Thursday, September 24, 2009
Playwright Doug Wright has written award-winning works about the Marquis de Sade and a fascinating German transvestite named Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. The latter play, I Am My Own Wife, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2004. Wright has now adapted the August Strindberg play "Creditors" for the La Jolla Playhouse stage, where he'll also direct the production. We'll talk with Wright about his work.
Creditors runs at the La Jolla Playhouse from September 29th through October 25th.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. When Playwright Doug Wright was last at La Jolla Playhouse, his work "I Am My Own Wife" kicked off the theater's Page to Stage New Play Development program. That turned out to be quite a success for everyone involved. "I Am My Own Wife" went on to Broadway, won a Tony award for Best Play, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2004. In that play, Doug Wright took a pile of transcripts from his interviews with an aging transgender German woman, and turned them into a powerful tale of survival. Now Doug Wright is back at the La Jolla Playhouse, and he's taken a little-known 19th century play by August Strindberg and adapted it for a 21st century audience. He's also directing his adaptation. It's a pleasure to welcome Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Doug Wright to These Days. Good morning.
DOUG WRIGHT (Playwright): Good morning. Thanks for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Now when Christopher Ashley, the artistic director at the La Jolla Playhouse invited you to come back to the Playhouse with a new project, did he give you carte blanche to do whatever you wanted?
WRIGHT: He dangled a very compelling carrot in front of me and he said, if you’ll find a classic that hasn’t been done to death, dust it off, spiff it up in a new translation, then I’ll actually let you direct it. And so the promise of power lured me back to the Playhouse.
CAVANAUGH: Now did you immediately focus on Strindberg?
WRIGHT: I was chatting with a very dear friend of mine, Moisés Kaufman, who directed “I Am My Own Wife” on Broadway and here at the Playhouse, and he said, darling Doug, you must try Strindberg. It’s as excessive and over the top as you are. So I started to read some of Strindberg’s work and I knew, of course, the major plays like “Miss Julie” and “The Father,” but when I stumbled across “Creditors,” I was absolutely stunned by it. It felt like such a visceral and immediate and surprising play that I chose it almost promptly.
CAVANAUGH: Now tell us a little bit about Strindberg if our Strindberg 101 hasn’t been kept up to date. What is his role in theatre history?
WRIGHT: He’s a pretty pivotal and compelling figure. He is credited, in part, with the invention of naturalism. His early plays are extremely expressionistic and almost dreamlike. But with “Miss Julie” and “The Father” and “Creditors,” he becomes unflinchingly realistic. And he was a contemporary of Ibsen’s. He despised Ibsen. He was deeply threatened by him, so much so that Ibsen kept a photo of Strindberg over his typewriter and said, it’s good to have your enemies watch you while you type. But…
CAVANAUGH: Oh, dear.
WRIGHT: So August Strindberg was a bit of a madman. He had bouts of insanity. He had three very tumultuous marriages. He was a painter. He was an alchemist, and a playwright. And bequeathed to us some of the most outrageous, shocking and provocative dramas I think that still exist in the canon. And I think Credberg – “Creditors” is very much one of those.
CAVANAUGH: Before I ask you specifically about “Creditors,” I have to ask you about this alchemist part of Strindberg. Was he into the occult?
WRIGHT: He was into the occult. Late in his life, he became an occultist and believed in trafficking with spirits from other worlds. If it was outré and a little out there, you can bet that Strindberg was knee deep in it.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you chose the play, as you say, you chose “Creditors.” What is “Creditors” about?
WRIGHT: “Creditors” is a ferocious little love triangle, two men, one woman, and a lot of dastardly deeds. Its title refers not to tax time or the accountant but to the tolls we extract from one another in relationships. And it’s a surprising little play about the unwholesome acts we commit in the name of love. It’s sexy, and Strindberg himself called it a thriller and I don’t think that’s an inaccurate description of the piece. It has a real pulse.
CAVANAUGH: There’s a lot of this play that’s autobiographical for Strindberg, isn’t there?
WRIGHT: Very true. His, I believe, second wife, Siri von Essen, was the prototype for the character of Tekla in the play, and it’s based largely on incidents in his second marriage. And, in fact, Siri was slated to play the lead in “Creditors” when it premiered on a double bill with “Miss Julie” but she was already playing Miss Julie and thought the evening would be a little too overwhelming for one actress, so she ended up letting someone else say the role.
CAVANAUGH: Now as you looked at this play and you took it apart and you adapted it, I’m wondering, would you put on the stage anything that personal as Strindberg did?
WRIGHT: I would hazard to say every writer does.
WRIGHT: Sometimes we disguise it and we say it’s a play, like “Quills” about the Maquis de Sade or a play like “I Am My Own Wife” about an aging East German transvestite. But I think your own blood is always coursing through the material, otherwise it doesn’t have the ring of truth that I think, hopefully, a good play requires.
CAVANAUGH: Now there’s – In “Creditors,” there are long conversations about love and art and marriage and you say that the “Creditors” is also about passion itself. How does that translate? How do these conversations translate into the very essence of passion?
WRIGHT: I think that these characters, for all of their foibles and for the astonishing cruelties they inflict on one another in the play, are still urgently and desperately in love. If they weren’t, I think it would be a cynical play. But because in spite of all of their bad behavior, they still care about one another deeply, I think that elevates it to a tragic play. And there’s no more ready justification for some of the worst crimes we commit than the claim passion—I did it out of passion—and I think that’s certainly true in this play.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking to Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Doug Wright. His adaptation of August Strindberg’s the “Creditors” – “Creditors” is going to be opening at the La Jolla Playhouse later this month. Now, Doug, you say this play is very sexy. It’s a 19th century Strindberg play. What’s sexy about it?
WRIGHT: I think – Well, first of all, I have a ferociously attractive cast and, secondly, it’s – Strindberg was pretty transgressive for his day and one of the central images in the play is a monumental bed where at one juncture all three characters, in various combinations, consummated their passion. So it certainly raised eyebrows in its own day and I think even a century later it has the capacity to raise them still.
CAVANAUGH: I can see so, yes. And you wouldn’t expect that, really, coming from a play that old in the 19th century.
CAVANAUGH: You would imagine that perhaps what – do you know what the audience did when they first saw this play?
WRIGHT: It was greeted with some success. And, certainly, I think we tend to look back on plays from previous centuries and assume that they must have been somehow more chaste or more polite than current culture. And yet you had Ibsen writing about syphilis in “Ghosts,” and tales of incest. And so I think that over time these works require a kind of tasteful Masterpiece Theatre reputation but when you really pull them off the shelf and give them a good look, they’re more primal than that. And I think that’s what has allowed them to endure because those phenomenon, as troubling and titillating as they are, are still very present in our world.
CAVANAUGH: Now, “Creditors” is said to be from Strindberg’s naturalist phase. What does that mean?
WRIGHT: It’s a play that tries to recreate a tangible reality in lieu of represent a dream life or a more overtly theatrical environment. So it’s about 90 minutes long, it’s a short play. It’s three characters. It’s continuous action. It’s one set. So when you see the play, you’re really living through 90 seismic minutes in the lives of three people. It’s pretty unflinching and the characters are all – and their behavior, I think, rendered with incredible plausibility. They’re not abstracted in any way.
CAVANAUGH: Now, from your description of this play, you obviously read it and fell in love with it and really wanted to see it revived and – But, I’m – You also adapted it, so how did you take this original work and adapt it for a 21st century audience?
WRIGHT: I’ve worked very hard to ensure that it’s still Strindberg’s play and not my own. I’ve tried to divine his intent in every choice I’ve made. And it’s a lot like walking in another writer’s footprints, and they lead you places you might not go in your own writing but in doing so, you learn a lot about craft itself. And this play is really structured like a tightly running machine. I mean, he’s really built a compact little mechanism and so I learned an enormous amount by following him into the thicket. And in terms of making it relevant for a contemporary audience, I don’t think I had to do much in that regard because it still felt vital and sexy and provocative and, again, we all have benefited and been burned by love so I think there’s an audience out there for it.
CAVANAUGH: Can you give us an example of perhaps a phrase that you might’ve changed or a piece of dialogue you might’ve changed because perhaps these days we wouldn’t really get it?
WRIGHT: Well, sometime – It’s hilarious. A wonderful Swedish translator and director himself, a fellow named Anders Cato did a literal translation for me that I could then work from. And we found a hilarious line in the original text the other day where Gustav says of the central female character, Tekla, her capillary powers have sucked up all your water levels. Now, not! Doesn’t really flow trippingly off the tongue and I think the new line – I’m paraphrasing my own text but the new line is something akin to, for God’s sake, Adolph, wake up, she’s hypnotized you. So there’s a fair amount of adaptation going on but I still think it’s very much Strindberg’s play.
CAVANAUGH: And that’s a wonderful – the original is wonderful, if you don’t have to understand what it means.
CAVANAUGH: Now Strindberg is famous for troubled relationships, tortured relationships with women, and Woody Allen has joked about it in his films, and what do you think of Strindberg’s ability to craft female characters? Is it all out of his, you know, his difficulty in getting along with them? Or is he objective in his female characters?
WRIGHT: I don’t think he’s remotely objective.
WRIGHT: And some of the baggage of “Creditors” and one reason perhaps it hasn’t reentered the canon as readily as other works is allegations of misogyny, particularly in its portrait of Tekla, the central woman. But I think it has less to do with what’s innate in the play itself and more to do with prevailing social attitudes. And I think for a 21st century audience to watch the behavior of the two men in this play and deem them above reproach or representing a reliable point of view about women or being free of their own sort of sexist tendencies, is preposterous. I think today it’s impossible to watch the play and not see it as a round indictment of a lot of male behavior. So I think as we’ve become more enlightened, the play actually becomes sturdier with time because behavior that might’ve been sanctioned by the male audience in Strindberg’s day is no longer sanctioned by us. And I think all three characters are revealed to be equally human, all equally flawed so I don’t think that allegation holds true anymore and, certainly, we have a brilliant leading lady in the role, Kathryn Meisle, and she’s brought, I think, a lot of integrity to Tekla. And we’re doing our own reparative work on Tekla’s literary reputation.
CAVANAUGH: And are you saying, therefore, that what may have looked like a misogynist’s behavior when we didn’t see a full personality of a woman and we didn’t accept that in the past, now looks like she’s just being human? Maybe a bad human but human.
WRIGHT: I think so. I think so. And also a lot of the male attitudes espoused by the two, Gustav and Adolph, in the play, are no longer socially sanctioned. So I think we bring a more critical eye to the men in the piece than audiences in Strindberg’s day might have. In a way, they’re like stunted, overly articulate frat boys, and we see that in them and we judge them for it in a way that perhaps 19th century audiences did not.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, how did you get started writing plays?
WRIGHT: I always wanted to work in the theatre and at an early age I figured out that to direct you needed a play, and to act you needed a part, and to write you just needed paper and a pencil and some time. So it felt like a way of seizing control of my own future in a medium that I loved.
CAVANAUGH: Did you ever think about acting? Again?
WRIGHT: I have – in – As I careen into middle age, I have been asked by a couple of film director friends to do cameos in movies and it’s always a kind of busman’s holiday. I think the other day I was excited because I got a residuals check in the mail for a film I did. I got $31.97, so my acting career’s making me rich.
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for talking with us today Doug Wright. Thank you.
WRIGHT: Thank you so much.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with playwright Doug Wright, and his adaptation of Strindberg’s “Creditors” opens at La Jolla Playhouse September 29th and runs through October 25th. Stay with us as These Days continues. We’ll learn what children’s minds can teach us about the meaning of life. These Days returns in just a few moments.