Regarding Issues of Updating Some of My Plays: Beyond Therapy, Laughing Wild, A History of the American Film, Baby with the Bathwater, Betty’s Summer Vacation, Sister Mary Ignatius…
Many of my plays have references to popular culture and personalities from the period in which they are written. And as time has gone by, some of these references seem dated or aren’t recognized by current audiences.
And I’ve been asked from time to time to “update” these references so the plays seem more current.
And in several instances I’ve tried to do that, but have found that the attempts have not been satisfactory.
Either the “updates” have frankly not been as funny as the original references; or sometimes they’ve been too tied to our current time, and you wonder why the characters don’t talk about other events and personalities from the current time.
So here’s the short version of my request and advice: I think these plays are best done set in their original periods.
The core of these plays still seem relevant to me: Beyond Therapy is about the struggles of people trying to find relationships; Laughing Wild is about the difficulties of being alive in general, especially in the intensity of cities; Sister Mary Ignatius… is about the dangers of authoritarianism – otherwise known as strong willed people imposing their beliefs on others (and presenting beliefs as facts); Baby with the Bathwater is about how hard it is to be a parent, and how even harder to be a child; and A History of the American Film is about how the archetypes in movies express the inner dreams of Americans, and how those dreams started to go sour in the mid-60s and 70s.
(Wow! So that’s what those plays are about. I don’t usually analyze themes that way.)
And within those plays, if there are references that the audience doesn’t get, I think back on myself as a child watching the movies of the 30s and 40s on television.
There were lots of references I didn’t get in those films, and yet I could glean their meaning by the context and by the way the characters spoke of them.
From Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947) and Auntie Mame (1958) I learned that “restricted” was the code word used to indicate that Jews were not welcome or allowed in certain hotels and clubs.
From Mrs. Miniver (1942) I learned that “the Blitz” was the terrible bombing that the British endured on their homeland during World War II.
From A Man’s Castle (1933), Golddiggers of 1933, and My Man Godfrey (1936) I learned of “shanty towns”, where penniless Americans lived in dilapidated shacks (or “shanties”) during the Depression (a slightly more complex version of the homeless people who live in cardboard boxes in our day).
From My Man Godfrey I learned of “scavenger hunts”, a game where people had to race to see who would be first to find everything on a list of weird items (things like a waffle iron, a gorilla suit, a sword – all odd non-sequitors). In My Man Godfrey the flighty heiress (Carole Lombard) had to find a “Forgotten Man” – who ended up being Godfrey (William Powell), an educated man now a hobo living in a Shanty Town.
(Note: both scavenger hunts and Shanty Towns figure significantly in A History of the American Film.)
I contend that it was part of those films’ value that I learned about the times in which they were made.
And it is my contention that the plays I list above have information about the times in which they were written that is of value, and should not be thrown away by attempts to update somehow to the present.
Regarding the following plays:
Beyond Therapy was written and performed in the early 1980s, and in my opinion should be set there.
Of all the plays, this one has the most pop references that tie it to the period.
The Old Globe Theatre recently did a revival of the play (in 2002), and the director spoke to me about trying to come up with more “generic” references that wouldn’t update the play to the present, but would somehow release it from being set back as far as the early 80s.
I expressed willingness to try, but soon gave up.
For instance, in the first scene Bruce makes reference to “Plato’s Retreat”, which was a heterosexual “sex club” in New York City in the late 70s and early 80s. An outgrowth, undoubtedly, of the sexual revolution, the club was famous in the period in which I wrote the play; and it was frequented by far more conventional people than one would have imagined.
I imagine anyone younger than 45 or so will not have heard about it. But it’s interesting to learn of it, no? And I think one can glean the meaning of it by the lines Bruce says.
Trying initially to do some “generic” updates, I soon came up against the fact that there was no other well known sex club that I knew of except for that one; and so for a while I considered coming up with a fictional one (like, oh, “The Thank God It’s Friday Sex Club”), but to me it was more interesting to reference the historically true one.
Or later in the play, Prudence, who works for People Magazine, is trying to make pleasant conversation with Bruce and his male lover Bob, who wasn’t supposed to be there. So she says she had to interview Joyce De Witt. Who’s Joyce DeWitt, says Bob. “Oh she’s the brunette actress on the tv show Three’s a Crowd,” says Prudence. “I mean, Three’s Company,” she adds abashedly.
Now there’s no way I can update that tv show reference and still keep the slip of the tongue that Prudence makes, which totally references her discomfort with Bob’s being there.
So at that point, I told the director at the Old Globe I really felt certain he should just set it back in time. And he did, and the play went very well in his production, even in 2002.
The other thing about the early 80s is that AIDS wasn’t around yet. (Or more accurately, it was around slightly, but we didn’t know it yet.) And in that time period, bisexuality seemed odd but slightly benign (which is the viewpoint of the play on that topic). Once AIDS became a scary fact, I wondered if the play would stop being done. But that hasn’t happened. And we can also sort of assume and/or hope that the characters are all practicing sex safe. Plus if it’s set back in the early 1980s, at that point no one was discussing or thinking about the need for safe sex.
So I don’t really think it’s possible to update the references in this play. And I hope you will instead find it interesting to glean the pop culture references in it the same way I gleaned information from old movies.
This play was written and performed in 1987.
I have the same opinion as with Beyond Therapy, that this one should be left in its time frame of being done in the late 1980s.
There are though a couple of instances where I have been open to fiddling with references that are too tied to the early 80s (some Reagan references) or to getting rid of references that are just too obscure for now (like the Meese Commission).
So in line with this, in the Dramatists Play Service acting edition, I have an addendum showing how those references can be cut.
Though Reagan was President until 1988, the Reagan references made the play seem earlier 80s… while the bulk of the play “feels” late 80s to me.
For instance, in the original play the Man complains about specific appointments in the Reagan administration – the Secretary of Education and the Secretary of the Environment. And he becomes discouraged by how these appointees were behaving.
In the DPS addendum, those specifics are dropped and replaced instead by “And there’s acid rain, and something wrong with the ozone layer, and global warming, and destruction of the rain forests. God, it’s discouraging.”
So the DPS version has a number of things like that, suggested cuts and alterations. I hope you’ll check out that edition if you do that play.
However, there are some things it’s not possible for me to change, and so with this play as well, I believe one should leave it set where it was, which is in the late 1980s.
In Laughing Wild the Woman has (mostly) unreasonable opinions about Sally Jessy Raphael, Mother Theresa, and Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
Sally Jessy, after at least 20 years on the air, has just retired (in 2003)… but at least people still know who she is. I think people still know who Dr. Ruth Westheimer is (she’s the friendly German-accented “sex expert” who’s warm and motherly but is blunt in her sex talk, in a somewhat cutesy way); her 15 minutes of fame indeed stretched over 25 years. And Mother Theresa has recently died.
I can’t find a way of “updating” the Mother Theresa reference. Mother Theresa recently died (well, in 1997), but I find I can’t just have the Woman reference the recent death, cause then suddenly we’re in the late 90s, not the late 80s, the “aura” of the times (and of New York City) is very different, why isn’t she talking about Rudy Guilliani and other 90s topics? Plus her upset/anger with Mother Theresa gets too complicated if she has to take in she’s dead as well.
And in the Woman’s monologue she has several significant rants where she talks about Mother Theresa and has violent fantasies about her (in a death match with Dr. Ruth, for instance). But there is no other icon who in the second half of the 20th century represented such saintly goodness, which triggers the Woman’s off-beat responses. So it’s not possible to “update” this reference.
So once again I advise setting the play in 1987 or 1988 (or “in the late 80s), and letting the audience listen to the thoughts and concerns of the characters in that time period.
E. Katherine Kerr and I (who performed the play together in the original production in 1987) recently performed it in February 2003 for four performances to celebrate the opening of Playwrights Horizons new theatre, and we found to our delight that none of the references seemed to escape or confuse the audience; and the script played like gangbusters.
One more thing – the Man makes reference to the famous antigay Supreme Court decision, Hardwicke v. Bower (though he doesn’t say the name). That case has recently (2003) been overturned – a highly unusual thing, the Supreme Court rarely overturns a past case (though it happens, and did with racial issues in the 60s).Setting the play back in time, the Man’s comments still make sense. But I give some additional thoughts on the cases themselves connected to this link: Essay on Supreme Court
This play was written and produced in 1976-78, and covered American history (and film history) from the early 30s to the “present” – which was the late 70s.
In 1995 the Drama Division of the Juilliard School did a full production of A History of the American Film, directed by Michael Mayer. Because I was around (I started teaching at Juilliard in 1994), I tinkered with the ending of the play in two ways.
I updated the references in the last few pages so they seemed to come up to the “present” (well to the mid-90s). In the last section the play, the characters are all so exhausted and confused by the 40 years of changes they’ve lived through, they start morphing from one character to another, from one film reference to another.
In the update, I added references to Shaft, Dirty Harry, Jaws, Annie Hall, Mommie Dearest, The Way We Were, Nell (the Jodie Foster “feral child” movie), Out of Africa, Driving Miss Daisy, and Forrest Gump. None of these references were in the play before, and they made it seem as if the play was dashing through the 80s and even part of the 90s.
The other change I made concerned the last musical number, Search for Wisdom. On Broadway, Loretta keeps wanting The End sign to freeze in place, so she can live within her happy ending. At the end of the play, there’s an earthquake, and The End sign falls to pieces. On Broadway, Loretta was able to ride the broken The End sign up into the sky (like the Wizard in the balloon almost). It was an interesting image, but it’s a rare production that can do that complicated technical feat.
So in this rewrite, I kept the song (which I like), but took out Loretta’s focus on The End sign during the song. Now she’s in agreement with Jimmy about “starting over” and living life differently. But she’s in upset with him (and the others) when at the end of the song, rather than moving on to live life, they all sit down to watch the next feature.
This rewrite is not presently in the Samuel French acting edition. It is only in the Smith and Kraus book Christopher Durang: Complete Full Length Plays, 1975-1995 (which went to press shortly after the Juilliard production)
I’ll try to get Samuel French to update their acting editions once they need to reprint books. But for now you can only get the update in the Smith and Kraus book.
There are certainly some current references to when this play was written (1982-83). When Cynthia reads aloud to the baby from the book Mommie Dearest it was a current book; but luckily for me, the book (and movie) are still famous, and it’s still a funny thing to read aloud to a baby.
And the play is written mostly in an absurdist style, and thus lives outside of time a bit, I think.
There’s one group of references I wanted to offer an alternative to.
At the end of Act 2, Scene 1 (the women in the playground scene), Kate (the sharp one) and Angela (the fuzzier one) are talking about what to do about the way Helen mistreats her daughter Daisy.
Angela becomes overwhelmed and says the following: “Everything’s so outside our control. Chemical explosions in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Somebody killed Karen Silkwood. There are all these maniacs stalking Dolly Parton, the poor woman doesn’t feel like singing anymore. John Hinkley, David Berkowitz, Ronald Reagan. It’s so difficult to maintain “joie de vivre” in the face of such universal discouragement. I have to take a mood elevator.”
About the above – the chemical explosions in Elizabeth, N.J. were current at the time of the play, but long since forgotten. We all still know who Dolly Parton is (and so you could choose to leave that if you want), but her popularity was bigger then and she was dealing with a stalker. John Hinkley is still in the news a bit (the man who tried to shoot Reagan to impress Jodie Foster – wow, still sounds crazy when one hears that, huh? – keeps wanting visits outside the mental institution, and people feel uncomfortable with that); but David Berkowitz, the name of the killer known as Son of Sam, is probably less famous by that name unless you live in the New York City area.
So feel free to do the speech as written. Or here’s a reworked, generic one if you prefer (since the whole point is just that Angela gets overwhelmed and can’t take any action):
Alternative one: “Everything’s so outside our control. Arsenic in the water. Chemicals in our food. Somebody killed Karen Silkwood. Charles Manson gives tv interviews from prison. What if John Hinkley comes up with other ideas to impress Jodie Foster? Sniper attacks, biological warfare, people who tailgate you on small country roads where there’s nowhere to pull over. Gosh, it’s so difficult to maintain “joie de vivre” in the face of such universal discouragement. I have to take a mood elevator.”
There are some references to pop culture “tabloid” crimes and trials in this play – to the Menendez brothers killing their parents, to Lorena Bobbit cutting off her husband’s penis (which got reattached) – I think they still hold. And actions and motivations of the play’s characters mirror these two case in particular, so the references need to remain.
When the play was done in Boston in 2001 (two years after its New York premier), there was one area where the references seemed to have faded a bit. Late in the play, when Betty is trying to calm the scandal-hungry Three Voices by making up a bedtime story, her story makes them free associate to other scandals.
Here are the lines in the script as it is published that felt a little dated (and/or that had things that people might have forgotten):
(in Dramatists Play Service acting edition on page 57:)
By 2001-2, many people forgot the references to Marv Albert (who lost his sport casting job due to a scandal with a dominatrix), and to some male assistant of Marla Maples who stole her shoes. And Amy Fisher was still known, probably, but not maybe not in a way that he knew immediately who she was when you heard the name.
So, if you want to try it instead, here’s the Boston update:
So that’s the change. I think the original lines still work (you get the sense even if some of the references have faded), but these new ones also have some kicks to them.
There aren’t that many pop culture references in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, but there are other reasons why setting it when it was written is important.
The play was written and performed in 1980-81. It was written out of my experiences as a Catholic school boy taught in parochial schools from 1956 through 1967 (grammar school through high school).
Judging from audience members who spoke to me, the kind of doctrine I was taught, and the manner of that teaching, remained similar at least up until the late 70s.
After that, there were many fewer young people becoming nuns and priests, so Catholic schools were no longer primarily taught by nuns. And the religious teaching was no longer related to memorizing catechism questions (which was central to my teaching, and central to sections of Sister Mary Ignatius…).
I will say that the doctrine I was taught is still primarily the doctrine that the Church still teaches, particularly as regards sexuality.
In terms of Catholic teaching, any sex is forbidden except within marriage. Sex between unmarried people, sex between gay people, masturbation, use of birth control – all this is still taught to be forbidden. For gay people it is taught that they should be celibate for their entire lives, period.
And people like Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania still believe all these things. (Can Pennsylvania please vote him out? Please!)
Back when I was taught these things, you were constantly told you would go to hell if you committed any sins of indecency, “whether alone or with others.” Nowadays, I think hell is threatened less; but these acts are still taught as sin. And it is a rare priest or nun who could publicly say they thought otherwise, even if they did.
But even if much of this dogma remains the same, there are some significant reasons why a character like Sister Mary Ignatius would exist in the late 70s and early 80s, and not exist in the same way or with the same style of certainty in the 90s or the present.
To explain that I am going to quote from a letter I wrote to a British director who recently did Sister Mary Ignatius… in London (in 2003). In the letter I explain at length (sorry) the historical reasons why it is important to set Sister Mary in the very early 1980s. (By the way, he saw my point, and did indeed set his production in that time period.)
Excerpts from letter:
… you wonder if there’s a way I can “universalize” some of the references in Sister Mary so it will seem less tied to the early 80s and thus be theoretically more relevant to the present. Can I find a way to change the references so we’re less certain what time frame they make reference to?
I do have to tip my hand, and say I think it’s not a good idea, and not do-able actually. (Though I remain willing to see if I can remove the 1959 reference and finesse that moment somehow or other.) And I keep going back to how I like the old references in old movies… it’s part of their interest.
Sister Mary, unlike Beyond Therapy, does not have many pop culture references.
But it has a real church and cultural history and time line that it fits into; and changing that time line plays serious havoc with the believability and logic of the play.
Plus I wonder if one should just go ahead and set the play in America, where it was written, and not try to set it in London.
I mean, it’s in America that Catholic school children, in the 50s, 60s and most of the 70s, were taught by making them recite answers to catechism questions like performing, talking dogs.
If that didn’t happen in England – and I don’t think it did; not even sure it was taught that way in Ireland, was it? – if that didn’t happen in England, it’s better to set it in the country where it did happen.
Which then brings me to – WHEN did it happen? Did they teach that way in America in 1985, say? No, they didn’t. By 1985 – thanks to the sexual revolution and the church’s attempts at modernization – many priests and nuns had left their orders and entered regular life, and fewer young people were joining the ranks to replace them. And so Catholic schools were more often taught by non-clergy, there was no longer enough clergy to staff the schools.
And society had changed too.
In the 50s and most of the 60s, the Catholic Church and the “conformity happy” American society were IN SYNCH on many issues, notably sexual morality including homosexuality, which obviously affects the character of Gary in the play.
To grow up in the 50s and 60s and be told by both the church and society that homosexuality was immoral, abnormal, “no homosexual could ever be happy” etc. – this was a big burden to grow up with for a gay person.
In the late 60s and through the 70s and early 80s, more and more movies and talk shows began to present differing, accepting viewpoints of homosexuality… but it still took a long time to filter through.
When the play was written in 1980 (81), certainly society at large had grown somewhat more accepting and a lot more aware that homosexuals existed. But it was still pretty recent. When I was at college in 1971 (at Harvard), most gay people were not open about it. By about 1980 they were starting to be.
Gary’s somewhat shy, mixed up feelings about his sexuality fit the time frame I wrote them in – he was a student of Sister’s in 1959 (with homosexuality barely spoken of, and when it was, it was extraordinarily forbidden and awful; and certainly sent you to hell); then he would’ve been in college in 1970 or so – society was starting to entertain more liberal ideas, but only entertain them. And popular culture was easing into looking into it – like the movie Cabaret in 1972 – but it was still unusual, it still stood out as a topic.
So for Gary to have gone through initial shame, then sleeping with 500 people, then initial self-acceptance and “normal” relationship with another guy – but to still be fuzzy enough in his feelings that he, sometimes, goes to confession to confess it…. All of this makes sense in the time frame the play is set in.
If the audience isn’t sure when it’s set, and thinks indeed maybe it’s set in the late 80s, or early 90s, or God knows when – well, it makes it all less believable.
What’s the matter with Gary, in those later times, that he’s not more immediately self-accepting, when there’s so much more out there saying he could and should be. Hasn’t he seen Will and Grace? Why is he listening to some old biddy with such old ideas?
Which bring me to the biggest reason for being careful about time frame.
To make psychological sense of Sister Mary, she needs to have been in the church for a substantial time BEFORE the Ecumenical Council and Pope John the 23rd (often referred to in the play).
The Ecumenical Council started on Oct. 11, 1962… Pope John 23rd died in 1963 before it was finished.
The purpose of the Ecumenical Council was to re-look at church teachings, and to make the church come into the present century. It was a very liberalizing event… and for Church development at least (and for Church liberals), it’s a real shame that particular pope died so early.
Among the changes that happened were: the Mass in Latin was changed to in English (or vernacular of whatever country). The priest now looked out at the people, rather than having his back to the audience (which had been more mysterious).
Teachings like St. Christopher were discarded as myth, since there was no historical background. I believe that it was the Council that stopped the teaching of Limbo for unbaptized babies and stopped teaching that eating meat on Friday was a sin.
The Council also genuinely taught respect of other religions. Up until then, it was common for Catholics to be taught that their religion was right, and others were wrong. And that the followers of other religions might end up in hell. (Or as a funny book on Catholicism after the Ecumenical Council put it: people from other religions COULD get into heaven, they just might not know what was going on when they got there.)
Then there were the teachings on birth control, to be looked at in the Ecumenical Council.
This next is more specialized knowledge (that I’ve gotten from Conscience, a pro-choice Catholic magazine), but Pope John also created a group to look into the church’s teachings on birth control.
It included cardinals, priests and nuns, but also included – imagine this! – two married couples, who could add their knowledge. These couples described to the clergy the extreme difficulty of using the so-called rhythm method (which was tied to figuring out the woman’s most fertile times and avoiding intercourse during that time); and described the pressures it put on their marriages to always be worried if intimacy would lead to pregnancy.
This panel was going to publish their recommendation that the church CHANGE its policy about forbidding birth control.
However, Pope John 23rd died; and the next Pope, Pope Paul VI was a conservative bureaucrat, and he stifled the committee's report and recommendation. And conservatives within the church encouraged him to write an encyclical REAFFIRMING the church’s ban on birth control. (These conservatives in the Curia felt that it was “bad” to change church policy. If you admitted being wrong on one thing, it could open the doors to wondering what else you were wrong on. So better to just keep saying, no we’re still right, we’ve always been right. And shut up.)
And so in 1968, Pope Paul wrote the encyclical Humane Vitae (Human Life), in which he restated that the church’s view on birth control was the correct one.
So those in the church who were hoping for change and liberalization had those hopes dashed. And this encyclical caused a lot of the lack of belief and trust in the church that has grown and grown.
The birth control argument is so shoddy – it’s basically that God created sex for procreation, and anything that interferes with procreation is a sin.
Now if you decide – and it seems logical – that God created sex not only for procreation but to allow for special intimacy between people and (dare I say it?) to give pleasure – well, then the church’s position seems weird.
As well as the oddness of all those celibate creatures sitting up there telling us fornicating mortals what and how and when to use our genitals.
look at the
dates – 1962 beginning liberalization; 1968, smack, the liberalization
put down by the next Pope.
And for the Catholics out in the real world, they fought and struggled with these conflicting aspects of church teaching very strongly from the mid-60s certainly to the mid-80s.
And Sister and her position is in the MIDST of that.
So, if you will, to not acknowledge that time frame is almost like writing a play about Patton but trying to make it not take place during World War II.
Sister BELIEVED all those things she was taught in the 30s and 40s, and that she in turn taught her students in the 50s and 60s – all sex outside of marriage was wrong (and sent you to hell); babies had to be baptized into the church or they couldn’t go to heaven, and so that’s why there’s Limbo (for good, but unbaptized people who couldn’t be allowed to go to heaven); eating meat on Friday showed disrespect to Christ who died on Good Friday (you should “sacrifice” by giving up meat that you like) – and so those who disobey go to hell.
She believed all that. And when Pope John 23rd came and said, some of that is nonsense; and it’s not really what Christianity is about – she felt betrayed. In her gut she felt what she was taught was right.
Then when conservative Pope Paul came in, she felt vindicated… but the liberal breeze had started, and so Sister and the conservatives have been fighting it ever since.
(And truthfully, I think many of the more liberal voices just left the church – as I did. And so I don’t know who’s fighting for what in the church anymore – except for the non-clergy groups who recently were triggered by the priest sex scandals to want to make the Bishops more responsible to lay people.)
So… in a way I think I made my strongest point when I compared Sister’s ties to the Ecumenical Council to be as strong as Patton’s ties to WWII. And the Council was 1962-63.
Does that make sense?
Let me know what you think. Best, Chris D.
That was the end of the letter. I’m sorry to have gone on and on, but actually to put on the play Sister Mary Ignatius…, it helps to know what the Ecumenical Council was, and how it impacted Catholics both liberal and conservative.
It’s strange, for liberal minds, Pope John XXIII was a wonderful, exciting leader. And he died suddenly, way before his time. And though I know we have all idolized President John F. Kennedy, still his manner and aura and words inspired many Americans, and then he was assassinated. Around the same time the world lost Pope John XXIII. Then the voice of Martin Luther King was silenced in 1967. And Robert F. Kennedy assassinated in 1968. And America lost real voices for idealism and humanitarianism.
And they were replaced by warm, fuzzy Ronald Reagan where money and Wall Street became king (“it’s morning in America” was one of his slogans – what does that mean?). Then the Bushes are worse, to me… Reagan at least had charm. The two Georges are my idea of hell to live under.
Well that’s all a side issue, isn’t it?
So I recommend you leave Sister Mary… set in the early 1980s.