TRACY LETTS: Is The Realistic Joneses a good play? If not, why not?
WILL ENO: Well, I wrote it, so, obviously, I’m biased, and obviously I’m going to say no, no it isn’t a good play. That said, there’s another part of me, practically the whole left side, that thinks it is a pretty good play. By which I mean it has enough clarity and drive to move you along and make you forget yourself, if you want to do that, and enough space and mystery to allow you to remember yourself, if you want to do that.
If it isn’t a good play, then probably the subjectivity/objectivity ratio is off a little. Or some other moral calculus is out of whack. I hope that’s not the case. A real feeling tends to issue into a solid form. If you deliver up an honest secret or a real anxiety or a true desire, then that’ll probably somehow land with the larger world. If you don’t, then it’ll probably just seem like a Xerox of a Xerox of something not that important. I do have an answer to your question, of course, but I don’t think my view is relevant. I could talk to you all day about how radishes are a great little appetizer. If you happen to think they’re dumb, and they’re a rip-off, as you do, then I respect that, I’m not going to change your mind, and we can move on.
I think radishes can, in theory, make a good little appetizer, otherwise I would never have ordered them. But this particular restaurant rolled a few stubby radishes out of the crisper drawer onto a plate, served them with a ramekin of salted butter, and charged me eight bucks. The truth of a radish is immutable. It’s all in the treatment, and the treatment is only an expression of one’s point of view. I suppose one could mount some vague defense for the chef’s point of view, something about minimalism. But damn it, that’s not why I go to a restaurant.
Well, I think we’ve probably all read your play, Something to Start?, and so I think we know your feelings on the matter of appetizers. The presentation, though. The treatment of the Thing. These are crucial. And they probably derive from a deep feeling a person had in response to the Thing, in the first encounter. And that feeling comes out of something ancient and untraceable. Did that chef think too highly of the radish, for some reason, and therefore feel it didn’t need any help? Or did he not realize that something happens, something changes, when you put something on a plate, and that change needs to be recognized in order for the thing, the radish, to survive, and flourish, in its new setting? There’s nothing more exciting than life. But, just as surely, sometimes, there’s nothing more boring than a play based on “real” or “true” events.
Some wrongs do make a very nice right, sometimes, when it comes to writing. The first book I ever bought online came from a used bookstore in New Zealand. I never finished reading it but I started it. It was about Shakespeare’s Problem Plays. And there was a very memorable part, somewhere in the first chapter, about how there is a tension between a thing and that thing’s resistance to being put onstage, its kind of shyness or reluctance to be dramatized, and how a lot of energy can be gotten from this resistance, if it’s properly recognized and managed.
Some guy who doesn’t know anything about theatre—a cowboy, say—or more specifically, a cowboy who doesn’t know anything about theatre—decides he wants to write a play. He comes to you and asks you to recommend three plays he should read before he starts to write his own play. What three plays would you give him? And don’t explain your choices.
I’d say to him, pardner, you’re going to want to go get yourself a copy of The Day Room by Don DeLillo. You might go get yourself a copy of Endgame by Samuel Beckett. Then how about Richard II? If he wanted to get Cowboy Mouth by Sam Shepard, I’d say to him, yeah, I don’t know, sure, go ahead, but it’s probably not going to be what you’re thinking.
I get the impression that you fear death. That’s not intended to be cute. (Side note: I originally wrote, “That’s not intended as pith.” Then I looked up the definition of “pith” and realized I’ve been misusing the word my whole life. I thought it meant “cute” or “too clever” or even “twee.” But it actually means “brief, forceful, and meaningful in expression.” I have given pith short shrift. Maybe I’m misusing the phrase “short shrift.”) I mean that I, over the course of our short but profound friendship, have gotten the sense that you are in a contemplation—a mainly fearful contemplation—of your own mortality. Have I gotten that wrong? I’ve acted in two Will Eno plays and I was terminal in both of them. So what gives, homeboy? (I showed this question to my girlfriend, who has house-sat for you, and she said, “I’ve seen the supplements in his crisper drawer. So to speak.” Which not only strengthens my line of inquiry, but allows me to oddly reference the crisper drawer one more time.)
I just looked up “pith.” Did you see the verb entry, “to kill by piercing the spinal cord”? Wow. That happened enough that they had to come up with a word for it.
I fear dying, but (weirdly, and happily) less and less. As for the vitamins in the crisper drawer, I did some construction work for a health food store and they gave me a bunch of stuff. Most of it’s expired and I should probably just throw it all out and fill the thing to the top with radishes. The death in Middletown, which you portrayed so gruesomely and perfectly, when I was writing that scene, it kind of cracked me up. A guy attempts suicide, fails, starts to see the light a little, gets an infection, and then dies. It just occurred to me, it might be that it’s not a fear of death I have, but, a lack of trust, just trust in life and continuity, etc. Your question, and the way you asked it, made me feel really calm for some reason. Also, I was just using the elliptical machine (dot dot dot) and I got my heart rate up to 192 and everything was fine. Also calming, in retrospect. One thing is true, I have a lot more to live for, these days.
“Lack of trust in continuity” seems unlike the man who wrote some of the fathomless mystery of Middletown and The Realistic Joneses. But then I guess both plays contain some provocative counterpoint. Sure, the man on the radio in Middletown may explain with childlike awe the immense wonder of black holes…but John Dodge meanwhile molders under a hospital sheet. Great stuff. I see a lot of this going on in New York right now, during the few months I’ve been visiting here, that a lot of playwrights “of the moment” (I don’t know how else to say that. They’re not “popular” exactly. I mean, they’re playwrights. If they were popular, they wouldn’t have to work construction at health food stores) are looking for a kind of cosmic awareness in the observation of quiet, even mundane, moments. It’s not minimalism exactly. It’s “banalism,” the banal as cosmic truth. Some are more successful than others, naturally. And when that type of dramatic writing fails, an audience can be left feeling really undernourished. (A disgruntled patron, loudly, to the dispersing audience, after a performance of The Realistic Joneses: “The whole thing just flew up in the air and disappeared!” I feel I can share that because, A, I’m in the midst of paying you a huge compliment, and, B, people who hate your plays let you know you’re still writing with a point of view, and, C, I’m not completely sure he was disgruntled.) But when it succeeds, as I feel it does with your work, you leave the theatre and everything in the world seems a bit altered. Someone has fiddled with the lens in a way that really endures.
Having said all that, let me ask something that might feel off-topic. Why do you live in New York City? Do you feel in conversation with your fellow playwrights?
Ah, you’re a good guy. Thanks. And you’re right, I misspoke when I said I didn’t trust in continuity. Because I completely trust in, and even kind of relish, the general continuity of it all, of the world and all that. But it is so continuous, the continuity, it’s so relentless. And at some point, it continues on without you. Which can be kind of bewildering and sad or make you nervous. But, you know, c’est la vie. And those are all just thoughts, anyway, just formulations. A sandwich is real. Kissing is real. There’s more, of course, but I won’t go on. It’s good to be alive.
I live in New York because people I love live here and I like living here. As for playwrights, I don’t know about “in conversation,” but there are people I talk to. There’s a little gang around who are of kind of a similar temperament and who share both the aggressivity required to write a good new play and the decency required to keep things in some perspective. I don’t mind at all that that guy yelled that, or, that you told me about it. There are a lot of beautiful things in the world, in nature, that you might describe by saying, “The whole thing just flew up in the air and disappeared!”
Tracy Letts is the Pulitzer-winning playwright of August: Osage County. He originated the role of Bob in The Realistic Joneses at Yale Repertory Theatre.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!