The July/August 2015 issue of American Theatre contains the complete playscript for Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime. The play follows a family coping with the loss of a loved one through the use of a prime, an exact replica of the deceased who can learn to interact in human-like ways. There is nothing robotic about these primes, as Harrison says in a program note for its Center Theatre Group premiere last year titled “Thoughts on the Primes,” and the characters and the audience should be able to forget they aren’t human.
Fellow playwright Madeleine George and Harrison were both in the Clubbed Thumb Writers’ Group when Harrison penned an early version of the play. And the two share a singular sort of honor: Both wrote plays about technology: George’s is The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence—that wound up on the Pulitzer Prize finalist list in consecutive years. The pair recently sat down to talk at Playwrights Horizons, where George’s play premiered and Marjorie Prime will play next season.
MADELEINE GEORGE: One of your great subjects is the past and how it disrupts the present in order to generate the future. What is this interest of yours with time?
JORDAN HARRISON: I remember when Maple & Vine came out, having to confess that I was the one seven-year-old who actually loved his grandparents’ slideshows. Somewhere in there was the realization that one day I would be as old as them, and that they were once as young as me—that those people on cruise ships in sepia tones drinking pina coladas were, you know, as much alive as you or me. I guess that’s a thing I’m not done learning about the past.
Marjorie Prime is a narrative about the future that is actually about the past.
[Laughs] I think that most science fiction is actually about now. Is that a brazen thing to say? Or at least my favorite science fiction involves memorializing the way things are—which so quickly becomes the past. Like in Solaris, the tree and house that are reconstituted on a distant planet… And do you know about my obsession with The Electric Grandmother? It’s this surprisingly alarming children’s film we were shown in first grade based on a Ray Bradbury story. Maureen Stapleton plays this robot grandmother in a family with three young kids whose mother has died—so their father takes them to the, like, robot factory, and they pick out their ideal grandmother. Finally they have someone in their life who can keep the promise of “I’ll never leave you.” But the crazy thing is the final scene, where all the little kids are now in their 80s, and Maureen Stapleton is younger than them and taking care of them.
That’s a kid’s movie? That’s terrifying!
And one year on New Year’s Eve—this is what a hip New Year’s my husband and I had—he was cooking dinner, and I was like falling down a YouTube rabbit hole, and I rediscovered The Electric Grandmother. And now I was watching it as someone who had felt time moving, who had lost people. And Adam came out of the kitchen, and usually it’s a surprise if I squeeze a single tear out—but this was like rivers down my cheeks! This is not to say that Marjorie Prime is The Electric Grandmother. But there was a subconscious debt.
Can I segue from that final scene to Marjorie Prime’s? One of the amazing things about it is that everyone is misremembered, idealized.
The perfect memorial.
But here’s the question. If a memorial stands alone in a park, where all human beings have been annihilated, does it make a sound?
[Laughs] I mean, in this case it does, because those primes will continue to examine it and look at it.
But what does it mean for them to examine and look at it?
They’re trying to be human! I mean, they’re not just reciting the past—you have Marjorie Prime “remembering” the unspoken son, and seeming to feel for him. I think there’s the suggestion that we’re seeing the first seed of emotion.
So, wait: Do you feel that Marjorie Prime is Marjorie?
No no no no no. I’m just saying that Marjorie Prime at the end of the play is more human than when we first meet her.
You think that she feels?
God, it’s almost a question for Lois Smith, right? For the actor who plays her?
Well, I’m really curious, what is it to feel?
I guess I think it’s possible that computers will feel something down the road. I mean, you and I have been designed, whether by a sentient being or by accident, and it happened to us. Why not to something that is made of zeroes and ones?
But don’t you think the reason we have emotions is because we’re mortal?
Right. I certainly think somewhere deep down that’s why I cared about the slideshow when I was seven. I was learning that I wasn’t going to be around forever. I mean, it’d be nice if there was an upside to dying someday; I think you just found it. [Laughter]
Is there a book that’s had a surprising influence on your theatremaking?
Maybe “The Emerald,” the short story by Donald Barthelme, which is essentially a radio play—the whole story is just voices. It begins with these two bounty hunters who are looking for a sentient emerald, and all of the action and information is embedded in the dialogue. That was big for me. Like, for instance, “Madeleine, what are you doing with that wrench?” is a terrible line if we see you actually holding a wrench. But if there’s no wrench—or no Madeleine—it becomes exciting. Complicated. So I have a lot of plays that are better without props and scenery… And this is embarrassingly boiled down, but the critic Bert States divides plays into “plays with furniture” and “plays without furniture.” The classic play with furniture is probably Chekhov—it’s about history between people, the little things that accumulate in the cracks in the sofa. And the plays without furniture are Shakespeare—they can cross time and great distances, and the language tends to be…large, and necessary. Marjorie Prime is maybe the hardest of my own plays for me to categorize—it’s a play with furniture, obviously, and yet it’s the furniture of assisted living, a La-Z-Boy recliner that you throw away when you don’t need it anymore. None of the objects in this play help Marjorie remember herself. She needs the things that people tell her.
Do you have any visions for the play’s second production at Playwrights, as separate from the first at the Taper?
I don’t think about the audience a lot when I’m first writing—I’m thinking about the play, about whether or not something is beautiful to me. Then, once I’m in readings, once I’m in rehearsal, all I think about is the audience. I get very pragmatic. For instance, at the Taper those 10 seconds of silence in the last scene grew into 20 seconds of silence as previews went on, I think because the actors were invigorated by what they were doing to the audience. It’s kind of a crazy suspension of time, when people are talking for the whole play and suddenly they’re not. At one performance, in the middle of the deafening silence, some guy said, loudly, “Is it over yet?” So 10 seconds of silence was arresting, and 20 seconds was just too…German, you know? I’m never looking to do a number on the audience—it’s never, “I’m gonna melt your cerebellum and send you screaming into the street.” And I think some cerebellums were melted at the Taper, some nights.
I really like this idea you mentioned about people being dimensional—even in the olden days. People become playwrights because they want to know, “What are people?” And you’re like, “What are people in the past?”
I feel that’s a more expansive way into being a playwright than I can lay claim to. I don’t know if you’ve ever walked down the street reconstructing conversations that you had in which you said the wrong thing—
Let’s say no, I never do.
[Laughter] Basically my playwriting comes from that. It’s that muscle. The desire to put perfect words in peoples’ mouths comes from never feeling resolved about words I’ve actually said.
Isn’t it lovely to think that you could spend your whole life reacting to yourself and making up new endeavors for yourself?
I’ll never be done saying things, because I’ll never be done being frustrated with myself. Hallelujah.