Photograph courtesy John Guare
American playwright John Guare on Tennessee Williams, writing strong dialogue, and discovering a New Orleans lost in history.
Every year New Orleans hosts a festival named for their adopted native son, American Playwright and longtime New Orlenian Tennessee Williams. This year contemporary American playwright John Guare will speak at several panels, and one can only hope he will attend the annual “Stella!” shouting contest. I sat down with Guare to discuss his most recent play, set in New Orleans and the influence of Tennessee Williams, an artist Guare credits with bringing American language into the theater.
As Guare puts it, New Orleans was a “magic place” for Tennessee Williams, a place that allowed him to stretch who he was (literally, by changing his name). Guare is the author of several Tony and Obie-award-winning plays including Six Degrees of Separation, House of Blue Leaves, Landscape of the Body and Bosoms and Neglect. Like Williams, he is also fascinated by New Orleans. One of Guare’s most recent plays reveals a secret history of the city before the Louisiana Purchase made it officially part of America. Free Man of Color takes place in New Orleans where racial integration was the norm, and the bustling international city was home to free men of every race and creed. Part of what the play offers to audiences is the chance to see history as recursive—how attitudes toward race and sex swing back around, revealing both that history is not progressive and that historical moments repeat themselves.
Although Guare’s plays take place at particular moments in time, they continue to feel contemporary. For example House of Blue Leaves, which was re-mounted last year on Broadway, deals with contemporary issues like terrorism and PTSD. In the play a soldier gone AWOL hatches a secret domestic terrorism plot (in this case, to blow up the Pope). But this almost accidental timeliness isn’t all that makes Guare’s plays evergreen.
Guare’s language stays fresh because it does not rely on cultural shorthand to make an argument or express what a character is feeling. Instead, his language is direct and clear: an actor reading his lines knows when to cringe or when to move across the stage. At the same time, the meaning of every line is not always spelled out. This allows the audience to participate in creating the meaning of the words, inferring what a character thinks and feels. False starts are never truly false, instead they reveal what characters want to say or are afraid to let slip.
As it was for Tennessee Williams, language is a primary concern for Guare—to him, all of the actions and characterizations in a play should be embedded in the dialog itself. Guare’s own conversational style dramatizes this. Several times in our interview he stopped me to correct an imprecision in my question, not the question itself but how it was phrased. His insistence on correct speech seems to me characteristic of a profession whose masters must always ask themselves: “How will I communicate what I’m trying to get across to a room full of strangers sitting in the dark?”
John Guare will be speaking on several panels at the 2012 New Orleans/Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, running March 21-25th.
—Tana Wojczuk for Guernica
Guernica: How are you today?
John Guare: Well, fine. It’s 72 [degrees] here. I’m typing away another day, and now I’m talking to you.
Guernica: I thought we’d just start out talking about the Tennessee Williams Festival. How did you get involved, and what’s important about Tennessee Williams to you?
John Guare: I’m an American playwright. Tennessee Williams got in all our DNA. There’s no American playwright after 1945 who wasn’t profoundly affected—who didn’t have their DNA changed by Tennessee Williams.
Guernica: What did he change in your DNA?
John Guare: Well, first of all, he was the first one to bring great light language to the American theater. Simple as that. Eugene O’Neil created an American theater, and Tennessee Williams taught it how to sing.
Guernica: Do you suspect being from the South had anything to do with his language abilities?
John Guare: He was from St. Louis Missouri as far as I know, but he found himself—he found his new identity—in New Orleans. Just being from the South didn’t make him a writer; being Thomas Lanier Williams made him a writer. Then he went to New Orleans and became Tennessee Williams. It gave him the place to grow. It gave him the place to expand. It was his magic place.
Guernica: Is a sense of place is important for a writer?
John Guare: There’s no rule. I mean, James Joyce wrote the definitive work about Dublin while he was living in Switzerland. We’re all where we come from. We all have our roots. But, yes, voice has to be settled in a place.
Guernica: Do you think voice also has to be settled in a time?
John Guare: It can’t help but be. That’s why every play is so important. It’s a record of what life was like at the time you wrote that play or that book.
Guernica: I saw House of Blue Leaves on Broadway last year—which was wonderful—and it still really resonated. So I’m curious, how do you write in a way that resonates with the time but doesn’t become dated?
John Guare: You don’t know that. You don’t push the button that says “Now I will write something that resonates in time.” You don’t know. It’s what happens after a play is finished. You cannot write to resonate twenty or thirty or forty years from now. You only can write for that very day, but whatever happens is all gravy.
Guernica: Did writing Free Man of Color change your views on history?
John Guare: Free Man of Color—writing that was one of the great events of my life. It forced me to use new tools, new voices. It challenged me in a way I’d never been challenged before. It was a thrill.
Guernica: What kinds of challenges were new?
John Guare: Well, to find a new voice. I was writing a story of a man of mixed race, which I am not. I was writing a story of a man in New Orleans at the time of the Louisiana purchase. I’m a guy from New York. It just stretched my imagination into how I become these people, how I become this time.
Guernica: Did you find that you were writing while simultaneously doing the research, or was it one and then the other?
John Guare: It’s everything. You can read ten books and finally come across one detail, and it’s like, “now everything else makes sense. Now I know where I am.”
Guernica: Can you give an example of a detail like that?
John Guare: Well, yes. When I was starting to write, I thought, “Now I don’t understand New Orleans or what it was like in 1802 or 1803,” and I found a book from 1888—I think it was the 70th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase—it was a guide to New Orleans. It told you what it was like at that time and what it was like “now.” And what thrilled me about it was that New Orleans at that time was so poor. I mean, Spain [which owned the New Orleans territory] at that time was so poor that they didn’t have enough money to have a powerful police force to keep order. So what they did is took the few policemen that they had and they dressed them in gold lace to so shock the townspeople with the magnificence of the police that they would obey them.
John Guare: And I said, now this is a town that I can understand.
Guernica: They put them in costume.
John Guare: Yes.
Guernica: What else did you kind of take away that you—
John Guare: “Kind of.” You can’t kind of take away, you either do or you don’t. If you kind of take away something you’re a failure.
Guernica: OK, what else got into your DNA from that experience?
John Guare: Well, it made me fall in love with American history, and how much of a stranger we are to American history—how much of a stranger we are to our own past. Everyone talks about America, this great country. You hear, “I’m more patriotic than you are. No, I’m more patriotic!” But how few people know the history of this country and how we came into being. That’s the part that just amazed me. The power of the past to still dominate our thinking today.
Guernica: What about that part of our past was surprising to you?
John Guare: Well, the fact that before, New Orleans was a thrilling place of all kinds of races, it was a dangerous place. It was really and truly the only international city on the continent of North America. There were all different races and everything was celebrated, and it was a place of difference, and everybody was different and it was so odd, the minute that America took over, the minute that the Louisiana territory became part of the United States of America, instantly you were either black or white. There was no nuance. and so a free man of color who could own property was suddenly not allowed to. That’s what surprised me. Suddenly the arrogance of racial laws, the arrogance of what is government’s rights, what is state’s rights—all those things that are still bleeding down to us today.
Guernica: History doesn’t just become more liberal as it goes along.
John Guare: No not at all.
Guernica: Do you have any thought of writing about other historical time periods in the future?
John Guare: I don’t know. Well, listen, I’m writing a play right now. I have a new play going into rehearsal in two weeks in the McCarter theater in Princeton, and that takes place in 1975. And 1975 is as much a historical document as 1803.
Guernica: I’m sort of curious—
John Guare: You can’t be sort of curious.
Guernica: OK, I’m deeply curious—
John Guare: OK, that’s more like it.
Guernica: —about what you consider to be “taking a risk” when you’re writing a play. What’s a risk to you?
John Guare: Nothing. I don’t think about taking a risk. I think about how far can I go. How can I make myself. What are the risks I must create.
Guernica: How do you create a risk?
John Guare: As I did in Free Man of Color, taking on a subject where I didn’t know how the people spoke, didn’t know the world, or how I had to exercise my imagination in a whole new way to create that. Now I’m trying to recreate something in my own past. How do I do that? What new tools do I use to go back and make it clear to an audience what I’m driving at? The great risk is always saying, “how will I communicate what I’m trying to get across to a room full of strangers sitting in the dark watching a stage?”
Guernica: I was reading your Paris Review interview, from ‘92 I think, about Shakespeare not having any stage directions.
John Guare: Well, that’s right. See, that’s what Tennessee did. He told us how to pack all the world of a play into the dialogue. Even though he has very very sensuous, beautiful stage directions, they’re more things of poetry to establish mood for the director and the actors. But you look at the lines, the way his lines are so densely packed with detail that they can be played in a bare stage, and that’s the dream, to say, “how do I write a play whose text will carry the meaning?” So that’s where I don’t have to rely on a faucet suddenly spewing real water to make the audience say, “Oh, wow! This must be real, look at it, the real water.” We have to put the real water within our dialogue. That’s all we have.
Guernica: What about monologue? Is that more difficult to create than a scene?
John Guare: It’s not that it’s hard. It’s asking, “why is the actor giving a monologue, to whom is he speaking?”
Guernica: In terms of in details and realism, I know that Yale kind of pioneered—
John Guare: “Kind of?” No, you can’t be a sort of pioneer.
Guernica: —pioneered this institutional study of dramaturgy. So I was wondering if you’ve ever worked with dramaturgs, or whether you think that’s useful?
John Guare: No, I think a playwright must be his own dramaturg. I believe in a theater where the director and the playwright work together to create what they need. I think that some of these plays are lost in this new horror called development, which is a place for dramaturgs to say “let me tell you what your play means,” and the life gets sucked out of a play. I’m sure there are some good dramaturgs but I’ve never worked with one.
Guernica: How does the life get sucked out. What goes wrong?
John Guare: People rewrite the play so much to make it palatable to the audience, to make something clear, that they just deaden it. Like it was left it in the oven too long. I mean, there’s no such thing as a perfect play. Sometimes you have to protect the life of the play. It seems like spelling out mysterious, musical details can destroy a play by making the motivations too clear, too simplex. Oh god, I’d just hate it if a certain dramaturg got a hold of a Pinter play, for example, which are all mystery and all music. That’s how the life get’s sucked out of plays.
Guernica: Do you think that has to do with underestimating an audience?
John Guare: No I think it’s about people trying to create a job and protect it.
Tana Wojczuk is the Assistant Editor of Guernica Daily. She is an essayist and culture critic.