Playwright Christopher Durang on Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Danielle Mages Amato, Literary Manager at The Old Globe, interviews Christopher Durang about his connection to Chekhov and his relationship with comedies. This article was excerpted in the Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike program.

Where did the idea behind this play come from? Why Chekhov?

I lived in New York for 22 years, and in 1996, with my partner John Augustine, I moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. We live on a little hill, overlooking a pond, and a blue heron does come there. My house, it’s a farmhouse, pretty and a little quaint, and it made me think of the Chekhov plays, like The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, where the people who live in the country are rather unhappy. They feel that their lives are boring; there’s no stimulation for them. Then there are characters like the glamorous actress Madame Arkadina in The Seagull, who are wandering about living in cities and being in plays and having affairs. I suddenly realized that I was now the age of the older characters in Chekhov. I’d mostly seen and read the plays in my 20s and 30s, and I certainly had empathy for the older characters, but they felt very distant from my experience. And now I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m the same age as Uncle Vanya.” (Actually, I went back and looked up how old Vanya is in the play, and he’s 47! I’m a lot older than that. But aging was different back then, and most of the great actors who’ve played that role are older.)

Even though I was now the age of Chekhov’s older characters, and I lived in a place in the country, I realized that I didn’t feel bitter in the way that the Chekhov characters did — I’d been in the city, and I actually wanted to get out of the city. But I thought to myself: what if I had only gone away from home briefly, and I hadn’t pursued the things that interested me? What if my fictional sister and I had ended up taking care of our parents through a very prolonged illness, and so on. I realized it was a “what if ” play.

What if you, yourself, had been a character in a Chekhov play?

Yes — what if my real life had been like one of those Chekhov characters. Chekhov was a definite jumping-off point for the play, but it’s very much not a parody of Chekhov. I’ve done parodies in the past, and this is much more its own thing. And I did my very best to write it so that you don’t have to know Chekhov to respond to it. I thought I was going to have much more about unrequited love, which is a theme that comes up in Chekhov so much. But it became much more about disappointment with how your life has gone. That’s a theme that isn’t unique to Chekhov. And it doesn’t sound like a comedy at all. But it is a comedy!

Could you tell us a bit about the parodies you’ve written?

Well, I wrote For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, which is a parody of The Glass Menagerie. It follows the original play very closely, except that Laura has become Laurence, who is a hypochondriac, which drives his mother crazy, and instead of having a glass menagerie, he has a collection of glass cocktail stirrers, and he gives them all different names. There’s another one, less well known, called Desire, Desire, Desire, which was mostly about Stanley and Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire. In that one, Stella has gone out to get a Lemon Coke and she hasn’t been back for eight years. I did a parody of A Lie of the Mind by Sam Shepard, and a very little-known parody of Aunt Dan and Lemon, but the longest of my parodies is maybe 30 minutes. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a parody that sustains for a full-length play. With Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, I was afraid that, because of the title, people might assume it’s a parody. But the parodies I’ve written are correctly called parodies. This is inspired by Chekhov, but it’s its own thing.

Are you a person who sees the work you’ve done over the course of your career as one long trajectory, or do you see it in phases? How does Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike relate to your other plays?

I see it in phases, but that’s hindsight, because I can look back on it. In high school I wrote conventional musical comedies, and our school performed them, and it was a fun learning experience. Shortly before I applied to college, I got more serious about reading plays and seeing foreign movies, and I was very inspired by the phrase: “Theatre of the Absurd.” So until maybe the middle of my years at Yale Drama School, I wrote absurdist plays, very non-realistic comedies.

I think Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You was my first play that included anything unabashedly serious. There’s a section where Diane (the one who tries to kill Sister) talks about the death of her mother. It was actually based on the death of my mother, which had happened maybe a year before. And I remember when I was writing it, thinking, “Oh dear, will the audience want to hear this?” When I was writing all those absurdist things, I didn’t realize I was writing about my family. But when I looked back, I saw the connections. The Marriage of Bette and Boo (1985) was based on my parents’s marriage, and the character of Matt is pretty much me. I fictionalized some of the relatives, but some of them are not entirely fictionalized! Having written that play, I felt like I’d finished with that. It wasn’t a conscious thought — but I was able to move on.

When I got to Betty’s Summer Vacation, which was 1999, some kind of shift happened for me as a writer, and I think of Betty’s Summer Vacation, Miss Witherspoon, Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike as connected. I think most writers don’t ever get away from writing about families, but none of those plays were really triggered by specifics of my family — at that point I’d gotten old enough that I’d had my own experiences — and instead, they all seemed to focus around a central theme. In Betty’s Summer Vacation, the theme became this weird American interest in watching distressing things on television: Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, the Menendez Brothers’s trial — anything on Court TV.

Why Torture Is Wrong was a reaction to the Bush years and the redefinition of torture that happened during that time. That might sound pretty serious, but to the audience, the plays come off as funny.

From your perspective, as someone who writes almost exclusively comedies, do you think that comedy is something that we need? As human beings, as a society?

Oh yes, absolutely. Comedies give you pleasure. And over the course of my life, whenI’ve gotten down, I’ve often put on a comedy to help me get through. There’s also something about laughter that comes from things that you recognize. For instance, the bickering of the siblings in my play is funny. You could write it so it would be hellish, and that might be good, too — it would be intense, more like Edward Albee or Eugene O’Neill. But I think we need both. For two years in college, I was in a deep, deep depression — I couldn’t function well as a student or as a person. During that time, I hardly ever watched comedies. I found that I had a hard time responding to things if they weren’t tragic, and I liked seeing very depressing movies because they made me feel less alone. But that was a short period in my life.

What are the things that make you laugh?

Oh, Monty Python. Old screwball comedies. I like that show “Little Britain” with David Walliams and Matt Lucas.

Do you have advice for the young writers you mentor at Juilliard about how to make a life in the theatre today?

Don’t try to write a great play, just try to write a good one. If someone else decides it’s great later, that’s fine, but don’t try to write a great one. Write about something you feel really strongly about, even  if it’s a comedy. Don’t write from a mild impulse. And tenacity: just keep going, keep writing.

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