Sunday, February 7, 2010

An Interview with Will Eno

Will Eno is a playwright from the imaginary land of Brooklyn. He is best known for his international sensation Thom Pain (based on nothing) and has furthermore written a number of other works that have earned him a very fine reputation. He must not, therefore, be trusted. For it's often said that, due to their inherent moral poverty and actual emptiness of purse, earning the favour of playwrights is like taking candy from a baby. To this I agree with the following condition: only if it's a baby ninja. Because playwrights will appear all fawning and obedient to your face and next thing you know you're appearing in their latest High Street play as a clowning buffoon who spends all day sitting in his soiled underwear on the kitchen lino quoting Bertrand Russell. We all know this from personal experience though we rarely admit it in polite company.

Mr Eno was kind enough to engage in the following semi-mystical and emotionally charged exchange on the eve of an Australian tour during which he will hold masterclasses with some of our finest writers and also witness the Australian premiere of his one-hander Lady Grey.

JB: You’re a bit of a celebrity playwright. (Is that an oxymoron?) I mean that your name itself brings certain expectations of quality and style and you find yourself invited to come down to Australia and say howdy to some people. How does this sit with you? Do you feel an onus to deliver something beyond very good scripts that can be staged by very talented people?

WE: I’m doing some teaching, as part of this trip, arranged through Marcus West and the writer’s organization Inscription. I feel and am glad to feel a lot of pressure to do it as well as I can and be as helpful as I can. I’m kind of a nervous person and so, even just sitting in a chair by myself or waiting in an airport, I feel a certain pressure, some anxiety or free-floating expectation from somewhere. And this isn’t all bad-- anxiety is probably good practice for the world. My brother says that some philosopher even says it’s “the engine of our possibilities.” We all feel an onus, right? If not a bunch of onuses, if the word can be pluralized. So I guess I’ve come to the same point that a lot of people have come to, which is to try to simplify things and realize that all you can do, in almost any situation, is try to be honest and kind and respectful to people.

JB: Often people become writers in part because it’s something they can do on their own. They’re not relying on a whole team of other people to make it happen (unlike, say, filmmakers or stage directors or whatever). Does that work for you? Are you a solitary person in that sense, or are you the sort to sit down and bounce ideas off other people and see what sticks? There’s a very distinct aspect of existential solitude in Thom Pain (based on nothing), for instance, and I wonder if alone-ness (or maybe good old loneliness) is of great interest to you. Language is clearly one of the things that you think and talk and write about, which is good because it’s hard to do any of those things without language. But this makes it very easy to position you within the field of postmodern writers, and around these parts at least there’s a very solid theatregoing public who are worried that this means they won’t get a good story for their dollar? What’s your relationship with narrative? Have you ever written a straight-up nuts-and-bolts story?

WE: I like the way you’ve phrased that. “Loneliness is of great interest to me.” I hear a T-shirt being printed. But, yes, I guess I tend to be more toward the solitary end of the spectrum. And, yes, I’d say I was concerned with language, a little pre-occupied with it, even, though this was never a post-modern gesture. I think I never really felt I existed when I was little. I somehow got the feeling that it was best to keep myself to myself and as that misunderstanding hardened into my personality, it got harder and harder for me to talk and I felt like I was starting to disappear. But I knew, somehow, that a person’s identity, and I guess, therefore, their existence, depended on and arose from what they said, out loud, to people. So, if you have this sense that all you are and ever will be is what comes out of your mouth, I guess you’d get pretty interested and even a little anxious about what to say and how to say it. And you might start wondering weird things like, “What if all the best and most right words for me to truly express myself are Dutch words, or Farsi? And here I am, stuck in English.” And from there, it’s only a small step to start thinking of English itself as a foreign contraption that you’re not exactly sure how best to use. As for the idea of narrative, I think it’s ancient and crucial, but I think we have to include in our sense of narrative, this: earliest Man and Woman are naked and standing under the stars, enjoying the Stone Age air, and suddenly, a large dark shape, just over there, moves, or they think it moves, and that’s it, that’s all. Somewhere therein is, to me, the best and simplest sense of narrative-- something just happened, we’re not sure what it was, but probably it was what we thought it was, and it means that something else is going to happen, to us, and we are filled with real feelings, and we know that somehow our lives depend on what happens next, somehow our lives are what happens next, and we wonder what that will be. Most events, no matter how small, can be broken down into these general parts. Which comes first? is a pretty good question. Life, or the parts? There’s an American philosopher, John Dewey, who says that we only are able to recognize any experience in life because it conforms to certain aesthetic contours and standards. It would not be recognizable or memorable as an experience, if it wasn’t also aesthetically striking. All of this is to say, I’m not sure, but, no, I’ve probably never written a straight nuts-and-bolts story. Not for lack of trying and not because I don’t think it’d be a good thing to do. I just kind of can’t. But that’s all right. And it doesn’t mean I’ve never written a story that follows a followable emotional and semantic arc. But I have trouble doing it in a really linear way, and that trouble becomes an interesting part of the story to me. I think our weaknesses and blind spots are probably, in an art-making context, as well as in life, the more interesting part of us. James Urbaniak, who is the actor who played Thom Pain in Edinburgh and New York, always said he found the play pretty classically structured. A guy has a problem, he tries some solutions, they don’t work, you wonder if they ever will, then one maybe does, and maybe you’re involved somehow, his life is maybe changed, and the lights go down.

JB: Why all the humour? Are you an ironist or a satirist or an absurdist or do these words make you wince? What’s the dynamic between humour and misery in your writing?

WE: The words do make me wince, a little, because they all imply (or imply to me) a fixed stance with respect to experience, to actuality and the world. And, again in my sense of the words, there’s a kind of safety, and even a smugness, in that fixed stance. It’s as if a person is saying, “I understand the world, the world is like this, and now I’m going to satirize it.” So none of those words really hits home with me. What about Botanist? I don’t really calibrate a balance or relation between humour and misery-- I just think there is one, a balance, that arises fairly naturally based on the nature of things. Both seem to involve a repression, somehow. It’s like this, maybe. Imagine a person at a lecture or in a quiet library suddenly thinking of something really funny and trying to stifle a laugh. And then imagine an actor trying to make himself or herself cry by thinking of sad things. There’s a tension and intensity in both states, and it could be that Truth and Important Things require or arise in this particular tension and intensity. So that humour and joy and misery and sadness are subcategories of the larger thing, Truth. Or maybe it’s like this. The closer you move to a true thing, no matter if it’s a funny thing or a sad thing, the closer you move to all true things. So that the funnier something gets, the closer it moves to a really gutting and total kind of sorrow. Don’t know. I’m not Bertrand Russell. I’m not even Nipsy Russell (You’ll have to look that one up, I imagine.) So, yeah, as for the crying/laughing mix, it’s not a really calculated effect. It’s more like, when you’re talking with a friend about something serious and painful, and at a certain point, your friend makes a little joke. If you have good friends, the timing and size and funniness of the joke will seem in right proportion to the situation, and it will keep the conversation moving in the right direction with the right kind of energy. It even will seem like a kind of love, their joke, because they’re essentially saying, I’m listening, I’m maintaining a certain perspective, I want you to keep in mind joy and laughing while you tell me this sad thing, to which I’m listening, I promise, and so on.

JB: Who makes you laugh, a right and proper laugh?

WE: If I feel truly lucky about anything, it’s that I have really hilariously funny friends. Their names are even hilarious. So, mainly them. As for non-friends, I think Stephen Fry is really funny. And an American guy named David Cross. I guess everyone. Everyone’s really funny.

JB: Isherwood has called you "a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation." What that makes me wonder is: what’s Samuel Beckett then? Do you see yourself as updating some kind of tradition or fitting into some kind of genealogy or are those questions not ones that keep you awake at night?

WE: I’m sure you’re right about that-- Samuel Beckett must be the Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation. I think we were very lucky to get the one and we don’t need updates or revised versions. That was definitely the type of quote that follows you around a bit. That said, it’s a pretty nice one to be followed around by. I was just glad to be taken seriously. As for history and tradition, I like to think that when you really hit your stride and are really really writing, and this maybe has only happened for me a few times in a couple plays, then you can’t help but be making something that is completely original, but, at the same time, is also respectful or at least aware of capital-h History. I don’t think it’s something you can really shoot for, but I do think it’s something achievable, something that can be achieved by a sustained engagement with history and a sustained openness to the self. You know? You have your feelings and your Tuesday morning on one hand, and the works of William Shakespeare, on the other. And maybe at some strange right moment, the two intersect somehow, and maybe you just happen to be sitting there, at that moment, writing. I don’t mean to say that you then drop a line from Shakespeare into your play. I mean to say you come up with a new solution to a famous problem, or, you somehow write a moment that shares some mystical and thudding quality with the moment where Gloucester’s (was it Gloucester?) face hits the stage, after he thought he was jumping off a cliff.

JB: Do you enjoy the theatre? Do you enjoy going to the theatre? Or would you prefer a night at the fights or in front of the tube or some other less theatrey activity?

WE: I like seeing plays. I probably can’t say exactly why. It’s something to do with the promise of the dark, maybe, something like that? You don’t know who will be standing where doing what when the lights come up on stage. And there we are, all together, waiting in the dark. Howard Barker has written about how the dark does not unite us as a community, but rather divides us and emphasizes our aloneness. I think it does a little of both.

JB: Are you a man of firm beliefs or strong convictions? Specifically, is there anything, such as a principle or cause, to which you’re thoroughly committed?

WE: That’s good and interesting and difficult question. Of course, I am for the Good things, and against the Bad ones. But what if I emphatically and with great conviction said “no”? I guess I’m afraid to sound na├»ve or full of myself, but, I believe in trying to get past my fears, so: I believe in the mystery of theatre; I believe in trying to be kind; I believe in sympathy, almost as a philosophy. I am amazed at the work that people do, for other people, quietly. There’s a great organization called Partners in Health that’s worked in Haiti for many years. And of course, Doctors Without Borders, which has to represent the essence of the essence of goodness. Somebody once said that a fire truck was a perfect symbol of man’s humanity to man.

JB: Tell me a bit about your process, if I may use such an ugly word. Where do you write? On what? Do you go on Kerouac-style typing binges or sit in the garden waiting for one line to appear? What role does diet play in the humour of your craft, which seems quite phlegmatic? What’s the weather like over there?

WE: Nothing too noteworthy. I sit in a chair at a desk, typing on a computer keypad. I write really slowly, and, if I have a method, it’s to give up on something in despair, and then go back to it a year or two later, in a different and more energetic kind of despair, and see if I can finish it. No secret rituals. Sometimes if I’m stuck, I do a headstand for a while. Diet-wise, I try not to eat too much candy or junk.

JB: What do you know now that you didn’t know when you wrote Thom Pain?

WE: I think I know a little bit more about love, if that doesn’t sound too general. I think also I’ve learned how far I have to go in terms of knowing what Forgiveness is. It’s pretty far. But I don’t think I even knew there was a distance to go, a few years ago.

JB: I don’t really know much about Lady Grey. Please tell me something. Is it a companion piece to Thom Pain? Is it very unlike that work?

WE: It’s not officially a companion piece. They are both monologues and I wrote them at around the same time and was thinking about some similar problems. Both characters have a lot of needs, but a different approach in terms of satisfying them. Tonally, they’re really different. Structurally, they’re somewhat similar. I am really excited to see Tanya perform the play. It’s a very particular kind of performer that is required and I think she is probably exactly right.

JB: Wait, I’ve found a line from the play: “Wondering what the story of yourself is, and, how to tell it…" Is this something you do, wonder what the story of yourself is? Is this part of what your writing seeks to address, or to answer?

WE: I think so. Some of which we talked about when you asked about post-modernism and I was saying something about speech and identity. But, yeah, also, to skip ahead to the Bertrand Russell excerpt you cite, I sort of wonder what perspective to take on a thing, on myself, and so does Lady Grey. Do you tell the story of yourself as seen from one millimeter away by a microscope, or as seen from a million miles away with no telescope? Or one of the infinite variations in between? And, am I at the center of this story, or is this story at the center of my life? Or neither? Are both my life and this story off to the side of something else I can’t even imagine? Probably that, somehow. This is how Lady Grey thinks, I think.

JB: Here is a long extract from a book by Bertrand Russell. It’s long, as I say, so you don’t need to read it as you may have other things to do and this is not an important thing. But I will write a question at the end of the extract and you can skip to that if you like.

“Let us suppose that a drug is administered to you which makes you temporarily unconscious, and that when you wake you have lost your memory but not your reasoning powers. Let us suppose further that while you were unconscious you were carried into a balloon, which, when you come to, is sailing with the wind on a dark night - the night of the fifth of November if you are in England, or of the fourth of July if you are in America. You can see fireworks which are being sent off from the ground, from trains, and from aeroplanes traveling in all directions, but you cannot see the ground or the trains or the aeroplanes because of the darkness. What sort of picture of the world will you form? You will think that nothing is permanent: there are only brief flashes of light, which, during their short existence, travel through the void in the most various and bizarre curves. You cannot touch these flashes of light, you can only see them. Obviously your geometry and your physics and your metaphysics will be quite different from those of ordinary mortals. If an ordinary mortal were with you in the balloon, you would find his speech unintelligible. But if Einstein were with you, you would understand him more easily than the ordinary mortal would, because you would be free from a host of preconceptions which prevent most people from understanding him. The theory of relativity depends, to a considerable extent, upon getting rid of notions which are useful in ordinary life but not to our drugged balloonist. Circumstances on the surface of the earth, for various more or less accidental reasons, suggest conceptions which turn out to be inaccurate, although they have come to seem like necessities of thought. The most important of these circumstances is that most objects on the earth's surface are fairly persistent and nearly stationary from a terrestrial point of view. If this were not the case, the idea of going on a journey would not seem so definite as it does. If you want to travel from King's Cross to Edinburgh, you know that you will find King's Cross where it has always been, that the railway line will take the course that it did when you last made the journey, and that Waverley Station in Edinburgh will not have walked up to the Castle. You therefore say and think that you have traveled to Edinburgh, not that Edinburgh has traveled to you, though the latter statement would be just as accurate. The success of this common-sense point of view depends upon a number of things which are really of the nature of luck. Suppose all the houses in London were perpetually moving about, like a swarm of bees; suppose railways moved and changed their shapes like avalanches; and finally suppose that material objects were perpetually being formed and dissolved like clouds. There is nothing impossible in these suppositions. But obviously what we call a journey to Edinburgh would have no meaning in such a world. You would begin, no doubt, by asking the taxi-driver: 'Where is King's Cross this morning?' At the station you would have to ask a similar question about Edinburgh, but the booking-office clerk would reply: 'What part of Edinburgh do you mean? Prince's Street has gone to Glasgow, the Castle has moved up into the Highlands, and Waverley Station is under water in the middle of the Firth of Forth.' And on the journey the stations would not be staying quiet, but some would be travelling north, some south, some east or west, perhaps much faster than the train. Under these conditions you could not say where you were at any moment. Indeed the whole notion that one is always in some definite 'place' is due to the fortunate immobility of most of the large objects on the earth's surface. The idea of 'place' is only a rough practical approximation: there is nothing logically necessary about it, and it cannot be made precise. If we were not much larger than an electron, we should not have this impression of stability, which is only due to the grossness of our senses. King's Cross, which to us looks solid, would be too vast to be conceived except by a few eccentric mathematicians. The bits of it that we could see would consist of little tiny points of matter, never coming into contact with each other, but perpetually whizzing round each other in an inconceivably rapid ballet-dance. The world of our experience would be quite as mad as the one in which the different parts of Edinburgh go for walks in different directions. If - to take the opposite extreme - you were as large as the sun and lived as long, with a corresponding slowness of perception, you would again find a higgledy-piggledy universe without permanence - stars and planets would come and go like morning mists, and nothing would remain in a fixed position relatively to anything else. The notion of comparative stability which forms part of our ordinary outlook is thus due to the fact that we are about the size we are, and live on a planet of which the surface is not very hot. If this were not the case, we should not find pre-relativity physics intellectually satisfying. Indeed we should never have invented such theories. We should have had to arrive at relativity physics at one bound, or remain ignorant of scientific laws.”

Here is the question: how about that drugged balloonist?

WE: How about him, indeed. I think I worked with that guy, at a textbook publishing firm. He had some very different ideas about acceptable foods to eat at his desk. Honestly, I don’t have much to say about the Russell excerpt other than that it’s great and thanks a ton for introducing me to it. It reminds me a bit of that Wittgenstein quote about how if you ask an elephant to draw a picture of God, he’ll end up drawing something that looks sort of like an elephant. The thing Russell says about how our picture of the Universe is largely and secretly based on our actual physical size is very familiar and even kind of comforting to me. There are massive and unknowable systems and horrifically random events in the world and the Universe, around which, in an effort to make life not completely insane, we put these little splintery hand-made wooden frames. Good for us. You know? Hooray for us, for doing that.


Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Stephen Armstrong said...

As Mr Eno might put it, thanks a ton, John. I agree the very act of going to, let alone making, theatre, is a reach for an aesthetic which helps us "to recognise". Noting 'the stars above...', our experience as audience demands equal prowess in the physical, the spatial and the aural worlds - like a sculpture, from a mass of all to its reduced concert. From all possibility, to this. We exist and experience theatre with all our senses and all our capacity. The stage is a clumsy place and diabolically difficult to carve, however well our ears are bent to the text, we also have to create the stars above.

Luiz Zanotti said...

I have written a Master Tesis about Thom Pain, unfortunatelly is in portuguese, but is available for the Will Eno fans. It is posted at my blog

Anonymous said...

Hi, I would like to indicate a review of Thom Pain on
sorry,it's in italian