature. What did you say about a body?
Joe Is narrative in a play like a body, like the body, at all?
Will Probably. Wittgenstein said—do you like quotes?—Wittgenstein said that if you asked an elephant to draw a picture of God, it would come out looking a lot like an elephant. So, I think we unknowingly use the body and ourselves as the model for a lot of things. We made God in our image; we probably make works of art in our image. Sure, the relationship, the correlation, is somewhat secretive, somewhat indirect, but I think that the body, even the cell, is the underlying model—either that or the universe. I don’t know. The very best art should look like either an elephant or Ludwig Wittgenstein. When I was working on Thom Pain, I remember being there at my desk and—
Joe (interrupting) Hang on. My leg’s totally asleep. I was sitting funny.
Will I wish we had those little chairs. It’s so nice out. (pause, blinking) Have you gotten your eyes checked anytime recently? I wonder if I have good eyesight.
Joe I think I’m going to need glasses. Those camouflage chairs are cool. I was thinking about making camouflage-patterned clothes so that you would blend into the city street and wouldn’t be noticed by Google maps. Clothes that made you look like a mailbox, or a bus stop, or bricks like a Starbucks storefront.
Will I want to talk more about the duality of things.
Will I don’t know. Did you hear it raining, last night? That was crazy.
JoeYeah. What were you going to say about Thom Pain?
Will Just now? Oh—the body stuff. Just, like, it’s just like you just said. You’re working on this fairly virtual sort of thing, this collection of words that is meant to effect a progression of feelings: logic and sound and words and feeling. But your back hurts. Your wrist. You’re doing this while you’re in a body. And that informs the mental activity. Picture Beethoven writing the Ninth Symphony, getting up to stretch because he was sitting funny.
JoeThey probably hear us. Wait…look. Shhh.
Will Where? Past the…
Joe Holy… (inaudible)
Will Shhh. (whispers) Man. Joe.
Hollywood United Methodist Church, parking lot. Hollywood, California. On a return trip to look at a piano that was being given away.
Joe Will, baby, pass me the Thomas Guide; it’s behind your seat. I think we should have turned a couple blocks ago.
Will I think we’re close. I definitely remember this.
Joe I think we should get back on Franklin. Look at everyone going into the church. It’s like they’re moving in slow motion.
Will It is. The way they’re kind of trudging. Like, normal walking speed would be inappropriate. They really are going slow.
Joe For my funeral I want it to be a big party. Like in the beginning of the film Family Business. Laughter and booze. I read your quotation in the New York Times when the writer asked you why will Beckett stay relevant to future readers and you said something like, “as long as people keep dying, Beckett will stay relevant.”
Will “As long as people still die,” I think. He’ll be important.
Joe That was it. Do you think that the idea of Death is abstracted, or concealed, or hauntingly visible in our day to day? And how does revealing it as a part of our life figure into your writing?
Will Jeez. Well, you already tipped the scales by calling it an “idea.” Which, I don’t know, I guess that’s comforting, it’s just an “idea.” All these people going in here probably regard it as an idea. For which, they have an equal and opposite idea, which is Life Everlasting. It’s weird. There are no experts; there isn’t really hard science on the subject. It is kind of an idea, actually, I guess—death. And the idea is life.
Joe That sounds like an ad for Pfizer.
Will No, but really. All the chatter, really, this is one of the hallmarks of the animal, trait of the species. We talk about death. It’s sort of sweet. There’s something about it, when you take yourself out of it, which you cannot ever do, that’s kind of funny.
Church Employee You guys can’t park here.
Joe No, we’re just—Do you know a street named Yeager Place? Or Camrose Drive?
Church Employee I think Camrose is up the hill here. You should ask the gas station, guys.
Joe Thanks. (starting car) Did you see his eye?
Will No. What was it?
Joe There was no pupil. Or no iris, I guess. It was just all pupil, completely black.
Will Eyes are amazing. I used to be really attracted to girls who had allergies. That look of kind of runny-eyed sniffling sorrow. For a time, that seemed like the right position to take, with respect to the world, but that time is gone. I don’t know—for me. I used to like a lot of abstract expressionists, mainly for the manner and poor timing of their deaths. That’s changed, too. I’ve just gotten really interested in life. Pretty interested.
Joe So where does death come in?
Will At the end.
Joe I was just going to say that. (pulling onto Franklin Avenue)
Will There’s something quaint seeming about suicide. Or that’s how it seems to me now. I’ve changed my mind before, I don’t know. Death is everywhere, yes. But, what isn’t. You know? If you look around? I try to live every day like it’s my third-to-last. Hillcrest! Take a right. Didn’t you say it was off Hillcrest?
Joe (turning onto Hillcrest) Bingo.
Via telephone between New York and Los Angeles.
Joe (German accent) Hello, Will?
Will (laughter) Is this a German person?
Joe Your tests have come back from the laboratory.
Will Tests? Vot tests?
Joe We are going to have to take it out. Completely out. Get your keys, go out your front door, get in a taxi, drive over the bridge, pay the driver and come up to my office, immediately. (pause, normal American voice) No, this is Joe…. What’s going on over there on the right side?
Will (faked sigh of relief) You had me there. I thought they were going to have to take it out. Completely out. Hey, I played tennis this morning with that super loud guy with the headband.
Joe The AT&T guy? Where?
Will McCarren Park. He was cheating, Joe. He kept calling all my shots out, and they were like five inches in. He had an unbelievable serve, though. He kept screaming his own name. Just really wound up.
Joe Yeah. Those guys look like they’re playing tennis, but really they’re fighting some awful monster inside, some, like, parental demon they have to destroy at all costs.
Will Guess who won, though. I’m not even going to ask you to dignify that with a response.
Joe Okay. I played with my wife over the weekend at Vermont Canyon. The park’s just starting to come back after the fire. You saw it: it was completely burned. I was afraid all the mud was going to slide down and destroy the courts. Because there’s nothing left, no plants to hold everything in place. But it looked great.
Will We got to go play there again. Nature is something.
Joe How’s the playwriting going over there?
Will Are you recording this? Is that German still on the line? What’s going on here, Joe?
Joe Relax. Take a breath and just relax.
Will You’re right. So, playwriting. Let me dignify your question with a response. I just did a reading of this new thing with some really good actors. It’s that thing, Middletown, that I was working on the last few years.
Joe (laughter) I’m going to keep asking you things, all right?
Will (laughter) You know what you’re doing.
Joe Thanks. (rustling paper) You work pretty closely with actors in all stages of the production. What kind of things do you look for in people who act up there on the stage? There must be a “special” relationship to language that you are looking for? How do you know he or she is right for the part?
Will I think that’s the whole thing. A special relation to language. People who, maybe, mistrust it in some big ways, but also know that it’s all they really have. There’s a sound to that kind of relation. You hear it almost instantly. It’s just a good balance of fear and need. Like, a kind of quavering, with authority. Probably, also, I think you have to be honest. Honest and humble. I think you have to say to yourself, as an actor, as any kind of artist, here are the rules, here are the boundaries, and, within these limits, I will do everything I can to create an effect of infinity.
Joe Unlike the tennis guy this morning.
Will Yeah. Exactly. Here’s the court, here’s the baseline, here comes the ball, and the ball is in. It’s your call, and no one is watching you make it, so, what are you going to say? What do you say, in or out? We’ve talked a lot about that notion of deal-making and how those deals—the bad ugly deals, the ones where people’s lives take terrible turns—they get made late at night, by people who are by themselves. No stranger standing nearby with a suitcase full of euros, just a person sitting there quietly, making a bad deal with himself. I don’t know. I do think Beckett is a great example for all that stuff. Quiet guy, not big on the prizes, not big on the personal appearances, but he’d always come to pick you up at the airport. Reportedly.
Joe What are you and your noodle working on today?
Will Me and the noodle are working on a new play. The noodle is my mind?
Joe The noodle is your mind, correct.
Will Great. So, yeah, this new thing, a play. It’s still at that very wispy stage that is mainly comprised of a strange feeling that is sort of making its way into a form.
Joe Did you read Susanne K. Langer’s Feeling and Form?
Will Not all the way through. But, yeah, I’m all for her. She said something about how if a work of art is based on a feeling, a real serious and strange and original feeling, then the work of art will have an inevitable and coherent relation to the power and…yeah, to the power and surprise of nature. Organic nature. She’s smart. She’s right.
Joe Groucho, Kristeva, Wittgenstein, Langer. We just need one from Ben Franklin and we’re done.
Will He might have said, “A stitch in time saves nine.” I don’t know. Someone would know.
Joe Yeah, I don’t know either. He might have said, “I invented bifocals.” Question. In the movies, you never see a writer giggling behind the typewriter as they are working away. The process is always portrayed as a very solitary, solemn process. Why do you think this is?
Will I think you don’t see, in general, a lot of giggling in movies. That’s probably the influence of the gun lobby.
Joe Gun sales go down when people are giggling.
Will They do. They drop to zero almost instantly. Then they go even lower. People get furious and confused, because that’s not even statistically possible. And, you guessed it, the giggling subsides, and here we go again, gun sales go through the roof. What’d you just say? What was the—
Joe Is writing like it is in the movies?
Will Yeah, not really. In these hectic times, no one would really stand for a 57-hour-long shot of a guy in a chair at a desk, occasionally getting up and going somewhere and then coming back. I would like to see it just because I think deeply boring people are under-represented in films and television. Not in the theater, though, generally.
Joe Back to the tennis cheat. Can we say that he was not, in real terms, playing tennis?
Will We can say that he was not, in real terms, playing tennis. He wasn’t obeying the few simple rules you have to obey. Just as, if you deny death, you aren’t really playing right at life. And, in writing plays, you can pretend Beckett does not exist, but, you do so at your great peril, and you’re probably not really writing plays. Shakespeare, Thornton Wilder. You have to recognize these people, adjust yourself to them, as you do with the lines on a tennis court, and find some room for yourself that isn’t occupied. A lot of people write plays that, very essentially, have already been written. They do not take care to at least try, at least try, to make themselves necessary somehow.
Joe What do you mean, necessary? (beep) Wait, hang on, I have to take this.
(Pause. Soft static.)
Joe Sorry. That’s school. They want to change my schedule for next year. I just worked the whole thing out so I only teach three days. I have to talk to them before they do anything else.
Will Joe, I should go too. Let’s talk before Monday. See you later.
Joe Okay. Talk to you. See you. Will?
Greenpoint, Brooklyn YMCA pool and sauna.
Joe I don’t think it’s on.
Will A cold sauna is so much colder than a regular room at the same temperature.
Joe I’m sort of worried about the recorder.
Will Is there anything else on it?
Joe No. I just put a new memory thing in in the locker room.
Will Atta-boy. Always thinking. Always putting a new memory thing in in the locker room. I’m freezing. Let’s just go over by the pool. (Exit sauna.)
Joe (to Pool Attendant) Can we sit here and record an interview for a little bit?
Pool Attendant Do whatever. There’s a Free Swim that starts in a couple of minutes.
Joe Thanks. (to Will) So right to it. Do you remember that series of short plays you were working on a bunch of years ago? They were really, really short, just long enough for the curtain to go up. Once it was up, wait a beat; then it came down. The play was to be a series of images on the stage. One was a person in an office eating Chinese food, then the curtain came down, then back up to show two people kissing, curtain down, then up, and you had a bicycle lying there with one wheel spinning. Right? Stuff like that?
Will Pretty much. I gave up on that. I’ll try again, maybe. Plus, no one has curtains anymore.
Joe And a very old cowboy, fixing his boot.
(Kids run by. Whistle blows.)
Pool Attendant Walk!
Joe I really liked that idea a lot because the audience had to work to put together all these little bits to make a big picture, I can’t remember what the big picture was, if there is one.
Will There’s always a big picture. It’s probably always the same big picture. And it always has You in it. And it has everything you know in it, and most importantly, and this might not be true, but, everything you don’t know in it.
Joe This trying to make a picture is one of the things I really liked about Thom Pain. The main character was trying to, with words, create for us this picture of a boy and a dead, wet dog—something from the past that he was trying to convey in the present with this image. He could never do it for us, to his satisfaction. He never completed the picture. Part of me, as an audience member, wanted him to finish making that picture for me, and part of me was glad that I never saw the whole image. My image was my own. And it was incomplete.
(More kids quickly walk by.)
Will You dropped your goggles.
(Kid grabs goggles and jumps into the pool.)
Joe He almost got water on the thing.
Will So? Isn’t it digital?
Joe (laughter) I guess you’re right. It should be fine. So. Thom Paine, the character, gets very hostile at the audience during the play. (Kids scream. Joe laughs.) Maybe he’s angry with himself, or with the audience, not sure. But I remember him almost demanding to the audience the question, “What are you doing here, here in this theater, why aren’t you out riding a bike, or playing tennis, or going out to dinner with friends?” Something similar to this happens in The Flu Season as well. Why do you want to poke at the audience?
Will I don’t know. I like audiences. It’s not so much “poke.” I guess it’s something of, if you want to question Existence, you have to question your actual simplest existence, right here and now, in the seat you’re sitting in. And then you move from there. (Screaming. Will laughs.) I also think the audience is largely left out of theater, these days. It’s just something that’s supposed to sit there, the audience. Which is sad and mean, I think, for playwrights to do. There are plenty of places for people to sit where there aren’t people—and I mean, the actors—suffering away for the sitters. Plenty of places that are more comfortable.
Pool Attendant No diving. Hey!
Joe My friend, the composer Michael Webster, who I make musical theater performances with—I told you. Very narrative and yet very abstract. He plays the piano, and I fall down a lot, hurt myself, do magic tricks, do walks from silent films, calisthenics.
Free Swimmer 1 Marco Marco!
Will Does he mean “Marco Polo”? (to Joe) Say that again.
Joe I exercise on stage. Michael once described the starting point for our collaboration as “two people who hate each other and want to get offstage as quickly as possible.” Is there some sentiment close to this to the character of Thom Pain?
Will That wouldn’t be that wrong. Self-hatred, sure, the normal amount, maybe a little more. And, wanting to get offstage as quickly as possible, yes, but it will only be possible for him to get offstage when he is done doing what he came to do. And that thing he came to do is sort of a mystery. But, in a few words, it is to have proven his existence to himself, and to the world. To have stated “Here I was.” And, “Here is what it felt like.” And maybe, “Here is how we all are, and maybe should not be.”
Free Swimmer 2 (screams) Brian!
Free Swimmer 3 I’m gonna go back and forth. Watch out. Time me.
Free Swimmer 2 Brian!
Will This is a free swim!
Joe Free swim!
(General screaming. Whistle.)
Parent Stay over here. Stay on this side!
Joe It’s a weird echo in here.
Will It is. It’s like the sound wants to echo, but it stops just short. It’s great. This is funny. Everyone just yelling names and stuff.