«Punishment for what?»
by Neil LaBute / Thomas Oberender
Thoms Oberender: What you say in regard to the concept of sin sounds very convincing. You say it’s «a voice inside oneself» that tells us directly what is good and what is bad. But Woyzeck also hears a voice in his head. Don’t your plays rather point into the direction that the human being is delinquent in his or her acting in a way that surpasses the misdemeanour in the sense of human and legal terms?
Neil LaBute: Well, just because that ‘still, small voice’ is telling us what to do doesn’t mean that we’re going to listen to it. Not at all. People can shout right in our face and we don’t listen, so what chance does that tiny voice of conscience have? Our morality is made up of so many splintered parts – ideas borrowed from our parents, ingrained concepts from television and books, etc. – that we are constantly reshaping it and reconsidering our position on issues all the time.
I think my plays point toward the moral minefield that most people try to negotiate. Any landscape can be covered with mines – a field of sunflowers or a barren landscape. My interests lie in how we negotiate these minefields, given the information we have and our personal interests. Some of us make it, some don’t. I’m most intrigued with the journey and whether we fall back on the morality we’ve created for ourselves or if we are willing to shift everything we believe in, simply to survive. As for woyzeck, he was pretty crazy… But that’s what happens when you eat peas all the time. However, like most crazy people, he has great moments of complete clarity.
TO: Do you think of the attacks of 9/11 in terms of a punishment that has struck America?
NLB: A punishment, no. Punishment for what? For being powerful and bold and blind and selfish and wonderful? We are a country of incredible diversities and absolute contradictions, but I don’t think we are being punished for being bad… 9/11 happened because a group of fairly inventive terrorists saw a crack in the country’s armor and did something about it. It was an incident that has little to do with anything other than cause and effect. They were the cause and what happened was the effect. this is the aftermath. it was horrific and beyond belief and eye-opening for us, but I think much of the rest of the world – while duly surprised and saddened – feel that we as a country have now been introduced to the tragic realities of world politics. Is what happened on 9/11 worse than people dying by twos and threes in tel aviv or the west bank? Is a mass grave in the ivory coast less important than ground zero? If so, then we as a nation have learned nothing from this.
TO: The humming of the suction apparatus in the abortion clinic in «Land of the Dead» blends into the humming of New York’s traffic sounds. New York is not solely the place of a felony in «Land of the Dead» but also in «Bash». Is this city a modern Babylon?
NLB: I think new york is still a place of mystery to me, a big, beautiful, frightening place of possibilities. Possibilities of both good and bad. Like david mamet’s «Edmond,» I tend to imagine a new york city that offers a person the best and worst of what life in a city can be. As a writer, though, I’m often looking for the worst in things, since the potential for drama is richer on that end of the spectrum. I don’t know that it is a modern Babylon or a latter-day sodom… It is simply a unique, marvelous, daunting place that i both love and fear in fairly equal measure.
TO: How do you feel life in New York has changed now, more than one year after the terror attacks?
NLB: Having been in the city four days after 9/11 to work on a play and now being here more than a year later, doing the same thing, I can quite easily say that life feels much more back to normal now. Not that nothing has changed, but outside of the enormous shift toward nationalistic memorabilia hanging in most storefronts, the day-to-day routine of people seems much like I remember it as a student. Who can say how differently people actually feel, but the outer appearance of most new yorkers and the city itself seems returned to a comfortable pre-9/11 place. We as a nation have been changed in both obvious and subtle ways, but not necessarily on the surface. Is there really no hidden connection between the three plays «Merge», «Roadtrip», and «Land of the Dead»? For instance, an appeal for «changing one’s way»? I think one of the main connections between these three pieces is a hope for a new beginning. There is a reaching out by the characters, whether only by paying the idea some lip service, that what is happening is the beginning of something new and valuable in their lives. I find this notion fairly suspect, giving the nature of these relationships, but i believe that they believe it, and that’s what makes it interesting to watch or listen to.
TO: The heroes of the first two plays in «Bash», Evelyn in «The Shape of Things», the «Winner» in «In the Company of Men» – all these heroes get away with their acts of felony. Your plays bring them to trial and open up their cases. What is the charge?
NLB: I try not to put my characters on trial. That’s not my job. My job is to raise questions, not necessarily to answer them. I find all my characters guilty of being interesting, that’s all I ever require of them. Not goodness, or badness, or being audience-friendly . I’d much rather that a character be interesting than likable. Some audiences are troubled by the fact that so many of my ‘bad’ characters get away with what they set out to do – deceive or hurt or self-serve – but I feel only a responsibility to be true to these characters, not to the audience. The story must be served at all costs, whether we as an audience like it or not.
TO: With regard to your plays you talk about your hope for a catharsis they should bring about. Through which devices do you attempt to make it come about?
NLB: I hope that an audience can look at some of my work from a suitable distance, take it away with them and regard it later or another day or whatever. I hope they can see the lessons there as well as enjoy the craft. I think most good drama allows us to be entertained while we watch it and at the same time (or slightly later) realize that we are being taught something. brecht hit this nail right on the head. He hit a lot of nails on the head. If i attend a theatrical performance I want it to do more than entertain me. I want it to move me, to shake me, to challenge the way I think. If not, I might as well stay home and watch television.
TO: Looking at the preceding question: What is your relationship toward antique drama? «Bash» refers strongly to antique plays, and also your love of monologues corresponds with it. Is it tragedy after all that you are interested in?
NLB: I love the presentational quality of the greek drama, the way that information was presented to the audience. violence was kept off stage and told to us, horrid detail by detail, and while the audience was no doubt familiar with the stories being told, it was in the telling that the real artistry lay. I also love the rigorous demands that we believe those dramatists were forced to work with. the notion of time and place and action being so controlled. I often give myself these same kinds of rules to work with, and I find it extremely freeing to box myself in like that. With «Bash» i wanted to see if I could move people, hold them, while forcing the players to sit for the entire evening and simply talk to the audience.
TO: Do you think of America as an empire in terms of the Roman Empire?
NLB: No. There has never again been anything like the Roman Empire, nor will there in all likelihood ever be again. England couldn’t do it, Germany couldn’t either, and America shows little sign of being able to accomplish it. Nor should they. The days of empires are behind us. America is simply a country of wealth and opinion and influence. It is a place of beauty and frustration and danger in equal measure, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
TO: The woman in «Merge», following her confession, says something along those lines that they could start all over again. The play won’t let it come this far. Did you write it, like «Land of the Dead», after 9/11?
NLB: No, «Merge» was written well before 9/11. I think the concept of ‘starting over’ is one that haunts my work. the idea that a person yearns for something new and is willing to give up so much for it, is pretty fascinating. Even my newest play, «The Mercy Seat,» deals with this idea in direct relation to the events of 9/11.
TO: In «Merge» and «Land of the Dead» the catastrophes happen exactly in that moment, when you start to believe, everything will come right again, after all. Does this dramaturgy only follow the pattern of the scary movies or the pattern of history (9/11)?
NLB: I’ve often been accused of writing psychological horror films or plays and I suppose there is a truth to that. I often find the things that we are comfortable with are the things that have the greatest potential to become frightening. A parent, a lover, a trusted friend, a city we think we know. I am very interested in what happens when there is betrayal amongst friends or family or lovers, because then there is history there. Something is being given up that strangers can’t begin to understand. And it is often at a moment of understanding, a moment of clarity, that disaster can strike. Do the promises we make in peacetime hold up under pressure? That’s an intriquing idea to me.
TO: Did you happen to have visited the exposition of Gerhard-Richter in New York? (Don DeLillo wrote a beautiful short story about it.) Richter‘s «Vorhang» («Curtain») or RAF pictures play with the haziness of the images, and they remind me of the second play of «Bash» during which the question arises whether the characters share the same room while speaking or not. That is very simple and elegant, and at the same time a very modern concept. Are there any artists that you admire particularly and by whom you are inspired, especially in respect to their treatment of perception?
NLB: I don’t think anyone moves me more than Beckett does when dealing with what is true vs. What is perceived. He had a particular genius for dealing with all angles of reality and finding a kind of humanity where none seemed to exist. His «play» remains the most shattering take on love that I can imagine. I’m also quite moved by visual artists and often look for inspiration there when I’m working. Alex Katz, the american artist, is one who I constantly return to. His splendid, daunting, massive canvases of blank-eyed men and women are pretty fascinating to me.
TO: What does it mean to be a writer?
NLB: I’m not sure what it means, because it’s the only thing I can do. It’s the only thing of worth I seem able to manage, so I do it. I don’t try to make it sacred or special or anything other than my job. I like it, I work hard at it, even respect it. But I don’t make a big deal out of it. I’m lucky to be able to do something that i like doing and can do. It’s as simple and profound as that.
nl / to, Tuesday, December 10, 2002