History Games: The Life and Plays of David Grimm

“I have taken great liberty with historical fact and make no apology for it.” So proclaims David Grimm in the author’s note to one of his earliest and most successful plays, Sheridan, or Schooled in Scandal. As anyone familiar with Grimm’s dramatic work knows, his unrepentantly free approach to history has nothing to do with lazy research. His ability to conjure a panoply of historical periods and long-forgotten theatrical forms — from Renaissance London to 1930s New York, Italian commedia dell’arte to British Restoration comedy — marks a historian’s attention to the social, political, and economic conditions behind each period and form.

Upon absorbing his subject matter, Grimm turns the history books on their heads, permitting his characters the fully rounded sexual lives and dubious moral compasses that high school textbooks frequently deny them. Grimm has no patience, for example, with the caveat-filled arguments scholars compile to suggest that Shakespearean playwright Christopher Marlowe might have enjoyed intercourse with other men — instead Grimm opens his play Kit Marlowe with the young poet swinging onto the stage, stark naked, and falling into the arms of his male lover. For most of his career, Grimm has used his typically bawdy comedies to unzip the patriarchal and heterosexist veneer of our cultural past, permitting his characters to fight for the right to be themselves, and letting deeper moral and erotic impulses, common to all time periods, out to play.

The fact that Grimm’s parents were both professors at Oberlin College, and that he grew up steeped in literature, theatre, and classical music, can surely be blamed for his love of history and dramatic literature. But the conflicting impulses at the root of all Grimm’s plays — an insatiable hunger to visit cultures and time periods foreign to our own, and a desperate search for ethical stability to ground his travels — speaks to an upbringing in which adventure and cultural exchange were readily available, but stability remained elusive. After he watched his parents divorce at age five, he moved with his mother and sister to Israel, where he stayed until he was 11. From there his family continually relocated throughout Europe as his mother moved from one teaching job to another. At various times he called France, Italy, and Germanspeaking Switzerland home, and in each place absorbing a new culture and a new language, before finally returning to Oberlin with his family. The ease with which Grimm constructs different language styles for each of his theatrical settings is not a mere talent but the result of a childhood survival technique.

He finally found solid ground in the theatre, first in college (Sarah Lawrence), then in graduate school (New York University’s Tisch School), and finally in New York City (as a member of New Dramatists), discovering and developing his dramatic gifts wherever he went. His play Once in Elysium brought him in contact with Morgan Jenness, then literary manager at The Public Theater, who has gone on to become his mentor, agent (for a time), and lasting friend. Since 2000, his plays have been produced in renowned theatres such as La Jolla Playhouse, Hartford Stage, The Public Theater, and now, the Huntington.

No matter what his dramatic setting, the moral core of Grimm’s work remains the same: honesty toward oneself, decency towards others. Consider two plays, 2000’s Sheridan, or Schooled in Scandal, about an imagined relationship between elderly playwright/ politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan and young poet Lord Byron, and 2005’s Measure for Pleasure, a Restoration comedy pastiche. In the world of the former, powerful elites uses their moral reputations to threaten and control others, only to be undone themselves when their dark secrets and misdeeds are uncovered. In the latter, the misogynistic sexual games of the straight male protagonists that were the central attraction for late 17th century theatregoers are brought to a halt by two women and a young gay man who gain control of the plot to explore love on their own terms. In a David Grimm play, good may not always prevail (as poor Christopher Marlowe learns at the end of his own play), but it always reveals itself as plain and enduring, teaching audiences what Grimm has had to learn himself: how to make even the most unfamiliar house into a home.

– Jason Fitzgerald

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