Collaborators in Conversation: David Esbjornson and Craig Lucas

"All my Sons" Arthur Miller
David Esbjornson

Throughout this season, we will feature artists interviewing other artists working at the Huntington. Below, All My Sons director David Esbjornson talks with playwright Craig Lucas, author of Prelude to a Kiss. A condensed version appears in the All My Sons program.

"All my Sons" Arthur Miller
Craig Lucas

    David Esbjornson: You’ve certainly spurred some important thinking on my end about the play in your questions. I don’t know if I can be articulate in answering them, but I can certainly try.
    Craig Lucas: So, I sort of remember what Elliot Norton taught us about the play back in my undergraduate days and I actually went back to my notes from Elliot’s class. And it seemed to me that a lot of what he taught us about the play isn’t true. We were taught that it was a kind of modern attempt to do what the Greek tragedians had done and that [Arthur] Miller was obsessed with the gods putting things right. And then, you know, I’ve since done my own translation, or adaptation rather, of Oedipus, and I have read those plays a little more carefully, and they’re not about justice at all!
    DE: No.
    CL: The gods are always punishing people for doing things that they had no control over, and didn’t even mean to do, and often unwittingly did. And the point of them all is that, if you’re a human being, you’re going to pay.
    DE: Right. And you had to cope with whatever was being dealt you.
    CL: Yeah, that’s just it. You’re just going to have a rough go of it. We’re mortal, and we’re going to get shit on, and we have to, as you said, just cope with it. But that doesn’t seem to me to be . . .
    DE: I think where it maybe ventures back into some of the Greek plays is maybe in the idea of free will and if there are moments in which human beings are free to make choices for themselves in the midst of all that. And, you know, you brought up Oedipus, which is what made me think that perhaps that element is something maybe Miller was interested in.
    CL: Well clearly, he is the very kind of fixated, in a way, on personal culpability, but also the thing that I can’t quite wrap my mind around still which feels deeply, deeply personal to him which is familial responsibility, that in a sense, okay, not to . . . here’s that little thing that appears in Mad Men: [Spoiler Alert] Larry’s suicide is a very strange gesture in the midst of a war where his life could mean the life or death of other soldiers. To take his own life in a response to what he hears about, mostly from the newspapers, is his father’s culpability is such strange and rash act. And then I was thinking Miller’s whole body of work and how much suicide there is in it. You know there’s the guy who throws himself off the tracks in After The Fall, of course there’s Willy Loman; the plays are filled with it.
    DE: Right. And one of the things about Ride Down Mount Morgan that we discussed at length was what was Loman’s; what was he doing on that road and what did he think he would accomplish by trying to make it down that highway in a blizzard. And there was a lot of conversation about how cuspy all of that is, in terms of whether one wants to live or die and, in a sense, letting fate make the decision for you if you’re not strong enough to make it on your own. I remember kind of intense conversations about that and trying to sort that out in terms of the playing of it, and I just found that really, the fact that he occupied that place in regards to suicide was fascinating to me.
    CL: It’s not particularly American; it’s almost Japanese.
    DE: You were mentioning Ibsen, and I think Ibsen is very much in that world too. Perhaps it’s a little old fashioned for us to think about it. But there is this thing that comes from Scandinavian culture — and I know from having grown up in it in Minnesota — that what society thinks is really, really important and the notion of one’s self in society and doing something that blackens your name is really profound. And, you know, when you think of Hedda Gabler or even Enemy of the People where the character is completely immobilized and, to some extent, can’t function in the way they once did simply because they’ve made a terrible mistake and suffer this humiliation with society.
    CL: Well, the idea that there even is a community at all to be part of. You know, all of those neighbors that the Kellers’ have who keep hopping across their backyard and, first of all, you couldn’t afford to put them on the stage in a modern play, so there’s no community in modern plays, because nobody can afford to have these neighbors and a husband and neighbors come over and start complaining or talking about what the community thinks or feels.

    But what if we actually lived in a world where . . . I was thinking about these notes . . . not just culpability but accountability and what’s happened in the decade since the Second World War you get John Mitchell or [Lewis “Scooter”] Libby to take the rap for what the powerful people do. I mean, it’s not just Republicans who do this although it would certainly seem to be one of their favorites which is to commit a terrible crime and lie and, whatever it is, give Valerie Plame’s name to the papers . . . or break into the Democratic headquarters and steal their files and then lie about it and then get somebody else in your camp to throw themselves on the sword. And though everyone knows that [Dick] Cheney did it, [Karl] Rove did it, we don’t even have enough of a popular movement to get them thrown into the clink.

    Then here’s this artist, who does feel like a very American artist in many ways, but also feels, as you say, very European or very sort of foreign and old fashioned in that he says “Wait a minute, if my father does something bad, I can’t live.” We’ve gotten so far from that.
    DE: I know, and I think that’s really the challenge of putting it on the stage right now, except that I think that there’s a longing for that that exists. I think that both the draw to this play, and also perhaps its trap, is just the nostalgia of a culture that cares about each other, you know, where people care about each other. When has it ever been an option to risk the lives of other citizens for your profit? But at the same time, what is going on right now, and what is the health care fight about. This is very much part of our American DNA and I think it’s something Miller was struggling with at that time and certainly we’re doing it in exactly the same way, although the circumstances, as you say, have changed rather significantly.
    CL: But I think it’s clear that he doesn’t come from money, because if he came from money there wouldn’t be that infant, wide-eyed sense of responsibility, there’d just be a wink and a cover your track, get out of there and so what if they die. The Republicans figured out in the last 20 years that Americans did not like enlisted soldiers to die in foreign wars so they created a mercenary army. And if you add up all the people, Americans, who are being paid to be over there outside of the military in Iraq and who have died and who have of course committed crimes that we won’t ever know about and then you say, oh no, they really were enlisted, or, God forbid, drafted, people would be up in arms. We’ve deviated so far, it seems to me anyway.
    DE: I think what Miller is checked is that there’s something interesting about—they’re not as far a-field as what you’re describing.
    CL: Certainly Kate [Keller, the wife in All My Sons] is not.
    DE: They do have a moral compass enough so that they know when they’re off and they’re not going in a true direction. It almost seems as though what you’re describing at least, and it’s certainly been my experience too, is that feels as though morality is really just out the window and it’s really just about whether or not you get caught doing what you’re doing.
    CL: And I think we can trace that sort of in Ayn Rand. And it is a little bit in Joe [Keller, the protagonist], that thing of, you know, he says “If there’s something more than family, I’ll put a bullet in my head,” and that would seem to be what goes down in the Cheney family. That it’s just your family. That seems to have been the case in the Bushes, and the Nixons, is that it’s okay to do it, that it’s okay to steal hundreds of millions of dollars in the S&L scandal as long as the money is staying in your family.
    DE: Well, and the notion of family becoming more and more specific like that and less about the family in the large sense is part of this trend as well. Because, I think when you’re looking at Miller’s characters, what I mean by the fact that they know when they’ve been bad, they actually understand that. This play is really not about have you done something wrong, but the denial that goes along with it. And there are no obvious villains here, just people who are afraid, and desperate, and they made really bad choices, and then they tried to run away from those choices, and cover them up, and make worse ones. If you don’t have that problem to begin with, then you wouldn’t have this play. I’d be very curious as to if he were to rewrite the play, if he could rewrite the play today, would make any changes?
    CL: Are there things in working on the play, David, strike you as being the most interestingly gnarly that you’re trying to pull forward or things you think “Oh, that takes care of itself”?
    DE: I think that one of the reasons that the play succeeds is because it does have these satisfying characters and they’re all in conflict. They all want something desperately. I think they’re caught in a kind of purgatory, a self-made purgatory. It’s called prison in some instances. You know, as you mentioned, the poplars, and the fence, and all that stuff as being kind of trap in time. And it seems to me that Kate is the character that somehow it feels that she is so full of all this pain, and emotion, and guilt that she looks like she’s going to explode every second. I guess I was kind of interested in seeing if the play would bear some more hallucinatory sort of moments, dream-things that she might be involved with, that could include Chris and could include some of the nightmare imagery that I think Miller sets up with the apple tree in the beginning and if that could be carried through in the play and offer little nuggets of more surreal moments.
    CL: Oh, that sounds wonderful. Because she, to me she seems the most current — someone who actually has the knowledge, and is living with the knowledge, and is keeping it to herself. Some of the more present American plays [are] carrying this idea forward; the one that springs to mind the most vividly to me is Wallace Shawn’s The Fever, which is simply about knowing the consequences of how one’s money has been amassed, and one’s comfort, and safety, and pleasure, and all the American privileges, and not wanting to know at the same time, that if you came on board, that this was bought at the cost of other people’s lives, often through the means of torture and certainly the sale of arms. The fact that America is now to the world, we have this inability to quite accept who we are, which is that we are the arms merchant to the world, that is our primary export to the world. It’s not food, it’s not technology, it’s not entertainment, it’s not medicine. We can think it is those things, but what we sell to the world is weapons. So whenever there’s war somewhere, we get rich. It doesn’t matter if we win or not. No, never mind whether or not we win in Iraq, we’ve already won. We’ve already made Haliburton and the Carlisle Group and those people who make weapons delivery systems have made hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq. The play seems to me to look forward to this moment in a way; that he was incredibly prescient.
    DE: And I think he understood that, in a really serious way, that there’s nothing more insidious or ultimately more destructive than when patriotism and profit become aligned and go along a common path. That was something that followed him right up until the end of his life. He would go to Washington all the time to make speeches about this, and other things that concerned him of course, and continued to write editorials, and was very active in that way in trying to fight these forces and let people know that these issues were still very much alive.
    CL: So, I’m fascinated that you’re looking at her as kind of the full repository of the full breadth of the madness, that what the cost to her is she must believe that Larry is still alive. It’s important to her that she stay in that place, almost like a neurotic symptom.
    DE: I just keep saying that there’s got to be some kind of valve that lets some of that out once in a while. And that’s got to happen privately, because it doesn’t happen in the play, it doesn’t happen publicly. So, I think her restlessness at night – her dreams, her hallucinations so to speak — they kind of foreshadow in a way Willy Loman and some of those qualities which will come up in Death of a Salesman and which Miller was really continuing to try to explore in his later plays. I think the play is pretty well made and it has all that structure. There’s something about both honoring that and at the same time mixing it up a little bit if we can that could be exciting.
    CL: Yeah, it’ll take care of itself — the plot mechanics.
    DE: You know, you had also mentioned Ann [Deever, the brothers’ fiancée] and you really got me thinking about that. Why Ann — first of all why she brings the letter and also why she waits to use it. Did you have any more thoughts about that?
    CL: No. I’m curious; I’m very curious. I did start to think it through and thought well if I were directing this, of course I couldn’t say to the cast “You know, this is nuts,” I’d have to find a way into it and I do think it’s all there, but I’m curious.
    DE: I’ve thought about it and I looked at it and I read the section over where she produces it. And she keeps saying, “I don’t want to hurt you, I only brought this in case I needed to use it.” It feels to me that she is a woman who has, in a sense, a gun in her pocket and is prepared to use it from the beginning. And, of course, does not want her love and her future on those terms, but if necessary she’s got the tenacity and the need to fight hard enough to get Chris [Keller, the present son, to marry her]. She’ll do it if she has to, and she does. And she’s such an embodiment of goodness, and she’s pretty, and sensible, and quiet, and beautiful, and yet at the same time there’s this other side to her that I think is really quite fascinating and a bit modern. And I like the fact that she comes and gets what she wants.
    CL: Miller has gone on record saying that when he wrote the play he felt that he didn’t know women very well, and I think that’s just not true. In a way, making the men kind of the embodiment of less conflicted, in some ways less neurotic . . . Chris is the voice of a very clear idealism. That, “if those soldiers had been a little more selfish, they’d be alive today,” or “I keep reaching for things . . . ” whatever that line is about “and then I realize the bloody cost of them and I have to pull back.” But so, in some weird way, that he didn’t know women very well, which is a very kind of mid-century very man notion, he somehow managed to give himself permission to write — they’re very dimensional. I mean, the woman who’s married to the doctor — that’s a very interesting part. She’s not just like a harridan; she’s practical, she’s the one like, “How do you put kids through school on research grants?”
    DE: Right. I think he did very well in this first one. I think there are some other plays perhaps in which he’s a little more challenged. You know I didn’t really understand Linda [Loman] until I met Inge [Morath, Miller’s third wife] and she suddenly made a lot of sense to me. And I got that she doesn’t have to be a dishrag, that she’s a vital, incredibly vital, important woman and personality in her own right. But she just has a more practical — practical is probably too soft a word — but there’s something very pragmatic about her. Again, there’s an old fashioned notion, which I don’t see existing in my life as much, but I do see it in generations before me where it was you stand by your mate, you stand by your man. There’s something about that loyalty, that fierce loyalty of not letting anybody divide you.
    CL: Also, I think all those marriages that were made before or in the early days of that war and then with the children were coming of age in what was supposed to be this very hard won period of freedom. My parents were appalled when I started to question American foreign policy or when I started to question bourgeois values because they had survived such a horrific depression and lost lives.
    DE: And there were so many sacrifices that were made, not just in terms of lives, but in all other ways — sacrifices of people sending one child to college instead of two, those kinds of things, and living without, and this sense of doing personal things that would be good for everybody. And, God, I think that we miss that as a culture. For those who remember it, of course it was horrible, and hard, and difficult, but on some level there was something deeply meaningful about people who could actually band together to make society and the culture survive over their individual needs.
    CL: Well, because it’s working class and also because there were millions of immigrants who came here and people did sacrifice to give their children the chance to write plays that win the Pulitzer Prize and marry Marilyn Monroe; there was this sense of sacrifice. . . . Didn’t Miller do an adaptation of Enemy of the People?
    DE: Yes he did. And a good one.
    CL: Has that ever been revived?
    DE: You know, I had read it because the Goodman was considering doing it and wanted me to direct it. But it didn’t happen. But, yeah, I think people still do it when they do it.
    CL: All I’m really trying to say is that there’s a seriousness of purpose that one still sees in plays like [Lynn Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner] Ruined or [Tony Kushner’s] Homebody/Kabul. I’m curious about why you think The Iceman Cometh was decried in ’47 when it first appeared and the New York critics were much more comfortable with All My Sons.
    DE: I don’t know that I know the answer. I think that [Eugene] O’Neill, as brilliant as he was — there’s some extraordinary stuff there — but I don’t think he has the same accessibility that Arthur does. I think Arthur is able to find a way of being direct, muscular, spare; I think both actors and audiences really tap into those characters and really find themselves identifying and becoming deeply involved in them. I think actors enjoy performing them. I think audiences enjoy seeing them; they recognize certain aspects of themselves in it. It just may be that O’Neill’s poetic style, and it’s a four-act play. It just may be that it wasn’t as easily understood at the time. I wasn’t there; I don’t know.
    CL: I guess the thing is that O’Neill really grew out of reading Strindberg, and he found something in those insane, dark plays that really kicked him into gear. Miller so obviously found the same in Ibsen.
    DE: It’s really fascinating because those two guys shared a kind of, well first of all they were contemporaries, and they were rivals. In fact, if you go to Ibsen’s study there’s a little picture of Strindberg over his desk, kind of as a scourge to keep him writing. I don’t even know that they ever met.
    CL: Oh no, they did! Apparently, there’s a really wonderful story of where Ibsen, who did admire Strindberg, Ibsen told him how much he admired him. Strindberg’s response to his wife was “Can you believe he said that shit to me? He’s trying to kill me.”
    DE: I mean, they both kind of dealt with each other that way. Because Ibsen kind of used him as a troll, as a kind of presence of making himself a better writer, and somebody to remind him that there’s something else out there that’s equally interesting.
    CL: But here we have this whole century of great American tragedy and drama that was an outgrowth of something that American audiences don’t really like.
    DE: Wow, I wouldn’t go so far. But, I understand what you mean. It’s now testing them a lot, in that arena. Is that what you’re saying?
    CL: I’m just saying that O’Neill and Miller both found in this foreign soil the seeds of something they made uniquely American and it’s interesting that of all the places in the world and all of the cultures and things they could have written about it wasn’t Ireland, it wasn’t the Second Avenue Yiddish theatre. It was Nordic.
    DE: See us Nordics, our influences in this way is strongly felt. It really doesn’t matter where we are.
    CL: I’m sure Oskar Eustis [artistic director of The Public Theater] would agree with you completely.
    DE: He may be the only one in the American theatre who does.
    CL: The other thing that seems to be tied in the play in terms of disowning what we know are the great Shakespeare tragedies at the heart of the American experience. In each one is a person who’s disavowing what they actually know to be true. It isn’t pretending that Lear really doubts Cordelia’s love for him, but he needs to hear it, he wants to hear it. And in going to that place, he creates his own tragedy. And the same thing happens, over a different matter of knowledge being disavowed, in each one of the great tragedies. Hamlet disavows the knowledge that his uncle did commit murder and he must act on it. The Scottish king [Macbeth] disavows the real consequences of what happens when you commit that kind of crime. And, it’s interesting that in All My Sons the crime is long past, it’s the consequences now.
    DE: Right, and the consequences of this one moral lapse fester and grow like a cancer to the whole family. I think when we talk about this purgatory, what’s happening is that the younger people are not allowed to move forward with their lives; they’re held back by this thing. And, until they can break it free, break free from it, there is no future for them. They can’t define themselves. They’ll always just be in the shadow of this thing. And so, I think Ann and Chris are at the breaking point. It’s either they dissolve into this mire for the rest of their lives or they break out and try to find some happiness. In a way, there’s no option for them except to explode it.
    CL: Just one other thing David. There’s something I feel in Miller’s plays.Iit’s very difficult to put my finger on, and maybe others have written about it. It isn’t just that he seems to be dismayed by people taking more than their share, about greed and how taking more than others is going to have a terrible cost, but there’s this barely spoken feeling that to take at all — that somehow the only thing one can do is sacrifice if one wants to be righteous. There’s some kind of weird, original sin, kooky Christian thing, which you wouldn’t expect in the play. Do you feel that at all?
    DE: I would put it a little differently, and maybe this is coming a little bit from my knowing Arthur, but I think that you can take as long as you’re prepared to give back – the proportion is important to him. Does that make sense?
    CL: Oh yes, that’s what sort of get stated overtly. But there’s also just something about taking for oneself at all.
    DE: I actually think that these characters are a little more selfish than that. I think they are. That’s what I meant by Ann coming to get what she wants and for Chris saying, “This is the moment; I’m going to have to go for it.” Whatever is going on there, these people are sort of brought up to a point where they have to take an action that could be ultimately destructive to life as they know it. It’s because their needs are so strong and they need to take something for themselves. Chris says that over and over again: “Every time I try to take something for myself, somehow it’s harming other people.” So I think you’re right to tap into that; that is very much a part of it. But I don’t know that that’s what the author would say, “You shouldn’t take it”; I think the author would simply say, “Take in proportion to what you give and be careful about the nature of what you consume, because maybe you’d be eating yourself up at the same time.”
    CL: I feel like with Willy’s death that Willy didn’t do anything terribly wrong. Okay, he bought into this idea of the American dream, but his suicide feels that somehow just being alive and just having human needs is so dangerous; it’s a minefield how one is going to go about taking what one wants. I don’t know.
    DE: No, I totally understand what you’re saying. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I see that as the plays and I don’t see that as him. I see a man who is quite comfortable in the world and who has gained a great deal and simply wants things to be in proportion. I don’t know whether my perceptions are profound in anyway. But I never got the sense that he struggled with this. It was a dramatic device that he used to push the envelope and make these arguments go far enough to have impact. I don’t know; I didn’t know him that well. I suppose it’s possible that those things were kicking around and there maybe something deep-seated there. Because he’s — I keep saying “is” — he was a pretty private man in many ways.
    CL: Well, thanks for the opportunity to read some of the plays again and think about them. I can’t wait to see your production David. Who have you cast as Kate?
    DE: It’s Karen MacDonald.
    CL: Oh, I went to college with Karen; she was a year above me at BU. Please say “hi.”
    DE: I will. And Joe is Will Lyman, from the Boston area as well.
    CL: He’s married to my god-sister.
    DE: Oh, is that right?
    CL: Well, I went to school in Boston, and his wife’s father was in the FBI with my father so it’s all horribly complicated and incestuous.
    DE: I like his sort of rough-cast quality; I thought that that was right. Miller’s characters in this play are working class and must feel that way.
    CL: Well, he’s a great actor; they both are great actors.
    DE: Most of the people are from the Boston area and it’s really going to be a thrill for me to be able to get to know that pool of actors in that region. I’ve never worked up there.
    CL: Congratulations, David.
    DE: Thank you, Craig.

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