Never give up the enormity of this dream. Keep telling the lie. The United States will always be the last undiscovered terrain — even if we have to move the white spaces inside our head. Always hold out the promise that you can find your passage to the west, to whatever it is — love everlasting, bottomless wealth, glory —
These lines, which arrive at the end of one of John Guare’s most recent plays, could be the perfect epigraph for his collected works. Desire for betterment, self-deluding ambition, holding out on a maybe: these unite Guare’s best-known characters, from Artie Shaughnessy in The House of Blue Leaves(1966) and Sally in Atlantic City(1980) to pretty much everyone in Six Degrees of Separation (1990), his most widely performed play. There are plenty of rogues in Guare’s work — con artists, thieves, drug dealers, aspiring terrorists — but they are defined less by their unsavory pursuits than their mastery of self-deception. His is a poetics of delusion.
The House of Blue Leaves, which won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Obie for Best American Play for its 1971 production, was Guare’s breakthrough. Artie Shaughnessy is an aspiring songwriter and actual zookeeper married to the heavily medicated Bananas but having an open affair with the vulgar Bunny Flingus. The play’s action takes place on the day in 1965 when the Pope visited the US to appeal to the UN for an end to the Vietnam War. Artie and Bananas’ son, Ronnie, has absented himself from boot camp to blow up the pontiff at Yankee Stadium. Throw in some riotous nuns and a deaf starlet, bake for two acts, and you have prime Guare: an absurd tableau in garish chiaroscuro brushstrokes.
Artie and Ronnie are the prototypical Guarean dreamers. Ronnie, as a boy, dreamed of playing Huckleberry Finn in the movies — “all the store windows reflected me and the mirror in the tailor shop said, ‘Hello, Huck.'” His failure has evidently weighed on him since, and his disillusionment has led him to the psychotic’s conclusion: only notoriety remains. His father, meanwhile, continues to dream of California and Hollywood, encouraged by the optimistic Bunny. The latter, a marvelous confection, is one of Guare’s many shape-shifters, the embodiment of a specifically American chameleonism that allows her to constantly reinvent herself. “I didn’t work for Con Edison for nothing!” she’ll say, or “I didn’t work in a law office for nix. I could sue you for breach.” Her impossibly extensive resumé is both a good running joke and an indication of the lengths to which she’ll go to keep Artie in line.
The ability to reinvent (or at least deceive) oneself turns out to be something of a running joke throughout Guare’s work. Burt Lancaster’s ageing hood Lou in Atlantic City — a grand, sad film that feels weirdly timely this week — is constantly boasting about the gangsters he’s known (“I knew Bugsy Siegel. I was his cellmate!”). It’s not till nearly the end of the film that he confesses to Sally (Susan Sarandon), the woman he’s fallen in love with, that this is all bluster; that he met Siegel only once, in passing. Sally is a more sympathetic version of Bunny, with dreams of becoming a croupier and travelling the world (“I’m gonna deal my way to Europe”). She’s generally pretty streetwise, but in her romance with Lou ironically overlooks the advice of her croupier-mentor, who warns his trainees, “They have a million different ways of trying to cheat you!” In this scene, as Lou is demystified in front of her, we see the illusions fall away:
In A Free Man of Color (2010), the play’s mixed-race Don Juan, Jacques Cornet, is also a master of reinvention. Repeatedly he retitles his life story to accommodate his changing circumstances: “A Free Man of Color or The Happy Life of a Man in Power. A Free Man of Color or How I Take Control. A Free Man of Color or How Jefferson Is a Liar…” Cornet understands that illusion can be a sustaining force; indeed he relies on it to achieve his many sexual conquests. But by the end of the play, he’s become the victim of one of the grandest of all illusions, the American promise that “All men are created equal.” A Free Man of Color is a burlesque history of the Louisiana Purchase, and as such its theme is the violence at the heart of the nation’s history. The Purchase marked the introduction of racism into the gaudy Eden of New Orleans as the city was sold to the burgeoning Republic by an overstretched Napoleon. As the play ends, Cornet sees clearly — even prophetically. He urges Thomas Jefferson to change the course of history: “You’ll avoid a Civil War — Jim Crow — Dred Scott — lynching — back of the bus — whites only — assassination — degradation — ” He even foresees Hurricane Katrina, “when generations of Margerys and Murmurs and Dr. Toubibs and the girls of Mme. Mandragola will be trapped on rooftops in New Orleans, reaching up to be saved. I say those bitter words ‘Hang on!'” The curtain falls on the final iteration of the play’s title: “A Free Man of Color or How One Man Became an American.”
Nearly two hundred years later, young black men are still being forced to reinvent themselves in order to succeed. In Six Degrees of Separation, con man Paul gulls a series of pretentious Manhattanites, insinuating himself into their lives by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier. He learns the shibboleths of their set — Kandinsky, Salinger, Barthelme, pots of jam — and charms cash and a bed for the night out of art dealers Ouisa and Flan Kittredge.
But the weight of Paul’s constructed identity is too great. He brings a prostitute into the Kittredges’ home and is thrown out. He seduces a young actor fresh off the bus from Utah, who, unable to face his girlfriend afterwards, commits suicide. His other victims turn on him, too, and their hatred is racially inflected (“My son has no involvements with any black frauds. Doctor, you said something about crack?”) He butts up against the limits of political correctness, white liberal guilt, and collective delusions about the state of the nation. A great comedy of manners, Six Degrees of Separation is also still an urgent and serious work in a nation once again torn apart by racial politics.
Guare’s has been a brilliant career. Earlier this year, he accepted the Dramatists Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award. His tragicomic analysis of the deceptions that sustain us has made for an incomparable contribution to the American stage of the last fifty years. He once wrote that “the only playwrighting rule is that you have to learn your craft so that you can put on stage plays you would like to see.” Fortunately for us, they’re plays we want to see, too.
We’re delighted to be joined by John Guare at our next Seriously Entertaining showcase, Inside the Lie, at City Winery NYC on September 29. You can buy tickets here and copies of Guare’s plays at McNally Jackson. Inside the Lie will also feature Natalie Haynes, Gail Sheehy, Andrew Solomon and Marcelo Gleiser.
Michael Friedman is the composer and lyricist behind an astonishing range of theatrical output over the last fifteen years. He wrote his first musical for The Civilians, a downtown theatre group he helped co-found in 2001. Canard, Canard, Goose? was also The Civilians’ first show, taking as its subject alleged geese abuse on the set of the Hollywood movie Fly Away Home. The Civilians’ method of working is a little like verbatim theatre in that the shows are based on interviews with real people. What’s different is that the final product is a heightened version of what emerged from those interviews, as you can probably tell from the sublimely silly Canard (the plot of which effectively disintegrates when the Civilians team realises that the movie wasn’t in fact shot in the hamlet where it was set but in Ontario). You can hear the whole show in this podcast recording of the 10th anniversary concert performance at Joe’s Pub.
Canard set the offbeat tone for an eclectic career. Friedman went on to write the music for a series of shows, some with The Civilians, some not, including In the Bubble, based on the John Travolta movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble; the children’s show Katie Couric’s The Brand New Kid; Gone Missing, an ideas-driven musical on the subject of loss; and an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel The Fortress of Solitude, previews of which have just begun in Dallas. He’s written for Shakespeare in the Park, the Public Theater, Signature Theatre, Theatre for a New Audience and many more spaces in New York and beyond. The Civilians’ new show, The Great Immensity, which opens on April 11, has songs by Friedman. He’s certainly a busy man; as this funny New York Times profile from 2007 reveals, he can get “overly busy because I get excited by things and can’t say no”.
One of Friedman’s biggest successes to date is the satirical “emo” musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which he co-wrote with Alex Timbers. Bloody Bloody opened in Los Angeles in 2008 and made its Broadway debut in the last months of 2010. Emo, as Ben Brantley in his New York Times review defined it, “for those of you who don’t download your songs, is a postpunk rock variant that wears its shattered heart on its tattered sleeve, throbbing with the narcissism, masochism and frustrated powerlessness that come with being a teenager”. It also tends to involve a lot of male eyeshadow and black clothing, which lends itself well to the high theatricality of the show.
Bloody Bloody opens in the early nineteenth century with “Populism, Yea, Yea”, a call for power to be returned to the people from the hands of the elite. This is no Les Mis, though; rather a political movement born out of the pent-up frustration, angst and sexuality of adolescence:
Why wouldn’t you ever go out with me in school?
You always went out with those guys who thought they were so cool
And I was just nobody to you, nobody to you, nobody to you…
But it’s the early 19th century and we’re gonna take this country back
For people like us, who don’t just think about things, people who make things happen
Sometimes with guns, sometimes with speeches too,
And also other things…
Populism, yea, yea…
Here, Friedman discusses the opening number and the origins of the show:
It’s a highly literate show with a broad referential field that includes Susan Sontag, Michel Foucault and Alexis de Tocqueville. But it’s also relentlessly un-highbrow. “The Corrupt Bargain”, for instance:
John Quincy Adams says, “If we steal the election, then Jackson will surely cave.”
John Calhoun says, “You can be president if you don’t try to take away my slaves.”
Henry Clay says, “You won’t get Missouri because I know how to play realpolitik.”
James Madison said something prescient about this but he was kind of a dick.
And in “Rock Star”:
John Adams tried to be an American Idol,
Jefferson tried to be a rock star,
Madison tried to make the Presidency vital,
James Monroe was a douche bag.
It’s a fun show, a fast-moving and irreverent survey of President Jackson’s controversial life. We see his early military career, which stoked his belief that the government was not doing enough for the people on the frontier; his astounding success at the Battle of New Orleans; the overturning of his popular election in 1824; his eventual election four years later; the institution of Jacksonian democracy; and, ultimately, the violent confrontations with the Native American population that make him a hotly disputed figure to this day. And all set to rapidfire rock music.
The success of the show lies in the unlikely melding of emo rock music with history. As Ben Brantley wrote, “Long before rock ’n’ roll was invented, it seems, the United States was a sucker for the rock-star charisma of a maverick politician.” American presidents have been immortalised in music elsewhere, of course: a host of them — at least obliquely — in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins; the disgraced thirty-seventh in John Adams’s Nixon in China; even FDR in Annie. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, like the best of them, succeeds because it finds a musical correlative for the atmosphere of the time and its writers’ take on their subject.
Michael Friedman will appear at the next House of SpeakEasy show, “Are You For Sale?”, on March 18. Tickets are available via the City Winery NYC website.
We’re thrilled at the House of SpeakEasy to be joined for our sold-out opening gala by the British-born historian Simon Winchester, whose work includes books on China, the Oxford English Dictionary, and, most recently, the United States of America…
The United States. This unique national quality — of first becoming and then remaining so decidedly united — is a creation that, in spite of episodes of trial and war and suffering and stress, has been sustained for almost two and a half centuries across the great magical confusion that is the American nation. The account that follows, then, is on one level a meditation on the nature of this American unity, a hymn to the creation of oneness, a parsing of the rich complexities that lie behind the country’s so-simple-sounding motto: E pluribus unum.
So writes Winchester in the preface to his engrossing, enthralling, enlightening The Men Who United the States (Harper, 2013). Here is encapsulated the glorious freewheeling nature of his working method, more hymnal than forensic, leavened as much with personal experience as names and dates. Many of the reviews of his book have commented on Winchester’s evident love for the US (see the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Telegraph) — the passion, in fact, of an adopted son, as he became a naturalised citizen in 2011. This love stimulates him, and the synaptic pinball that takes place when his personal experience and extensive research collide makes for riotous, exhilarating reading. It’s a helter-skelter vision of the taming of the frontier, reviving those whom history has forgotten, casting new light on those it’s remembered, and offering a unique and deeply personal reading of a history you might think you knew.
Author Simon Winchester
Winchester’s geological background is everywhere evident in his knowledge and understanding of America’s topography. This is important, for it’s the trees and rocks, the mountains and rivers, the Midwestern expanses of prairie so broad that the curve of the earth is visible in the distance, that dictated where the early settlers settled and what routes were taken by trailblazers like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The first couple of chapters are dominated by explorers and cartographers, including Lewis and Clark and the men who led the so-called Four Great Surveys of the West, opening the world’s eyes to the wonders of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and many other things that in time would come to define the American landscape in the collective imagination. Later chapters take in the railroad and communications pioneers who made it easier for Americans first to visit and later to talk to one another over its vast expanse.
Part of what I enjoyed about this very personal account of the foundations of American civilisation is Winchester’s tendency to see palimpsests wherever he looks. Often he will stop somewhere and see at once what is, what was, and the currents of thought that link the past to the present. In the first chapter, which traces the path Lewis and Clark took across the largely uncharted territories west of the Mississippi, Winchester pauses at Whiteman Air Force Base:
There seems a certain irony in this nuclear firebase being located so very close to the Lewis and Clark expedition route, not least because what Jefferson’s explorers were seeking to do, even if unknowingly at the time, was tied to the unique American concept of the frontier and to the development of what to this day is known — and argued over — as the frontier thesis. The irony stems from the argument that the frontier mentality, if such a thing truly exists, still plays a nourishing — and controversial — role at the intellectual roots of much of today’s American foreign policy.
Actions past and present, linked by arteries of thought. By his own confession, the connections Winchester makes are often over ground as rocky and uneven as the continent he describes. But all his insights are lit by flashes of inspiration, illuminating alternative histories and drawing dotted lines between points others might not think to join up. The near-concurrent signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Pacific Railroad Acts, for instance, were not as legislatively separate as they might sound:
The South’s early railways were small, local affairs, largely unconnected to the great new lines of the East. This helped exacerbate the feelings of separation and otherness that led to the Confederacy and the Civil War. The existence of an extensive and technically sophisticated Northern railroad network also became a factor in the outcome of that war, giving the Union generals a major advantage for rapidly moving their troops.
The implication is left hanging: the laws passed by President Lincoln that facilitated the building of the transcontinental railroad, which unified the nation infrastructurally, running parallel to his attempts to save the union through the fighting of the Civil War.
Aside from these broad speculative touches, I also enjoyed the breadth of Winchester’s research. His seeming-endless gallery of minor characters are flavour enough for five books. Some don’t even escape the footnotes, for instance:
A Texan explorer named Clyde Eddy did manage to shoot this rapid [in the Marble Canyon, a section of the Colorado River in northern Arizona] in 1927, along with a black bear named Cataract, from the New York zoo; and Rags, an Airedale from the Salt Lake City dog pound.
I have since discovered that Eddy, who appears nowhere else in Winchester, wrote a book on his experiences and actually filmed his trip down the Colorado:
This is just one of the many happy leaping-off points The Men Who United the States gives the reader.
John Wesley Powell, one of Winchester’s many protagonists, led the expedition that made the first known passage through the Grand Canyon. Speculating on how he and his men must have felt passing through the canyon, “cold and wet and hungry, a mile deep in the black bowels of the earth”, Winchester recalls a scrap of Philip Larkin about “earth’s immeasurable surprise”:
How could they have guessed […] how magnificent the world was for hundreds of square miles above their watery prison? Up on the desert was a true wonder of the world: when Teddy Roosevelt inaugurated it as Grand Canyon National Park in 1908, he declared simply, and brooking no argument, “You cannot improve on it … what you can do is keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.”
Earth’s immeasurable surprise.This would have been a fitting epigraph for the book, containing as it does both the frontier terror that the pioneers faced down and the wonder that possesses a heart like Winchester’s at the majestic scale of America. It’s a wonder you can share in The Men Who United the States.
Please click here to buy tickets for our February 24 show, “This Is Not A Man”, featuring Steve Coogan, Tom Reiss, Jeff McDaniel, Anton Sword and Dana Vachon.