IN 2009 I had the good fortune to receive the Greenfield Prize, which includes a $30,000 stipend, paid out over a year, and a residence at the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Englewood, Fla., for the same period. It could not have come at a better time.
A lifetime of ignoring consequences had finally caught up with me. My house was on the market for less than it had cost, my marriage was ending and many friends had drifted away—understandably. I’d given up alcohol and drugs a few years earlier, but was facing 60 with no clear vision of what kind of character I wanted to play in my third act. For the better part of two decades, nothing I’d written had received the kind of reviews required to set aside any significant savings. The “recession” put an end to any borrowing on the house I had purchased on the profits of one play sold to the movies long ago.
The kind of movies I write were looking less and less viable. TV producers apparently respond to any mention of my name with, “Has he ever written anything with broad appeal?” So, I arrived at my spacious room at the Hermitage with its view onto the Gulf of Mexico, well-armed with three dozen books I’d never had the time to read. The environment at the Hermitage is quiet, unpretentious and ideal for slowing down and getting work done—both things intimately intertwined, paradoxically. You shop and cook for yourself. Beyond that and beach-combing, there is little distraction. (If you find you cannot live without visiting the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, you will need a car, and this is Florida, kids—Age Rage is real. People drive remarkably slowly, with little or no regard for lanes or turn indicators.)
Since I have no costly habits other than gardening and reading, and do not party, follow sports or watch TV on a regular basis—and since Englewood has no movie house that shows the kind of movies that I enjoy (and practically nobody makes anymore anyway, unless they are named Coen or Malick)—I would probably have accepted a permanent position as Hermitage hermit in residence, had it been offered.
During my Greenfield year, I worked on an opera libretto, two musicals and two plays, concentrating primarily on the play I proposed in response to having been nominated. (Unlike Yaddo, MacDowell and most other retreats, there’s no application process for the Hermitage residency or the Greenfield Prize.) That play, Ode to Joy, needed lots of time to germinate and develop, moving through countless drafts and readings and workshops, even years after I left the Hermitage. I have learned that I was given the prize because I set my sights so high in my original proposal (something I don’t even recall writing), where I suggested I would spend my year composing “my own version of Long Day’s Journey into Night”—hahaha. I believe that meant I intended to tell the truth about my story. And I sort of have, and I sort of haven’t, because I made the play’s protagonist a woman and a painter, and her relationships aren’t really mine. Or maybe they are.
Ode to Joy opens this March at New York City’s Cherry Lane Theatre as part of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater’s season—four and a half years after it was a glimmer in Daddy’s eye. Most of all, the play concerns itself with the one big surprising thing I learned in my year of reading, contemplation and conversations with the Hermitage staff (all of whom remain friends) and fellow artists at the retreat (including writer/performer Cynthia Hopkins, composer Fang Man, painter Barbara Ellmann, playwrights Barbara Field and R. Dennis Green, novelist Alexander Chee and sculptor Mala Iqbal). I want to risk encapsulating that discovery on the off chance it might be of use to someone else.
It would seem that a substantial number of sages, artists, philosophers, theologians, inventors, psychologists, teachers, scientists, visionaries, critics and recovering addicts have all recommended some version of the same thing: self-knowledge and lifelong spiritual fulfillment through an ongoing practice of sacrifice, ritual and service. Given their common focus on that theme, Socrates seems to have been fraternizing with Jesus, Bill W., Harold Bloom (our living treasure), Moses, Buddha, Isaac Luria, Emerson, Marilynne Robinson (another one), Wittgenstein and Valentinus. You have to give it away to keep it.
What are all these thinkers getting at? Are such mystical-sounding pronouncements any more than wishful thinking, possibly tinged with madness? When human reason is being transcended, the question must be asked: Where does reason figure in the human project, anyway? This question aims at the heart of creation, artistic and divine (if you’ll permit the gaucherie of such an outmoded word). For, despite the Enlightenment, certain mysteries remain: When God speaks through Muhammad, through the prophets, through oracles, the message is frequently said to pass all understanding. But isn’t reason our best weapon against suffering? For medicine, physics, biology, chemistry and mathematics, reason would seem to be essential. And it must have some hand, surely, in the mastery of the arts—among which I would, perhaps eccentrically, include philosophy, psychology and theology.
Scientific insights are constantly being replaced by newer ones. But when an era passes, what replaces a great work of art, or of philosophy, or a myth, that bound a culture together? Aren’t these things sui generis? The museums of Europe overflow with depictions of Christian narratives. America still lives and breathes by this idea of a solitary Stranger spreading truth and dying for some supposed greater good. Like it or not, our myths are experienced and processed, understood and held by more than reason alone. The cave paintings at Lascaux, the ancient texts and art works of the Levant, the ruins of Central and South America, the artifacts of the fin de siècle—whatever these things may or may not contain, and whatever meaning they still carry for countless individuals, reason alone will not explain them away.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I did nothing at all to deserve what talents I may have—they were given to me. The most I did was refine, deepen, or, in many instances, despoil them. Unless there is some secret knowledge awaiting us, no human being invented this cosmos. Gravity, matter, time and light we inherit, and only for a while.
When I am writing well, I am a conduit for something. I know I don’t write solely from experience, skill or intellect; something other speaks through me, often surprising me. Call it the unconscious, the shadow; when the work is going well, reason is at the very least augmented, frequently subverted.
When I try to hold onto my creation or use it to advertise myself, I stand a good chance of losing it. The ego aspect of success leads, the evidence suggests, to many sour, resentful, rageful and helpless stars in whatever field of endeavor. How crushed have many of us been when we finally met an idol, and encountered someone feeling they were owed much more, that they were cheated out of it—someone resentful of a fellow artist’s earnings and awards, and bitter about the state of things in their chosen field. No amount of money and fame will quench that flame. (And that can pretty much stand as a definition of alcoholism, by the way.)
When I am prepared to accept my lack of control, I am more apt to tap into a power, into some measure of freedom from fear, and, even, at times, finitude. Looked at from a different angle, mastery of any art (including that of living) seems to benefit from trust. Trust in others, time, process. Trust practiced over time is faith. I have learned that everyone has faith in something. For some it is in the accumulation or pursuit of money; for others, it’s sex, or fame, marijuana, books, blended whiskey, maybe their country, occasionally a belief system. People live and die in service of what holds their faith. Willy Loman sets his faith in a reward most surely awaiting him for having worked so long and so hard in order to be well-liked. For decades, I put my faith in alcohol.
Whenever I can get up enough nerve to risk sounding like a complete fool, I ask people what their faith is placed in. Is there anything they would die for?
It has long been observed that individuals who place themselves at the top of a cosmology, system or canon—Man as master of His/Her fate!—have the greatest distance to fall and the least palpable hope of experiencing that oceanic swell of what the ancients called the sublime. If you are allergic to the idea of God, or a higher power, call it nature, or the unknown, or fortune. If you think you have control over any or all of these, more power to you.
My year of reading led me to an understanding that humility is key to any achievement, and gratitude serves in gaining mastery. We hear this all the time, of course, in one form or another, and think, “Yeah, yeah.” But I can no longer afford that luxury.
Psychologist Erik Erickson suggests that in old age the choice is between wisdom and despair. I am sick enough, or human enough, to see that this isn’t theoretical—it’s a real and daily struggle. I can’t afford the luxuries of self-pity and resentment, privileging me and my work over others.
The stated mission of the Greenfield Prize is “to bring into the world works of art that will have a significant impact on the broad as well as the artistic culture of our society.” The good people who honored me with the prize—Jim Houghton, Michael Dixon and Oskar Eustis—gave me much more than money and time. They gave me a chance to reconsider how to live, how to write and the meaning I might take from both.
Here are a few other things I stumbled upon in my Hermitage year: Writers write. The only cure for the difficulties of writing is to write. If someone you care about tells you they are having a hard time writing, you might want to mention that Sophocles wrote 123 plays; Shakespeare, 38; O’Neill something on the order of 38; Tennessee Williams, 29; Shaw, more than 50; Horton Foote, 52; Mamet, 34; Caryl Churchill, 36; Richard Nelson, 36; Fornes, 43; Gurney, 46.
If I look back over the number of people who freely offered me a hand—intelligent observation and criticism, encouragement, know-how, moral courage—I see I have no option but to do the same. Any project I am to consider must answer two criteria: 1) Have I done something similar before? 2) Who can I help in the process? The answer to 1) has to be “no.” The answer to 2) can’t be “me.”
One of the benefits of this approach is that it takes much of the sting out of bad reviews. I confess here to having wasted a lot of time worrying about this. I fumed and quoted and publicly criticized, and in all that time, I could have written another three or more plays. I hereby apologize to all of the people I maligned. Mea culpa!
Reviews are like weather. Everybody talks about them, nobody does anything. Ever. They can’t nor should they. Get over it. Reviews are a permanent condition of being an artist. Write another play. Plays are what last—reviews generally don’t (except for the ones that were spectacularly wrong-headed, like Mary McCarthy’s review of A Streetcar Named Desire or Walter Kerr’s of Waiting for Godot, or the ones championing work dismissed by the majority, like Frank Rich’s review of Sunday in the Park with George).
Bad reviews freed me to write what I might otherwise have feared to say, to risk from my cozy lap of approbation. Nothing is more liberating than disdain. Tennessee Williams’s essay “The Catastrophe of Success” is neither disingenuous nor hyperbolic. We have all seen wonderful writers corrupted by praise, wealth, privilege, social acceptance, prizes. (Note to self.) If not for the facts that I was born gay and prone to addiction, I would probably not be an artist. Trauma seems to be key in kicking innate gifts into gear. Those constants, along with my cherished bad reviews, keep me awake to the dangers I pose to myself and others. There, I’ve said it.
The Romantics believed art models freedom. In many ways, commerce teaches us to play it safe. Our choices in this regard determine who we are—not only what kind of artist but what kind of citizen or husband, parent, friend. We are what we do, not what we say, feel or intend. It is a matter of daily practice. I’ve tried to wean myself off the things people say that they want, or feel, or will (or won’t) do. Things get clearer when you turn off the sound. And if what I do is gossip and indulge persistently in schadenfreude, then that’s who I am. Honesty is inextricably linked to kindness. And sometimes the kindest action is to say what hurts. (But not always. How to know which it should be? Once again the answer is not by reason alone.)
Despite much recent insistence, art is neither therapeutic nor palliative. It is a quality-of-life issue. It is subjective. Every living being has the right to assign his or her own meaning to things. It is an inalienable right. Nobody, but nobody, can tell you what a work of art stands for—or what anything else means, for that matter. That’s your prerogative. Disavowing the subjectivity of others is a form of evil. It makes people into objects, which they clearly are in certain political and profit-generating schemes. If corporations can be persons, people can easily become things.
And yet. The idea of a common good may have all but disappeared from our public discourse. But it is still woven into the fabric of our history, notably cited at a critical moment in our development by none other than Tocqueville. The Puritan synthesis of religious ideals and political liberty were the culmination of centuries of international development toward a more equal society. It is only in the period since World War II that capitalism has become conflated with democracy in America. That’s not so very long ago that the two can’t be pried apart again if we put our will to the task.
If nobody walks out of a new play (before the reviews appear), something is almost certainly wrong. The plays and musicals that everybody loves on first viewing seldom last very long. Opportunities such as the Greenfield Prize and Hermitage Artist Retreat provide the time, funds and, just as important, the context for making work that expands beyond the time-honored themes of marital infidelity and strife in the nuclear family. If you need a quick tonic, here are some themes from the last five Pulitzer Prize–winning plays: the cost of assimilation in a middle-class American Muslim’s existence; the inner demons of returning Iraq War veterans, especially the Puerto Rican protagonist; racism in the transfer of real estate over 50 years in a gentrifying Chicago neighborhood; mental illness in suburbia; rape as a weapon of war in Africa. Not bad for a nation, and art form, in decline.
Surprisingly, I find that I have faith in theatre in America. I believe in the playwrights. Without my hermitage at the Hermitage, a year of contemplation and reconsideration, I don’t know if I would have said I had much hope for anything, much less theatre. Now I find I’m holding on with all the hope I can muster. I’ve spent a year teaching at Columbia University; I’ve mentored a number of young writers and directors (and boy, do you learn what you don’t know—the same for translating classic plays); I am assisting artists I admire to learn to have more faith in themselves. All this has been a gift.
I have more work now than I can keep up with. I’m not as rich as some, nor are my works as lauded as others. But I have everything I could wish for, and it is my wish for all playwrights to have no less than that. You want to have too much to do. That’s the ideal existence, a psychologist once told me, and I see now he was right. If you want something done, ask a busy person.
Slow down. Write more. Art models freedom, but you must choose it and keep doing it. It will keep you young.
Craig Lucas’s Ode to Joy is currently running at Manhattan’s Cherry Lane Theatre. The 2014 Greenfield Prize was recently awarded to Nilo Cruz (see page 15).
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