Over the past five weeks since I’ve written anything substantive in this journal, I’ve been reading quite a bit. Chekhov’s Ivanov, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, especially Eliot’s Four Quartets (for a few weeks now, over and over) and Helen Gardner’s fine 1950 book about Eliot’s poetry — certainly more than usual. All this as I work the day job and try to raise two little girls who are … well, “spirited” is the best way to put it. And now, with my wife away for a few days and the girls just down to bed, I sit here quietly with a glass of Paul D. and write this — and not writing my new play, which is nearly finished, just a few pages from the second act curtain. But mornings are my true working hours, and evenings I’m usually so tired I can barely see straight. The Paul D. doesn’t help — not with that, anyway. While the wife’s away, though, I’ve commandeered the TV and last night very much enjoyed watching all five episodes of Better Call Saul (is that the binge-watching I’ve been hearing so much about?) end to end, not neglecting last night’s glass of Paul D. either. It went well with the show, too; I’ve been watching Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean for thirty years now, and it’s a pleasure to watch them spread their wings a bit.
Oh, yes, that play. It’s my first in seven years, and some may be surprised to learn that it’s deliberately, radically anachronistic: two acts, one set, six characters, a contemporary comedy. So far as I can tell (and it’s in the first draft stage so this may change through what will no doubt be a half-dozen rewrites), Snow’s Day is about a middle-aged playwright who also teaches at a New York university; in the course of the plot (taking place over about six hours of a Friday in May) Alex Snow manages to lose his job, his wife, and an off-Broadway production of his latest, and likely last, play. If anything, it’s far more Terence Rattigan than Howard Barker, more Simon Gray than Richard Foreman — but however much I admire both Barker and Foreman, I could never claim them as influences. If it’s about the waning and collapse of Alex’s personal and professional life, it’s also (quite consciously and metatheatrically) about the waning and collapse of that kind of Rattigan and Gray play so popular from about 1945 to 1985 — the domestic comedy/drama of the lives of the middle classes. There is still some of this about — Richard Nelson’s Apple plays, for example — but the plays of that forty-year period assiduously avoided explicit dialogue about current events and political or cultural issues, preferring instead to course Eliotically (there’s perhaps no other word for it) through a landscape of the metaphysically personal. (Mind you, among those six characters are a young student of mixed race and a thirtyish woman from South Korea who is directing Alex’s play — it’s not an entirely monochromatic cast.)
Along with all that other reading my greatest pleasure has been working through my way through Gray’s diaries — which, along with Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, constitute the most truthful and honest confessions, difficulties, and anxieties about working in the theatre, and much else besides, that I’ve ever come across. So far I’ve devoured An Unnatural Pursuit and How’s That for Telling ‘Em, Fat Lady?, both of them recently in print again from Faber & Faber. They’re also laugh-out-loud funny (at least, I laughed out loud). Because it was plays by writers like Gray, Harold Pinter, and Rattigan who first drew me to the thought of writing for the theatre in the first place, it’s a bit of a homecoming. I won’t say that the writing hasn’t been hard — I’m trying to get two pages written a day and often meet this target, only occasionally falling short, each and every day until the first draft is finished — but I’ve also been experiencing the uncanny enjoyment of the pen taking off on its own as it courses its way across and down the page, a very rare pleasure for me the past few years, experiencing the delight of discovery as I slowly piece together Alex, his wife, his colleagues, and his director, making his downfall as gleeful, I hope, as I can make it.
There’s one other reason for what I fear will be taken as a treasonous recidivism. By far, most of my friends are not in the theatre at all, or any of the other arts for that matter — in fact, most of them never go to the theatre, and that’s largely because there’s really nothing there for them. They’re familiar with the theatre landscape — they read the reviews and stories about new plays and musicals in the New York Times — but they never go, and I suspect it’s because they know all too well what they’re likely to find there. My father was the same way, my brother is too. Maybe perversely and far too optimistically, I’m hoping to write plays that these people might want to see. I’m far more concerned about that than about writing plays for people who’ve already dismissed this kind of play as old-fashioned or even reactionary. Maybe some would characterize this as theatre and drama for that aging audience who notoriously resist more experimental or outlandish kinds of work. But it’s silly to regard an aesthetic or dramatic form as being more primarily for the old, more primarily for the young. That’s not how it works.
I take up this journal again somewhat reluctantly at this point, with those few pages of the first draft still left to write, but I’m confident now that I’ll finish it (I’ve also been keeping another journal, a more personal journal, which I’ll instruct my daughters shall remain sealed until fifty years after my death). And oh yes, Eliot — I suppose the play is about a third thing too, a comedy about the possibility of redemption for those without traditional religious faith. Along with Four Quartets, I’ve been doing a little reading in the gospels besides (the excellent E.V. Rieu translation for Penguin Classics really deserves to be returned to print), with much pleasure and interest. Among the themes of Four Quartets is what role words themselves might have in redeeming experience — from Eliot’s Christian perspective of course, but they haunt nonetheless, and it might be because, as at the age of 53 I hope to become America’s oldest young emerging playwright, these concerns become more and more urgent the more and more the days pass, with fewer years ahead of me than behind me. Writing plays is all about words, about how they’re spoken (and the Four Quartets themselves were written during the years of Eliot’s greatest theatrical activity). It is something Alex Snow knows; it is something I know too, in one of the very few autobiographical parallels in the play. So forward, ceaselessly, into the past.