Writing for Our Post-9/11 Times: Part I

The basic question is: As writers, what is our relationship to our times?
11/10/2015 04:59 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2016

There is a scene in a little-known but fine film from 1947 called Odd Man Out that, ever since I first saw it a few years ago, has stayed with me for its metaphoric power.

The film is about a leader of the Irish Republican Army, the I.R.A., played by a young James Mason, who is shot during a robbery shortly after the opening credits and who spends the rest of the film seeking refuge, all the while losing blood and growing weaker and weaker. No one gives him aid, not even sympathizers, some of whom consider the reward they'd get for turning him over to the occupying English police, who are hard on his trail.

Finally, in a noisy pub, the dying man encounters an artist, a portrait painter, who instead of giving comfort or getting a doctor, as you'd expect a humanist to do, hauls him off to his studio -- -to sit for a portrait. Played with maniacal energy by a young Robert Newton (who'd later scare the wits out of little kids playing the pirate Long John Silver), the artist daubs away at his easel, babbling about painting "the truth of life and death," something to be captured "in the eyes" -- while his subject, a specimen of life, is literally dying in front of him, sagging in his chair, delirious.

I have a horror of being that kind of artist.

The film's director, Sir Carol Reed, clearly thought likewise. This was after all an Englishman telling a tale about the Irish "troubles," critical of the English abuse of power and intent on portraying the humanity of the occupied Irish -- as a true artist must.

The basic question is: As writers, what is our relationship to our times? Is it like that portrait artist, oblivious to his dying subject? Because, I submit, America in this post-9/11 era exhibits many signs of dying and decline: the wars; the extreme political polarization; the extreme income inequality; the fear, the anger, the bombast; the coarsening of the culture; the absence of reason and the prevalence of crazy. Polls show a big majority of Americans feel America is in decline. So: In these wild and crazy times, do you feed the wild and crazy -- or do you fight it?

I will get to these questions later, but first I'd like to relate my own journey to my own position. What follows is what has worked for me as the framework through which I approach my writing. It may work for you too -- or not. You choose.

It was the early 1990s, I was living in Washington, D.C. and working on a play, my second. It was a comic drama, in which the Life Force embodied by the actress and force of nature Katharine Hepburn contends with the Death Force, embodied by the death-loving modernist author Franz Kafka, played out in an end-of-the-world setting, the Sanatorium Ultime. I was having great fun, working out -- in the abstract -- how the Life Force would push the Death Force to discover his own will to live.

Meanwhile, in real life, there were regular reports in the news of the city of Sarajevo, "the Paris of the Balkans," besieged by snipers shooting from the hills surrounding the city. U.N. peacekeepers were in place but did nothing to keep peace. Instead, while the world watched on TV, Sarajevans were forced to run through Sniper's Alley, in peril for their lives, to cross the city. This slow-burning atrocity had been going on almost two years and would extend to four, the longest siege of the 20th century.

I am sorry to say it took the second-anniversary marker and a particular set of photos of ordinary Sarajevans running through Sniper's Alley to finally cause the penny to drop for me: The comedy about Life and Death I was working on in the abstract was unfolding in real life, as tragedy, in Sarajevo. I realized then -- anticipating the portrait painter of Odd Man Out I'd see years later -- that I needed to quit with the abstract and deal with the real. The world impinged -- finally.

Through a Sarajevo journalist, I was put in touch with the man running one of Sarajevo's last independent radio stations. Most other stations had gone ethnic, spewing hate-talk. Vlado was, as he told me, determined to stay normal and civilized, do interviews, give out survival tips (like how to detect a landmine), and, with schools shut down, broadcast schooling on-air. But before I made that first I call, I dithered: Of what possible use could Tailored Lady be in a war zone?

Finally, one Sunday afternoon in December 1994 I placed the call and reached him, as he sat in complete darkness (no electricity), teeth chattering from the cold (no heat) -- and it changed my life and (he said) saved his. In the Hell of war, Vlado needed a lifeline, while I had been looking all my life for a test of my character.

"The first thing I want to say to you, Sir, is: I think a great crime is happening to Sarajevo." "So," Vlado replied, "do you have some troops with you?" I offered for broadcast my first play, about how people find reasons to let a crime go forward, as the world was doing with Sarajevo. Vlado said fine, he'd be my translator. Days later, after a man in desperation committed suicide on the station's steps, Vlado called me: "I need to talk to you." "Vlado, I am not a psychiatrist." "Don't worry, all the psychiatrists have abandoned us"; he said I sounded normal, strong. "I don't know, Vlado, people say I'm intense." "Please," he said, "be intense with me." Deal! Bond sealed. From the depths of the siege -- the sniping soon escalated to shelling -- through his escape and struggle as a refugee desperately looking for work, we protected our bond, now sacred. Finally, after he landed a job at Radio Free Europe, in Prague, we met. It was a reunion of old friends, veterans.

Now, the writer's challenge: The challenge was not in writing a play about our bond, nor even calling into a war zone. With Vlado's permission, I typed up our dialogues -- easily done: every word was incised on my brain -- and faxed them to him: He said they made him see his situation more clearly, also confirmed for him his humanity. When I landed the first theatrical reading, he hoped it would wake a sleeping world.

But, on the road to production, in a dozen readings around the U.S., there was resistance, even derision from producers at the idea of a sacred bond. "This is Mother Teresa meets Saint Francis of Assisi, can't they flirt with each other?" "No," I said, "you don't flirt with a traumatized person, besides I am married." Reference was often made to the "hot" novel of the time, Vox, about phone sex. Aging woman, no children: Clearly I was looking for excitement, not a test of character, a "noble deed." And clearly my husband had to be jealous, not the trusting husband who was proud his wife had met her test. Vlado as hero was readily accepted, but my character needed to be needier, "so an American audience can relate." When I told Vlado that, he said, "Why would I talk to a noodle?" He expressed condolences for my culture.

The three productions I did secure were with theatres who, bless them, accepted my pitch of the play as a tale of the saving power of normalcy and the human connection amid chaos. With these theatres -- Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater, Washington's Studio Theatre and Indianapolis' Phoenix Theatre -- and with a workshop in New York, I worked to move the play from docudrama to universal drama.

These checks with Vlado -- "Guess what Mr. Producer wants now?" -- led me to see that Sarajevo wasn't the only place under siege; so was America, with its culture degrading and growing vulgar, narcissistic, neurotic, pathological. These checks with Vlado also led me subsequently, after five rough years of "development" with other producers, to make a major fix: I inserted into the script the offstage character of "Mr. Producer," who reflects this vulgarized American culture and whose lines are delivered by my character, replayed to Vlado for his reaction. "Mr. Producer" made his debut at the third production, in Indianapolis. I prize the audience's explosive laughter at Mr. Producer's insistence the American character be needier.

To step back a bit for historical context: When the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union ended in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Americans declared themselves the winners -- and thereafter, with no existential competition to keep us sober and serious, we held ourselves to few standards, high or otherwise. In the go-go '90s, anything went -- and anything did. What might have become a Golden Age instead became increasingly brassy, "smash-mouth." In my field, American theatre hit a low with Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues; audiences went along, giggling.

What's a serious writer to do?

[Continued]