inaugural recipient of the Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play for his new work “Middletown”…
Will Eno is a playwright from the imaginary land of Brooklyn. He is best known for his international sensation “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” and has furthermore written a number of other works that have earned him a very fine reputation.
John Bailey: Often people become writers in part because it’s something they can do on their own. They’re not relying on a whole team of other people to make it happen (unlike, say, filmmakers or stage directors or whatever). Does that work for you? Are you a solitary person in that sense, or are you the sort to sit down and bounce ideas off other people and see what sticks? There’s a very distinct aspect of existential solitude in Thom Pain (based on nothing), for instance, and I wonder if alone-ness (or maybe good old loneliness) is of great interest to you. Language is clearly one of the things that you think and talk and write about, which is good because it’s hard to do any of those things without language. But this makes it very easy to position you within the field of postmodern writers, and around these parts at least there’s a very solid theatregoing public who are worried that this means they won’t get a good story for their dollar? What’s your relationship with narrative? Have you ever written a straight-up nuts-and-bolts story?
Will Eno: I like the way you’ve phrased that. “Loneliness is of great interest to me.” I hear a T-shirt being printed. But, yes, I guess I tend to be more toward the solitary end of the spectrum. And, yes, I’d say I was concerned with language, a little pre-occupied with it, even, though this was never a post-modern gesture. I think I never really felt I existed when I was little. I somehow got the feeling that it was best to keep myself to myself and as that misunderstanding hardened into my personality, it got harder and harder for me to talk and I felt like I was starting to disappear. But I knew, somehow, that a person’s identity, and I guess, therefore, their existence, depended on and arose from what they said, out loud, to people. So, if you have this sense that all you are and ever will be is what comes out of your mouth, I guess you’d get pretty interested and even a little anxious about what to say and how to say it. And you might start wondering weird things like, “What if all the best and most right words for me to truly express myself are Dutch words, or Farsi? And here I am, stuck in English.” And from there, it’s only a small step to start thinking of English itself as a foreign contraption that you’re not exactly sure how best to use. As for the idea of narrative, I think it’s ancient and crucial, but I think we have to include in our sense of narrative, this: earliest Man and Woman are naked and standing under the stars, enjoying the Stone Age air, and suddenly, a large dark shape, just over there, moves, or they think it moves, and that’s it, that’s all. Somewhere therein is, to me, the best and simplest sense of narrative– something just happened, we’re not sure what it was, but probably it was what we thought it was, and it means that something else is going to happen, to us, and we are filled with real feelings, and we know that somehow our lives depend on what happens next, somehow our lives are what happens next, and we wonder what that will be. Most events, no matter how small, can be broken down into these general parts. Which comes first? is a pretty good question. Life, or the parts? There’s an American philosopher, John Dewey, who says that we only are able to recognize any experience in life because it conforms to certain aesthetic contours and standards. It would not be recognizable or memorable as an experience, if it wasn’t also aesthetically striking. All of this is to say, I’m not sure, but, no, I’ve probably never written a straight nuts-and-bolts story. Not for lack of trying and not because I don’t think it’d be a good thing to do. I just kind of can’t. But that’s all right. And it doesn’t mean I’ve never written a story that follows a followable emotional and semantic arc. But I have trouble doing it in a really linear way, and that trouble becomes an interesting part of the story to me. I think our weaknesses and blind spots are probably, in an art-making context, as well as in life, the more interesting part of us. James Urbaniak, who is the actor who played Thom Pain in Edinburgh and New York, always said he found the play pretty classically structured. A guy has a problem, he tries some solutions, they don’t work, you wonder if they ever will, then one maybe does, and maybe you’re involved somehow, his life is maybe changed, and the lights go down.
JB: Why all the humour? Are you an ironist or a satirist or an absurdist or do these words make you wince? What’s the dynamic between humour and misery in your writing?
WE: The words do make me wince, a little, because they all imply (or imply to me) a fixed stance with respect to experience, to actuality and the world. And, again in my sense of the words, there’s a kind of safety, and even a smugness, in that fixed stance. It’s as if a person is saying, “I understand the world, the world is like this, and now I’m going to satirize it.” So none of those words really hits home with me. What about Botanist? I don’t really calibrate a balance or relation between humour and misery– I just think there is one, a balance, that arises fairly naturally based on the nature of things. Both seem to involve a repression, somehow. It’s like this, maybe. Imagine a person at a lecture or in a quiet library suddenly thinking of something really funny and trying to stifle a laugh. And then imagine an actor trying to make himself or herself cry by thinking of sad things. There’s a tension and intensity in both states, and it could be that Truth and Important Things require or arise in this particular tension and intensity. So that humour and joy and misery and sadness are subcategories of the larger thing, Truth. Or maybe it’s like this. The closer you move to a true thing, no matter if it’s a funny thing or a sad thing, the closer you move to all true things. So that the funnier something gets, the closer it moves to a really gutting and total kind of sorrow. Don’t know. I’m not Bertrand Russell. I’m not even Nipsy Russell (You’ll have to look that one up, I imagine.) So, yeah, as for the crying/laughing mix, it’s not a really calculated effect. It’s more like, when you’re talking with a friend about something serious and painful, and at a certain point, your friend makes a little joke. If you have good friends, the timing and size and funniness of the joke will seem in right proportion to the situation, and it will keep the conversation moving in the right direction with the right kind of energy. It even will seem like a kind of love, their joke, because they’re essentially saying, I’m listening, I’m maintaining a certain perspective, I want you to keep in mind joy and laughing while you tell me this sad thing, to which I’m listening, I promise, and so on.
JB: Isherwood has called you “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.” What that makes me wonder is: what’s Samuel Beckett then? Do you see yourself as updating some kind of tradition or fitting into some kind of genealogy or are those questions not ones that keep you awake at night?
WE: I’m sure you’re right about that– Samuel Beckett must be the Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation. I think we were very lucky to get the one and we don’t need updates or revised versions. That was definitely the type of quote that follows you around a bit. That said, it’s a pretty nice one to be followed around by. I was just glad to be taken seriously. As for history and tradition, I like to think that when you really hit your stride and are really really writing, and this maybe has only happened for me a few times in a couple plays, then you can’t help but be making something that is completely original, but, at the same time, is also respectful or at least aware of capital-h History. I don’t think it’s something you can really shoot for, but I do think it’s something achievable, something that can be achieved by a sustained engagement with history and a sustained openness to the self. You know? You have your feelings and your Tuesday morning on one hand, and the works of William Shakespeare, on the other. And maybe at some strange right moment, the two intersect somehow, and maybe you just happen to be sitting there, at that moment, writing. I don’t mean to say that you then drop a line from Shakespeare into your play. I mean to say you come up with a new solution to a famous problem, or, you somehow write a moment that shares some mystical and thudding quality with the moment where Gloucester’s (was it Gloucester?) face hits the stage, after he thought he was jumping off a cliff.
JB: Here is the question: how about that drugged balloonist?
WE: How about him, indeed. I think I worked with that guy, at a textbook publishing firm. He had some very different ideas about acceptable foods to eat at his desk. Honestly, I don’t have much to say about the Russell excerpt other than that it’s great and thanks a ton for introducing me to it. It reminds me a bit of that Wittgenstein quote about how if you ask an elephant to draw a picture of God, he’ll end up drawing something that looks sort of like an elephant. The thing Russell says about how our picture of the Universe is largely and secretly based on our actual physical size is very familiar and even kind of comforting to me. There are massive and unknowable systems and horrifically random events in the world and the Universe, around which, in an effort to make life not completely insane, we put these little splintery hand-made wooden frames. Good for us. You know? Hooray for us, for doing that.
“MIDDLETOWN” 2010 written by Will Eno
the Vineyard Theatre, NYC opens its new season with MIDDLETOWN — showing 11.3 – 11.21.10…