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Set On Stage

Artistic Director Martha Lavey talks with acclaimed writer Don Delillo about Love-Lies-Bleeding , his world premiere play, featuring Martha in the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, April 27 - May 28, 2006. ML: Okay, Don, now here we go with the serious interview questions…we can actually talk about whatever you want to, but here’s my question. You have always written novels. I mean, that’s been your form. DD: Right. ML: And now you have written three plays. Is that the total number of plays you’ve written? DD: It’s actually four, and the first one was something I published in a small literary journal and forgot about, because I didn’t think it was stage-worthy. Actually, that play and this play have something in common, simply in the relationship among four characters—mainly in the age relationship rather than the situation. Anyway, that play appeared in a quarterly in the late 1970s. ML: Called what? DD: It’s called The Engineer of Moonlight. ML: That’s a beautiful title. DD: And the quarterly is the Cornell Review, and I think it went out of business a long, long time ago. ML: But Don, did it appear in the Cornell Review as a play text, or would one have interpreted it as a piece of fiction compose entirely of dialogue? DD: No, it was a play text with stage directions, but it was strictly a private experiment. I understood—particularly in Act Two—that this could not work even remotely with an audience. ML: What is the impulse to write a play? DD: That’s a good question and a tough one to answer. I tend to see characters on a stage visually, and that’s the main difference. In this case, Love-Lies-Bleeding, it all began with a line—a single sentence— which turned out to be a line of dialogue, although I didn’t know it at the time. It’s the first line of the play: “I saw a dead man on the subway once.” ML: Good line. DD: This just floated in deep space for a couple of years, and then one day, since I wasn’t able to dispel it, I sat down and typed it out and kept typing, and as I did, I understood that I was writing a monologue spoken by a character in a stage setting. I knew that much, if nothing else. Then over time, other things began to fall into place. ML: Don, let me ask you something. If there is a visual component when a scene takes place in your head—and in the case of it ending up as a play, you see them on stage—when you’re writing prose fiction, do you see them in the world? DD: Yes, I have a strong visual sense… ML: But it’s distinct in that way…either on the stage or in the actual world? DD: That’s right. In a novel, it’s a room, it’s a restaurant, it’s a field…and otherwise, I tend to see a set on a stage—although quite vaguely—but it seems to be that way. In an earlier play, The Day Room, I knew it was a motel, but I knew it was a motel on a stage. ML: Oh, that’s so cool! It’s almost like those modal shifts one experiences in dreaming. DD: In The Day Room, the first act is in a hospital room, and the second act is in a motel. (Or what appears to be a motel.) And I knew immediately that these rooms were stage set-ups. ML: Do you feel like when you’re writing in those two different modalities that there are permissions or restrictions in either form? In other words, if you’re writing for a play, this speech act—at the level of vocabulary or whatever—is it different at all? DD: In fiction, I tend to write fairly realistic dialogue—not always, and it tends to vary from book to book. But in many books, there is a colloquialism of address. The characters will speak in a quite idiosyncratic way sometimes. In theater, I tend to write a slightly more formal dialogue. I’m not sure why. It’s almost as if I’m writing narration in the form of dialogue. In certain plays that I’ve done, I think this is true. I don’t know the reason. I could conjecture that there’s so much colloquial dialogue in American theater that I move in a somewhat different direction. But in this play there’s a slight formality to it. Characters don’t speak off-the-cuff or don’t seem to be. It’s not quite that spontaneous. ML: Does it at all have to do with your positioning or imagining of the ear into which it’s dropped? In other words, does it feel like when you’re writing fiction, it’s a more private act between you and an imagined reader? And the other one has the public component? DD: This is a metaphysical area. It may be that the fictional character is more firmly lodged in my mind and that the dramatic character is a more public figure. It’s between me and the audience, or even more precisely, it’s between the actor and the audience. That may be the difference. ML: Yeah. That seems consistent with the way you visualized it as well. So how is it that an idea—well, you said an idea is appropriate to a play because that’s how you see it; it’s part of the actual birth of the idea or speech act itself, right? DD: Yes, it is, but this is also an area that transcends verbal expression. At times, it’s very hard to know how this operates in one’s mind. ML: Don, I’ve had the good fortune of performing in your play Valparaiso and will perform in Love-Lies-Bleeding. In taking your words to heart, one is very aware of rhythm and your sensitivity to rhythm. Why is that? Do you say things out loud to yourself? Where would you say that you get this sense of pulse in your writing for the stage? DD: The rhythm seems to be natural. It’s not something I have to work at. I’m not sure I know what generates it. I think it’s something that’s developed over the years as I’ve continued to write. In prose, the rhythm is in the sentences, not the dialogue. In theater, of course, there is no narration, so it is in the dialogue, but I think it’s more subtle. I wouldn’t use a lot of alliteration, but I do use repetition when I write for the stage—and a certain stylized kind of rhythm at times. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I haven’t had any difficulty with actors in this area. ML: Well, it’s very satisfying speech to reproduce. DD: Well, that’s good. ML: Yeah…well, because of a felt structure. Also, I can say for myself as an actor, in speech I like certain formal constructions. In other words, I like poetic utterance and also presentational utterance. Those things are contained in the way that you write for the stage. DD: There’s certainly a very narrow line between that kind of utterance functioning well and going over the line and becoming a little pretentious. ML: Do you go to the theater? Do you like the theater? DD: Yes, I do. I tend more naturally to go to movies, but I do go to theater. I will be going to the theater on Saturday to see Klonsky and Schwartz by Romulus Linney. Somewhere lodged in memory there is a great theater experience that I remember quite clearly. It was The Homecoming, and it was a New York production. I should say, it was a Royal Shakespeare production in New York in the late 1960s. I remember it very well. I remember the way I felt. I remember the way the rest of the audience felt. And I think the actors responded to our concentrated interest just as it’s supposed to happen. ML: Is there anything else you want to say about Love-Lies-Bleeding? DD: I suppose the one thing I ought to say about this play in particular is that it’s an attempt to explore the modern meaning of life’s end. When does life end? When should it end? How should it end? What is the value of life and how do we measure it? The play isn’t meant to answer these questions, but simply to fl oat in the space between them. And I could never have said any of this while working on the play or even shortly afterward. But over time, certain things become a little clearer. ML: You know I was suddenly just thinking a lot about the play. It’s interesting because there’s a remove on the surface of the play, but I find myself strangely moved by it precisely because of what you’re saying now—this awful responsibility that we now have and the great wisdom it’s going to ask of us to make decisions about when life ends. DD: We have to make decisions that people didn’t have to make unless they were doctors. ML: It’s awesome. DD: It is. This is what you will convey when you walk out on the stage that first night—the awesomeness of it. ML: Yeah, I hope so. DD: So wear comfortable shoes. (laughter) Love-Lies-Bleeding is a co-production with The Kennedy Center as part of The Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays.