The complete script of Last Tuesday is published in the July/August 2003 print issue. The play finds five passengers on a commuter train from Grand Central to New Haven who seem to be having a normal enough trip. A husband and wife discuss their schedule, a man fights with his girlfriend over the phone, a girl listens to music. The fifth passenger reads the paper and encounters a detailed account of a gruesome bombing. Then a boy enters, covered in blood….
Margulies and Wallace spoke via telephone in May 2003. He was in rehearsals in Costa Mesa, Calif., and she was at home near Leeds, three hours north of London.
Naomi Wallace: Do you consider yourself a political artist?
Donald Margulies: I guess I don’t. I tell stories that provoke people to think politically or to think about things in political terms. I’ve been told I’m a political writer, but it’s not how I primarily define myself. Do you think of yourself as a political writer?
I’d say that, yes, I’m a political writer. I write about history. It’s a funny word—“political”—at times it serves a good purpose to say that you are, and at other times it obscures what’s behind the question.
What inspired the writing of The Retreating World three years ago?
The McCarter Theatre [in Princeton, N.J., in 2000] asked me, and a group of writers, to write ghost stories. At the time I’d been thinking about addressing the issue of the embargo against Iraq. I also read an article by John Pilger in the Guardian about Iraqis having to sell everything meaningful to them—their heirlooms, their books. A man was mentioned who described how he had to sell his pigeons. I was inspired by that piece.
I love the final image of your play—the rattling bones and feathers—it’s beautiful. You can imagine a gasp from the audience.
The play was staged at the Latchmere Theatre in London and done very simply. We didn’t have any feather machines. There was a bucket, and the actor, Hisham Matar, threw the feathers out of the bucket. He was a Libyan poet; he was brilliant. He did it because he felt close to the material.
What is exciting about Retreating World is that it was done in Europe during the second Gulf War. The play had some use outside a certain kind of entertainment. Many Iraqi exiles who came to see it said: “You know how we love our books.” So I find it so ironic now to see the preventable destruction of their libraries and museums—their own culture.
The main challenge for me was: How does one capture the political rhetoric and present it onstage in a way that makes it theatrical? How do you creatively say, “5,000 children are dying a month”? What does that statistic mean? So the character talks about the intimate details of his life and the people he knew. His struggle with those pieces of rhetoric—the lists of weapons and the number of bombs—represents my own struggle as a playwright.
Last Tuesday accompanied another play, July 7, 1994, which you wrote eight years ago. Both plays deal with the effect of external events on the lives of ordinary people. What challenges do you face when writing plays that deal with politically charged themes?
One of the things I tried to do with Last Tuesday was to address the post-9/11 climate without dealing with it directly. The 9/11 play has become a kind of instant genre; I was a little leery of that. Yet, months later, I felt compelled to write something about it. July 7 was a preexisting work, set in 1994 with the O.J. Simpson trial raging in the background. To bring July 7 up to date for a double bill that was produced by Long Wharf [in New Haven, Conn., in 2003], I sought to address how the world has changed.
When the boy appears in Last Tuesday it takes a long time before anyone asks him what happened. They just stuff him with crackers and lollies. That seems to me to be an indictment of our failure to engage and inquire into a world outside our own American lives.
That’s true, the characters in the play are offering the boy all these palliatives, but nobody is addressing the enormity of what has happened. But I am not trying to indict the people in my play. It’s more a comment on the failure of ordinary citizens to have an impact on extraordinary, horrific things that are going on around us. It’s more a comment on a kind of inadequacy.
Clearly it is not a naturalistic play. I wanted it to seem like a dream in which inexplicable things simply happen and affect you in unspeakable ways. As I was writing it, this boy appeared. I became quite fascinated by him. Would he speak? Will there be a monologue? No. So I went to Lisa Peterson [who directed the piece] and said, “We’re going to need a boy soprano.” And she said, “Great!”
One of the plays that served as an inspiration to Last Tuesday was Thornton Wilder’s Pullman Car Hiawatha. It’s about a train going to Chicago, and yet it covers the whole panoply of life, an examination of mundane Americana—then a sudden, wrenching death occurs. But again I wasn’t making a political statement as much as a social statement. I think it’s in our nature to preserve the sanctity of our daily lives.
Do you think the pairing of our two plays works?
I think it does. They come from such different places, but they overlap. We write about how ordinary people deal with tragedy—how larger events affect their lives. The tragedy affects the character in my play much more directly, but what’s interesting about reading your play is that you feel that tragedy could hit them at any moment. They’re also about very different forms of violence—your play on the arbitrary nature of violence and terrorism, my play about a very un-arbitrary destruction of a country and its people. So I think they dovetail nicely.