TRAGEDY: a tragedy
Written by Will Eno
Directed by Les Waters
Limited Season · Thrust Stage
March 14–April 13, 2008
Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission
TRAGEDY: a tragedy. A comedy. The sun—despite its shining record—has finally set. Reporters descend in a flurry of questions and commentary, while the governor urges calm. It’s a mournful and comic tale of everyday apocalypse, a savage look at all of us in the dark. “Will Eno is a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation,” proclaims the New York Times, calling his off-Broadway hit Thom Pain (based on nothing), an “acidly funny meditation on the indelible sorrows of life.” As with his sold-out runs of The Pillowman and The Glass Menagerie, Obie Award-winning director Les Waters mines the humor and heartache of TRAGEDY.
Will Eno · Playwright
Les Waters · Director
Antje Ellermann · Scenic Design
Meg Neville · Costume Design
Matt Frey · Lighting Design
Cliff Caruthers · Sound Design
Michael Suenkel · Production Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin · Casting Director
Janet Foster · New York Casting
David Cromwell · Frank in the Studio
Max Gordon Moore · Michael, Legal Advisor
Thomas Jay Ryan · John in the Field
Marguerite Stimpson · Constance at the Home
Danny Wolohan · The Witness
“One of the funniest apocalypses of our time…Tragedy takes the subversive potential of comedy to extremes, undermining not only the trustworthiness of authority figures but also the notion that words can convey meaning at all. That Eno does this with remarkable wit and astonishing facility is a source of considerable hilarity and some frustration in Les Waters’ skillfully staged and richly performed American premiere”—San Francisco Chronicle
“A wickedly funny satire of modern American life and the solace we seek in the ultimately meaningless words and rituals…In this short (70-minute), skewering comedy/tragedy, the whipping person du jour is television news and it’s nightly custom of packaging the world’s ills in a bundle squeezed around sports and weather.”—Contra Costa Times
“Thrums with an undercurrent of anarchy that’s as uproariously funny as it is profoundly sad…The playwright so ferociously captures the surreal banality of television, the lonely pools of silence welling up between stammered inanities that it takes a few beats to realize Tragedy really has less to do with the media than the message.”—San Jose Mercury News
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
Finding humor in TRAGEDY
For the last several months, for a number of different purposes and a variety of different audiences, I’ve been asked to summarize TRAGEDY: a tragedy and to describe Will Eno’s writing style. My answers have been met with puzzlement, bemusement and, in some cases, concern. This could be entirely the result of my inability to say anything coherent on any subject whatsoever, or that I warm to the subject too readily, becoming so overly excited that I express any number of contradictory thoughts simultaneously and so leave the listener in a state of hopeless and terminal confusion. Or it could be that I have nothing significant to say, but because part of my pathology as an artistic director is to sustain the illusion that I have many significant, profound things to say on all issues related to Berkeley Rep, I cannot leave well enough alone. All these hypothetical reasons are at least partially true.
What I know is this: Will Eno’s is a seminally original voice. His writing, regardless of the specific topic, evokes the inexplicable weirdness of being alive. It captures the wonder, sadness, inanity, beauty and terror of opening your front door and peering out at the day, or the night or the endlessly finite in between. It is funny, even mischievously so, while describing an impossible world that seems to be gleefully teetering on self-destruction. It is of our time, simply because it is our world he is describing.
But it is not simple. There is a sound dramatic frame, to be sure, a frame that Eno has described as being “unavoidably realistic.” There is a news team reporting the innocuous news. There are reports of this and that and this-er and that-er. But to say that TRAGEDY: a tragedy is a satire on the self-satirizing the media is like saying that Waiting for Godot is about life on the road. It doesn’t even begin to capture what’s really going on…
For a more personal glimpse into Mr. Eno’s restlessly imaginative and wonderful head, I exhort you to read Madeleine Oldham’s insightful and entertaining interview with the playwright folded within these pages. It is an illuminating introduction to his kaleidoscopic view of that thing we dare to call reality. We have, of course, called on the wonderful Les Waters, who thankfully has his own issues with reality, and his grand cast of collaborators, to offer us a torchlight for the journey.
Enjoy the ride,
Prologue: from the Managing Director
The sun rises on 2008–09
It’s an exciting time to be at Berkeley Rep! Tony and I are in New York, where Passing Strange is making its Broadway debut. Back in Berkeley, the Theatre has recently concluded an extended run of Taking Over, Carrie Fisher is entertaining sold-out houses in the Roda Theatre with Wishful Drinking and preparations for the 2008–09 season are underway.
With the dawning of TRAGEDY: a tragedy, the sun begins to set on our 40th Birthday season. There are still two more shows—Figaro and No Child…—to share with you, but there are new stories awaiting us over the horizon. In this program, we’re pleased to announce all seven shows which will comprise our 41st year.
We’re thrilled to bring back old friends like Delroy Lindo, Mary Zimmerman, Sarah Ruhl, Martin McDonagh and Sharon Ott to help us tell these stories, and are looking forward to welcoming playwrights like David Henry Hwang, Itamar Moses and August Wilson to our stages for the first time. It’s going to be a great season, and I hope you’ll be here for it.
Our season ticket-holders bring an intense level of intelligence, involvement and curiosity to the theatre, and I love watching how you take ownership of the shows you see. Some of our patrons have been with us since the Theatre’s earliest days on College Avenue; others are new to the fold. Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, I thank you for your ongoing support and engagement—and if you don’t currently subscribe, I hope the season we’ve assembled—described on page nine of this program—tempts you to join us this fall.
Time and again, I’ve had subscribers come to me and say, “If I hadn’t had these tickets as part of my package, I wouldn’t have even thought about seeing this show, and I’m so glad I did.” The shows we remember are the ones we’re surprised by—the ones we attend without knowing what to expect.
There are, of course, other reasons to subscribe. You enjoy significant savings—up to 29%—over tickets purchased individually. You reserve your seats before they go on sale to the public, so you have the best possible seats. And you keep your seats from season to season. You also enjoy special privileges like the ability to reschedule your performance dates until midnight the day before your show, and opportunities to buy advance tickets for special shows like No Child…
By making a commitment now to see plays in the coming season, you guarantee that you’ll make the time for yourself. This, in itself is compelling reason to subscribe—they’re all compelling reasons to join us for a season of five or seven plays—but I still think the best reason is simply that you never know if the next show will be the one to surprise and move you in unexpected ways.
A conversation with playwright Will Eno
By Madeleine Oldham
Will Eno has a knack for entwining the simple and the unexpected. Characters in his plays (such as The Flu Season, Thom Pain (based on nothing), and most recently, OH, THE HUMANITY and other good intentions, can turn from verbal meandering to searing insight and back again on a dime, but never lose his wonderfully unpredictable sense of humor. When the September 2005 issue of American Theatre magazine asked Eno, “What’s always in your fridge?” he responded: “A framed picture of my grandfather on a ski lift has been in there for two years. I think one of my cousin’s kids put it there.” This made Berkeley Rep’s dramaturg and literary manager, Madeleine Oldham, laugh so hard she couldn’t wait to ask him more questions.
Madeleine Oldham: Am I right that you wrote TRAGEDY in 2001? If so, why is the American premiere only just now happening in 2008?
Will Eno: I started the play in about 1999. It has taken a while to happen here. I don’t know exactly why and wouldn’t want to guess. People have requested the rights to the play, here and there, but I was waiting for the most right situation, in the best location, which I judge to be this production, in Berkeley, California.
In the intro to The Flu Season, you write that “The general effect, and this is true of most of the characters in The Flu Season, should be similar to watching a pane of glass slowly break (to use a metaphor).” Do you think this applies to all of your plays—that they are in some way like watching something slowly break?
Maybe. Isn’t that sort of the Third Law of Thermodynamics, that everything slowly breaks? It’s certainly not an uncommon model. But physics aside, if physics can be put aside, most of the things that have happened to me in my life have happened to me pretty slowly. Yes, I broke my arm a bunch of times when I was a kid, and I was able to do that fairly quickly. But most of the important things happened more slowly, which is interesting, because you’re also changing as a person, while this life-changing thing is happening to you. So go figure that out. I guess it interests me: people versus time, people versus life, grindingly. We all know the ending, in a way, anyway. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, for all the daytime-television glamour that surrounds it, strikes me as a pretty perfect example of something that exploits a fairly simple situation, and exploits it slowly and, sort of, inevitably. Two people walk down a road and that’s about it. But you can’t believe how thrilling it is, how surprising it is, how much life it bleeds.
One of the things I love the most about your writing is the way you observe the most mundane and ordinary details of modern human life, and despite (and because of?) their banality, communicate them as poignant and poetic. How did you learn how to do that? Or did it come naturally? Is it the way you see the world even when you’re not writing?
You’re very nice to say that. I learned a ton from Gordon Lish, who would always pick the handsaw over the hawk, when it comes to an object, claiming that the less-pretentious, less-poetic-seeming object is always the one to begin with, the one to get more juice out of. Gordon wrote a great story called “How to Write a Poem” that is pretty instructional for the writer. It details a fairly coherent poetics for writing that gets down to the truth, to the poetry of things, but avoids that poetry smell. When I think of favorite moments in life, happy times, most of them are fairly unadorned—they’re sort of normal moments in a slightly abnormal light. You know, a good sandwich, or the moon looks really big for some reason, or you find a dollar, or it starts snowing at an odd time. Of course, I love oysters and cocaine, just like everyone else, but I really do get a kick out of simple regular things. Christmas Eve Day, I went to a mall with my friend Shevaun Mizrahi. We weren’t there to buy anything, we were just taking a break from driving. We walked around a little. We compared prices on some ugly crystal. We went into a mattress store and checked out this one called the Sleepmaster-3000 or something. Spent about a half an hour on it. It was an incredible mattress. The salesman told us all about it and gave us a nice lecture on sleeping and a free travel pillow. Then we went to the food court and got some food. It was really fun. It all seemed like a museum dedicated to something perfectly fine but not entirely clear. We were thinking about getting our eyes checked but then we decided to leave. It was pretty perfect. I wouldn’t normally think a mall could be the site of a transcendent kind of time like that. But, if you’re in a good mood and you don’t look too closely and you just kind of drift around, whispering and laughing, without spending any money or making too many judgments about anything, it can.
You get compared to Beckett a lot. Are you as influenced by him as everyone says you are? Are you ok with being labeled an existentialist?
I really think he is great. One of my favorite nights of the last couple thousand was reading Krapp’s Last Tape to Shevaun in bed, while she was knitting. Later, I think we smoked a couple of those Gitanes cigarettes. Right there in bed, which felt very continental. Gitanes are one of the most existential cigarette brands, unless they still sell Old Golds. But, to your questions. I feel pretty influenced by Thornton Wilder. Also, I think Don DeLillo is some kind of miracle (although I know he also works very hard). And our great Edward Albee and of course Gordon. I was also crazy for Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot, a few years back. All these people ring in my head, a little. A lot. But, yeah, when I first read Beckett, it felt like it was all secret dreams and fears and in-jokes written for me. The line from Not I about someone having received “no love, such as it is normally vented on the speechless infant,” strikes me as one of the funnier, crueler things that English ever could say. Now, philosophy. I have a really old dictionary I refer to in order to understand the world. Here’s what it says about Existentialism: “A philosophy recently developed in France that uses as a starting-point the assumed actual existence of the individual.” Right after that, it lists the word: “exister, noun.” I would be more okay with being labeled an Existerist. But, yes, I am all for the assumed actual existence of the individual. I think everyone should have one. Honestly, I have some serious doubts about my own existence, about how real I actually am, how real life is, how real the world is, sometimes, so I guess I tend toward that direction. Thornton Wilder said something about how the playwright’s duty is to pose the question correctly. What a great name that is: Thornton Wilder.
What writers do you admire?
See above. Plus, add Stanley G. Crawford. And Flannery O’Connor. She has that great line where the escaped convict shoots the grandmother and says something like, “She could have been a good woman if she’d just had someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.” She, Flannery O’Connor, has a big big heart. I’d like to be as humane as her, someday. Cormac McCarthy. Howard Barker. A little Martin Crimp.
Do you consider your writing generally accessible? (I don’t mean that as a passive-aggressive question. It comes from a place of being surprised by a couple of people wanting me to tell them what TRAGEDY is about after reading it.)
I certainly try to be clear. I try to be simple and clear. I like to keep things, at my end, as literal as possible. I try not to disobey big natural laws. I try not to exclude anyone, from the get-go. I try not to be a smarty-pants of any kind. But all that being said, I realize that we all have our sensitivities and inclinations, and that what is accessible to one person might be boring or confusing or inaccessible to the next. Also, sure, I suppose I ask a lot of an audience. If I could get one thing, out of the lot that I ask, I guess it would be openness. It doesn’t matter how accessible something is if someone doesn’t want to access it, right?
Do people ever accuse your writing of being depressing? If so, how do you respond to that?
Just for fun, I’ll be as honest as I can be. I think I probably suffer from something like melancholia. Probably always have, probably always will. That said, I try to be cheerful and I think I am, a lot of the time. I like going to minor-league baseball games. I like pretending to be German. But, yes. There are some fairly brutal truths that come along with the gift of life, and you have to look at those without too much blinking. But then, you have to try, I try, in writing, to say something cheerful, something cheering. Listen, I did some checking around. I looked up all my ancestors and every single one is dead. Must be some weakness in the gene pool. That’s hard news. But, with that as a starting-point (I hyphenate that because so does my New Century Dictionary.), I think there is great cause for glee. Almost total cause for glee. I might even start some kind of Glee Club. Consciousness and life are great great things. That’s the starting-point, the end-point. Gratitude, first; other stuff, second. So, and I follow Nietzsche in this, I try to affirm it all, or as much as I can possibly bear to.
Your plays sometimes feel to me like big Zen koans. Would you say you are comfortable with paradox?
Yeah, I like a good paradox. I have been reading “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and some other Wallace Stevens poems. That poem in particular strikes me as kind of a koan, if I understand the word correctly. “It was evening all afternoon. It was snowing and it was going to snow.” Sometimes, you can read something like that, and it kind of gets the mind out of the way, and you suddenly find yourself sitting in the body you’ve been sitting in all along and it suddenly gives you shivers. I get these real physical shivers. Which are great. I don’t know that much about Descartes, but, I reckon the body and the mind are not as separated as I think he thought. Yes, you think, therefore, you are. But, you breathe, therefore, you think. By the way, I like your phrase “big Zen koans.” It’d be great if that made it into the slang vocabulary, somehow, to mean something like “kudos” or “props.” As in, for example, “Big Zen koans to Madeleine Oldham for all these great questions, yo.”
You are able to capture emotional highs and lows and all the loveliness and sadness and beauty and hilarity and loneliness and everything of life in 10 pages of dialogue, which I find truly astonishing. Is it as easy for you as you make it seem? That’s a roundabout way of asking whether your first drafts come out pretty close to what’s in your head? Are you a big reviser?
Again, you’re really kind to say that. Thanks. I revise a ton, almost constantly, probably sometimes ruinously. There’s always the possibility of some great mysterious thing being achieved in a first draft. But I think it’s rare, for me, to come out with a line or a sentence that can’t be strengthened somehow or made more hilarious and lonely with some work.
Will you say a little bit about your relationship with language? And in particular, your choice to sometimes include obscure or difficult words in a play?
Gordon Lish once famously or infamously said, “Language is never not smarter than you are.” Which I take to be true. So, relationship-wise, I feel sort of inferior to language, to all language, any language, especially Portuguese and Finnish. As for obscure or difficult words, I like them, but, not for the purpose of being difficult or obscure, I’m not trying to outsmart anyone. If I use some old obsolete word, I usually (probably too frequently) have a character reading the definition from a dictionary or defining the word somehow—so it isn’t as if I’m trying to slip them past people. I like making up words—medical conditions, philosophical terms. I have this buddy Rainn Wilson who, behind our backs, became a huge film and TV star. One time, we were playing tennis and making up plausible-sounding titles for non-existent books of contemporary French philosophy. He came up with, The Flaccidity of Impatience, which is pretty great. Words are weird. “Weird” is a weird word. I sometimes think the old obscure ones have some strange magic locked up in them. And I like that. Probably all words have some strange magic locked up in them. But I really try not to be one of those writers who hits you over the head with his vocabulary. Which—my vocabulary—is not so impressive. I have good reasons to be modest.
What are you reading now?
I just re-read Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine by Stanley G. Crawford. It has to be one of the great American novels, one of the great novels in English. I’ve been reading the Koran, or, Qur’an. Trying to see what all the hubbub is about. If you can call the Global War on Terror hubbub.
If you weren’t working in the theatre, what would you be doing?
Drugs, probably. When I was really little, I wanted to be a farmer. I was a bicycle racer for most of my teens and twenties. I raced semi-professionally in Italy. I got second in the National Championships and won some other big races. Then, enough turned out to be enough. The tuba is a great instrument. That would be fun to be a really good tuba player. The thing is so huge, so completely un-fragile, un-delicate, it’s hard to imagine anyone being sad playing a tuba. I would probably be angrier, if I weren’t a playwright.
How did your relationship with Harper’s come about?
Mysteriously and unbeknownstedly. It’s not really a relationship. Harper’s reprinted a couple of things that had appeared in a literary magazine called Post Road and in a book that Mac Wellman and Young Jean Lee edited called New Downtown Now. I never met anyone over there, at Harper’s. It was a thrill and an honor, but, again, there wasn’t much fanfare, it happened fairly slowly, at the speed of the U.S. Mail.
Do you like being in rehearsals for your plays? How would you describe your style in working with a director? Are you a hands-on or a hands-off collaborator?
I like going to rehearsals. I also like stopping going to rehearsals. I think I can be helpful to the process with a good mix of presence and absence.
You’ve had a good run lately with the reception of your work in New York. Has it been as well-received other places?
I think in general it’s gotten a pretty good reception, a pretty fair shake. Which, of course, is gratifying. There have been enough negative reviews to give an overall feeling of authenticity, of balance, so it doesn’t look rigged. It’s easy to forget—but important to remember—the time when you just wanted to get something on the stage and get a few people to come see it. I try not to get too involved, or too worked up, one way or the other, about the press end of things.
What’s next for you?
I don’t know. Springtime in Berkeley. Then summer, somewhere.
What haven’t you done yet that you want to do?
I’d like to go to the Middle East. Also, I spent some time, a couple of times, in Nicaragua and I’d like to go back there and, without wanting to sound condescending, do something helpful.