In Conversation: Playwright Joshua Harmon and Huntington Artistic Director Loretta Greco
Loretta Greco: You are one of the most passionate theater lovers I know. How did that come to be and why do you still have faith in the power of gathering in the dark to tell each other stories??
Joshua Harmon: Every week, it seems, someone writes another article about the dire state of American theatre, and I know the challenges are daunting. But I also feel certain that audiences will always crave the experience of a good play, now more than ever. After the pandemic, we all recognize that our ability to gather side by side and listen to a story is precious. As we spend more of our lives connected to devices and looking at screens, the theatre is nearly the last place where you have to put down your phone, a respite my brain is always grateful for. There is something primal about our need to see our greatest fears acted out onstage, a safe space to ask the impossible and unanswerable questions we are afraid to face in life, to see how things resolve, and to leave somehow changed from when we walked in.
I’m forever fascinated by where the spark of a new play begins… Can you share with our audiences Prayer’s origin story?
In 2015, there was a shooting in Paris at Charlie Hebdo, followed by the murder of four Jews at a kosher supermarket. This event capped a decade of increasing
g violence against French Jews– the kidnapping and murder of Ilan Halimi in 2006, the murder of four Jews at a day school in Toulouse in 2012– which led to the largest emigration of French Jews in years, and a flurry of articles from around the world asking, “Is it time for Jews to leave France?”
This question spoke to me on many levels, not only because it’s profoundly interesting, but also because I am descended from French Jews. Like Molly in the play, I studied abroad in France, in large part because my family remains very connected to our French heritage. So I had the language skills to communicate, a personal connection to the place, and an intellectual curiosity about the question. I began doing research in earnest, and in 2016, I went on the first of two research trips to France. I interviewed writers and rabbis, actors and shopkeepers, strangers and distant cousins. I met Holocaust survivors, and Jewish immigrants from North Africa now living in France, and French Jews now living in Israel, and American Jews now living in France. What became clear is that despite sharing an identity, there was no consensus among these individuals about the state of things. Some felt perfectly safe. Some said things were fine– so long as you didn’t appear Jewish in the streets. Some thought in the next fifty years, there would be no Jews left in France. One man laughed at my idea for this play. He found the entire premise false. I listened, crestfallen. When he told his friend about my absurd idea, his friend responded that he’d just put his apartment up for sale.
I returned home confused, unsure of how to tell a story with so many wildly divergent points of view. Then, two days after my return, Trump was elected President. You don’t need me to tell you what happened next– the cities’ names speak for themselves: Charlottesville. Monsey. Pittsburgh. We even got our own kosher supermarket massacre in New Jersey. What started as a theoretical inquiry into French Jews suddenly became much more personal. My play about those people, over there, became a play about me, right here.
What scared you most in the writing of this play?
A lot! There was a lot to get wrong, and I really wanted to get it right: the experience of French Jews returning home post-Holocaust; the experience of North African Jews in France; the politics of France in that moment. But beyond that, it’s the biggest play I’ve ever attempted, and I wanted it to make sure it didn’t collapse under its own weight.
One of the things I love about being inside this work, is how it is an active exercise in Yes, AND. The play reveals so many opposing truths which coexist in beautiful complexity across generations. I recently learned there is a Hebrew term for this: eliu v’eilu that basically means this and also this. Can you talk more about the ‘this (and also this)’ inside your work?
I love the way you put this! I think there’s something about looking at a question from as many points of view as possible that is inherently Jewish. Judaism is a religion that encourages debate. That was definitely true of my growing up. Everyone in my family pretty much shares the same political views, but over dinner, we would debate a question, and someone would inevitably pick up an opposing viewpoint, if only to keep conversation more lively: if I didn’t believe this, maybe I would believe that, and maybe this is how I would rationalize it. That kind of thinking made a deep impression on me. There is real value in grappling with how someone thinks, even if you disagree with them.
I get bored with good guy/bad guy stories, where the moral questions are clear. I’m much more interested in the complexities of a single side. In Prayer, this is a family that’s all on the same side, and yet even when we agree on the basic tenets of something, it’s almost impossible to reach consensus. Everyone is right, everyone makes valid points, you can’t dismiss any of them, and that’s always more exciting to me.
I wonder how you see the trajectory between Bad Jews and Prayer and how those plays which bookend about a decade of writing for you — speak to one another…As someone who has been following your work with pride and excitement over the past decade, Prayer feels like a major rite of passage—but I wonder how cognizant you are of this accomplishment. Since completing Prayer, you’ve been in the midst of writing several plays and collaborating on musicals. Can you share how the writing of Prayer altered you or your process?
JH. Prayer was originally a commission for Broadway– it premiered off-Broadway, a decision I fully supported– but being commissioned to write for Broadway was an invitation to think bigger than I would have allowed myself otherwise. It was a gift, and also a huge challenge. Bad Jews was the most difficult play I’d written at that point, in large part because it takes place in unit time– a single scene– which is so hard to do, I’ve never attempted it again! I remember when I was working on it, my brain physically hurt. Prayer challenged me in its reach, and scope: 10 characters played by 11 actors, five generations across 70 years– figuring out how to tell so many stories, how to make everyone essential, how to build tension and drama around this single question of safety. With each new play, I always want to feel like it is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. You never want to feel like you’re repeating yourself. So on the one hand, I can look at Bad Jews and Prayer, a decade apart, and recognize that there are questions I was asking about identity and family and heritage, that continue to compel me now. And yet the plays are wildly different. I think the experience of Prayer left me with two seemingly opposing impulses: I want to write something much smaller and more intimate next, but it also whet my appetite to attempt something even more expansive and unruly. A cast of 30? A two part play? I don’t know. Prayer taught me not to put limits on my own imagination.
The character of Patrick has a couple of lines at the top of Act II that really resonate. That’s the thing about Jews, we write it all down. Look, if we didn’t keep track of it, you think they’d keep track of it for us? There’s been a stunning amount of work on our stages that deal with anti-semitism in the past couple of seasons. Do you feel this is part and parcel of feeling the call to join the conversation in this moment in time, to tell and re-tell these stories?
I started writing this play in 2015, when Obama was President– remember those days? Theatre is slow, plays take forever to go from incubation to production, so it’s hard to say that writers are somehow meeting this moment. I think the work has always been out there, but it’s resonating more loudly right now, which, frankly, does not necessarily speak well of our times. But I do believe one of the roles of a writer is to put down what it feels like to be alive right now: the questions we’re asking, our fears, anxieties, desires. The tragedy of history– but the beauty of a great drama– is that the questions people face at any given moment are likely the questions they will continue to face in the future. So in writing a play, you’re trying to capture something true about the moment you’re in, while also reaching for something deeper, that transcends time and circumstance.
During the pandemic you generously contributed to our Magic Theatre Far Apart Art podcast series [Magic Theatre in San Francisco where Greco was the AD from 2008- 2020] which helped us stay connected with our community during the pandemic. You offered that one of your lockdown rituals was to read a poem a day — and left us with a reading of Stanley Kunitz’s gorgeous The Round. Would you leave us with a poem today?
Since this is Boston, how can I resist Kunitz again, native son of Worcester, MA? This is his remarkable poem, Halley’s Comet. Worth noting is that his father died a few months before he was born; he was just five years old in 1910, when Halley’s Comet came to his hometown.
by Stanley Kunitz
Miss Murphy in first grade
wrote its name in chalk
across the board and told us
it was roaring down the stormtracks
of the Milky Way at a frightful speed
and if it wandered off its course
and smashed into the earth
there’d be no school tomorrow.
A red-bearded preacher from the hills
with a wild look in his eyes
stood in the public square
at the playground’s edge
proclaiming he was sent by God
to save every one of us,
even the little children.“Repent, ye sinners!” he shouted,
waving his hand-lettered sign.
At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I’d share
with my mother and my sisters;
but I felt excited too
and scarcely touched my plate.
So mother scolded me
and sent me early to my room.
The whole family’s asleep
except for me. They never heard me steal
into the stairwell hall and climb
the ladder to the fresh night air.
Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street–
that’s where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I’m the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.