Monday, June 13, 2011

Tragedy and the Common Playwright

by Lauren Gunderson

I need to ask Arthur Miller a question.

The play I’m working on this summer with Bay Area Playwrights Festival needs his help. The end isn’t working. It hasn’t been working. Why is it not working? The first 2 acts are strong enough to build some rolling momentum, to launch major questions, to define this very special world, to flood this world with the possible, the impossible, the serious, the ridiculous, the human, the musical, the horrible. But after all that the climax isn’t climaxing, isn’t real, isn’t earned, isn’t satisfying. Why? I don’t know. I’m stuck. So I ask Arthur Miller. We talk about tragedy.*

He says that the greatest playwrights have “a fierce moral sensibility. It’s unquenchable. They are burning with some anger with the way the world is."

     “Yes,” I say. “Theatre artists know we need that truthful ferocity for theatre to be relevant, prophetic, important - “

“That’s nice. I don’t have a lot of time,” he says. 

     “Right. Sorry.” I say. 

“Are you writing a tragedy?” he says.

     “I thought I was writing a drama. I mean it’s still funny, but only because the tension is so high, but now I’m thinking – ”

“Are you. Writing a tragedy?” he says and looks directly at me over his glasses rim.

    ”Yes, sir. Yes, I think I am."

“Ok. Then your hero must suffer.”

     “Weeeell - she’s not really that kind of person and I don’t think this is that kind of play for - “

“The greatest truths we know have come out of people’s suffering. The problem is not to undo suffering, or to wipe it off the face of the earth, but to make it inform our lives."

     I nod. Right. Yes. The heroine of my play is a fuck up, a rebel, a very tarnished sheep in her very polished southern family. Her suffering is of an outcast, a reject that turns to the outlandish for a freedom she thinks she can handle. But then how do I reconcile her with her stepmother - who is the real force to be reckoned with in the play? How do I get those two opposite women in a place to understand the depth of each other’s needs? That’s my ending - and that’s where the end keeps stalling."

“Are you done thinking?”

     “Yep. Sorry, Arthur Miller.” 

“The quality in such plays that does shake us, however, derives from the underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what or who we are in this world. Among us today this fear is as strong, and perhaps stronger, than it ever was. In fact, it is the common man who knows this fear best."

      That is what Johnnie wants most - respect. More than respect though - which can be done in faraway silence - she wants active support, community, family. She wants real understanding. And - whoa - so does her stepmother. They are both outcasts in their respective societies. Ok, this is good. 

“As a general rule, to which there may be exceptions unknown to me, I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing - his sense of personal dignity."

      Lay down her life? Literally? Her life? I mean... the heroine of this play, Johnnie, is a young Southern punky white girl that does not “belong” in her family, in her house, in her small conservative world. If she is the tragic hero, then she has to be willing to risk an ultimate fate. If Johnnie can truly connect to her stepmother, a powerful African-American woman who definitely does not understand Johnnie at all and has her own massive bag of injustices to deal with, she must present her ultimate vulnerability. And if Sugar, Johnnie’s stepmom, can come to accept Johnnie it will only be by seeing the edge off of which Johnnie is capable of jumping. But do I have to actually make her jump? Is this the moment when I recall my grad school training and the meaning of “action”?

“The discovery of the moral law, which is what the enlightenment of tragedy consists of, is not the discovery of some abstract or metaphysical quantity."

     “So that’s a yes to action?”

“If all our miseries, our indignities, are born and bred within our minds, then all action, let alone the heroic action, is obviously impossible.”

     “So that is a yes. Jesus. I have to kill her? Oh crap, Arthur Miller, can we talk about this?”


     “But Johnnie is the character that fought for freedom, for individuality! She’s the cool one!”

“Which is not to say that tragedy must preach revolution. The Greeks could probe the very heavenly origin of their ways and return to confirm the rightness of laws. And Job could face God in anger, demanding his right and end in submission.” 

     Right, Arthur Miller. Freedom may be what you want but not what you need. I think about a discussion I have with students about the earned endings of their plays - these endings generally circle around the worst possible thing that could happen to their heroes. Comedy or tragedy - the worst thing either makes us laugh or makes us think; makes us pity or understand. Sometimes the worst thing is the thing the hero asked for. Either way it pushes the hero to his/her ultimate abilities. Which makes me think that Sugar might be the hero of this play...

“But for a moment everything is in suspension, nothing is accepted, and in this stretching and tearing apart of the cosmos, in the very action of so doing, the character gains “size,” the tragic stature which is spuriously attached to the royal or the high born in our minds. The commonest of men may take on that stature to the extent of his willingness to throw all he has into the contest, the battle to secure his rightful place in his world.”

    ”This is getting deep, Arthur Miller. I don’t want everyone to die.” 

“I almost hesitate to claim that in truth tragedy implies more optimism in its author than does comedy, and that its final result ought to be the reinforcement of the onlooker’s brightest opinions of the human animal.”

     “Ok, good. ’Cause I’m generally sunny. I like hopeful endings. I like a play that points us toward betterment. Is that ok?”



“The possibility of victory must be there in tragedy.”

    Exactly. Huh. What would victory be for Johnnie? For Sugar? Ok I have a lot to think about. I haven’t decided on this killing-the-hero thing yet. 

“I tend to like it.”

     “I know you do. Oh god. Do you want something to drink or something? I’ve been such a bad host.” 

“No. I’ve actually gotta go.” 

     “I don’t mean to keep you. Thank you so much for coming.” 

“It is time, I think, that we who are without kings, took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possible lead in our time - the heart and spirit of the average man.”

     “Or woman.”

“Or woman.”

     “Thanks again.” 

“You’re welcome.”

    ”Do you know where you’re going?”

“Yes, I do.” 

      (Arthur Miller walks out of the door. Lauren makes fresh coffee and starts typing. )

You can catch Lauren’s play Rock Creek: Southern Gothic at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival on Sunday, July 24th at 4pm and Saturday, July 30th at 8pm. Click here for more information! [LINK to HOMEPAGE]


cj said...

This is beautiful, inspiring and fantastic. Thank you.

gsmoss said...

Love this. Lovely to be in dialogue with the past...