I’m a novelist who started out a playwright. When I moved to Manhattan in 1978, I promptly fell in love with theatre, and by the time I moved on in 1994 had seen hundreds of plays, and written all but one of these below. (Naturally, since leaving New York, I’ve seen only a handful.)
In 1989 I celebrated my escapes from academia and from running a family business that had plunged me into depression by assigning myself an apprenticeship writing one-act plays, and for five or six years wrote plays exclusively (well, and a screenplay, derived from Swinburne yet). Having now re-read them for the first time in twenty years, I flatter myself that they remain fresh and original.
My first play was My Gamaliel, inspied by the summer I spent in Alaska before going to New York, doing assessment work on mining claims as a geological field assistant (my two-man team established that Red Mountain in the Alaska Range is a zinc massif; one day on its slopes a grizzly bear interrupted me as I lay reading Jane Austen). At the museum in Seward, I saw a display about President Warren G. Harding’s visit to the town one morning in 1923, the final stop of his “Journey of Understanding,” and learned that the town’s mayor had asked his townspeople to show the President respect by staying indoors and out of his way. Harding accordingly wandered the streets by his lonesome, then sailed south. Collapsing on board, he was taken off comatose at San Francisco and died. The obvious question: What happened that morning in Seward?
The Happy Ending (1990) reminds me that in the ’80s you could buy a Daily Worker on West 23rd Street’s sidewalk and chat with the man selling it, his face shining with idealism as he deflected jibes from passersby (“Go back to Russia, ya dirty Red!”). Lofts in the neighborhood still clacked with Linotype machines, and almost every store—for whatever strange reason—had a stuffed rodent or small mammal mounted in the window.
The Garden Party (1990) takes place backstage at one, while voices off rise high and hilarious on spiked punch. When an old friend wanders into the pantry, the hunter becomes the hunted—the philanderer past his prime finds his kitten victim grown up into a panther. As told in I Remember Caramoor, my memoir of being that famous Westchester County estate’s teenaged underbutler, my play was inspired by its 1970 garden party, when the daughter of Sir Oswald Birley, who had painted Mrs. Lucie Bigelow Rosen’s portrait, visited us in the pantry and became reacquainted with Mr. Clark, the butler. I wrote the play knowing nothing about her except her father’s name and what I could observe (including the purple jumpsuit), ignorant until the dawning of the Internet of Maxime de la Falaise’s own fame.
In Seductions of a Wedding Night (1991) two strangers in Iowa for a wedding share a motel room. One man is gay, the other very young. The younger helps the elder salivate (where’s the sport in that?), while the elder pretends not to notice the youth’s beauty (where’s the justice?), as each entertains the possibilities. It’s an energetic little piece.
Chocolate Meringue Pie (1992) was inspired by an incident of my step-grandmother’s visit shortly after my grandfather’s death (I was nine), when she accidentally locked herself out of the house one morning. Soon she came out of retirement and returned to teaching on the Navajo Indian Reservation. Despite being from Indiana, she was the sweetest person I’ve ever met.
So at the nadir of its fortunes, I moved to New York City and got a job as proofreader-cum-messenger at a type shop on West 25th Street and an apartment in the far East Village, on the terrifying block of East Tenth Street between Avenues B and C, named by the New York Daily News one of the city’s worst. For blocks around was nothing but a bombed-out wasteland roamed by junkies, predators, rats and artists, most of the old tenements being abandoned or rubble. Its remote air reminded me of the Rockies above timberline, but it was far more dangerous. I was mugged once with a gun, again with a club, and one night awoke to the touch of an intruder’s knife. Strangely enough, my phone number was apparently similar enough to Mark Strand’s that I used to field plummy-voiced calls meant for him.
Fortunately in 1981 I moved to a safer neighborhood, Hell’s Kitchen—West 54th Street near Ninth Avenue—that was also more convenient to City College and Columbia University, where I earned degrees in English Lit (naturally learning ten times more at CCNY than at Columbia).
Meanwhile AIDS came in and took over. I first heard about an unknown disease killing a handful of gay men in hospitals across Manhattan from a medical-resident friend in the summer of 1980, a year before the famous New York Times article of July 3, 1981. But soon enough that distant drumbeat of doom was banging away right in front of my face and everybody else’s, and indiscriminately taking friends, lovers, enemies, acquaintances, friends of friends, colleagues and teachers.
A Journal of the Plague Year
Adapting Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year for the stage seemed a natural response. I don’t know how many read his classic these days (surely a graphic novel of it would sell?), but it’s a terrific book, throbbing with life however saturated by death. Defoe was a little boy in 1665 when bubonic plague killed a quarter of the people of his London. In 1721, as another epidemic threatened, the old man called on his memory and vivid commercial instincts to write two plague books.
The rarer one, which I luckily stumbled across at the New York Public Library, is Due Preparations for the Plague. In dialogue form, it follows the divergent strategies of two families (the play’s Tydings and Selkirk families) in the face of the epidemic, replete with windy injunctions to pray, pray, pray. At least Due Preparations gave Defoe a place to stash the pieties that might otherwise have marred his other plague book, so largely free of them.
That second book, A Journal of the Plague Year, purports to be the journal of one “H.F.,” a Whitechapel saddler who, seeing the plague sweep into his city, feels compelled to view and record its horrors. He patrols London and returns home to write up his “ordinary memorandums,” depending less on prayer to survive than on the practical sanitary precepts of his physician friend Dr. Heath. But it seems that his forays in search of journal material help preserve him, too, almost as if Defoe offers up H.F.’s experience as a paradigm for the writer’s life: living always in plague time, able to rely on himself only (shades of Robinson Crusoe), surviving so as to make an ultimately honest accounting: “Yet I alive!”
Other sources for my adaptation were Loimologia; or, an Historical Account of the Plague in London in 1665, by Nathaniel Hodges (ca. 1666), God’s Terrible Voice in the City, by Thomas Vincent (ca. 1666) and The Great Plague in London 1665, by Walter George Bell (1924).
In 1993, The New York Theatre Workshop kindly gave the play a reading, directed by Michael Petshaft, with Darryl Theirse reading Foe and the participation of Rinne Groff, Paul Harris, Roberta Levine, Bruce Katzman, Molly Powell, Brian Keane, Martin Moran and—fresh from snuggling under a blanket with Madonna during breaks in filming her Bad Girl video, in which he played a detective—Frank Raiter. The actors were excellent but—entirely owing to my script as it then was—the reading flatter than a pancake. James Nicola, NYTW’s Artistic Director, advised me to concentrate on Defoe’s hints that the government knew more about the plague than it cared to let on (“There’s your play!”); I disagreed. The reading’s great result was that it enabled me to see how to make the script dimensional—how to raise the play up from print to action.
I’m grateful to Charas/El Bohio Community Center—that remarkable institution (now unfortunately defunct) that for more than twenty years squatted in an abandoned schoolhouse between East Ninth and Tenth Streets (on my old block!)—for producing A Journal of the Plague Year as an Actors’ Equity Showcase in 1994. (And I was delighted to meet there a board member, the fine actor and movie star Luis Guzman.)
We rehearsed in an upstairs classroom during the incomparable month of May, the old school building charged with activity, the neighborhood’s very atmosphere electric—so different from when I’d lived there fifteen years earlier. One evening we witnessed a confrontation on Ninth Street between FBI agents and the priest who, to this day, is said to harbor millions from an armored-car heist. In cosmic irony as we rehearsed our play about plague and terror, the World Trade Center was a presiding presence, soaring up seemingly just outside our windows.
Our audiences laughed and cried, making the run a success in every way that counts. The cast was superb. Gino Montesinos played Foe, Katherine Sandberg was Judith; Ben Soto, Heath, with Claudia Arenas (Esther Selkirk), James K. Wuensch (Tydings), Emily Lester (Mrs. Tydings), John E. Slagle (John Selkirk) and Timothy Durkin (Martindale). Russell Hodgson designed and ran the evocative lighting, Sang-Jin Lee designed and sourced the exquisite costumes (Kyung-Ah Kang was Costume Assistant) and John E. Slagle, again, built ingenious and effective sets and props. David Paul composed haunting themes in period dance rhythms, which violinists Karen Hansen and Sara Parkins improvised upon in performance. Stage Manager Kirsten E.C. Haussermann was also, one weekend, an actor’s game and capable fill-in, and, with Carrie P. Haussermann (Technical Staff), incomparably deft at helping with the actors’ quick changes. Charas’s Roberto Badillo, Carlos Baez, Robin Michaels, Ulla Neuerburg, Alexander Perez, Ali Perez, Fabiana Reyez, Richard Velez and Executive Director Carlos Chino Garcia contributed to the production’s success. Helpful criticism of the script came from Gary Bird, Anthony Brazile, Peter Brickelbank, Linda Chapman, Bettina Drew, Rob Glasser, Norman Kelvin, Tony Phelan, Bruce Phemister, Frank Rouda, Glen Sparer, Lizabeth Spires, and especially Albert F. Pesant, as well as from my parents, Jean Meyers and Harold Burton Meyers, who, with Sheila Meyers and Terry Meyers, also generously helped underwrite the production. The scheduled director pulling out at the last minute, I directed. The late Armando Perez, Charas’s Artistic Director and the play’s producer, declared it the best thing Charas ever did. This play is dedicated to Kevin John Bueche, (1957-1993).
Chesterfield to His Son
Trust me, reading Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son yields little pleasure; not only are they endless—sprawling across multiple volumes even in abridged editions—and endlessly repetitive, but bottomlessly dull. My late friend Bruce Phemister was subjected, growing up, to Sunday readings from them by his father, the surgeon for whom the University of Chicago named a building, and scarred for life. When I told Bruce that, adapting the letters into a play, I was discovering a human and relatable character, he was hostile. “Who cares?” he said. “So what?”
But buried in what amounts to a written code of civility (remember civility?) is a heartsick father willing to do anything—even reveal himself utterly—to help his son make his way in the world. Shrewd, observant, without hypocrisy, he knows that civility is desirable not because it’s Christ-like but because it drips like oil into the gearing of the way the world works, giving the benefit of greater smoothness. Looking unblinkingly at how men and women behave, Chesterfield instructs his son in how to conduct himself so as best to promote his interests. Even as fathers go, Chesterfield must have been unbearable, but it’s easy to see that he loved his son.
My adaptation interpolates not more than two dozen words of my own; it’s Chesterfield’s voice as teased out from his Letters that transforms that most forbidding and self-conscious of men to an unself-conscious, loving clown. (My ideal casting would be Charlie Chaplin, F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce or Bill Irwin.) For what it’s worth, I wrote Chesterfield to His Son in Los Angeles in 1995 with one ear cocked to O.J. Simpson’s trial (and the jury’s inevitable verdict) on the radio.
Dr. Knox and Mr. Banner
Dr. Knox and Mr. Banner (1992) began with my reading in the late ’80s an article in The Advocate, I forget by whom, that in passing mentioned a 19th-century German scientist whose theory was that same-sex attraction is a trait carried by the blood, thus “curable” by means of transfusion. I never knew (or wanted to know) more than this, but set my play in the slightly more familiar terrain of London.
In the long, painful course of writing my first full-length work, I absorbed a writer’s basic lesson thus: One Monday morning I was suffering at my desk, wishing I were any place else on earth, when suddenly I wondered what might be on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Reasoning that a brisk walk uptown and two hours’ glance inside would well reward me for a day’s missed writing, I hurried up, only to discover what I knew very well, that the Met (in those days) was closed on Mondays. I trudged home, my day wasted, except for having learned something useful about a writer’s discipline.
Dr. Knox and Mr. Banner’s energy delights me. I never before realized how Shavian a play it is—fitting tribute, I hope, to all the glorious Shaw I saw in New York.
It was not any lack of commercial success that caused me to abandon playwriting in favor of writing novels (no more am I discouraged by my novels’ commercial failure), but my discovery that fiction better enables my peculiar gift of writing characters out to make sense of the world by telling themselves stories. Early in 1996 I began writing a novel, Queer’s Progress, whose first draft was an expansive epic in three voices. And that was it; home at last.
But of course the plays, too, feature characters who tell themselves stories: Harry Foe in Plague Year impresses narrative over the chaos of his experience and apparently thus saves himself. Knox and Banner construct intricate theories and justifications concerning their relationship, before one accepts his own authenticity at any cost and the other rejects his. Nelma of My Gamaliel spins herself a fable in order to redeem Alaska’s promise and her marriage. The Happy Ending’s Old Agitator nimbly overlays a new narrative, fitter for his present circumstances, over an outdated one. Cynthia, encountering in The Garden Party the man who launched her story, brings it full circle and makes it big. In rehearsing every possibility from a night’s serendipity, Dan in Seductions of a Wedding Night comes to a rueful recognition of himself. Similarly, in Chocolate Meringue Pie Violet arrives at recognition and acceptance after examining her life through a filter of cherished recipes. Lord Chesterfield, who has all the answers, recites them ad nauseum to his son, until released to be a doting grandfather by the one event he never foresaw.
Life is so inchoate, so unpredictable—and always so cheap—it’s no wonder some of us look to storytelling for a semblance of order and structure; some solace, too. I write this in America’s hollowed-out, small-town heartland in January 2019 just seven days after hearing voices raised outdoors and looking out my study window in time to see a 17-year-old boy get shot three times: pom-pom-pom. Like I said, chaotic, random, cheap.
Reading plays is seldom a pleasure, because that’s not what they’re made for. But what can I do but offer up mine in paper and ink?