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What Talent Wants to Serve: An Interview with Donald Margulies

June 26, 2014 | by

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Photo: Ethan Hill.

The playwright Donald Margulies is at what he describes as a “delicious” point in his career. He’s written the screenplay for The End of the Tour, an adaptation of David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself that recently completed filming. His newest play, The Country House, opened June 3 in Los Angeles at the Geffen Playhouse, and begins New York previews September 9 at The Manhattan Theater Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater. It’s an “homage” to Chekhov, employing themes and images from Margulies’s favorites: Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, and The Seagull. It’s also his first play ostensibly about the theater itself. The play is an ‘off-stage comedy’ set during the Williamstown Theatre Festival, focusing on a family of actors who have returned to a familiar house in the Berkshires after the recent death of a beloved family member.

Margulies is the author of over a dozen plays, including The Model Apartment, Sight Unseen, and Dinner With Friends, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2000. He lives in New Haven with his wife; he has a son at college in Minnesota. His workspace is a series of rooms on the third floor of his home, walled by books, with windows overlooking his abundant backyard. When we spoke, first in his “bill-paying” room and then over fat sandwiches in New York, he appeared energized by his career’s activity, as if even its description gave him inspiration. He is now at work on the book for a musical, an adaptation of Father of the Bride, which would be a first.

Has any of your writing for the screen begun as writing for the stage?

I’ve adapted three of my plays into screenplays—Sight Unseen, which has not been filmed, and Collected Stories and Dinner With Friends, both of which were produced for television—but I have never begun a play that I decided would be better served as a screenplay. In the case of my most recent screenplay, The End of the Tour, my long-time manager, David Kanter, sent me David Lipsky’s book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, with a note that said, “Take a look at this, there might be a play in it,” because the book is almost entirely dialogue, the transcription of a four-day conversation between Lipsky and David Foster Wallace. I started reading it and was excited because I thought it did lend itself to adaptation—not for the stage but for the screen. I saw its potential as something much more expansive than two guys sitting around talking—namely a road picture. I was intrigued by the idea of seeing this iconic figure on the American landscape. The End of the Tour is consistent with themes that have interested me as a dramatist for forty years, which is what no doubt attracted me to it.

You were originally trained as an artist. How did writing become your primary mode of thinking?

I grew up in baby-boomer Brooklyn. My parents were not intellectuals. They were not artists. My father sold wallpaper. My mother was a housewife until she went back to office work when I was ten. We were middle-class Jews who didn’t go to synagogue, but we did go to Broadway. My parents came of age during the Depression—they loved movies and they loved Broadway, and they instilled that love in my brother and me. Our family took a few memorable excursions to Broadway during my childhood. We spent a couple of weeklong school vacations seeing eight or nine shows—mostly musicals—at a time when a middle-class family could afford to sit in the balcony for not much more than the cost of a movie ticket. Those experiences stayed with me. I didn’t become a theater geek, and I didn’t become an actor—I was never very comfortable performing—but I discovered I could write, parodies and sketches, mostly.

Did you have any sense when you went to plays with your parents that you might be responding to them on a different level or for a different reason?

The first nonmusical play that I ever saw was Herb Gardner’s comedy, A Thousand Clowns. The play starred Jason Robards as an anti-establishment father figure to a boy, his nephew, whom his irresponsible sister left with him. The boy was not much older than I was when I saw it—maybe he was twelve or thirteen and I was about nine. I think the fact that there was a child in the story with whom I could identify really drew me into it. I remember feeling privileged to be in a theater where I was privy to very adult humor that I understood and enjoyed. I was excited, I remember that vividly. But it’s not as if I went home and started writing plays. It was a feeling that I identified and recorded and stored away. When I was in high school I wrote some short stories. A story I wrote that was published in the literary art magazine that I coedited got me into trouble. The story had the word fuck in it, the principal suppressed the publication, the ACLU came to the rescue, and my coeditor and I fought the principal’s decision. We took him and the New York City Board of Education to court—and won. The case, which attracted attention in the New York press in 1971, was my first brush with the media.

“Young Boy Knows The F-Word”?

Close. I remember the headline of the Daily News when we won the case—“Four Letter Words OK in School Mag, Judge Rules.” When it was unimpounded by court order, the story didn’t shock or impress many people. It was very much the work of a precocious seventeen-year-old. It wasn’t until a few years later that I tried my hand at playwriting.

Do you preach patience with your students?

I’m very much a structuralist—not that I insist upon creating “the well-made play,” but I do pose fundamental questions like, Where is the conflict? What is your play about? Basic, pedantic questions, but the truth is that people really need to identify and articulate their subject. It seems revelatory to them sometimes—“Wow, what is my play about? What am I trying to say?” I think it is essential, particularly in drama, to know what is at stake that must be resolved in ninety minutes to two hours. I often pose the Passover question, Why is this night different from all other nights? In other words, Why is the action taking place now and not yesterday or tomorrow?

When I teach Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I ask, What is the event? And they say, It’s Big Daddy’s birthday. And I reply, No that’s the occasion. The event is that it’s Big Daddy’s last birthday. That distinction raises the stakes for every member of the family.

What about setting? Much of your work is set in Brooklyn.

For a little while there I consciously didn’t write about Brooklyn. I wanted to get out of the head of a Brooklyn writer. And then, after a couple of plays that took departures, I did return to it with Brooklyn Boy. I take comfort in some of the writers I admire, like Philip Roth and William Faulkner, who basically tilled the same neighborhoods and land and always found new stories to tell. And I’m okay with that. The plays that I wrote earlier in my life, earlier in my career, tended to emanate from Brooklyn, and I think that’s because my proximity to my past was that much closer when I was in my twenties and thirties writing those stories. Now I feel like that part of my life I’ve explored, for now, and it’s receded from my consciousness to a certain degree—I don’t feel the same need to go there.

Do you recognize a tendency with your students to care most strongly about success at a young age?

Like so many young artists of any kind, I too was very invested in early success. I really wanted it. I don’t really know why, but I did. By my early thirties, after several disappointing, would-be breakthroughs, rather than self-destructing, I was able to concentrate on the work. Revenge became a very strong motivator for me—the I’ll show them element.

Were you very self-critical as a young writer?

The lessons that I learned early on were to trust my instincts, to be more assertive when I feel things aren’t going well, to take more control. More than my deficiencies as a playwright, being less passive in the making of theater was something I had to learn over time. Not deferring so much to others to make certain decisions and assumptions about the work. In the theater, people talk about how playwrights need to be nurtured. I always bristle at the word nurture. It’s infantilizing. My instincts have served me very well all of my life, except when I have not heeded them. There are times I probably should have been more of a prick. I know my own capacity for things. I know what makes me happy and I know what makes me miserable, so I try to stay away from those things.

What is the work like now?

When my son was young, I really liked having the office across the street. It felt very much my own. Now Lynn and I will have breakfast and I’ll say, OK, I’m going to commute to work now, and head upstairs. And I teach. Teaching is a big part of my life, and I’ve been doing it a long time, and it’s something I really enjoy doing. When I became a parent twenty-two years ago my day became conscribed more nine to five. Now that my son is more independent and our lives are more relaxed and less built around his schedule, I’m working longer in the office. I’ll wander up there at various times in ways that I was not doing when he was younger. Having said that, if I’m in the throes of something I’ll have a pad by my bed and jot stuff down, and sometimes feel the need to go and sit at the desk. But that doesn’t happen a lot. I write sporadically. I can’t say that I get up and read the paper at six and start to write at seven. My life hasn’t really worked out that way. I write when I have to, when it becomes a kind of biological necessity. I think I learned a long time ago that to have a career as a playwright, and a produced playwright, there’ll be inquiries I need to respond to, there’ll be a play that I’m casting that is part of the day, or another play that I’m rewriting or preparing for publication, or a screenplay that I’m writing, or material that I was sent to consider for something else—that’s all part of it. And even if it’s not actually writing it’s part of the business of being a playwright. I’m not even midcareer anymore—I’m one of the old guys—and the plays are getting revived and it’s wonderful. They’re given new life. Dinner With Friends hadn’t been seen in New York in fourteen years—it’s a new generation in the theater.

Whenever I finish a play I always think I’ll never write another one.Until I come up with another idea—which, for me, can take a couple of years. It’s when I hit my nadir, out of a fatalistic sense of resignation, “Oh, well, that was a nice career,” that something happens.

Zack Newick is at work on a novel about the future.

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