Novelist Herman Melville, who wrote "Moby Dick" and "Omoo," was spotted by a merchant working as a district inspector in the Custom House Service, standing behind a desk and wearing a rumpled uniform with a name tag that read, "Herman."The merchant who spotted the fabulist told the Fox Evening Dispatch that he was visiting the docks on business around 10 a.m. on Wednesday when he recognized Melville."I was just there doing stuff and I said to my buddy, I said, 'Hey, wait a minute, that's the whale guy.' My buddy was like 'What whale guy?' And I said 'You know the guy I mean, the guy from 'Benito Cereno.' And my buddy was like 'Oh, that Bartleby guy?' And I was like 'Yeah.' And when the guy wasn't looking I took a quick daguerrotype.""I've never noticed him there before," the merchant continued. "Like I says, I was there on business, and he was busy inspecting cargo, but he did say 'Have a nice day.'"The merchant shook his head. "Guess writing doesn't pay like I thought it did," he said. "There was a time, this guy probably thought everyone would remember him. Now, I guess not." The gentleman then excused himself and stepped into his time machine by means of which he traveled into the future to make light of a Russian doctor's plays and a Bohemian insurance officer's weird bug story.
Recently on Facebook, Nicole — a friend who's tremendously talented and apparently very persuasive — tagged/urged/bullied me into sharing a list of books that influenced me in some way. The easy thing in such circumstances is just to reel off a list of books you enjoyed, a list that's likely to be heavy on uncontroversial early-in-life titles (The Phantom Tollbooth) or uncontroversial collegiate reading (The Secret History) or uncontroversial recent classics (Oscar Wao). The even easier thing to do, since social media is first a foremost a delivery system for performative wishful versions of oneself, is to list the books that you'd like to be the kind of person who loved (Ulysses, Woolf, Pynchon).But if books have in fact been a constant and consequential presence in your life, a list of the ones that have genuinely influenced you, have actually moved the needle a little bit, is likelier to include some titles you aren't necessarily proud of. Books that aren't even that good. Books that have affected you in ways that have nothing to do with quality and everything to do with your receptivity to certain kinds of stimuli at the precise moment that those books landed in your life.With that in mind — and of course still being susceptible to the vain calculations that shape the construction of one's public self-presentation through the making of lists — my list emerged. This is the first in a series of chronological entries discussing those books — some good, some awful.1. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. This is a place where, if I were being more calculating, I'd prefer to list In the Night Kitchen, which is the Sendak book I prefer today, with its edge of dreamlike menace and its defiance of narrative logic and its roiling latent sexuality and its loving appropriation of elements from classic film comedy and from Winsor McCay, and the way the boy's relentlessly recurring little penis is an unmistakeable fuck-you to the moralists and gatekeepers that Sendak hated so much. I'd like to be someone who was irrevocably shaped by In the Night Kitchen. I'd be vastly more interesting now if I were. But I don't know that we even had that book when I was a kid, or any other Sendak in the house. But we had Where the Wild Things Are, the safer and more popular choice, the Bob Marley's Legend of Sendak books, and I did, justifiably, love it.It's brilliant, of course, a marvel of narrative economy and admirably resistant to sentimentality — the wild things are legitimately fucked-up individuals, their love is a brutal thing and they really will eat Max the fuck up — and you can tell I loved it because we still have my frayed, discolored, loose-spined childhood copy, and on one of the two-page wild rumpus spreads you can see where I covered the pages with a frantic, frenzied precipitation of brown magic-marker blots, as though the Dionysian energy of that sequence was so kinetic and compelling that I just couldn't help myself, I just had to get involved in it somehow, had to interact with it, converse, participate in its savage revelry, even if my contribution was monochromatic and unartful. It certainly reflects the loss of control, the anarchic surrender, suggested by the storyline (if not by the artwork — as ingenious and compelling as the beasts were, they were always a little too weighty and stolid to look like they were truly cutting loose). In my recollection, no other book in my collection ever drove me to those heights of transgression, ever spurred me to commit shit-colored vandalism of my own property. And even at the time I had to have registered how completely my efforts were falling short, how even the most torrential rain of marker blotches added little to the impeccable draftsmanship of Sendak's uncanny dream visions and dangerous storytelling. So on some level my entire creative life since then may just be an effort to equal Sendak's accomplishment, to be worthy of that collaboration. Haven't gotten there yet.
Back in the olden days of Facebook, when there were fewer ads but more weird poking, you might have found yourself besieged by people demanding that you write and publish 16 Random Things About Yourself. (The number soon went up to 25. Inflation was bad in those days.) Because I often do what I'm told, I complied, and this is how it turned out:1. I’ve marched on Washington. Not by myself but with crowds of other people. It was a vibrant and exhilarating lesson in my complete and utter powerlessness. The experience did a lot to drive my later accomplishments in political paralysis. So now I write plays about politics, which is kind of like trying to cure diseases through puppetry.2. I’ve met Jason Priestley. It was neither a highlight nor a lowlight. But I also met Jonathan Richman in a Denny’s late at night, and that was pretty cool. I’ve never met David Strathairn but he and I kept turning up in the same places in NYC over the course of one weekend and I like to think he thought I was stalking him.3. I don’t get what’s so great about TV On The Radio. But I’m tentatively willing to accept that it might just be me. I also don’t understand manga but I’m tentatively willing to consider that it might be because I’m old. I also don’t like Dave Matthews or Dane Cook, though, and in those cases I’m confident: it’s them, it’s all on them. It’s all on you, suckas!4. My infatuation with Tina Fey dates back to October 2000, but there is nothing cool or advantageous about being ahead of the curve in vicarious crushes. It’s not like buying Microsoft stock early. It doesn’t reflect positively on your character or judgment in any way. It’s just one more thing to feel secretly smug about. Unless you also once had a thing for, say, Alyssa Milano, in which case the Tina Fey thing isn’t so much anticipating the zeitgeist as it is a sign that you probably have lots of crushes.5. Someone recently asked me to name a time when I had an exhilarating or transcendent experience in the theater--not interesting or engaging or smart or provocative but just really transporting--and it took me two days to think of something. I think this is theater’s problem, not mine. (The examples I finally thought of involved Caryl Churchill and Mary Zimmerman. Both were also moments without any words.)6. I’m co-author of a novel that’s been translated into Russian and Portuguese and has been read worldwide by literally tens of people.7. Perhaps one of the most distinctive features about parenting is that it’s one of the quickest and most efficient ways to become really judgmental of others. I’d say that’s probably one of my greatest strengths as a parent.8. Once I was in the audience at one of my plays and at intermission the women in front of me turned around and said “Excuse me, sir? Do you have any idea what this play’s about?”9. In the struggle between who I really am and who I want people on Facebook to think I am, the latter always wins. It’s not even much of a fight, really. The real me puts up only token resistance. That’s why my profile makes it look like my tastes are remarkably similar to those of Pitchfork’s staff writers, and not so much like I’m someone who turns up the car radio when Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” comes on. Which I don’t. Yes, I do. No I really don’t and I can learn to love TV On The Radio. You see what I’m saying?10. I’ll probably never feel confident using the words “inchoate” or “synecdoche.”11. I’m more ticklish than any grownup person ought to be. It’s an absurd and apparently incurable condition. And possibly inchoate.12. When I was a kid I thought Three’s Company was a supreme human achievement in the field of comedy. Turns out I was wrong. Also: M*A*S*H isn’t as good as you remember.13. My first job out of college was as a file clerk. Second job was putting up Christmas trees in a department store. Third was operating a lathe in a factory. Go to college, kids!14. Two things I miss doing: drawing a daily comic strip, and improv/sketch comedy. Something I don’t miss doing: putting up Christmas trees in a department store.15. I recently played The Man In The Yellow Hat in a local TV commercial. It was not a good look for me. But no experience is wasted: knowing this should save me some coin on hats. And on yellow.16. There are literally only 15 random things about me.
Recently my new play Some Other Kind of Person closed at the InterAct Theater Company in Philadelphia, which had also commissioned and developed the script. It was a terrific production and a great experience, and along the way the theater published on its blog an interview between me and the multitalented future superhero Kittson O'Neill, reposted below.KITTSON: Is there a childhood trauma that led you to write plays? Tell us all about it?ERIC: Obviously there was. I don’t want to go into too much detail but the experience left me with a crippling fear of prominence. Playwriting, of course, was a natural career path. It was either this or whittling.KITTSON: What is the first play of yours that was ever performed? What was it like to watch?ERIC: The first was actually something I wrote in the third grade; I didn’t really watch it, as such, because I was in it; I gave myself the best part; and it was AWESOME. I wrote a play every month of the school year. Friends and I would put it on, and the rest of the class was forced to sit and watch it. The concentrated doses of mandatory attention from my peers, along with occasional bursts of approval, were addictive and pretty much left me unfit to do anything else with my life. It was my third grade teacher who suggested that I orchestrate these shows and it’s entirely possible she may be liable for some kind of educational malpractice.The first full-length play of mine that was performed when I was an adult playwright pretending to professionalism was an equally heady experience: it was a large-cast self-indulgent prop-heavy comedy with Brechtian banners, brief nudity, a full bathtub, and occasional musical interludes; there was no reason any sensible theater should have decided to do it and yet they did and the cast was terrific and the director was a hoot and the whole experience was, unfortunately, very, very encouraging.KITTSON: What other jobs have you done in the theater?ERIC: I’ve been a terrible actor and an uninspired director; I’ve been involved in ineffective marketing and half-hearted fundraising. I barely passed the class in college where we had to hang lights and hammer stuff, and I’ve worked in multiple literary offices where my chief job function was to reject scripts that would later go on to great acclaim and financial success elsewhere. The other night I was at a school event in my daughter’s cafegymnatorium and one of the other parents said “Hey, Eric, you know how to do theater stuff, come up here and close these curtains,” and I thought, “I’m totally going to break these curtains.” The job I do is really the only one in my industry that I can do competently. Everything else is, sadly, beyond me. On another note, I’d like to mention that hyphenates are show-offs and no one likes them.KITTSON: Is that supposed to hurt our feelings? Seth and I forgive you. Is there a play or production that really blew your mind artistically?ERIC: I’d like to be able to say “Tons of them,” but it is of course common knowledge among frequent theatergoers that most shows fall regrettably short of mind-blowingness. The fact that we keep going back and hoping for that kind of transcendence is a testament to how good the stuff can be when it’s really, really good — or of how bad we are at learning from experience. The middle part of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away blew me away in performance, as did a wordless interval in Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses. I saw Brian Bedford in a pair of Moliere one-acts that played like someone had finally perfected this comedy thing everyone’s been tinkering with for all these centuries. And I keep reading everything Young Jean Lee writes, waiting for her to stumble and let me down, but she hasn’t done it yet, which is, of course, very irritating.KITTSON: You are a pretty fearless writer. What is the craziest thing you ever put in a script?ERIC: I’m reluctant to embrace the “fearless” designation since, to date, none of my writing projects has involved running into a burning building or catching a spider. Still, I’m personally fond of the scene in one of my scripts that involves a parade of actual children in an elementary school pageant that has been hijacked by a fugitive bomber and turned into lurid anti-abortion propaganda. Every time we get to that scene in a public reading of the script it makes me uncomfortable, which seems like maybe I’m doing something right. Strangely, that play has yet to be produced anywhere.KITTSON: That’s from HUNTING HIGH, which is the first play of yours I read. I thought it was awesome. Okay, so what is the craziest thing of yours that you have seen make it on to the stage?ERIC: At the beseeching of an actor, I wrote a scene that required her to urinate at length on stage every night — so that was something that happened. I’ve also got a one-act comedy that revolves around blackface and minstrelsy in ways that I think are interesting; that one’s been produced as well, albeit only once. One anonymous online commenter called it “funny enough to stun a charging rhino” and another said “I’m not sure but I think maybe it might be racist.” Which I think are pretty good blurbs.KITTSON: What inspired you to write Some Other Kind of Person?ERIC: The initial inspiration came from the experiences of Nicholas Kristof, the genuinely fearless journalist who, in the course of reporting on the problem of sex slavery, purchased the freedom of two Cambodian prostitutes and followed up on their experiences thereafter. Where others might hear such a heartbreaking story and say “How can I help?” I heard it and thought “Hey, I think I have an idea for a play.”KITTSON: There are a lot of allusions to fairy tales, particularly Cinderella, in SOME OTHER KIND OF PERSON. You have kids. Do you read them fairy tales? The real ones or the not-so-nightmare-inducing versions?ERIC: I read my kids whatever we have on hand that’s shortest. I mean, the kids are great and all, but I’ve got stuff to do.KITTSON: I know you are a huge nerd, so when are you going to write a superhero play?ERIC: No, you are!KITTSON: Nerds are the new cool kids. Seriously.ERIC: I’d love to write a superhero play, especially since I invariably feel like superhero movies fall short, but I sort of wonder if I’ve missed that window — seems like maybe there’s already a swell of geek theater happening, and from playwrights who have more nerd cred than I do. That said, I have some ideas and you’d look great in a cape, so let’s talk.KITTSON: Your case of whiskey is in the mail. So, have you been to Cambodia? What did you do there? Honestly, are you Bill?ERIC: Get out of my head!!! I’ve done some traveling around the world — often, as it happens, on an employer’s dime, to do business, no just business, there wasn’t anything wrong with what we did — and so I do know well the cocoon of the corporate-friendly hotel, the siren song of room service, the frisson of risk that attends the notion of venturing out alone when you don’t know the language and don’t know what you might find if you get off at the wrong stop. That said, my experiences overseas were less interesting than Bill’s, and very nearly 100% legal.KITTSON: Yeah right.
I recently found myself in the uncommon position of acting (which, given my rudimentary thespian skills, I rarely do, out of respect for the craft and for humanity); even more unusual was the fact that I was acting in a project that I’d written. I was playing a character I’d created on the page, uttering lines I’d written myself.Which is too bad. No playwright wants to be in the position of writing for a severely limited actor. I’ve been fortunate in that, as a playwright, I’ve only intermittently encountered that situation in the past, and the way I’ve typically dealt with it has been by trying to assess what overlap, if any, might exist between the role and the actor’s limited strengths, and then using carefully guided language to herd the actor, through the director, into that little Venn-diagram patch of optimization. (Doesn’t always work – indeed, as I think about it, it’s possible that it has never ever worked – but as I said: good news is that I’m rarely in this position. Fortunately, lots of actors are awfully good at what they do. Otherwise, I surmise, they might pursue some other career, something less overtly insane.)At any rate, this strategy definitely didn’t work when I was the actor. Because I already knew all my tricks, I could tell when I was being herded, and I resisted and resented myself and there was a big writer-actor schism and I would’ve gone off and sulked in my trailer if I’d had a trailer.The least surprising outcome of this experience was that it increased my already semi-awestruck respect for what actors do. I already harbored a fanboy-sized appreciation for the way actors find layers in dialogue, knit successive moments together into a character arc, and deploy a seemingly endless array of inflections to find twenty terrific ways to say a single line. I discovered that I mostly only have one inflection available to me per line – that’s all I got, that’s the only one that comes up, it’s like I downloaded the free version of the acting software because I’m too cheap to pony up for the Pro edition that offers multiple inflections, a menu of facial expressions, and templates for What To Do With Your Hands. (My operating system probably wouldn’t have supported it, anyway.)So as I delivered each line I did so with this sort of double consciousness: an awareness of how I was saying the line, paired with an awareness that there were funnier ways to say the line that other actors would find but that I couldn’t seem to find those or make my mouth do them. (I’m no expert but I’m pretty sure none of this is what Stella Adler would have recommended that I be thinking about during a performance.)Additionally, I acquired a new measure of respect for actors on the seemingly fundamental level of just memorizing stuff. I’d received occasional compliments in the past from actors – remarks along the lines of “Your stuff is so easy to memorize,” something about the rhythms or the train of thought or something, I didn’t analyze the compliments too much; I just accepted them in a cursory way because of course I’m getting compliments because of course I’m awesome – but now that I was trying to commit my own dialogue to memory I had a revelation: beat changes suck. They fucking suck. I don’t know how you burrow deep enough into a character’s consciousness to vault the conceptual gaps represented by these arbitrary beat changes. There’s nothing logical or playable about these beat changes – they don’t have anything to do with character; they’re just about the writer needing to steer the script in a new direction. Freaking amateur. Who wrote this crap?All of which is by way of saying that I will either never write another beat change again, or just never act in my own stuff again. That second thing is probably more likely.