In 1997, Adrienne Kennedy taught an undergraduate playwriting seminar at Harvard. Even on that fancy-pants campus, it was a notable event: Harvard in the late ’90s was a strange place for the theatre folk. The English department thought dramatic writing was declassé (the university proper kept itself completely away from production), and the school offered precious little in the way of creative writing classes at all. The Kennedy workshop was therefore a double rarity. It was also, in my case, a missed opportunity—though I was at Harvard, I didn’t take her class, and I’ve been kicking myself over that bonehead move ever since.
Twenty years later, after seeing her most recent play, I happened to read Kennedy’s diaristic essay “A Letter to Flowers” (2001). It’s a dazzle of moments and refracted thoughts, many achingly sad. “In my mid-60s,” Kennedy starts, “I found myself unable to adjust to my children not being near me. I often thought of not going on.” Her rather anxious sorrow moves from her sons to her 90-year-old mother, from loneliness to reminiscence and back to loss. She writes about her sons Joe and Adam with such intimacy, it’s as though we know them.
And then, suddenly, there were names I actually knew. Kennedy’s thoughts turn to the students she has taught, her mind skimming across them like a hand touching high grass. I was aware that the Harvard workshop had changed the lives of many who had taken it, but clearly the experience had also been important to Kennedy—a great salve and inspiration. The text brightens as she writes animatedly about the young writers’ work, and I saw friends and even old roommates I hadn’t talked to in a decade being loved and remembered by one of the century’s most important writers.
The class had clearly been an extraordinary meeting of minds: On a difficult day, after the course is over, Kennedy browses through her own unpublished novels, through Emerson, and then through a play by an undergraduate. The mind reels. What must that class have been like? What did they learn? Those former students I was able to reach—all still involved somehow in the arts—described a profound, boundary-crossing, even fairy tale experience.
Meetings were two hours long and took place once a week in Sever Hall, a brick-red 1870s castle, with dark paneled seminar rooms lit by huge arched windows—in memory, those rooms seemed to be huge, sad attics, somehow always looking out onto rain. Kennedy herself was a figure out of a story: a tiny, birdlike woman in a massive coat, her legend already totemic and titanic. The writer Eliot Schrefer (now a two-time finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature) remembers Kennedy sitting at the large conference table, still in her coat, her handbag in her lap, murmuring little pronouncements.
“She has a small voice,” he says. “She’s just an incredibly small woman—a really quiet presence, but with a lot of gravity.” One class, he recalls, “she was sitting there as we were scribbling away. And then suddenly she said,” and Schrefer drops his voice to a whisper, “Now add some violence. Everything’s better with violence.”
Early play pages written at home were shared in conference, and feedback in class was purely supportive. (Kennedy was more “hands on” and critical in one-on-one meetings.) The second hour of the session was guided writing, spurred by a prompt from Kennedy. This writing was prose—Kennedy asked the students to pour out reams of uncensored recollections, often memories of childhood. The screenwriter and Tony-nominated bookwriter Scott Brown (“Sharp Objects,” “Castle Rock,” Beetlejuice) remembers that the technique was, “Dig for the deepest, darkest thing. Give yourself permission to reach for the rawest, most unkind, least considered images and impulses and emotions—stuff that’s prepubescent is best—and transcribe those things directly to the page before you even consider structure or even intention.” It wasn’t meant to be therapeutic. “She didn’t care about your feelings,” Brown says. “She cared about what your feelings could do—on the page, and maybe, if you’re lucky, on a stage.”
And it worked. More than two decades later, many of the people I interviewed could remember not only their own work but work by the others.
“She really pushed toward getting the emotional truth that is already in you onto the page,” says Schrefer. “And my inclinations at that time were not to write myself but to write ‘high premise’ very different from my own experience. I was convinced I was normal—and normal would be boring.” Writing autobiographically tapped deep veins: Schrefer’s vividly Highsmith-ian book The New Kid was, in some ways, an answer to criticisms Kennedy had given him on a play, the one she mentions in “A Letter to Flowers.” Most of his work hasn’t been obviously personal—he wrote a poetic novel from an ape’s point of view, for instance—but he still finds it “foundational” to write with that level of emotional excavation. (He’s also writing plays again.)
“She was laser-focused,” recalls Jessica Jackson, a composer and director who’s now the artistic director of Creede Repertory Theatre in Colorado. “The play could be just trash on a page, and she could zero in on the one thing this play should be about, the one image that you could build a whole metaphor around. She was incredible at it.” Indeed, in “Flowers,” Kennedy writes about her admiration for Jackson’s play: “Astounding use of language and metaphor,” she says.
Yet there could also be something overwhelming about being under the microscope of a brilliant and monomaniacal mind, someone so totally consumed by writing. Kennedy would reach out suddenly and at odd hours. “The funniest call I ever got was toward the end of the seminar,” says Jackson. “I got a call at 5 a.m. I sat bolt upright thinking, ‘Who’s dead?’ but it was just Adrienne saying, ‘Jessica! I was thinking about the metaphor of the half-bridge in your play…’ No ‘Good morning,’ no nothing. That was amazing—it was a very intrusive way of being taken seriously!”
For Jackson, the intensity was puzzling. “I was almost confused,” she says. “Why would someone like her like my work? I wasn’t mature enough to take it.” Yet in the two decades since, Jackson said the influence of Kennedy’s attention has melted into her own practice and ethic of playmaking. “It helped me understand the value of the quiet revelation—which is what we do out here in Creede,” Jackson says. “Just as important, it has made me take the writing of young people seriously. I’m 42, we have a company of 90-some people here, some of whom are in their 20s just starting their journey. I hope I can be the way she was—in that even the tiniest thing someone creates or writes can be taken seriously.”
“Where do I go from here?” my student Monica writes (now that she’s finished a play). “And will I ever be able to write any thing again?”
“These questions go on forever,” I said.
In the beautiful autumn afternoon in Cambridge we had read her lyrical passages.
This Monica was Monica Beletsky (née Henderson), now a screenwriter and producer of dramas that all emphasize moral complexity, painful self-knowledge, and a kind of uncertain, twilight landscape for the soul (“Fargo,” “I Am the Night,” “The Leftovers,” “Parenthood”). “What I learned from her work,” Beletsky says, “is that dream language and the language of nightmares elevates drama and taps into something intrinsically human and beautiful.” The classroom contact itself was important: “I was also inspired by a fellow African American woman daring and succeeding to write about the psychological effects of racism and white supremacy so viscerally and boldly,” Beletsky said. She’s now writing the film A White Lie for Zendaya and producer Reese Witherspoon, an adaptation of a book about a light-skinned Black woman “passing” as white to get into Vassar. Perhaps there is also a very slender thread—one that takes many turnings—that ties this work to Kennedy’s groundbreaking masterpieces of the late ’60s.
For Brett Egan, now the president of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, it was actually hearing Beletsky’s work, not his own, that was a major revelation. “For me that class was very exploratory—‘Maybe I’ll be a playwright’ kind of thing—but we read Monica Henderson’s plays…” His voice trails off. “I don’t know that she thought of herself as a playwright. So it had this effect of revealing this massive territory that lay under the surface. Adrienne had a way of doing that.”
The Kennedy he remembers was “liminal,” Egan says. “She existed between the earth and another place, partly with us and partly not with us.” The surreality of her plays, which phase between dream and memory, extended to the writer herself. “It was like the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” he says. “You left Harvard Yard and went…somewhere.”
For many students, it was that sense of being urged across a threshold into revelation, or mystery, or simply into a writing career, that they remember most. They were all surprised to learn that she wrote about them, that their work has now been permanently braided into her memoir, that they’ve become part of her legend. But her “patina,” as Egan puts it, is on them all. “I continued to get postcards from her for years after the class,” says Egan. “One was the photo of a dogwood tree, and it said, ‘Just keep writing.’” Beletsky remembers that Kennedy told her to hang on—that a person could make it in the arts if they could make it to 28.
And Brown said he would never have dared embark on his career without Kennedy’s insistence and guidance and invitation. “Adrienne was a Great, giving me permission to hang around,” Brown says. Her influence got him “to go to New York and try. That was everything.”
Helen Shaw is a critic based in New York City.
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