When Carson Kreitzer began writing Lasso of Truth, about eccentric Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston, she sought the counsel of playwright David Bar Katz, who had earlier written The History of Invulnerability, about the infamously sidelined Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. It was a good match. Both writers’ plays follow unlikely outsiders who managed to forge hugely influential icons of mid-century America, and both relate their stories along multiple tracks of history and imagination.
Kreitzer juxtaposes the tale of Marston and his unconventional plural marriage to a pair of female muses against the arc of Wonder Woman’s 1970s resurgence and a contemporary comic-book courtship. In Katz’s play, Siegel relates his own complicated story, often in open contention with his caped Kryptonite creation, while simultaneously outlining the superhero-shaped absence in a fortuitously contemporaneous event, the Holocaust.
Both plays are popping up all across the country this spring. Lasso is at Marin Theatre Company in California through March 16, then at Atlanta’s Synchronicity Theatre March 20–April 13, and then at Kansas City, Mo.’s Unicorn Theatre in the fall. (It’s one of the National New Play Network’s “rolling premieres.”) And Invulnerability—which premiered at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in 2010, then ran at Washington, D.C.’s Theater J in 2012—will play at Milwaukee Repertory Theater April 8–May 4 and at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre April 19–May 11.
Kreitzer, who’s based in Minneapolis, joined Katz at New York City’s Knickerbocker Bar & Grill for a free-ranging conversation about the deeper meaning of comic books, responsibility to history (and rabid fans), and keeping it regional.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Were each of you into comic books as kids?
DAVID BAR KATZ: I was a comic-book geek. I bought everything and was obsessed with it.
CARSON KREITZER: Not so much, but I had some very beloved comic books—I had a giant collection with the Fantastic Four. But I very much felt myself as the Thing rather than the Invisible Girl. The Invisible Girl was really pretty, which I think makes her less an outsider.
KATZ: The pretty girl is hard to relate to. It’s funny how, over the years, they had to keep giving her more powers. “Oh, she can turn invisible; that’s really helpful!”
KREITZER: Right, the power already given to all women: invisibility.
What inspired these plays, then?
KATZ: I took my son to Comic Con years ago, and in this one corner was this guy, Jerry Robinson, who was the creator of the Joker and did a lot of the early Batman art. He was this little teeny old man, almost so small that he was disappearing, and he was in this little booth in the corner. For 25 bucks he’d draw a Joker for you. I brought my son over and took a picture with him, and I was like, “This is the guy who drew the original Batmans.” There was something so poignant about that, in the discrepancy of the size and the excitement and the modernity of everything that’s going on now, and these guys who did it not being noticed.
KREITZER: I was doing research for a very somber play called 123, about women who kill their children. And in the midst of this, I had a scene with a lie detector. So I was looking into the history of the lie detector, and I was like, “Wait, what? The same guy who helped invent this also created Wonder Woman? And he was into bondage? Oh my God!” And I thought back into my childhood of wanting to be Wonder Woman, and walking around in my mom’s red go-go boots and feeling really strong and wonderful—and I felt like, “Oh, God! I’m an idiot! We’re all idiots! We got sold this bill of goods, that the only way to be powerful is to be sensual.” It felt like a profound betrayal. Looking back at a really important building block of myself, the way I became who I am, part of it was Wonder Woman—and to have to rethink that piece was very difficult.
So the journey in the play that I have the girl character go on is very much my own journey in doing this research. It started with me thinking, “So a creep wrote this thing that’s incredibly important to me?” And as I did the research, I absolutely fell in love with him. He’s weird and he’s an outcast; I think he genuinely was profoundly feminist—and he liked to see two women tie each other up. You just have to weigh all these things, and who am I to judge desire? I was catching myself out as a prude in the process.
Do you think Wonder Woman was also an inspiration for boys, rather than just a turn-on?
KREITZER: I think we’re still picking through the rubble on that one.
KATZ: Speaking from experience, I can say that Lynda Carter and Wonder Woman had a profound impact on me that was not as an idol. That was definitely an early fantasy, and it was purely sexual. I really, really did not like that show, but I would sit through it just to see her run.
KREITZER: But the men who grew up with these comic books were the first generation that was able to accept these huge, amazing changes in gender roles, and have wives who went out to work. They were dealing with women gaining power and not being threatened by that, and being able to take huge changes in society. I honestly do think it helped. I think it’s no accident that Wonder Woman showed up at the two high points of feminism in the last century, the 1940s and the 1970s.
David, in your telling, Superman also has a weighty significance.
KATZ: In my play he’s a little bit like the Ghost of Christmas Past; he’s sort of a manifestation, maybe unconscious, showing Jerry things in his life that he couldn’t confront directly, including his complicated relationship with his creation. To me a big part of the play is about writing, and the very strange relationship that writers have with their work, which is that once you do it and you put it out there, there’s a radical separateness you have to this thing that fully came from you. For most writers, when you first see a play and see an audience reacting to the actors, it really always feels a little bit like a loss—a little bit of, “That was mine and now it’s not anymore.” And Jerry Siegel was the most extreme example of someone putting all of himself into this thing that became the biggest phenomenon ever, and then being totally cut off from it—financially, in terms of credit, in terms of everything.
Also, I was just fascinated with the idea that, other than Marston, 99 percent of the creators of these superheroes were Jewish young men during the Holocaust. I just think it’s impossible to avoid the idea of some kind of wish fulfillment—that as Jewry is being wiped out in Europe, you’ve got a bunch of young Jewish guys coming up with these powerful figures that all have secret identities and some kind of invincibility. It seems so regular to us now, because we all grew up with superheroes. But imagine this moment in time where there were no superheroes, and then suddenly there were. And it happened to be right when they were rounding up the Jews in Europe—to me, it’s obviously more than a coincidence.
How free did you feel in your writing, both in terms of responsibility to real-life figures and in terms of copyright issues?
KREITZER: That’s why I came to David—he had been through this territory, hacking with a machete.
KATZ: Yeah, the landmark lawsuit was against me, Katz versus DC, so she’s under that protection. I’m kidding! I think we’re both in the same boat. Essentially everyone we’re writing about is dead, so there’s not anyone to really object. And in terms of using stuff, it’s pretty much under fair use. What I’ve told theatres is that if the advertising, the marketing, is around an image of Wonder Woman or Superman—they can’t do that. That’s where you get in trouble.
KREITZER: I’ve just tried to be scrupulously careful about staying within public domain. I often deal with real people and events in my plays, so I’ve sort of been figuring that out as I go.
Right. Apart from the legal issues, what larger sense of responsibility do you feel to real-life characters?
KREITZER: That’s always the balance: a sense of responsibility because they are real people, but also needing to free the story so that it can zing around and hit all the places it needs to go. It can’t be a biopic. A play really needs to lift; it needs to be doing something else. My plays tend to be about what these people and events have to tell us about the way we live now, and where we have landed because of them. So I definitely let the figures spin out from the research, and they become characters in my head. That’s where I need to go for the play to live.
KATZ: My hands are tied in a totally different way than normal, and it’s not the Jerry Siegel thing. It’s because of the responsibility of doing something about the Holocaust. You feel a responsibility to not make it entertaining. It’s this really difficult position. Without giving out the end of the play—it’s very graphic, as you know—there was a Broadway producer who was like, “We’re doing this play, we’re putting it on Broadway; I just need you to lose that last scene.” I said, “Look, I’m not the kind of writer generally who’s like, ‘Don’t touch my work.’ In most cases, I definitely would play ball. But I cannot do it with this. Any other play, I’d figure something out. But that ending is inevitable in terms of what’s going on with the play. I can’t do it.”
And so for me the respect issue is at a different level than the normal feeling of owing something to some guy who’s not there to defend himself. This is six million people looking over my shoulder saying, “Is that really funny to you? Is that entertaining?”
Both on their own terms and as the basis of movies, games, etc., it’s like comic books have taken over the culture. Do you ever find yourselves agreeing with some of the 1950s-era critics of comic books, who warned that they would rot our brains?
KATZ: I have four boys, so I’m on the front lines of a sociological study. And the fact is that popular culture is going to make mush out of brains that would be kind of mushy anyway. Growing up, when my mom wasn’t home, I sat with my sister and we watched bad ’70s TV from the time I got out of school till like 2 a.m. I got older, and I started liking books and plays. I would never let my kids do what I did, but I wasn’t an idiot, because I had other interests. So I’m very skeptical about the people that think the sky is falling.
The fact is, kids are excited about comic books. I wrote a series of board books—baby’s first Superman book, baby’s first Batman book, baby’s first Wonder Woman. My wife has a children’s publishing company, so I did these books for her. Giving kids the tools to unlock their imaginations, whether it’s Wonder Woman or Superman comic books—I feel like that’s invaluable.
KREITZER: I do think the stories we tell ourselves are very important. That’s a big reason that I often write about real people and events. I’m sort of writing contemporary Greek plays. When the Greeks went to see a play, they already knew the story. You know Oedipus, but you’re going to see this version of Oedipus, and what’s going to be that little tilt that makes you look at the same story a different way? I like stories that people come in having some sense of, and then you twist it and you see it from a different angle. This one, not many people know—those who know, very rabidly know about it—but most people don’t.
Great, so there’s another constituent group to feel responsible to.
KATZ: I’ve gotten e-mails from people saying, “I’m driving 2,000 miles to see this.”
KREITZER: I’m a little scared of the comic-book people. I was a little scared to meet David, and he’s been very nice, so that has made me feel better.
KATZ: I’m happy to represent the geeks.
You’ve both been produced in New York, but many if not most of your productions have been in resident or regional theatres. How has that worked out for you?
KATZ: I never really knew what “regional” meant. I thought, “Oh, that just means people who do plays in small cities.” Then I had that experience in Cincinnati and I came back flying the regional flag. I would move to Cincinnati and do a play there every year. I loved it. The people were amazing, the theatre, the resources—it was a thousand times better than a lot of the prestigious companies here in New York. I would be very, very happy to just do regionals all the time.
KREITZER: Because we share a Cincinnati Playhouse connection, the name of [former artistic director] Ed Stern must be spoken. Ed has done more for my career as a playwright than anyone else; he produced me three times, working with director Mark Wing-Davey each time, over 10 years. That’s incredible for a young playwright to get that kind of opportunity and that space to grow.
KATZ: I would second that. Ed had guts. My play, once it’s produced, seems like a no-brainer, but had Ed not produced it first, it probably never would have gotten produced.
We should have the conversation about figuring out casting for each of our plays so we could do it in rep. Is there a version where we could do both of our plays with the same cast?
KREITZER: That would be awesome.
There aren’t many women in your play, David.
KATZ: I guess a woman could play Superman.