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Director and Playwright Discuss Last of the Boys

Curt Columbus talks with ensemble member Rick Snyder and playwright Steven Dietz about the countercultural forces behind Last of the Boys. Curt Columbus: Steven, can you talk about why the cultural moment of the Sixties in America is so important in the atmosphere of Last of the Boys? Steven Dietz: I’m certainly no expert on the Sixties, but I believe that the idea of that era continues to haunt the second half of the 20th century, continues to haunt us today in America. The people who were at the center of that cultural moment, whether it was John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson or Robert McNamara or Bob Dylan or the Beatles or anyone you can mention, they all still have significance today. So, perhaps every writer and artist is drawn to the resonance, the power of that time. I started out writing a play about Robert McNamara and the Vietnam War with my left hand and being interested in writing a play about buddies and friendship with my right hand. The era of the Sixties was the thing that was powerful enough and resonant enough to make those two ideas collide. The notion of the Sixties, or perhaps the myth of the Sixties, has become like Woodstock – everyone was there! We romanticize that time, but the issues that were central to the period are also the part of American culture that still flares up, that still causes anger and conflict among us. Rick Snyder: I would agree, Steven. Americans forget that during that period of history, there was a huge swing in the society that put a lot of old values to the test like never before. The culture swung in the completely opposite direction from where it had been even 10 years before – free love, the sexual revolution and communes, all of that. Of course, it has swung back in the past 50 years. The music and the social change from that time were really quite astounding, and quite extreme, even by today’s standards. And in the middle of all that, you have Vietnam. I think the very insightful thing that Steven is expressing in Last of the Boys is that our country is still haunted. The fact that the attitudes from that era about Vietnam still exist in our country today. We are still divided. Many of us still suffer from the moral, the emotional, the physical loss. CC: It’s amazing. I was just reading the news, and there was a blurb about a theater owner in Kentucky that won’t let Jane Fonda’s new movie play at his venue. And not because the movie is probably terrible, but because of things that she said and did in 1973 regarding the Vietnam War. RS: Fonda’s even said in her latest book how sorry she was that she said many of those things, and explained why it happened the way it did. But it’s not enough, she’s haunted by it. Things haven’t quite been resolved. There’s a feeling that someone should still be accountable, that things haven’t quite closed on that whole issue of the war, and that they probably never will. SD: But look at it now, from the perspective of 2005, when we’re debating whether we can filibuster judges. From that perspective, the Sixties was a glorious and terrifying experiment in democracy. It was a time of profound dissent—social and political dissent, not just Vietnam but also civil rights, women’s rights. If we can add our voice to what is still to be learned, not only the politics of the Sixties but the fallout of the sixties, then I’ll consider the play a success. We still have Vietnam in our presidential politics, and the issue of that war still breaks everybody’s heart. CC: Rick, what attracts you to the piece as a director? RS: Ultimately, it comes down to getting the human factor right. It’s a play about relationships that really has its most powerful moments not in the political stuff, but in the way the people are described. These people in the play haven’t moved on. I can understand that, how the characters interact in that situation, what’s theatrical about it. What brought me to the play is the human factor. See, because when we talk about the war and that turbulent period, what it’s ultimately all about for me is the loss of life. The terrible, terrible waste and the ruined lives of all these vets. They came back, and maybe they didn’t lose legs, but they were never the same. CC: That’s one of the reasons that you’re obsessed with Steven’s image of the young soldier, Rick. That guy has luminosity for you. He’s obviously the ghost of Vietnam haunting the play. RS: That for me is the tragedy that the play talks about so clearly, all those young, young soldiers who have their lives change forever. I read an interesting thing where actually in World War II that the vets fought a lot, but they didn’t fight as nonstop as the Vietnam vets because they didn’t have the helicopters, didn’t have the technology to fight without stopping. These soldiers in Vietnam would finish one battle and fly right away into another one. That was what was so mentally and physically exhausting about the Vietnam War – there was no rest, no getting away from it. And now, for us older folks, as soon as the Iraq conflict started we said, "Oh my God, how are we are going to get out of there? It can’t be another Vietnam!" CC: This is what makes the play so relevant, doesn’t it? The current world situation? SD: Well, I honestly don’t know if there’s anything new to say about the Vietnam War, that can’t be the goal of our play. We’re not trying to give a history lesson, for sure, and I wouldn’t even call it an anti-war play (though my politics are certainly present in the writing). This is a play about how a friendship ends, about how a girl speaks to her missing father, about how a man deals with the loss of his own father. It takes a certain amount of arrogance and a certain amount of humility to write a play that is not exactly about my generation, but it’s a generation I’ve observed. It’s a generation that started this conversation that is still going on in the corners of our culture. A hidden conversation that’s existed since I came of age. A conversation that, sadly, won’t go away.