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Just a little conversation...
2006-2007, Volume 5
by Martin McDonagh and Tracy Letts
Steppenwolf’s 31st Season began with Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman and it concludes with ensemble member Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County. Earlier in the season, the two playwrights sat down for a “little conversation” about the necessary cruelty involved in playwriting, as well as depositing pockets of hope into the bleak worlds of their plays.
Tracy Letts: Uh, okay so where did we meet?
Martin McDonagh: We met at a party for the Royal Court in London.
TL: They were gonna tear down or rebuild it or remodel it or something ?
MM: Yeah, it was the final party there, because I had seen your play Killer Joe there not too far before that, right?
TL: We were in town doing Bug.
MM: So maybe it was a year later then.
TL: About a year later. I did not meet you when Killer Joe was happening.
MM: No, no. Yeah, ‘cause as I said to you before, seeing Killer Joe made me want to write a different type of play. So I was, uh, star struck to meet you. I was thrilled.
TL: That was a wild night. You came to me and you said, “You have to come see my play because I’m the greatest playwright in England and Ireland for the next twenty years.”(laughter)
MM: (laughing) I was so… I was so on the ball.
TL: Yeah, absolutely! I didn’t doubt it at the time.
MM: Yeah, but I left out the U.S. and the rest of the world! (laughing) That was me being humble. How old were you when you wrote Killer Joe?
MM: Now that’s just the same ? same age that I was when I wrote my first play.
TL: Yeah. Twenty-five, and it took me two years to even get it put on anywhere here in Chicago, even at a small theater here in Chicago.
MM: Really, why?
TL: Nobody would do it. Everybody was scared of it.
MM: What kind of responses did you get?
TL: Well, what people said was going to happen was that people were going to, you know, stand up and storm out of the theater and we were going to have pickets and all the ? none of that ever happened.
MM: It never does. We got the same response about The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
TL: You know what’s interesting to me is that somewhere back there, or back when you and I first met and our plays were on in London, the critics were writing about “the new brutalists” and “in your face theatre” and all that kind of stuff.
MM: I never bought into “the new brutalists”. What does that mean anyway? If you’re a brutalist you don’t write plays in the first place, surely.
TL: Right. Now I went to see, a year or two ago, I went to see The Glass Menagerie on Broadway ? terrible production of Glass Menagerie. And I remember sitting there thinking; watching it and thinking: you’ve got to be a little cruel to be a playwright, you know? You set up these people that you care about; you set up the things that are important to them, and then you just destroy them… you know, and that’s just sort of the nature of drama. I was just sitting there admiring Williams’ cruelty. You know, he sets up this very poignant situation with this family and then he just rips these people apart.
MM: You think there’s a truth in that? I think of my play The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and I see that it’s a devastating and sad picture. But there are pockets of hope, more hope than would’ve been there before the play was written. I don’t try to point out the bleakness of the world in my writing.
TL: You don’t have to.
MM: Just pick up a paper.
TL: No shit.
MM: But yeah, I guess The Pillowman is a play like that ? getting a poor guy and putting him through a wringer for two and a half hours.
TL: Yeah. And what’s most important to him? His brother, his stories, his life ? you know, those three things. And then, what do you dangle in front of him that you’re going to take away from him over the course of the play?
MM: All three things.
TL: Yeah. So there is a kind of inherent cruelty in that.
MM: Is it possible to write something nice and have it be as good as something on the dark side? I wonder and I hope ? I’d like to try someday. When I’m really old.
TL: I think that’s a… well, I think that’s a real good question.
MM: I think that anything done well improves the world. No matter how dark that piece of art is, a world with one more piece of art is still a better place.
TL: My brother’s a musician. He said to me once, he said “I think it’s harder to create something life-affirming than it is to create something that is not. I think it’s harder to do that.” But I don’t know that that doesn’t go against the grain of drama. Drama is conflict, you know? Not that conflict can’t resolve itself in a way that gives us hope and ? you know, I think that occurs in your plays.
MM: Yeah, I definitely think The Pillowman is very hopeful.
TL: It is very hopeful. I mean it’s not as if they throw his stories in the fire and then walk offstage.
MM: It’s my first happy ending. No, not so much happy as hopeful.
TL: Alright, I’ve gotta ask you this. I’m sure other people have asked you but you have to answer me. Did you really write all of these plays ? sort of, at the same time?
MM: Um, yeah ? well, over a ten month period maybe.
TL: The seven plays, one of which we’ll never see, you wrote over a ten month period?
MM: Um, yeah, yeah ? I got all of the dates and stuff noted. I never really rewrite anything very much at all. I mean, Beauty Queen I think was pretty much word-for-word as it came out.
MM: And that’s still the shortest. That was literally eight days.
TL: What do you think accounted for ? jarring all of those plays out of you in ? I mean that’s a remarkable thing, that you wrote all those plays in ten months! I don’t know of anything that really compares to that, Martin.
MM: I think most artists, even musicians or whatever of 24, 25, 26 ? they have that burst.
TL: I think there’s a burst ? but you wrote seven plays in ten months. Most of which didn’t change that much after you wrote them, and all of which are structurally tight as a drum. That’s pretty amazing!
MM: Thanks, Trace.
TL: Well, I’m impressed.
MM: Also, at that time ? I was on welfare, you know ? had about forty, fifty bucks a week to spend.
TL: Hey, I wrote half of Killer Joe while working as a secretary at an advertising agency downtown ? there’s no real motivation like poverty.
TL: To say, I don’t want to spend my life, you know, shuffling papers, or being on the dole. Anyway, Martin, I’m so proud of you.
MM: Thank you, and honestly I’m glad I came up and introduced myself to you that evening at the Royal Court.
TL: Yeah, absolutely. You’ve got to come back and see August: Osage County, you’re going to get a kick out of it.
MM: Yeah, will do.
TL: And then you’ve got to write a play for Steppenwolf.
MM: Thanks, Trace.
TL: See? Just a little conversation.
MM: Just talking about how great we both are for an hour, we can do that. (laughter)
Plays by Tracy Letts
Killer Joe (1993)
Man from Nebraska (2003)
August: Osage County (2007)
Superior Donuts (2008)
Plays by Martin McDonagh
The Cripple of Inishmaan (1996)
The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996)
A Skull in Connemara (1997)
The Lonesome West (1997)
The Lietenant of Inishmore (2001)
The Pillowman (2003)