Politics at the dinner table – interview with Richard Nelson

Thursday 8 December 2016

Playwright Richard Nelson talks about the US election and his recently debuted trilogy of plays The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family. It was recently named one of the Best Theatre works of 2016 by The New York Times and 'may be the most immediate and affecting contribution to of-the-moment American theatre since the Great Depression'. 

What prompted you to write this series of plays set in the year of a presidential election?

I have been writing plays for a very long time; and so there are many reasons for any new project. Here are a few. In 2009, Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public, approached me about writing a play about the Iraq War. As I’d written a number of large-scale plays, I think Oskar was hoping I’d take on this topic and produce a ‘large-scale’ play for him. Instead, I proposed a play about a family talking around a dinner, a play that would open and be set on the same day – Election Day, 2010; the day of the mid-term elections during Obama’s first term. I felt that the kind of conversations I was hearing in my living room, and overhearing at restaurants or on the train, weren’t being conveyed in the newspapers or on television. That is, not arguments, but a serious need to talk and be heard, and the need to listen, to question. In other words, to portray people today who are confused and anxious. This grew into a four-play series (one play written and performed each year) called The Apple Family Plays, and they were set in the village where I live, Rhinebeck, New York.

The Gabriels grew out of these plays. And are an attempt to create another family, one quite different from the Apples, and to track their lives during an eight-month period, which would also coincide with our 2016 Presidential election. As with the Apple Family plays, I think one ambition has been to create complicated, confused, ambiguous characters, living through complex personal times, and have them, on occasion discuss the world of this election, to see, perhaps, how or if these worlds were or are entwined.

This is the second family play cycle you have written – what interests you in exploring the lives of families? And why over the course of more than one play?

I have always been interested in writing plays about society, especially American society. Early in my career, I think I called myself a political writer, but that is not how I see myself or my plays today. Something profound happened in the 90s, both to me, and I think to many many others. As we looked back at the 20th century, it was hard to hold any faith or belief in pretty much any ideology. After all, look what all had been done – and destroyed – in their name. Yet, as a writer interested in writing about his society, without the glue of ideology, how does one begin to convey a wide swath of one’s complex country? I found myself reading a great deal of Chekhov, and then Ibsen, and of course O’Neill, and began to realize, what these playwrights so clearly understood, and that is that within the world of a family lies all the tensions, machinations, contradictions etc. of society as a world. In other words, by digging deep into family, I could address the world at large. That’s how I see these plays and my ambition.

The three plays are presented in real time – why and how do you do this?

First, it makes the plays about today, about the present. And theatre, by definition is of the present, as it disappears the moment it ends. In fact, there is no better art form, than this very elusive one, for writing about ‘now’. The audience and the actors are both living in the same place at the same time. The art is happening in the exact present. So underlining this by writing in the present is one ambition.

Second, it forces me to write very specifically. If it rains on the day the play opens (and is set) then I quickly write that in, if a television show was of immediate interest (for the characters) the night before, I quickly put that in. Initially, when I wrote the first Apple Family play, I thought I was writing what I then called ‘disposable plays’, that is, plays so specific in time and place as to have a very short ‘shelf life’. But what I discovered was sort of the opposite. And it’s a discovery many writers have made before me – and I’m embarrassed it has taken me this long to learn this – and that is, that the more specific one writes about something, the more universal it can become.

Third, I think it is every writer’s (and artist’s) ambition to find common ground with an audience before the work is seen or read or viewed, so that the conversation between audience and artist has a firm footing. My characters are going through what my audience is also going through – i.e. the Presidential election. Just as we are in the same room at the same time, we are in the same world, same country, living through the same thing.

What is the significance of each play taking place during the preparation of a meal?

These plays are, in one sense, a celebration of the complexity, and contradictions of being human. Before beginning these plays I read a wonderful comment someone wrote: that human beings are the only animals that cook. That had never occurred to me before. So of course then, one of the things that makes us human – is cooking. What better activity to build these plays around, than an activity that is part of the very essence that makes us human beings.

A second reason is that, in my experience, things get said and talked about while cooking in a family kitchen, in a different way and emphasis than at any other time or place.

Will there be any further changes to these plays given the result of the election?

No, the plays are finished by the night they open (and on the day they are set).

The Gabriels premiered in the US during the lead up to the election but is now touring internationally post-election – what do you think this means for audiences?

During previews, these plays are set in the future, on opening night, they are in the present and after that they are ‘period plays’. Hopefully, in part, they will come to be seen as fair and honest snap shots of a single family’s life, being lived through this extraordinary year.

Were you keeping an eye on the vote tally as your final play opened?

No. The last play is set on election evening, between five and seven pm. The polls didn’t close until 8pm. So neither the characters nor I (nor the audience that night) knew the outcome. And the characters still don’t.

How did it feel walking out of the third play – Women of a Certain Age – to a new president?

We learned of Mr. Trump’s election about two hours after we opened. It was certainly a surprise, and for many a deep and unsettling shock. Looking at the plays from this perspective has been very interesting. There is much, I think, in the plays that points to this outcome, or at least to my characters’ feelings of being forgotten by our leaders. There is one constant refrain in all three plays, ‘what about us?’ My characters did not vote for Mr. Trump, and even on election night they find his victory both unlikely and unthinkable. Still they question, even pre-Trump victory, what, as a society, have we, America, become?

What do you mean when you describe your theatre as a ‘temple’?

A place for people to come together in troubling times, and as they sit with strangers in the dark, to feel that they are not alone.

Why do you use Rhinebeck as the backdrop for your plays?

This is my home. I have lived here for thirty-four years. My wife and I raised our daughters here. It is a place that carries a huge amount of history, both personal and national. Franklin Roosevelt grew up and lived just down the road. The Hudson River is a couple of miles away, and has a rich connection to so much American history.

Why are you motivated to portray the world as it is?

As opposed to what? I don’t have the confidence to tell people how things should be. So this is all I can do. 

Do you think the issues explored in this play will be as relevant in years to come?

The issues will. Will the plays seem relevant? I don’t know.

You May Also Like