On April 9, the Long Wharf Theater officially opened the world premiere of Donald Margulies’ double-bill production “Two Days,” which is comprised of the one-act “July 7, 1994” and a new one-act, “Last Tuesday,” commissioned expressly for this production.
A New Haven resident, Margulies is best known as the author of “Dinner with Friends,” for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2000. He has written dozens of plays, including “Collected Stories” and “Sight Unseen” and has earned, among other distinctions, two OBIE Awards, two Dramatists Guild/Hull-Warriner Awards, and five Drama Desk nominations. Margulies is also the author of over 20 screenplays and teaches a playwriting course for Yale undergraduates.
Last week, Tom Isler met with Margulies to speak about the theater, his writing and “Two Days.”
You’ve said that a lot of young playwrights don’t necessarily know what kind of stories they want to tell. Do you feel that you have these characters that are inside you that need to push their way out?
I have made that observation in the past, about how young people may be bursting with ambition and talent, but very often don’t know how to harness it, don’t know what stories they’re burning to tell. I think that’s something that writers have to learn over time. I find that themes that have interested me all along are constantly presenting themselves to me in new ways. The characters emerge when I begin to think about how I can dramatize a theme or a problem or a conflict. I give different characters different objectives and different points of view and then put them together and see what kind of conflagration I can make. That’s the exciting part.
One of those themes would have to be, if not child abuse, then children facing very difficult, adult situations.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of childhood as the foundation for all behavior. My interest lies mostly in childhood as a predictor, and a microcosm, of the adult world. I’ve always been interested in the relationships between parents and children, or even surrogate parents and surrogate children — people who recreate family relationships in order to fill the void created by their own family dysfunction. Those issues have always crept into the work, more than a hot-button issue like “child abuse.” “July 7” is greatly about parents’ fears about their children’s safety, and their feelings of helplessness to protect their children in a volatile world. In the new play, “Last Tuesday,” that kind of societal dread is present as well. An existential dread.
How autobiographical is “July 7, 1994”?
Well, all of my plays begin at a very personal place. Either they’re things that I’m grappling with in my daily life or I find I have questions about that I feel the need to explore. “July 7” is inspired by my wife’s experiences as a physician in an inner-city health clinic here in New Haven. I wanted to write a play that reflected the time in which I was writing it. I began the play on July 7, 1994 — that’s the day I decided what I was going to write. In my wish to create a microcosm, I recognized that my writer’s world was really rather small and insular, so I decided to use my wife’s experiences as a conduit to the larger world.
How do you think having children or teaching has affected how you write plays?
I think that the dual milestones of becoming a parent and becoming a teacher did inform my plays in very positive ways. I was no longer viewing myself as the acolyte, the young artist; I began to see the world from the point of view of the caregiver, which has made my world larger, my attitudes broader and my fears greater all at the same time.
What has your involvement been with this production at the Long Wharf?
I worked very closely with the director, Lisa Peterson, with whom I worked at least five times before. Lisa is one of my beloved and great collaborators — and, incidentally, a Yale graduate. “Last Tuesday” is very much a collaboration between myself, the director, the designers, the sound designer, and the composer, Ben Allison. It’s been a very fruitful and enjoyable experience.
Is this production what you imagined?
It is. It’s a very faithful representation of what was locked inside my brain while I was working on it.
To get back to younger playwrights, I saw an interview with Neil Simon and he said that if he had to start out again now, he wouldn’t want to be a playwright. He said playwrights don’t really have the opportunity to start out or to fail on Broadway. They don’t have the same opportunities to get their plays produced and seen. What is your reaction to that?
Frankly, I think that’s a bit of a parochial response. The truth of the matter is that for more than a generation, certainly in my experience over the last 20 years in the theater, Broadway has not been the end-all and be-all of theater in America for playwrights; it’s become increasingly a place for musicals and spectacles. Personally speaking, all I ever wanted was to be produced by Joe Papp at the Public Theater. And I was, before I turned 29. I think that Neil Simon never experienced the many options that have been available to playwrights in regional theater for decades because he never had to turn there for support; he established his career on Broadway when it was still hospitable to playwrights. It always amuses me when people like Neil Simon or Arthur Miller bellyache, “There are no plays on Broadway; where are the writers?” They’re all out there — alive and well — in the American regional theater.
If Broadway wasn’t a goal of yours, what was your conception of success in the theater?
I think that in my infancy as a playwright what I longed for most was a sense of belonging, of having a home in the theater that would receive my work with enthusiasm and support it and produce it. And I think, in a sense, that is what I accomplished — in different theaters, not a single theater.
You’ve also written for the screen, but you keep coming back to the theater. So what is it about the theater that makes it the medium you want as a home?
I’ve been writing movies as a writer-for-hire since the late ’80s. And I’ve often enjoyed it. But I continually come back to the theater, because I am, by nature, a playwright.
Why is that, do you think?
It’s the medium that I have made my own as an expression of my art. (That may sound really ponderous.) My voice can be at its purest when I’m writing for the stage. The playwright is still the “auteur” on stage. It’s the playwright’s vision that, in the best of circumstances, directors and actors want to honor on stage. In film, the writer’s often tertiary in the scheme of things, unless you’ve become a writer-director, which is something to aspire to but not, generally, something that is immediately earned.
What do you think about playwrights directing their own work?
I do have misgivings about playwrights directing their own work. A play that I’m still trying to figure out, if it’s in its early stages, benefits greatly from the input of a wise director. Finding a director who can be relied upon is difficult but I think when it’s achieved, the collaboration enhances the work immeasurably.
I have to ask about something I read in one interview you gave. You said that over your career, you’ve had maybe 12 good days of writing.
(Laughing) I think I did say that. Well, I think that’s probably true. (I’m being only slightly glib.) When I look through a volume of my work, there are sections of plays that I can point to that I remember writing and that exist now in the form in which I created them. That’s what I mean by that, that they haven’t gone through endless rewrites and rethinking. They’ve always worked, from the moment of conception. Then there are other passages that maybe approach those moments but were not nearly as inspired, but going through the motions of
Any inspired moments in “July 7” or “Last Tuesday”?
I think that certainly there are ideas, images, moments, that have stayed with the plays during their evolution. Passages in “July 7” are as written, as laid down in its first draft. That’s not true of everything that I’ve written. I sometimes consciously decide that I’m going to write badly, which takes the onus off of writing. I say, “This is going to be bad, but it has to be written; it’ll be something for me to work with.” I’ve written some bad stretches just to get it out, and then step back and seek out more elegant ways of getting the same ideas across. I have grown to realize that the process of my writing is often about that.
It seems like it would be difficult, though, because you’d get attached to certain things, or you’d want to work through something before you move on.
You know, I think that over the years I’ve learned to let go of things. I’m sometimes a knife-happy surgeon of my own work; directors sometimes have to talk me down from cutting too deeply. The kind of work that I do in rehearsal is more often cutting and shaping than it is rewriting and coming up with entirely new ideas; I tend not to do that. Once I feel that I have the right armature on which to hang these beats and these moments, that is basically how the structure of the play remains. It may sometimes take me months of trial-and-error to arrive at that point; the journey that leads me to that moment is really where most of the work is. And very often it’s not even writing that I’m doing, it’s thinking.
One thing that I liked very much about “Dinner with Friends,” and I’ve noticed in a few other of your plays, is that you play with time. Often it’s a flashback.
Sometimes. It will depend on what the story calls for; it’s not simply a device that I pull out of a hat. I envisioned the two-act structure of “Dinner with Friends” as two triptychs in which the first unit of three scenes took place on a single night and the second took place several months later, also on a single day and night. And I realized that the structure didn’t leave room for a scene in which all four characters appear. And that’s really where the idea of creating a centerpiece came from, a flashback that served as a snapshot of the four of them in their youth. I like irony seeping through something that might otherwise seem kind of banal. Because of what you know, it’s suddenly infused with mystery and portent. I like that when I see it dramatically. There’s something always very thrilling about that. With “Sight Unseen,” I don’t even know why, but I was just playing around with perception and time. “Brooklyn Boy,” the play I’m working on now, doesn’t do any time travel at all — it’s pretty linear. But there is a ghost in this play, as there is in a couple of my plays. I’ve simply accepted the fact that ghosts may appear in my plays.