Richard Nelson is many things: a Tony, Olivier, and OBIE Award-winning playwright with a decades long career, a respected translator, a director, an associate artist at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the head of the M.F.A. playwriting program at Yale Drama School. After bringing us a haunting play with music, James Joyce’s The Dead, and a beautifully poignant and humorous translation of The Cherry Orchard, he returns to the Huntington this season with How Shakespeare Won the West, a taste of something very different. Artistic Associate M. Bevin O’Gara spoke with the writer about his love of actor history and the Boston University Theatre.
You’ve said that Broadway musicals were a significant part of your childhood. Did they initially spark your interest in the theatre?
Yes, they did. My mother had been a dancer, and she took me to a lot of Broadway musicals. So the first fifteen or twenty times I went to the theatre were to see musicals, on Broadway or on the road. We traveled around a bit, and we lived in Detroit for a while — we saw a lot of shows in Detroit that were trying out.
How did you find your way to the playwriting side of things in particular?
It was a process of elimination. When I was very young I did a little acting — I was bad and I hated it and it was really scary, but there’s nothing else for a young person to do. You can’t become a director when you’re fifteen, or a set designer, or whatever. So if you really love the theatre you think, I’ll write a play.
You’ve cited Sam Shepard, Edward Bond, Bertolt Brecht, and William Faulkner among your influences. Who else might you count in that club?
I’ve been writing a long time, and at different times in my life different people have been very influential. Most recently, it’s been Chekhov. Over the last ten years, Strindberg has been a great influence on me, as well as Ibsen.
The giants of modern theatre.
There’s a reason why. They’re incredibly interesting, and they’re often misunderstood, so there’s a chance of rediscovering them for yourself.
Looking back on the ground you’ve covered in your lengthy career, can you draw any predictions about where you might be headed?
I can, just because I’ve started to work on something that’s crystallized for me. I recently wrote a play, Frank’s Home, about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s a play that attempts to bring two strands of my writing together. One is a sort of infinite yet domestic kind of writing, intense and somewhat influenced by Strindberg, that can be seen in my last four or so plays — from Goodnight Children Everywhere to Madame Melville, Franny’s Way, and Rodney’s Wife. Then there is a more overtly social playwriting of the type I did earlier in my career — plays that dealt with societal issues in a more obvious way. Now I’ve tried to do both of those things in one play. I’m at a point in my life where I’m trying to bring the disparate threads of what I’ve been doing together.
What drew you to telling the story of How Shakespeare Won the West at this time?
I’ve had this play on my desk in one form or another for probably for about eight years. I initially got involved because of an obituary I read in the The New York Times. A very tiny obituary for a woman, a scholar, and the obituary said she had written a scholarly book called How Shakespeare Won the West. And I thought, “Wow, that’s a great title.” It was about the Gold Rush and it was a very scholarly book about some of the things happening during the Gold Rush in terms of performance. Now I had written a play called Two Shakespearean Actors, which is set at almost the same time (in 1849 during the Astor Place Riots) and is also about theatre. It’s a world that I was interested in and one I knew about and I saw the opportunity of talking about America and doing it in the context of a group of actors, going their journey with them.
How does Two Shakespearean Actors tie into the themes of How Shakespeare Won the West?
Two Shakespearean Actors was written in the very late 1990s. The Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned it and was done there successfully. It was done on Broadway produced by Lincoln Center Theater. It’s a very, very big show with nearly 30 actors and it talked about the significance of art. It’s the story of a theatrical feud that precipitated a riot that killed more than 30 people and wounded 100 more. It deals with the relationship between art and society and how art and artists are perceived and how they perceive themselves and their relationship to society. That’s a theme I involve in all of my work. In HSWTW, I exported this theme too, but in a gentler way. It’s very, very narrative and deals with the hopes and aspirations of actors and their subsequent journey across America in relation to those aspirations and those hopes.
In the time HSWTW takes place, Shakespeare was viewed as much more accessible to audiences. What in your mind has changed? Why do you feel like people today see it as more of an elitist venture?
One, in terms of it being so potent back then, I think that they’re just great stories. There are great, great stories in Shakespeare. I think today the language gets between people and the plays, between the people and the stories sometimes. And so they feel it’s sort of a hard slog to figure out. But I think something also changed. I have a book called High Art, Low Art, just talking about how we divided high art and low art in this country when in fact they’re mixed at times. Crowds of people would go and see Edwin Forrest in Macbeth and it’s very hard to imagine that existing today. How that transpired is complicated. There are lots and lots of reasons — television, film, things like that. Narratives are not necessarily language-based; the visual images can create the narratives. Generations grow up with non-language based editions. Back in 1849 people, any educated person, would sit around and read the Bible and that language, in the King James version, was very much the mode of high language, Shakespeare’s language. It wasn’t quite so off-putting, I guess.
You’ve chosen to use the ensemble to tell the story versus the more traditional, single narrator helping the audience along with the journey. Where did that idea come from and why is it important for this story?
It’s very, very important because it’s a play about a group of people. It’s not about an individual or any one story. It’s important that these actors are not successful. One of them is successful but he is in big trouble back East, so he has to join the group, but by and large these are journeymen. I wanted to tell a journeymen story, a story of the aspirations of actors who are indomitable and I wanted to do a play about a company. The first part of the play is about making the company and the second part is about that company’s journeying to their conclusion. So what the real voice of the play needed was to be the voice of the company and that seemed to be a multi-narrator approach.
How did you research this play?
The book I mentioned lays down the facts: there were a lot of actors in the Gold Rush who performed Shakespeare. The time that keeps popping up for me is the mid-late 1840s to early 1850s. I’m not quite sure why, but that period of time really interests me. It became an exploration for me. The very first thing was to, once again, plunge into the territory I had mined in Two Shakespearean Actors which was about New York City theatre during the time. In the very beginning of HSWTW there’s a good deal about what’s playing in New York at that time, so I started there since I was already familiar with it. Then there was the research of various travels across the country.
You use specific works by Shakespeare in this play. What was it about these particular plays that you felt enhanced your story?
Some of the plays came up in my mind for different themes. In one instance, when two people are rehearsing Katharine and Petrucchio in Taming of the Shrew, it’s a very famous scene, and the theme of wooing is clear. In the plat the young girl is trying to replace the actress both on stage and with the husband. I wanted to mine a series of ironies about how just rehearsing a play can have a greater meaning in one’s own life. I looked for those moments where the meaning of the play has a deeper or more personal reverberation to how it all comes about. The idea of King Lear and the Indians came from me trying to show the universality very deep within the stories of Shakespeare that crosses border and language and time. The Chief is looking for something so mythic that it would transcend and be conveyed to other cultures, and I felt that tied in very nicely. I was looking for those kinds of things all the way through. Each one specifically tied to an actor or character development except, of course, in the early part with the little girls doing bits from Shakespearean tragedies, that was just pure farce.
There was a need for entertainment, for Shakespeare in particular, out in California during the Gold Rush. What do you think it was about the lifestyle that made these plays so important and so riveting to people?
In the early days of the Gold Rush, the miners were quite educated because for the most part it was the educated people who could travel. They weren’t stuck on their farms having to plant or grow their crops; they had the mobility to rush out to try to deal with this Gold Rush. You’re already getting an educated population who were all alone, nothing to do, standing in water all day, doing grunge work, and anything to lift their hearts and souls, or made them think more or reminded them of the things left behind was welcomed.
Your play begins a new chapter in the Huntington’s history. After being a favorite here, what excites you most about being here at this time?
It’s wonderful to be back. The Boston University Theatre is a beautiful, beautiful theatre. I love that space, I think it’s a great size, and it has a great warmth. You’re never far away from the stage and yet it’s a large house. It has a history about it, too — you feel like you’re walking into a place with some weight to it. I’ve very much enjoyed the audiences of the shows I’ve done there. It was great to work under Nicholas Martin, who was the first who brought me to the Huntington. I did a translation at The Public Theater a few years ago when I first met Peter DuBois and I very, very much like him. It’s a great honor to open someone’s term. It’s something special to open a whole regime with a play about the indomitable spirit of a group of actors. It seems like it has a fitting tone at the beginning of Peter’s time at the Huntington.
Note: Some of these questions are taken from a previous interview with Richard Nelson.