News & Articles

Norris and Shapiro discuss The Pain and the Itch

  • Curt Columbus: So here are my questions: Is this a political play, Bruce? And how is it reflective of how you and Anna both feel about the world right now? Bruce Norris: First, let me answer your question with a question. What do you see as political theater? Because I don’t think we have a working definition in our country. In fact, I think a fairly good working definition of political theater in America is theater that people don’t go to see. So let’s not call it political theater. CC: All right. How would you like to define it? BN: I think I’d define it as satire. If I dare be so stiflingly pretentious, I would accept social satire. CC: Well, that does set one in mind of Moliere, and we all know how thrilling a Moliere play can be. (yawns) BN: Well, yes. But, Voltaire is a social satirist, and Mark Twain is also a social satirist. Those are writers who excite interest rather than dull… Anna D. Shapiro: You better write down that I said Mark Twain and Voltaire are social satirists like Bruce, because otherwise it’s going to sound like Bruce is comparing himself to them. BN: Yeah. CC: Okay, I’ll remember to do that. Back to my question, though, about political plays. When I read a play like Death of a SalesmanBN: Now that’s a funny play. (laughter) CC: Well, see, it’s a political play to me in spite of the fact that it doesn’t forward an agenda. It’s political, not polemical. BN: I think depending on who you are, when you see The Pain and the Itch, you could accept the play as having a political premise, or you could simply enjoy it as a comedy. CC: How could one simply enjoy this play as a comedy, Bruce? It doesn’t present itself as a simple comedy. AS: It’s not a SIMPLE comedy, but it’s still an incredibly funny and enjoyable play. CC: Well, the two shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, right? BN: You know it’s called “The Pain and the Itch” because personal skin infections are inherently funny. (laughter) AS: The play is an examination of a certain kind of American family, so that has some political ramifications. But I think a better description would be “social” ramifications, because there’s no lesson. I think there’s an agenda, but I don’t think agenda is a bad word. I think of lesson as a really boring word. BN: It’s certainly legitimate to say that the play is political in the sense that politics is one of its subjects. However, it’s not a political play in that it’s not trying to advocate a position. The play just shows us people who do advocate a position and that the position they advocate is not the one that they live. CC: That’s why I use the word “political” in the first place, because I feel that one of the… Gosh, I don’t want to say “messages” because suddenly we’re in the land of boring plays with “messages” and “lessons.” Let’s just say one of the themes of your play seems to be that contemporary Americans have trouble separating the political from the polemical. In other words, if you don’t agree with me and my politics, then I stop listening to you. That’s what happens in this play, and I find that really compelling. Because we keep coming around to the fact that nobody’s listening to anyone else! BN: That, to some extent, shouting at people about your politics is much more popular in America today than taking political action. AS: Well, I also think what’s profound about the play is that these people are engaged in discussions with such commitment and vehemence about an issue that actually doesn’t ever affect them! And in fact, the vehemence with which they discuss this is in direct opposition to its actual impact on their lives! BN: They have great and terrible impact on another person’s life in the play, and that is a result not of their politics, but of their political behavior – which is ultimately invisible to them. CC: And that’s what I find so fascinating about this play. It manages to make a really powerful point about American society and simultaneously be about – what did you call it? – personal skin disorders. BN: There’s a better word than personal…it should be…intimate. CC: Intimate skin disorders… BN: And now it sounds funny… AS: People are gonna be rolling in the aisles… CC: And up the aisles… AS: And out the door. (laughter) To me the play is also about a certain kind of immunity. It’s about a group of people who think they are immune to events around them, to the world. BN: And that is the Zeitgeist of my generation – of the privileged people of my generation – that we feel it’s our responsibility to ask questions. So we do. Whether it leads to any actual political change is a moot point. We may indeed be simply repeating the mistakes of the generation that we’re attacking. You know, when my father judges whether or not something is good, he often says, “What does it teach us? Did it have a lesson?” I don’t think that is my job. It might be the job of some writers to say, “Here’s the way you should live your life.” I feel that my job is to hold something up to an audience and say, “Recognize that? Doesn’t that look familiar?”