How do political plays function in an apolitical society? What is the purpose of art in a bankrupt culture?
Steve Tesich ruminates on these questions with the weariness of on whose work is inseparable from the social context of its time. Alternately wry and wary as he discusses his most recent play, On the Open Road, the 49-year-old playwright becomes more animated when the topic turns to what he sees as the virtual collapse of the country’s political system. Like others of his generation who came of age in the hurlyburly activism of the 1960s, only to see their ideals remain unrealized, Tesich is intent on revealing the consequences of America’s retreat from its past promise.
In flashes of conersation, Tesich might be a character out of Division Street, his 1980 comic drama about disenchanted radicals desperately seeking a connection to something beyond material success, nearly swooning at the scent of mimeo paper and the threat of tear gas, yet caught between comfort and conscience. “You want to live in a place,” Tesich insists. “You don’t want to think of yourself at odds with things. That’s not pleasant. Maybe it’s kind of pleasant when you’re very young–but I don’t want to be at odds with the culture, with the country, now. But when so many things occur that are repugnant and so many people are taking part in them, it’s just a horrible feeling to be in this tiny, dwindling minority.”
Despite the almost wistful acknowledgment that only the very young can truly claim a legitimate counterculture experience, Tesich has resolved, in his life as well as his work, to make political discourse once again respectable. “I don’t let things go by anymore,” he says. “Everyone knows what’s wrong, and there is this kind of agreement–let’s not talk about it, let’s not deal with it. The essential problem has been sealed off as an embarrassment. When you bring up moral issues, as I tend to do, people just look at you as if your fly is open.”
From homicidal to alienated
For the Yugoslavian-born playwright (Tesich fled with his family to England after the Nazi invasion, then moved to the United States as a teenager), moral issues have always had an intrinsic, if sometimes off-beat, worth. Tesich came to prominence in the 1970s with a series of plays (The Carpenter, Lake of the Woods, Baba Goya and Passing Game), almost all produced at New York’s American Place Theatre, about what would now be called deeply dysfunctional families. Populating his plays with characters ranging from homicidal to merely alienated, Tesich created a myth of the family that both satirized and celebrated the American dream, and at the same time skewered traditional domestic drama.
Division Street, the pinnacle of this series of plays, premiered at Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum and then opened on Broadway in 1980 with a cast that included Christine Lahti, John Lithgow, Theresa Meritt and Joe Regalbuto. Featuring a black woman with a Polish accent, a female cop who used to be a man (Tesich’s farcical nod to the power of the women’s movement) and families lost, found and reunited, Division Street offered a slapstick tribute to multicultural America, political idealism and the belief that true love can conquer all.
The play, which ended with the cast gathered on stage singing “America the Beautiful,” was not well-received, closing on Broadway after 21 performances. By that time, however, Tesich’s award-winning original screenplay for Breaking Away, an affecting film about four highschool friends in Indiana, had catapulted him to success in Hollywood. Tesich went on to pen the screenplays for such films as Eyewitness, Four Friends, Eleni and The World According to Garp.
When he returned to playwriting, Tesich says, things had changed. “My three most recent plays were written about the same time, one after another Once I started in again, I saw no point in writing for theatre if I was going to continue to write the same way.” Indeed, the trio of post-Hollywood plays share a far bleaker world view than the playwright’s earlier works. Square One (which debuted at New York’s Second Stage in January 1990), The Speed of Darkness and On the Open Road (both of which premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, in April 1989 and March of this year, respectively) address such topics as totalitarian regimes, environmental devastation, and the deadening of mass culture.
“I wish there were a conspiracy that creates our culture,” he says, almost in despair, “because then we would know where to point the finger: 10 colonels in charge and the junta took over. But instead things go along kind of on automatic pilot. The culture that waits for something of meaning to happen, then takes it and spits it out as trivia.”
Tesich’s casually rumpled manner contrasts nicely with the harder edge of his cynicism. “We’re now in a mad kind of thing where we are appreciating the quality and the elaborateness of the Government’s lie,” he continues. “If either Bush or Clinton felt the way to win the upcoming election was to sell cancer, they would do it.”
Survival via high culture
In On the Open Road, a sort of post-apocalyptic Waiting for Godot with overtones of a philosophical buddy movie, Tesich surveys a range of topics: the role of the individual in a political structure based on tyranny, the purpose and value of art, the nature of love and friendship. Set “in a time and place of Civil War”, the play follows the shifting fortunes of Al and Angel, two “independents” who are trying to reach (in the play’s baldly stated irony) the Land of the Free. Al and Angel are scavengers, looting crumbling museums to gather the art of high culture they think will ensure their survival. When a new coalition government asks them to do a little job, however–kill Jesus–Al and Angel find that their troubles are just beginning.
An unwieldy script (the third draft ran as high as 160 pages), On the Open Road seems elliptical at best, moving from theme to theme without completely drawing focus to any. For Tesich, however, the form of the play is an intentional reaction against “the killing approach of America’s consumer-oriented appreciation” of art. “If you can |get it,” he explains, “you kill it. If you can |get it,’ you’re either wrong, your perception is twisted, or maybe what you’re looking at is something less than art itself.” Tesich envisions Jesus as a mute, tortured, cello-playing prisoner-of-war, grounding the play in an image that it isn’t possible to “get.”
Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman and helmsman for both The Speed of Darkness and On the Open Road, attributes the playwright’s new emphasis on sounds and images to his time in Hollywood. “The movies have expanded Steve’s imagination; he thinks on a larger scale, visually and lyrically. He’s among the most fluid writers I’ve ever seen,” Falls says admiringly. “He keeps himself constantly evolving and changing. He’s great to work with in rehearsal for that reason, because he’s able to see the large picture.”
For Tesich, the large picture remains not just the stage, but society. “There was a time, I think,” he says, “when a majority of people lived what I would call lives rooted in reality. That reality could become so powerful that they would want an escape from it in what’s called entertainment. I now honestly feel that people live in |unreality.’ The purpose of art now must be just the opposite–to remind people of what they’ve abandoned.”