Joyce Carol Oates has always been drawn to the underside of the American imagination. Serial killers, rapists and youth gangs stalk the pages of her novels, and scenes of domestic violence, economic deprivation, loneliness and rage are commonplace. The emotional climate is intense; the language often unflinching; the vision corrosive, even apocalyptic.
Now the writer once called “the Dark Lady of American Letters” has stepped into sunlight. The Perfectionist, which premiered at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J. last October, was Joyce Carol Oates’s first “romantic comedy,” and it came complete with a cast of good-hearted characters, a cheerful suburban setting and all the happy contrivances that go with the genre. The whole enterprise was rather unlikely and disconcerting, as if Jane Austen or Madame de Stael had suddenly turned herself into Jean Kerr–and no less surprising is how Oates mastered the rudiments of Broadway light comedy without ever having seen one. There are, to be sure, a few discordant rumblings along the way as well as some of the disruptive impulses that underline the rest of the novelist’s work–intimations of illness, death and drug dependency, an accusation of rape and at one point the threat of castration–but the genial comic spirit she has called into spirit manages to hold the dark clouds at bay.
So just what were the circumstances that brought this most uncharacteristic work–a kind of screwball comedy for the intelligentsia, the suburban and tenured–into being? Oates provides a multi-tiered explanation, beginning with proximity to the McCarter (she is currently the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University) and her close friendship with Emily Mann, the theatre’s artistic director. “It was always understood that I would try to write something that might be suitable for the McCarter. Emily has always been very receptive to my work and I think because of her presence here I was encouraged to write a kind of play I would not have otherwise attempted. I also love to learn new things, and for me The Perfectionist is an experiment in genre.”
Finally, Oates offers what may be the best reason of all for such a play: Life isn’t all discord and anguish. “There really are romances in the world,” she ventures. “People fall in love. Every day.”
While her literary reputation rests securely on her prose fiction, Oates is becoming a conspicuous presence in American theatre. She is particularly active during the current season–which also finds her on terrain more familiar than the sunny realm of The Perfectionist. Black, a scalding drama of racial confrontation, will open March 7 in New York at Women’s Project and Productions. Oates’s 1972 play Ontological Proof of My Existence, about a kidnapper who struggles to possess a young girl while offering her for sale to the highest bidder, was revived by Chicago’s Thunder Road Ensemble in November. I Stand Before You Naked, a “collage-play” first presented at New York’s American Place Theatre in 1990, is entering its second year at the Theatre Marie Stuart in Paris.
Oates also recently completed a libretto for an opera based on her 1991 novella Black Water, a fictive retelling of the Chappaquiddick incident, which is to receive its world premiere in 1995 at the American Music Theater Festival of Philadelphia, as well as a screenplay for Martin Scorsese. She is currently at work on another full-length drama titled Bad Girls. The present season promises numerous performances of her one-act plays (“I love short plays because they get immediately to the drama,” she remarks), which have proved extremely popular with college and small theatre groups because of their small casts and minimal production requirements.
But ironically, of all her recent projects, it is the one set closest to home that seems to have elicited the greatest creative stretch. Oates admits she would have really preferred to fashion. The Perfectionist as “more of a brittle Restoration-type comedy. More sentimental and romantic comedy is not my own taste. I did graduate studies in English, so I read Restoration drama, and I admire Congreve and Wycherly immensely. But those comedies are so hard. The Perfectionist is set in a place like Princeton, it has people in it who I know, and I didn’t have the hardness of heart to do that.”
Part of the play’s charm is that those on either side of the curtain are part of the same community, and the knowing laughter of Princeton audiences, who were quick to identify the comedy’s familiar types and catch its thinly veiled references, fairly set the theatre spinning. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that one walked out of the McCarter, which sits on the edge of the university’s neatly clipped greensward, into the very world one had left behind.
Oates says she has been interested in drama as long as she can remember, though the circumstances of her formative years allowed her no direct contact with the stage. “I grew up in a rural community in upstate. New York and we were so far from any kind of theatre. Drama wasn’t taught but I remember reading Eugene O’Neil and Tennessee Williams when I was in high school. I began going to the theatre when I went to college in the late 1950s. I saw wonderful plays on Broadway–Rashomon and Tea and Sympathy and Archibald MacLeish’s J.B., which was quite an experience because it was a verse drama and a tragedy.”
Oates’s initiation into the theatre came in 1965 (“It all began so long ago–it’s almost like another lifetime”) when the director Frank Corsaro, sensing something dramatic in her published short stories, commissioned her first play, The Sweet Enemy, for the Actor’s Studio Workshop. Other theatre pieces followed from time to time during the next two decades, most of them produced Off Broadway.
In 1990 she received a commission from Jon Jory and Actors Theatre of Louisville, and for the first time became an active participant in the theatrical process. “I never had much experience being in the theatre and working at rehearsals. Louisville got me started at that. Since then I’ve been writing plays virtually all the time.” During the past three years her work has been seen at New York’s American Place Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Contemporary American Play Festival, Massachusetts’ Williamstown Theatre Festival, and Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre.
Oates speaks of writing plays and writing novels as two entirely separate disciplines. “It’s the difference between swimming and jogging. Both are exercises and can be very rewarding, but they use completely different muscles. The challenge of the theatre is to make the characters vivid enough to be alive on stage and carry the weight of the action. The prose narrative voice doesn’t require this; you’re telling a story.”
A play is also about forward momentum, and Oates likens its workings to that of an automobile. “It has to move. You can have a very beautiful Rolls Royce but if something is wrong with its engine and it just sits in the driveway, you’d be better off with another car that moves. Of course, content matters too, but I’ve learned that in the theatre pacing and velocity are very important. If people are falling asleep, you fail.”
She typically begins a play by imagining an empty stage or room in which something will happen. “It takes a long while. I sit and fantasize. The characters are sort of there and they start moving around and talking. It’s not like prose narrative. I can’t tell the story–they have to tell their own stories. Usually I do the page over and over in my typewriter, reading it faster and faster to imagine visually how it will play on stage and so I hear the voices. I’m always listening.”
In writing for the theatre, Oates must not only relinquish the controlling authorial voice of fiction–what she calls “the prose writer’s sheltering cocoon of language”–but also her carefully shaped texts into the hands of others to alter and interpret. One might think that an author known to weigh each word and every piece of punctuation–and who acknowledges that she is in large part the perfectionist of her recent play’s title–would yield up her creations with a certain reluctance, but this is not the case; she gives herself over to the collaborators freely and without hesitation. In fact, surrendering a play to “another’s imagination” is part of what arouses her excitement about the theatre, for without “voices other than one’s own,” she believes, a playwright cannot truly experience his or her work. (“The joy of theatre,” she recently told an interviewer, “is coming to a director or to actors with a work you thought was more or less finished, then having them read it and realizing how much more work you have to do.”) When well-meaning people ask if it isn’t troubling to have her characters taken over by other people her reply has always been, “But isn’t that the point of writing for the theatre?”
Oates also prides herself on being a good collaborator. Emily who has come up against a few protective playwrights in her time, recalls that whenever she requested cuts or alterations–in one instance the elimination of an entire scene–Oates would invariably reply, “Just do it.” (“I am the most agreeable of playwrights,” Oates once declared. “To be any more agreeable, I would have to be posthumous.”) Collaboration does, however, exact a toll. While Oates enjoys returning to the production to monitor the fluctuating response of the audience and the subtle changes from night to night as the company settles into the play, she admits to experiencing a sense of distance from the self-contained world she has set in motion. “I don’t feel I’m the creator of those people up there. They’re getting all the laughs and having the fun. They’re getting all the laughs and having the fun. I’m just a spectator. It’s like I’m standing at a great distance and the little raft is drifting away.”
Athough she has been writing plays for nearly 30 years, Oates still speaks of herself as a beginning playwright and a novice in the theatre, and her regard for its practitioners seems positively wide-eyed. She got a big laugh at a post-performance discussion a few days after the opening of The Perfectionist when she told the audience that she’s still “somewhat amazed that actors can memorize their lines” and they come out “sounding spontaneous.” Her fascination with the live performer is clearly part of what keeps drawing her back to the theatre. “I’m really in awe of actors, in awe of their creativity, energy and courage. It’s also a hard life for them. I’m a professor; I have a contract and a place, but an actor, even a good actor–where will he or she be in a year?” While Oates is interested in all the details of the theatre, especially the art of the director, she senses her limits: “I’m not like David Mamet or Sam Shepard, who have actually staged their own plays. I wouldn’t be able to direct a play of mine and I wouldn’t want to. To me that would be like trying to do my own brain surgery.”
“The more one is around the theatre the more ideas one gets for the stage,” Oates recently told an interviewer, and her activities bear this out. She continues to produce one or two novels a year (she has published 23 to date, in addition to countless volumes of short stories, poetry and essays–the late John Gardner once referred to her as “that alarming phenomenon”), but her newfound passion for playwriting has cut deeply into other activities: “I don’t do a lot of short stories or book reviews anymore. I’ve already stopped writing poetry. Now I tend to do mainly plays.” Oates also likes to keep abreast of what’s going on in contemporary theatre; she maintains friendships with people in the profession, reads plays of all kinds and attends theatre regularly, though less in New York than in London, where several times a year she and her husband “have a splurge of threatregoing–two plays a day if we can.”
“Drama,” Oates writes in her most recent collection of plays, “remains our highest communal celebration of the mystery of being, and of our being together, in relationships we struggle to define, and which define us. It makes the point, ceaselessly, that our lives are now, there is no history that is not now.”
For the present, one of our preeminent novelists will continue to enter that “now,” testing her protean talents and giving herself over to the reimaginings of others in that perilous if often exhilarating corner of the literary endeavor where “the sheerly imaginary” meets “the inconstestably real.”