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5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Karen Malpede

The proliferation of war plays since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 could fill, if I had to venture a guess, about a dozen volumes in a challengingly academic font. Certainly our very definition of what constitutes a “war play” has evolved markedly over the last nine years — by some angles, American Idiot might even qualify, given that Green Day’s album-turned-Broadway-musical features a character who is seduced by the military and goes off to fight in one of America’s charming overseas wars, only to return home minus a limb. By other angles, the mere inclusion of a character involved in the nation’s military-industrial complex might not a war play make. Like war itself, along with its causes and cures, it is all a matter of what each of us personally deems to be true.

Image by Luba Lukova

Acts of War: Iraq & Afghanistan in Seven Plays is an anthology being published by Northwestern University Press in March 2011, and Karen Malpede’s Prophecy — in addition to David Hare’s The Vertical Hour, Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo’s Guantanamo, Bill Cain’s 9 Circles, Simon Stephens’ A Canopy of Stars, Lydia Stryk’s American Tet and Naomi Wallace’s No Such Cold Things — will be featured in it.

Last February, I received an email from Malpede pointing to an op-ed about the play by author and activist David Swanson, which he acknowledged only having said until that time.

Yet there was a quote in Swanson’s story that, to my mind, illustrates why ours is an agonized age of tragic irony:

…there is something unavoidably political in depicting soul shattering grief when George W. Bush is off golfing and the root cause of masses of people enduring the misery performed here now bears the brand name of a peace prize laureate.

But Prophecy, which was staged in London in 2008, appears to be structured in such a way that war both is and isn’t at the core of the action:

For perhaps the first third of the play, war is hardly even discussed. …By the time you’re two-thirds into the play, however, these wars have come exploding into these people’s lives from distant lands, from decades past, and from the present….

So it seemed an irresistible idea to talk to Malpede about the provocative Prophecy, which starts previews on May 27, opens June 4 and runs through June 20 at the East Fourth Street Theatre (83 E. 4th St.), and which she is directing via the aegis of TheatreThree Collaborative.

While the play, per the press materials, is about the “far-reaching effects of both the Iraq and Vietnam wars on those who served on the battlefield and those who served in protests,” Prophecy is also “the story of a marriage: Alan Golden, a Jew whose past includes an affair with an Arab co-worker that results in the birth of a child, and his wife Sarah, an actress and acting teacher, whose intense bond with one of her students — a talented and vulnerable Iraq War veteran — triggers memories of a young man from her past.”

This is how TheatreThree’s website explains the play:

The Abraham-Sarah-Hagar myth echoes through the marriage of Sarah and Alan Golden. Sarah Golden is an acting teacher who tries to avert the tragedy of a talented young man who went to war for tuition money but returns with a terrible secret seared into consciousness. Then, Alan’s estranged daughter arrives from the Middle East, seeking retribution.

According to Malpede, the roles in Prophecy to be portrayed by actors Kathleen Chalfant, George Bartenieff and Najla Said were written for those actors specifically; the play was conceived over tea at Chalfant’s home several few years ago. The full cast also includes Peter Francis James (of Stuff Happens fame) and Brendan Donaldson.

As for Malpede herself, she is something of a downtown legend — a fierce guardian and, indeed, representative of the vanguard for the theater of witness tradition, which she touches on during the 5 Questions below. Her play I Will Bear Witness, co-written with Bartenieff and based on the Holocaust-era diaries of Victor Klemperer, won two Obies and, to put it mildly, shook a lot of people up.

There will also be series of post-performance talk-backs at Prophecy, with special guests including Noam Chomsky on June 8, the aforementioned Swanson on June 2, journalist and Grit-TV host Laura Flanders on June 3, and journalist and former New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges on June 4.

For more information and tickets for Prophecy, call 212-868-4444 or click here.

And now, 5 questions Karen Malpede has never been asked — and a bonus question:

George Bartenieff and Najla Said in the London production of Malpede's "Prophecy"

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
The best questions are those that lead me more deeply into what it is I am already doing. Such questions are usually asked by other artists: my first reader is always my oldest writer friend, Erika Duncan; she is also a brilliant teacher of writing and a wonderful editor. My next reader is my husband, George Bartenieff, he’s a great actor and he knows and understands my work. I find the prerequisite for a good question is that the person who asks it has understanding and sympathy for the writer’s intent. I listen closely to actors, of course. I say that character is a collaboration between the writer and the actor. Both have to drop down into scene; both have to be with the character in the situation, and both have something to give to the moment. I listen to everyone who makes sense to me. I tell my writing students you can’t take a note from anyone unless you can make more of it. When I get a good note, and I have even gotten them from reviews, I know it because I can immediately do something that goes beyond the note.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Why did you write it that way?” Another playwright asked me that about my very first play, 35 years ago now. I was stunned. I didn’t know any other way to write it than the way I did. We don’t choose our voices, or our subjects, for that matter. We listen. I write poetic, multi-layered, human dramas. Some people prefer other things.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Gosh, I really can’t remember.

Karen Malpede

4) Prophecy is part of an anthology, Iraq and Afghanistan in Seven Plays. With so much war-themed theater created since 9/11, would you argue that the stage has properly, fully served its function as a vehicle by which to question and challenge government policy?
The full name of the anthology is Acts of War: Iraq & Afghanistan in Seven Plays. It has an introduction to the seven plays which I wrote and in which I articulate the attributes of what I call “theater of witness,” or a witnessing aesthetic. I believe that playwrights can also be theorists and that writing theory is also necessary. Certainly, thinking about theory is necessary, in order to push one’s own aesthetic. I often talk about writing as a conversation between the conscious and the unconscious brain. In the moment of writing one is responding to something deeper than reason — trying to catch the essence of human beings in action, in moments of choice and change. But I don’t think you can do that adequately if you haven’t also spent a lot time thinking about what is choice, what is change? And how might we change? The playwrights in the anthology have all asked similar questions. Their plays were chosen because each one tries to push the boundaries of the known. That’s the point, isn’t it? Or, it seems so to me. Do we want to keep on writing about wreaking havoc in the world? Or might there be another way? The theater is, first of all, a place of imagination. And it’s so, whatever we can first imagine we might then become. So, the theater is meant to stretch the imagination.

I’m not interested in “war-themed plays,” per se. I’m not interested either in gratuitous depictions of violence, sick humor or sentimental versions of war. I think we’ve had enough of war, altogether. If the human race is going to survive, we have to feel out how to go beyond ourselves. How to grow up. I am interested in plays that look at the violence of what is with the purpose of glimpsing a moment of what we might become. Aeschylus says: “wisdom comes along through suffering.” But, in order for wisdom to result, we need to truly feel the suffering we cause others, as well as the suffering we experience. We need to take responsibility for our lives. It’s exhilarating, really. What causes depression and ennui is the banal repetition, that same old, same old sense of victimhood. The plays in this particular anthology were chosen by me and the other two editors, Bob Shuman and Michael Messina, because they help take us and the theater further.

5) What does Prophecy offer right-wing ideologues politically and theatrically? What can the American theater do to argue directly with those who maintain that our overseas wars are both justified and necessary? Are we condemned to theater that preaches to the choir?
The play offers “right-wing ideologues” same thing that it offers “left-wing ideologues,” which is a moving artistic experience. If people are capable of being moved by an artistic experience it doesn’t matter what their ideology is. Ideologues of any persuasion, as a general rule, don’t make good audiences for art because they are already convinced, judgmental and rigid. However, you never do know when someone will be moved. Often, if a person “hates,” really “hates,” a play, it means they have been deeply affected, they just are not ready yet to admit what it is they feel. It’s happened to me, and, later, when I’ve grown a bit, I realize I was wrong to shut out that work of art — it’s just that it needed time to do its work on me. I’m talking about “hate,” not boredom. Boredom in the theater is a sin. If I bore people, I fail them. The purpose of art is to move people, internally, so that they grow larger than they thought they were, to open them up to experience, and to allow them to contain ambiguities, to hold and empathize with realities that might not be their own. It’s not my business to tell people what to think. I want to create a place in which people are free to feel whatever it is they can feel.

Martin Buber says: “The size of the gift depends upon the size of the glass, not the size of the pitcher.” I was trained by a professor of Shakespeare, Bernard Beckerman, who used to say “meaning is not the end of art: experience and impact of experience is.” I agree. When I want to make points, I give a lecture, or I write an essay. When I want to offer people an experience in which they are absolutely free to have their own feelings, I write a language-driven, poetic play. I believe the theater is a sacred space. It is a place where we live through together what we might not be able to bear alone. It’s a wonderful space because we are together, in community, and yet each one of us is free to have our own experience of the same event and to take away from it what matters to us. The theater encourages community and individual freedom at the very same time. Moreover, when well done, when the actors are really brave and become our guides, the theater is absolutely exhilarating. The dramatic experience literally creates energy.

6) Under what specific circumstances would you write a pro-war play? Is there a case to be made that the left would accomplish far more by writing and embracing plays that are vehemently and fanatically pro-war?
Yep, it’s happened; this might be the strangest question I have ever been asked. I can’t imagine writing a pro-war play. What purpose would be served? Do you mean there might be a war I might embrace? That certainly hasn’t happened yet. I think everyone should read Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II and the End of Civilization by Nicholson Baker. I cannot summarize it here but it’s a brilliant book about World War II and how millions and millions of lives might have been spared had people been more creative in their thinking and actions. Everyone also ought to read Chris Hedges’ War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. And, my teachers and, often, friends: Simone Weil, Etty Hillesum, Susan Griffin, Barbara Deming, Grace Paley, Dorothy Dinnerstein.

People should study peace, not war. We should have a draft in this country, and, in fact, not just teenagers, 20-year olds, but parents and grandparents, senators and congressmen, lobbyists and brokers, should face the draft. Then, we’d begin to develop truly creative ways to protect ourselves and we’d stop wasting lives and resources on war. In my lifetime, these are some of the wars my country has fought or instigated: Vietnam; the invasion of Cambodia, which brought to power the Khmer Rouge who annihilated millions; the dirty wars in South America, including the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile, which brought the dictator Pinochet to power; a couple of invasions of Haiti which ensured the economic enslavement of the little country; Gulf War I, which, in turn, made Osama bin Laden determined to attack the U.S.; and now, endlessly, Afghanistan, including the drone and other attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas; and Iraq. My belief is that none of these wars needed to be fought, not one of them has protected any of the things I hold dear — human life, the ability for all people to self-determine and the environment — or Times Square, for that matter. I think war is antiquated, useless, futile, and criminal, in fact. If a foreign power invaded my neighborhood, would I try to protect my family, my community? Of course, I would. I hope I would think of creative means of nonviolent resistance. The words “vehement” and “fanatic” — this language, itself, becomes a problem. Vehemence and fanaticism create an enemy so that one can feel good. “The bad guys.” “The Terrorists.” “The Capitalist pigs.” “The American infidels.” “The Islamo-Fascists.” Now, we’re all ready to send our children off to kill each other while we stay home being patriotic or holy. Language in the theater is best when it contains itself and its opposite. That’s why, in the presence of dramatic poetry, we feel purified, enlivened, healed — it’s because we realize we are capable of holding opposites inside ourselves. We don’t have to annihilate the other in order to be safe. True security depends upon understanding, and an embrace.

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?

The final three questions (one is a bonus!) are devised by Leonard Jacobs:

4) Prophecy is part of an anthology, Iraq and Afghanistan in Seven Plays. With so much war-themed theater created since 9/11, would you argue that the stage has properly, fully served its function as a vehicle by which to question and challenge government policy?

5) What does Prophecy offer right-wing ideologues politically and theatrically? What can the American theater do to argue directly with those who maintain that our overseas wars are both justified and necessary? Are we condemned to theater that preaches to the choir?

Bonus question:

6) Under what specific circumstances would you write a pro-war play? Is there a case to be made that the left would accomplish far more by writing and embracing plays that are vehemently and fanatically pro-war?


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