from NER 40.4 (2019)
JOHN GUARE’s career as a playwright has made him a dominant figure in theater for over six decades. Born in New York City in 1938, he has received Tony, Obie, and Olivier awards, among many other distinctions. He was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and nominated for an Oscar. Guare, who earned an MFA from Yale University, began his career in the theater during the 1960s at the legendary Caffé Cino. His most recent play, Nantucket Sleigh Ride, opened at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in March 2019, directed by Jerry Zaks.
He is best known for his plays Six Degrees of Separation (1990), which became a feature film (1993), and The House of Blue Leaves (1971), for which he won an Obie Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Among his Broadway credits are Sophisticated Ladies (1981), Bosoms and Neglect (1979), Four Baboons Adoring the Sun (1992), Kiss Me Kate (1999), Sweet Smell of Success (2002), and A Free Man of Color (2010).
Among his many other plays are Did You Write My Name in the Snow? (1963); To Wally Pantoni We Leave a Credenza (1965); Muzeeka (1967), for which he won an Obie Award; Cop-out (1968); Kissing Sweet (1969); Marco Polo Sings a Solo (1973); Rich and Famous (1974); Landscape of the Body (1977); Lydie Breeze (1982); Gardenia (1982); Moon over Miami (1989); Women and Water (1990); Lake Hollywood (1999); Chaucer in Rome (2001); A Few Stout Individuals (2002); and 3 Kinds of Exile (2013).
He also wrote the book and lyrics for a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971) and adapted a story by Anton Chekhov (The Talking Day, 1986). His screenplays include Taking Off (1971); Atlantic City (1980), for which he received an Academy Award nomination; and the aforementioned Six Degrees of Separation (1993).
John Guare was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1989; in 1993 was elected to the American Theater Hall of Fame; and in 2014 received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Dramatists Guild of America. He is one of the founding members of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut and has taught playwriting at many institutions.
I had the pleasure of sitting down to talk with Mr. Guare at his apartment in New York City in September 2018, covering everything from his early days as a child dramatist to his upcoming opening at Lincoln Center.
NGN: You’ve said that you’ve loved to go to the theater since you were seven, and you knew that writing plays would be your way of working there. Why theater and not another artistic field?
JOHN GUARE: I had two great uncles who toured in vaudeville from 1880 to 1917 and I had their handwritten sides—actors’ sides with the cue lines. Their plays were terrible melodrama—Pawn Ticket 210, The Old Toll House—but I was absolutely fascinated by the past, about traveling around America. And then when I was a kid, I went to see Annie Get Your Gun and it was overwhelming. The immediacy of the theater, and that it was so formal: You had to go at a certain time. You had to sit in a certain seat. It began, it ended. I loved being part of the audience. It was amazing how something up on stage could make a thousand people laugh or gasp at the same moment. Growing up in New York City, I would go and see a show at least once a year, always on my birthday. Going to the theater always meant something special, you got dressed up for it back then. I loved that—that world seemed to me to have an excitement and exhilaration.
NGN: How did it happen that your first play was produced when you were only eleven?
JOHN GUARE: I saw in Life magazine—Life Goes to Summer Vacation—a story of these two eleven-year-old boys making an eight-millimeter film of Tom Sawyer white-washing a fence. It was a five-page story on them. I was so insanely jealous of these eleven-year-old boys who were doing something. I was just sitting here on my rear end and they were already immortals. So, I decided, I didn’t have a movie camera, but I knew the theater and had already seen a number of plays: Where’s Charley and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. So, I wrote three plays. We did them at Bobby Shlomm’s garage out at the beach on Long Island. I called Life magazine to invite them to come see it. Well, I couldn’t get through. I called Newsday, Long Island’s leading newspaper, and told them that two boys were putting on a play to give all the money to the orphans of Long Beach. I didn’t even know if there were orphans. And at the last performance, a big black car came and the photographer came out and the reporter got out and they did a story on an eleven-year-old playwright. And there I was, July 31, 1949, in the papers, two pictures of me. For my twelfth birthday, February 1950, my parents gave me a Royal portable typewriter with a note that said, “To our playwright.” That was my identity. I had a reason. The paper said I was a playwright. I was already started. I was on my way.
NGN: As an undergraduate at Georgetown University did you become more involved in theater?
JOHN GUARE: In my first year, I remember a girl putting a sign on a tree outside the George Motel in Washington. It was the first annual playwriting contest. And I said, “This is it.” I mean, I was a playwright so I went home and I wrote a play. It came in second. My play was a comedy and the first-place winner was a serious play—a serious religious play since it was a Jesuit school. I wrote a play every year. When I was in high school, I loved a musical called The Boy Friend, a comical 1920s musical. I was reading The Great Gatsby at the same time so I decided to write a musical of it. I had all of these songs for the musical The Great Gatsby. I can still sing some of them, and some of them ended up in The House of Blue Leaves. And then at Georgetown I wrote the senior show—the book, music, and lyrics—for a musical, The Thirties Girl. It was great.
NGN: In 1963, you earned an MFA from Yale School of Drama. Who were some of your classmates, and what was the impact of this on your career?
JOHN GUARE: It wasn’t like one of those times when you had Meryl Streep, Wendy Wasserstein, and Chris Durang all at once. There were only five in our class. Unfortunately, two of my classmates committed suicide and I don’t know where the others are. It was an odd time in the theater because theater was changing, but we did not know what it was going to change to. That year, spring of 1960, Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story opened and it changed everybody’s life. We didn’t know how to digest it. The teachers didn’t know what to do with it. John Gassner tried to dismiss it by saying it was not avant-garde, that it was a reworking of Ibsen. And there was a liberation going on in Eastern Europe and European theaters. How would we incorporate Pinter, Beckett, Arthur Adamov, and Eugène Ionesco into our lives—into our working lives? What did they all mean? It was literally a dividing time in the theater: that was before 1960 and after 1960.
NGN: After Yale you were in the Air Force for six months. Could you say a bit about that experience?
JOHN GUARE: When I got drafted, I had no fingerprints on me. I was twenty-five, and I was in with men who were eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and most of them had not even graduated from high school. It taught me that I knew nothing. My education had prepared me for a life of the mind and nothing for outside my head. I had nineteen years of school, and that was a great thing, but now it was over. Now I was on my own and had to educate myself.
NGN: When you were young, you also traveled quite a bit: France, Rome, Cairo, Sudan, and Istanbul. How do you think your travels have contributed to your playwriting?
JOHN GUARE: It was thrilling. I had a degree from Yale that said I was a playwright. I knew all the techniques of writing a play and could tell you the history of playwriting. But I had nothing to write about. Nothing had ever happened to me. I remember it was very dramatic. I went to London and I got a job working not at one but two publishing houses. And I went one weekend to Paris, just to have a weekend in Paris, and I said, “What am I doing here?” I had my little suitcase and I threw it in the Seine dramatically and started hitching. And I hitchhiked to Cairo and Jerusalem. I just felt liberated—finding a new me, finding out who I was, giving myself an identity I could live with.
NGN: Not long after, your work was produced at Caffé Cino. Can you contextualize the significance of Caffé Cino during the 1960s?
JOHN GUARE: I discovered by chance Caffé Cino, at 31 Cornelia Street, on the opening night of Lanford Wilson’s play The Madness of Lady Bright. I had never heard of Lanford Wilson. I went in and it was phenomenal. I said, “I could fit in here.” I went back the next day and I brought two plays, and Cino, this heroic guy, gave me a slot. My stars were right. I fit the astrological chart he was looking for. And my life began. It was so funny because I had to ask some friends from Yale to come and act in the plays down at Caffé Cino, and they were insulted. They said, “We did not go to Yale to end up working in some storefront theater and café down in Greenwich Village.” They didn’t realize that was the future.
NGN: In 1999 you were honored at the William Inge Festival. Early in your career, you had a connection, an association with William Inge: You were briefly his assistant. What did you get from being Inge’s assistant?
JOHN GUARE: I worked at the Falmouth Playhouse in the early 1960s, and when I saw that William Inge was having a world premiere of his new play there I wrote Sidney Gordon, the woman who ran the theater, and I said, “Could I please be Mr. Inge’s associate?” That was 1965. I couldn’t wait to meet him. I had seen Bus Stop and Picnic. But he was the saddest man I ever met. He was terrifyingly sad and distracted. I had just got out of the service a year before and he said, “What branch?” And I told him the Air Force. And he said, “Oh.” He wanted me to be in the Navy. That was the only life I saw in him. And then I had to take him in to an interview in Boston with Elliot Norton, who was a famous theater critic who had a TV show. The TV show was one of the cruelest things I have ever seen. Elliot Norton said, “We are very honored today to have William Inge, one of America’s leading playwrights.” Elliot said, “I read the review for your play, it might be interesting for our viewers—bring the camera in; it might be interesting to see how an author reacts to a review of his play.” And Elliot began to read the review. It was something along the lines of “At best, it was a mediocre talent stretched beyond all endurance.” It was a pan. It was the most sadistic thing I had ever seen. And Elliot said, “What do you think of that?” and Inge said, “Very interesting, very interesting.” And I drove him back to Falmouth, and he got into bed and never got up again, and never did any work again on the play. It showed me how success does not make you glittery and fun and welcoming and joyous. He was a man whose success had given him absolutely no pleasure at all.
NGN: The 1960s was a very interesting period for playwrights. You had the avant-garde theater movement. Experimental theater was coming into its own. America was experiencing radical social, political, and cultural changes. How do you compare that decade of the 1960s with other decades in your life?
JOHN GUARE: There was no comparison. I was young, life was starting, everything was brand new, everything was possible and joyous. I must say, since the time I was sixteen until I was thirty-three, seventeen years, it was all one fantastic batch of time where anything could happen. I was living hand-to-mouth and meeting new people who’d become my friends. Love affairs, drunkenness, drugs—it was a very exhilarating time.
NGN: In 1965, you, Lanford Wilson, Leonard Melfi, Sam Shepard, and Terrence McNally were invited to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center before it became the O’Neill Center as we know it now. What led to this invitation that brought you all together at the O’Neill?
JOHN GUARE: The great thing that happened at Yale, when I did my third-year thesis play You Write My Name in the Snow, of all people, who was at the matinee but the legendary Audrey Wood, who discovered and represented Tennessee Williams. She signed me, I was on her list. When I graduated, she sent me to California to work. She said that’s what Tennessee Williams had done; she said he had no money and she got him a job at MGM and he made money and came back to write. She sent me to California and out there is where I got my draft notice.
At the same time, Edward Albee had made a fortune off of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—literally, it was a blockbuster all around the world, there has never been a hit like that since. With that money, one of the things that Edward and the others (Barr and Wilder) did was to lease a theater on Vandam Street, called the Barr, Wilder, and Albee Playwrights Unit, and they picked the twenty playwrights. He went to Audrey Wood and she recommended me. I was one of the new playwrights who was chosen for the first group. Later, in the same way, Audrey recommended the people in the Playwrights Unit to George White at the O’Neill; again I was on her list. The O’Neill was a heavenly place. We went and we built the theater; we built it with our own hands. There was never anything like it, a place where the focus was just on the playwrights and their new plays.
NGN: How did you and Terrence McNally start the Juilliard program?
JOHN GUARE: That was many years later. They found out, while going through the books, that the Wallaces, the people who founded and owned Reader’s Digest, had left a ton of money to the Juilliard School. And part of it was for a program of playwriting for playwrights, with no tuition. It had been there for about twenty years and was never used, never touched, and it had grown to millions of dollars. Michael Langham had not wanted playwrights in the Juilliard School when he was running it. Michael Kahn, who followed him, discovered this cache of money and asked Terrence and me to start the playwriting program. Now, thanks to Chris Durang and Marsha Norman, it has become legendary.
NGN: The double bill of your two one-act plays (Home Fire and Cop-Out) on Broadway at the Cort Theater in 1969 did not have a long run. The critics were not in favor of the production, but overall they agreed that you were one of the most promising and adventurous up-and-coming young playwrights.
JOHN GUARE: Those plays belonged Off Broadway, but the producers, as I understand it, were backed by a series of something called “funeral parlors” that had to launder a lot of money. They wanted to have a play on Broadway so they could write off a lot of money. That’s all it was. Oh, the critics hated it, but then six weeks later, Variety voted me the most promising playwright of the year (1969) over Lanford and Howard Sackler, who wrote The Great White Hope. I then said, “Why would they trash me and then six weeks later give me recognition over the other playwrights?”
NGN: In 1971, your play The House of Blue Leaves won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as best American play of the year. You were in your early thirties. You had a big hit; what did all of this mean to you at the time?
JOHN GUARE: That I was on the right path, that I could look at myself in the mirror. I’ll tell you what else it meant: I was going to Europe and I wanted to get a credit card. Credit cards were still brand new. I called Diner’s Club and told them I wanted a credit card because I was going to Europe. I said, “I am self-employed, I am a writer.” And he said, “Of what?” And I said, “The House of Blue Leaves.” And he said, “Oh, I saw that!” And he gave me a credit card. And I said that’s what it means to have a success.
NGN: The House of Blue Leaves was produced Off Broadway at the Truck and Warehouse Theater. I read that the show never closed—
JOHN GUARE: The theater burned down.
NGN: The House of Blue Leaves also won the Obie Award. It was revived in 1986 at Lincoln Center and won four Tony Awards. Could you talk a bit about the original production and the 1986 production? What transpired between the first production and the revival?
john guare: I didn’t make any changes. The difference was that in the meantime someone had tried to shoot the Pope. When it went in the play, people said what a kooky, far-out idea. Where does he get these ideas? And when they did try to assassinate the Pope, it changed the whole tenor of the play. History was very kind to the play.
NGN: The year after Blue Leaves premiered, you co-wrote the book and lyrics for the Tony Award–winning musical version of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona.
JOHN GUARE: Yes, the director of Blue Leaves (Mel Shapiro) was invited to do Two Gentlemen of Verona in the park. It had to tour around all the boroughs. It was a violent summer. We wanted to make a show that could fit on the truck and play in ninety minutes. We used a farce structure to shape the play. We had Raul Julia and it was heavenly.
NGN: You have worked a great deal with Stockard Channing, and she was in the chorus of the original Two Gentlemen of Verona. Did you know her at that time?
JOHN GUARE: That’s where I met her. She came in to audition for it—it was a cattle call—and we told her there was nothing in it for her. She yelled at us and said, “What do you mean? I am so good. You want me to keep singing?” We told her, “Our leads are all filled and you’re certainly not chorus.” She said, “I need a job.” She went in the chorus and understudied everybody, and she ended up taking over the lead on the road in Los Angeles.
NGN: During the 1970s, you had several plays produced: Rich and Famous, Landscape of the Body, Marco Polo Sings a Solo, and Bosoms and Neglect. Did you go through an artistic-ego phase during this period?
JOHN GUARE: No. I just wanted to keep working. I was playwright-in-residence at the Public Theater. I loved being part of the production. And when the play opened, you were back to square zero. I just kept writing because I wanted to get back on the board. I loved being in rehearsal and I love to write.
NGN: Rich and Famous was presented at the Public Theater in 1976; it is about a modern man’s need to succeed at all costs. Was some of this autobiographical?
JOHN GUARE: Sure. Why not? It was about a young playwright working on a musical with a legendary composer. I had been working a number of years before with Leonard Bernstein on a musical that collapsed in its own chaos. The material just would not release itself. So, it had its autobiographical inklings in it. Yeah, my parents were in it. It was in parts versions of my life.
NGN: Marco Polo Sings a Solo opened in February 1977 at the Newman Theater of the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theater. There was a distinguished cast: Anne Jackson, Madeline Kahn, Sigourney Weaver, and Joel Grey, yet the critics were not in your corner on this one. Were you okay with this?
JOHN GUARE: No, it was not okay with me, but you pay your money and you take your chances.
ngn: I could ask so many questions about the casting of your plays and your involvement with casting, but let’s start with this: Your uncle was head of casting at MGM for roughly three decades, from the 1930s through the 1950s. How do you think your uncle may have influenced your approach?
JOHN GUARE: Nothing. He is the man who discovered Jimmy Stewart and built his career. The thing he said about Fred Astaire was “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” That was his famous assessment of Astaire. He found Elizabeth Taylor and put her in National Velvet. What he poisoned my family with, especially my mother, was that he “discovered” people. That’s what his claim was, that he would go and snatch people out of chorus lines and build them into stars. My mother always felt and passed it on that you did not have to do anything, that if you were chosen, you were picked and that was the nightmare he passed on to her. So, I learned nothing from him. And I met him when I was in my twenties finally. He was a terrible man, arrogant and brutal with power.
NGN: You have had more actors and actresses who went on to achieve major success than any other playwright I can think of. There are numerous cast members who went from relative obscurity to stardom.
JOHN GUARE: In my span of time, Terrence [McNally] has done fairly well, I would say. I think he has outdone me. You are not going to them because they are famous, though; that is incidental.
NGN: But these actors do run to you—they say this is John Guare!
JOHN GUARE: They don’t run to me. They read the play and they say, “I can fit into this.” It matches up with their schedule, but it is not that they are flocking to me. The agent might get a door open and say we know who this guy is, but identity doesn’t guarantee you are going to get who you want. We sent the script of Atlantic City to Ginger Rogers; she said, “I don’t act in pornography.” Actors become stars because they are very good.
NGN: In the early seventies you went up to Nantucket and started the Nantucket Stage Company. Why did you decide to go there?
JOHN GUARE: In 1971, I won the Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical. It was a big musical hit on Broadway; two touring companies that played around the world. That was financial freedom—it was fantastic. I thought of my father: he came to Caffé Cino to see my play in 1964; it was two one-acts. I remember he was shocked that I had a Yale degree and was working in this walk-in theater off the street; at the end, the college actors, several of my friends, would go out in the audience and pass the hat. My father was shocked. He said, “Johnny, I have an idea. Why don’t you write a big hit musical and then you could make enough money and you could come back to the Caffé Cino and you would not have to pass the hat.” I said, “Oh, you’re being ridiculous. You don’t know what you are saying.” In some way, he did know what he was talking about. After Two Gentlemen of Verona opened, I was offered a lot of musicals. I had won the Tony and I realized I had the money to go back to Caffé Cino. Caffé Cino had long since closed. So I moved up to Nantucket and we started a theater up there and that is the second chapter of my life. Marco Polo Sings a Solo was done in 1973 at the Nantucket Stage Company.
NGN: Is it true that you threw away a lot of material during the production of Marco Polo?
JOHN GUARE: I always threw out plenty of material. During The House of Blue Leaves, Frank Converse, who played Billy, gave me a beautiful quilted sweatshirt and on the back it said Captain Rewrites. I would rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite. So much so that even Sigourney Weaver said, “You know, John, I think you did too much rewriting on Marco Polo. It was great and you came with another rewrite, and then it was one thing too many.”
NGN: There is an interesting statement from Marco Polo from the character Frank: “Why is it that all the things that should hold us together help us change—love, creativity, sex, talent, dreams—those are the very elements that drive us apart and the things that you think would separate us—hate, fear, meanness—those are the very things that bind us together and keep us from growing. Keep us from changing.” Any comment on this pessimistic view?
JOHN GUARE: It is still true today. Look at our president; he is throwing up fear to hold us together. He says fear is power and is using all those things to combine us together. It is one of the nightmares of being alive.
NGN: You have stated that you “cast people who are going to spark each other, people you’re going to get along with, people you’d like to hang around with, people you’re going to have a good time with.”
JOHN GUARE: Sure, that’s a rule of everything. There are people who might be wonderful actors but are troubled in some way or another; they are people who are destructive, selfish, ill-tempered, they could sabotage the production. Yes, you do your homework on someone; you ask people about working in the past with someone else, did they have a good experience with them. They will say yes or no. That can color your ultimate casting decision.
NGN: You saw the original production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. What do you remember of that time, in the late 1950s?
JOHN GUARE: I remember that production vividly. It showed me a world of which I had no knowledge at all. I was an Irish Catholic kid, a very sheltered one. And the thing that I still remember vividly is Diana Sands playing Beneatha. In Lloyd’s production, there is a moment when Beneatha comes dressed in African clothes, and suddenly it stops being naturalistic. She is in Africa and she is African. That to me was jarring, that you could do that to a naturalistic play. You could suddenly break it open like that. That’s what was thrilling to me.
NGN: In The House of Blue Leaves, you used this analogy of how sickness can place limitations on people and you tied it to the politics of the 1950s that limited African Americans. The character of Bunny says: “I am not taking insults from a sick person. A healthy person can call me anything they want. But insults from a sickie—a sicksicksickie—I don’t like to be degraded. A sick person has fumes in their head—you release poison fumes and it makes me sick—dizzy—like riding in the back of a bus. No wonder Negroes are fighting so hard to be freed, riding in the back of buses all those years. I’m amazed they even got enough strength to stand up straight . . .”
JOHN GUARE: It was the way of living in a white world. The black world came in tangentially. It was very puzzling trying to decipher racial identity. I had no idea what it meant to be black. We had one black guy in our high school and he was very prep school. I didn’t know any black kids in college. We experienced black life in mysterious ways. We did not understand the otherness. We would read things: the sit-ins. What did they want? What does inequality mean? Why aren’t they happy? What’s wrong? It was a time of astonishing ignorance on our part. Forced on us by society. The status quo was what was kept going. So, with Bunny saying that, that is what the black experience means to her. She is saying she would get sick being in the back of the bus. That is where you get sick, at the back of the bus. How do they get the strength to stand up—I don’t understand. All of this is in her mind. It is a complete lack of understanding of what it meant to be African American at that time.
NGN: In the late 1980s, you were teaching playwriting at Yale and you had Keith Reddin, Harry Kondoleon, Tama Janowitz, and Oyamo as students, among others—what did you gain from your students?
JOHN GUARE: That was a rare group of students. I gained real friendship, real kindred spirits. The way I did later when I went back to Yale with Tarell McCraney. When you are working with someone like Tarell, the main thing is to get him to appreciate himself. I mean, he brought The Brother Size plays to be read in class. You just have to teach him how valuable he is and the value of these plays. Amy Herzog was also in that class. It was a wonderful class. I taught at Princeton about six or seven years ago and there was a girl who took my class who had never written a play. She wrote a couple of scenes that were really good; she has a play opening at the Vineyard Theater this spring. I am so proud of her: Mara Nelson-Greenberg. Harry Kondoleon was a magical person who, again, died too soon of AIDS. A real loss.
NGN: You worked on a musical, The Exception and the Rule—
JOHN GUARE: Yeah, that was with Jerry Robbins, we go back to 1968. Jerry Robbins wanted to make a musical of a Brecht play and he asked me if I could find a treatment, a way to present it, and I did. He liked it and he brought it to Leonard Bernstein to write a score for it. Lenny said he would do it if Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics. And Jerry wanted Zero Mostel for it. And it all came together. The fact is that the basic Brecht material was intractable and it did not want to be a musical. It was a maddening experience. That’s what I was making fun of in Rich and Famous.
NGN: Then, in 1986, you worked on the same project again.
JOHN GUARE: Jerry Robbins fell back in love with the project. He said it was wrong to walk away from it eighteen years before. “Let’s get back to work on it,” he said. I brought him two actors who I thought were just great: Charles Dutton and Reg Cathey, who died recently. And they did a one-day audition and it was magical. Jerry was frightened of them. He wouldn’t cast them. He cast Zero Mostel’s son, which was not a good thing to do. We worked for six months on that and then, again, we walked away from it. It just got to be a nightmare. It is Lenny’s only unproduced show. There is a ton of music for it, with Sondheim’s lyrics. People have always been intrigued by it. Even last year, we tried and hoped we could bring it to this great Japanese director who wanted to see if he could complete it. It is an incomplete musical. Lenny never finished it. And so it died again, but it keeps coming back. The show will not go away.
NGN: There still might be a life for it.
JOHN GUARE: I hope not. Stephen Sondheim will never let it continue, and Lenny’s estate won’t let it be done. It is a footnote and an oddity.
NGN: Your screenplay for Atlantic City was nominated for an Oscar. What was that experience like?
JOHN GUARE: One of the best experiences of my life, because Louis Malle was the most fun to work with and also the most inspiring—an extraordinary director and extraordinary man.
NGN: In the Lydie Breeze trilogy, or what I call the Nantucket cycle, which takes place during and after the Civil War, you have Lydie Breeze, Gardenia, and Women and Water. The title and the story would change as you did rewrites for updated revivals. (Lydie Breezebecame Home; Gardenia became Aipotu; and Women and Water became Cold Harbor.) It is a literary feast and alludes to everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Mary Shelley; it has also been labeled a historical cycle. In addition, your clever play with language enticed me, particularly Aipotu, which is the backward spelling of utopia. The trilogy encompasses a great deal of history.
JOHN GUARE: They were written in reverse order. One of the main gifts in my life in Nantucket, other than meeting my wife there, is that I wrote these three plays about Nantucket. They had never been done together and were finally done together this past year in Philadelphia in a magnificent production. The three plays were done in repertory with each other. The three plays belong together. The three have to bounce off each other, they’re very hard to isolate. This is the thing of which I am most proud.
NGN: You said you wrote A Free Man of Color for the actor Jeffrey Wright, who played the lead role of Jacques Cornet and was in the original cast when it premiered in New York City at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in 2010. How did that come about?
JOHN GUARE: George C. Wolfe called, he felt that Jeffrey Wright, as one of our greatest actors with an extraordinary sense of style, was underused. George wanted me to make a high-style Restoration comedy and set it in New Orleans at the time of the Louisiana Purchase. I was absolutely thrilled by this idea, this possibility. Before we had the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans had been a place where there were no racial barriers—everything free, there were all these shades of color, and everything was celebrated. It was one of the world’s great international ports. The Mississippi came out there; all the cotton came out there and was sent all over the world. And then the minute that America took possession of Louisiana, the minute that flag went up, the myriad extraordinary panoramic kaleidoscope of all the shades that a human being could be, it suddenly stopped. You were either black or white, that’s it. There was no in-between. Yes, they had slavery, but the object of it was to work to buy your freedom. And I looked at Jeffrey as being a free man of color. It was thrilling when his character, Cornet, ruled New Orleans. He had all the money in town, thanks to his late father, and controlled everything. And the minute that flag went up, he was reduced to nothing and vanished, and went off to the future that we are in now. The possibilities were dazzling and the research, I almost drowned in it. It took me a couple of years to do it. George thought I had forgotten about it. And I brought him the first draft of this play and he said, “Wow, I didn’t expect to get this package.” He and Jeffrey and Mos Def [who played Cupidon Murmur] loved the play. It opened at Lincoln Center, with George and his great showmanship, which is what you sign up for. My only rule was, I never want a show again where you have only ten or twelve days of tech rehearsal, because you lose all those precious actors’ work. Anyway, we opened and some people loved it and some people hated it. I was very proud of it.
NGN: What is your connection with both Chicago and the director/producer Gregory Mosher?
JOHN GUARE: In 1978 I had this new play, Bosoms and Neglect, and Gregory asked me if I would open a play at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Sometimes a chef can leave one restaurant and the magic moves to another kitchen, and it was like that, it was as if the magic moved to Chicago. Steppenwolf was starting, and David Mamet was starting. There were a lot of weird and wonderful activities coming out of Chicago, the Second City. I looked at Bosoms and Neglect and I knew what the casting would be, I knew what the run would be, and that we would have mixed reviews. I knew I would be working with Joe Papp. I had been there four times already. So I went to Joe and said, “I’m going to take my play away. I’m going to do it in Chicago at the Goodman instead.” Joe never forgave me. I went to Chicago and we did Bosoms and Neglect there. It was terrific. At that time Gregory wanted to start a new theater devoted to new plays and have its own space in Chicago. And the artistic directors of it would be David Mamet and me. And this was irresistible, so I said, “Sure.” In the middle of bringing all this together, this is now 1984–85, Mike Nichols asked Gregory to join him in taking over Lincoln Center Theater because he had a successful time with him and David Rabe’s play at the Goodman. So, what we were all going to do out in Chicago—Gregory just moved it to New York, which was great for me.
NGN: Paul Newman and Marlon Brando talked about the role of luck in theater. Can you say anything about its impact and influence on one’s career?
JOHN GUARE: All manner of things happen because of a stroke of luck. Audrey Wood coming to the theater in 1963 to see my play by chance and signing me. I went to Nantucket because someone I had met fifteen years before had invited me up there to celebrate their eightieth birthday—it was just by chance. The fact that Mike Nichols had a great time at the Goodman and brought Gregory to New York, and that I had left the Public and was working with Gregory Mosher—made it a brilliant decision to follow the excitement. That’s all luck.
NGN: This is a quote from an interview you gave Anne Cattaneo in the Paris Review, in 1992, on race and its connection to Six Degrees of Separation: “I think that race is still the one issue that we live with every day that is so hot that we still don’t know what to do with. I was fascinated by this story because it’s about what white people want black people to be, what black people think white people to be, what our self-image is. I wanted to try to strip those away and see what I felt about them. Does that answer the question? . . . I didn’t go into it with a program. I went into it to find out how I felt about it and how we deal with it.”
JOHN GUARE: With Six Degrees of Separation, people missed it, but I didn’t want to underline it too much. The irony in the play is that we can find a connection between everybody in the world—a gondolier in Venice, a Queen Elizabeth; unless you are black in America, you can’t vanish. They lose the guy and they can never find him again. The nightmare of that, of being able to fall through the cracks, is what we are trying to repair today.
NGN: In 1990, Six Degrees of Separation opened to critical acclaim, receiving a rave review from Frank Rich of the New York Times. His now-wife, Alex Witchel, also writing in the Times, acknowledged the critical success of the play and explored the background of David Hampton, the character in the play who lies about being Sidney Poitier’s son. This is the play that many critics and theater-goers think is your best. Which play do you consider to be your best?
JOHN GUARE: That is in their eyes—that’s the one they like the best.
NGN: Which one do you like the best?
JOHN GUARE: I know the reason why I wrote them all.
NGN: In 2005, you attended the memorial gathering at the Majestic Theater to honor Arthur Miller. What would you like to share about him?
JOHN GUARE: Arthur is sort of like a god. The shock of him was how approachable he was. He was just a working playwright. In real life, he was insanely funny. I realized how funny his plays were, the surrealistic stretches he goes through in his plays. There is a lot to uncover in Arthur. You can put him in the kitchen-sink, naturalistic World Series. He is a treasure trove. He just keeps opening up and his plays keep revealing. I loved Arthur, and he was fun to talk with and fun to know.
NGN: How has theater changed during your career?
JOHN GUARE: It is always changing. The worst thing now is the price of it, the economics of it. If I wasn’t a Tony voter, I would miss a helluva lot of shows. There is a whole generation growing up not going to Broadway, not getting a two-dollar seat in the balcony to see a show. It is one hundred dollars to sit in the back of the balcony now. That is the main poison: the theater is reaping its benefits now, but they are not building for a future.
NGN: You have stated in the past that theater is a place that you go to for the truth. Do you still advocate that?
JOHN GUARE: (He laughs.) No, not at all. The truth I don’t want. You go there to be made uncomfortable. You go there to have things pointed out that you have not thought about.
NGN: How would you advise emerging John Guares?
JOHN GUARE: All you do is write the play. It is the corniest thing; write the play and get attached to a theater and find actors who understand your work. Don’t work in a vacuum. Find directors who know how to get your work on. The secret is most theaters don’t know how to read a play. They depend on a director coming to them and saying there is a play I know and I know how to do it and I want to do it. You have to find a director that you like to work with; the valuable thing about the O’Neill was that it put you in touch with people versed in the world of theater where you were no longer floating along isolated. There is only one answer: make your own theater.
NGN: Joseph Papp said: “Theater is more immediate than film. It has danger, like gambling. The writer bets on the director and the director bets on the actor. At every performance, everyone is at risk. But Stanislavski was wrong. When actors take creative control, or the directors for that matter, theater is in trouble. The writer is the key man. Without playwrights, theater cannot begin to exist.” You have had a long and illustrious career as a playwright. Do you still find this to be true?
JOHN GUARE: Yes. Oh, what a good way to end. You should carve that in stone.
NGN: How do you want people to remember John Guare?
JOHN GUARE: I have no idea; I am just happy that I have a new play opening at Lincoln Center.
from NER 40.4 (2019)