In Dialogue: suffer little children: The Sturm und Drang of David Adjmi
MRS. R Stucco is so practical isn’t it? and it brings the room into three dimensions.
JANET The room is in three dimensions.
MRS. R Some people think there are four dimensions, or five, or an infinite amount of dimensions, and some people think we live inside a hologram that makes me anxious.
—from 3C, by David Adjmi
Armed with the Helen Merrill playwriting fellowship and a crippling case of writer’s block, Brooklyn-born playwright David Adjmi exiled himself to Berlin in July of 2003. Two years later, he has emerged with four astonishingly separate new plays: Stunning, a “screwball tragedy” set in the Syrian Sephardic Jewish neighborhood of Brooklyn; The Evildoers, a harrowing bourgeois comedy that descends into Grand Guignol; Guy DeNiro, a dystopian fantasy about urban life in the 21st century; and 3C, an emotionally fraught reimagining of a certain ‘70s sitcom that tortured him as child.
Now back in Brooklyn, he’s preparing to fly to England for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Elective Affinities, his comedy about political torture that opens on October 17 as part of the “Letters from America” series. Later this fall, The Evildoers will receive a workshop at MCC Theater as part of a fellowship funded by the playwright Jon Robin Baitiz. I talked with Adjmi over lunch at Panino’teca in Carroll Gardens, where he discussed some of his current obsessions including German Romantics, the life of the playwright in the United States, and his deep love for melodrama.
While living in Berlin, Adjmi says he was inspired to write again by the bold experimentation of vanguard theaters like Frank Castorf’s Volksbüne. He also spent much of his time reading 19th Century German plays and found his own aesthetic preoccupations reflected there. “I love the German Romantics because they had an innate understanding of the fracturedness of human feeling and intellect. The tones are constantly shifting – like Rubato in music. The plays are tempestuous and precarious and unstable, you don’t know where they’re going from moment to moment.”
Packed with immensely satisfying Sturm und Drang, Adjmi’s plays (including the earlier Strange Attractors and Woody Allen’s Fall Project) are similarly volatile. He smashes together seemingly incomatible genres and delights in pitting raw emotion against extree artifice. In Stunning, he filters Streetcar Named Desire and Fassbinder’s Effie Briest through a lens of a Preston Sturges-type farce, and then sets the play in the Syrian Jewish neighborhood in which he was raised. The result is a riotous tragedy about a love triangle between Lily, a 16-year old Jewish child bride, her wealthy husband Ike, and their African-American maid, Blanche, a Brown PhD candidate in semiotics.
Maybe your wife takes this shit from you but she’s a kid : I’m an adult, and I’ve been dealing with bullies like you my whole life, NO WORSE, and I don’t crack so easy, what are you gonna do, fire me, fine, I’ll figure something out, just gimme a few days and I’ll be out of your hair. (BEAT) Can I get by.
IKE: Get me the phone.
BLANCHE: What are you gonna do.
IKE: I’m gonna give you your punishment. Don’t you believe in justice?
BLANCHE: “the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice”
IKE: Don’t give me that bullshit.
IKE: GET THE PHONE
IKE: When I tell you to do something you do it is that understood
IKE: you don’t question me, I’m not to be questioned is that understood
IKE: IS THAT UNDERSTOOD
get me the phone
BLANCHE: I know I don’t have much leveraging power here, because you don’t like me but I wanted to entreat you
IKE: I’ll wait
He tries to get the phone from her, she retracts her arm, slowly he wrestles it out from her grip – she is no patch, it’s useless.
He gets it from her.
BLANCHE: NO! PLEASE DON’T CALL THEM.
IKE: GET YOUR HANDS OFF MY PERSON.
IKE: DO NOT INTERFERE. WITH MY PERSON.
BLANCHE: I’m strong, I’m the talented tenth, my eye is on the prize.
(she calmly walks over to the wall and rips the phone cord out)
BLANCHE: Black don’t crack.
IKE produces a cell phone.
In a single gesture BLANCHE knocks it out of his hand. He watches calmly, laughing. She bashes it against the wall over and over until it cracks into a million pieces.
IKE: I had rollovah minutes.
I first met Adjmi while playing Betsy in a Seattle production of his Doll’s House-inspired Strange Attractors, and I was initially daunted by the rapid emotional shifts in the play. However I soon discovered that Adjmi’s impeccable rhythms carry an actor effortlessly between the extreme changes in ton, making his plays surprisingly easy to perform. As a playwright, I was exhilarated by how the comic and the tragic forces in the play were equally powerful. “My plays aren’t ‘black comedies,’” he explains. “The comedy deepens and expands the dark elements, but the two elements – farce and tragedy – are both threre and have equal presence.”
Adjmi achieves this effect with the help of intertexts from movies, novels, plays and TV shows. As with Stunning, he uses several of these in The Evildoers—channeling sources such as Strangers on a Train, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Carl Dreyer’s Ordet. The result, a scathing and bloody revenge drama about the paradox of Christian Love, ultimately defies classification. Each of its three acts morphs into a different genre, deepening its themes and subverting audiences’ expectations with every radical mutation.
JERRY: I mean – subatomic particles martin – QUARKS – I mean do quarks do you think do they DISLIKE other quarks? No, they just sit around being quarks and composing matter. Does a quark say “I don’t like that quark, I’m going to kill it, I’m going to rape it, I’m unhappy, I want a divorce” NO. Because these things aren’t real. And what could be MORE real than quarks? I mean – we fucking ARE quarks – that’s how REAL they are, and that’s what we have to get to, that level, inside the molecules. We have to ERASE the self to love ALL humanity—whittle it down erase it comPLETEly—which, you know suffering accomplishes this rather expediently. That’s the thing about suffering, it breaks you down and it breaks you into pieces. And it’s absolutely democratic; it’s a DEMOCRACY. It’s a syntax anyone can understand.
—from THE EVILDOERS
For all Adjmi’s mordant humor, his work is intellectually far-reaching and deeply serious. As in Greek tragedy, his characters are tested by suffering and face decisions of ultimate consequence. All of his plays examine on some level the individual’s relationship to pain and the often disastrous attempt to eradicate or control suffering. “I think people in general are broken, atomized,” he says. “We don’t know how to listen to what’s actually going on with us, we’re not taught how to experience ourselves, that’s why we end up inflicting so much harm on people.”
Adjmi explores this idea in his most overtly political play Elective Affinities, commissioned by London’s Royal Court Theater in 2001. It examines the seductive arguments for the necessity of political torture, in a monologue delivered by a charming upper west side matron.
ALICE: I mean the gall, to assume that just because we’re human we have these rights. Yes, it’s nice to be nice to people, yes, absolutely; it’s nice to treat people well, I’m not saying people should be mean to other people. But my god, the laziness, to just assume we all have some innate value… that this is just some given.
I mean, look: If someone flies in an airplane – is it their right not to crash? Do people say “oh, their rights were violated, their human rights, because they crashed” NO, they don’t say it because when you’re up in the sky—flying around like that—you’re defying nature .
And nature is very cruel.
Nature confers no rights.
I mean, the hubris!
—from ELECTIVE AFFINITIES
Since retuning to the United States, Adjmi is struggling with the role of an American playwright – a position which sometimes feels like exile. “It’s like Genet, artists are these shadowy, crepuscular people on the sidelines – we live like criminals, we burrow around in temp jobs and have these double lives”
In response, he has founded a shadowy, crepuscular theater company called “Vinegar Tom Players.” As Artistic Director he has commission nine playwrights he admires– including Anne Washburn, Alice Tuan, Ann Marie Healy and Victor Lodato – to each write a play inspired by a classic German Romantic or Sturm und Drang text.
“I feel like what’s missing in plays right now is a full, complete emotional expression,” he says. “I think people are so scared it’s going to be called melodrama. It’s become so uncool and unhip to write “melodrama”—but the theater is precisely where these primal energies should be released.”
Lacking money, he found an alternative way to entice these artists to embrace their own version of melodrama and was surprised when every single playwright accepted his terms.
“I offered to make them each a pie, and they can choose what kind of pie they get,” he says. “And I expect them to finish the plays. Next summer, I’ll come to Anne Washburn’s how’s with a stick, the Jewish Mafia, you know and say ‘ANNE! WHERE’S YOUR PLAY?!”
JERRY: Pain is good, it’s very cleansing.
MARTIN: I don’t know.
JERRY: “suffer little children”
suffering makes you human.
MARTIN: Or inhuman depending on
JERRY: But I’m drawing on a very rich vein of Christian scholarship here so
MARTIN: But it can de-humanize you
JERRY (happily) Well that’s okay!
He sips hid drink contentedly.
—from THE EVILDOERS
The Royal Shakespeare Company production of David Adjmi’s Elective Affinities runs October 17-28 at Cox’s Yard Theater in Stratford-upon-Avon. For more info and tickets, visit: www.rsc.org.uk/onstage/plays/2065.asp
David Adjmi attended the Iowa Playwrights Workshop and the Julliard School. He is a member of the MCC’s Playwrights Coalition. His newest play Washington Square will be workshopped this year in the Soho Rep writer/director lab and Caligula will be developed at the Sundance Playwrights Retreat at Ucross.
Heidi Schreck is a playwright and actor living in Brooklyn. Her newest play Creature will be workshopped this year at the Soho Rep writer/director lab, and in the spring she will receive a strawberry rhubarb pie for her adaptation of Goethe’s Stella.
Heidi Schreck lives in Brooklyn and is the proud member of two playwright collectives, Vinegar Tom Players and Machiqq. Her most recent play Creature was developed in the 20052006 SoHo Rep Lab.