FRANK: Look around at the houses here in California, Lloyd. Or back in Chicago. Look at what’s being built today in this country. The vulgar, wicked, moral lies, extravagant waste, social, aesthetic excrement. To attempt to create a bit of beauty within this.
AS HE SEARCHES FOR THE WORD, SULLIVAN RETURNS WITH HIS COFFEE. HE REALIZES THAT HE IS INTERRUPTING.
Stay, Louie. Stay. There’s nothing I’m going to say that Louis Sullivan didn’t teach me.
As I was saying: to attempt to create a bit of beauty within this—
SEARCHES FOR THE WORD:
HE GESTURES ACROSS THE
This country. That’s what it’s become now— catastrophe. Which is why I find myself pushed now to here. To the edge. There is no further I can go, and still be in this country. Here— to find beauty, to make art. And that is so very important. That, Lloyd—is a moral act. It is a political act. A patriotic and religious act that far supersedes the survival of one building.
Richard Nelson has been writing award-winning plays, produced in America and abroad, for almost thirty years. This is his art, how he finds beauty, and it is also his moral and political act. In writing historical plays, Richard holds up a sort of distant mirror to his audiences, encouraging reflection on who we are today and what we might become in the future, even as we observe the past.
Watching Frank’s Home, now playing on Playwrights Horizons’ mainstage, we are transported back to two days in the life of architectural luminary Frank Lloyd Wright. It is 1923, and the edge of America that Wright feels he has been pushed to, is Hollywood, California. Wright has just returned from Japan, where he designed Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel to “withstand any earthquake God can throw at it.” Only hours after he receives the news that his indestructable hotel crumbled in a deadly earthquake, Wright comments on his own country’s disaster— an aesthetic catastrophe. I ask Richard Nelson if he sees similiarities between our America and Frank Lloyd Wright’s.
RICHARD: America was a nation confused about its place in the world, and that is the case today, looking at who, what we are. Beauty is not what just what looks nice. It’s essential—in us as human beings. It’s a moral, patriotic issue.
The first line of the play belongs to Wright: “Sometimes —I think I am America,” a thought he later amends with, “Or what’s left of it.” And one could certainly posit that Wright’s designs were patriotic. Rather than copy Western Europe or the classic architecture of Ancient Rome and Athens, Wright originated the Prairie House design. Constructed low to the ground and primarily out of materials from the region, these prairie houses were meant to compliment the landscape of the Midwest, where Wright was from.
Born in St. Louis and having lived in the Midwest intermittently, I have often found myself inside these prairie houses-turned-museums—or on the outside, looking in through one of Wright’s geometrically-patterned windows. Richard Nelson is also from the Midwest. He grew up in Indiana and Michigan and was born in Chicago, where Frank’s Home premiered in November at the Goodman Theatre. Although Richard’s plays invoke Russian writers such as Chekhov, I ask him if he thinks that living in the Midwest influenced his writing the way that it influenced Wright’s designs.
RICHARD: Well, being in the Midwest rather than on the coasts asks a lot of what it means to be an American. You’re right in the middle of it. But would I consider myself a Midwesterner? I wouldn’t want to put that hat on because I’ve lived in so many places.
Five years ago, I went to see Richard’s play, Franny’s Way, also produced by Playwrights Horizons. I was getting ready to move back to the Midwest for graduate school, and I, too, wondered if I wanted to put on the “midwestern playwright hat,” particularly as I watched the play. Franny’s Way, set in a steamy summer in the late 1950’s, is quite nostalgic. All of the action takes place in an apartment in Greenwich Village where jazz music sneaks in through the window. The seventeen-year-old title character comes to the city to visit her cousin and to consider attending NYU. It was only a few weeks until I would be at my own college graduation and leaving the city which I had loved but had never truly been able to call home.
RICHARD: Theatre is a rootless profession. You get close to people and then you have to leave them. It’s still a search. Playwrights Horizons has been an artistic home for me, and so is the Royal Shakespeare Company.
In a discussion following Franny’s Way, Richard mentioned that nearly every play he has ever written could be entitled, Home. It seems that he was saving the title for Frank Lloyd Wright.
HELEN: Is that a house you’re going to—?
FRANK: I don’t know. HE SETS HIS SKETCH DOWN.
Another home. I find I do it compulsively. Draw homes. Some I turn into houses. So tell me, Hollywood, it’s a nice place to live?
BEFORE SHE CAN ANSWER:
It wasn’t just being in Japan for these years, it’s really the feeling that there is no place I call home. Or can. Which, given what I do, is a bit ironic, isn’t it?
Richard emphasizes this irony not only in the title of Frank’s Home, but also in its setting. In his play about an architect, Richard has set all three acts entirely out of doors. That noted, the portrayal of the 55 year-old architect is not ironic or mocking; the 55 year-old playwright depicts him with empathy for all his faults and admiration for all his greatness. The play takes place during what Richard calls a “crucible moment” in Wright’s life, when everything is stripped away. Having incurred much turmoil in his personal relationships, Wright returns to California not only for his work, but also for his son, Lloyd, and daughter, Catherine. Although he has never met Catherine’s husband or daughter and has had a tumultuous relationship with Lloyd, Wright seeks forgiveness from his family in earnest. They, of course, are also tangled in this search for home. Catherine admits jealousy, wondering, “why were strangers living in father’s homes and not us?”
RICHARD: Home is a deep and important theme. It’s a very big issue and so is the question of homelessness. Look at Iraq or the entire Middle East. There are so many questions of territory and displacement from home. …In a way, we are all rootless. We can travel so easily and quickly. The sense of needing to find where one belongs hasn’t changed.
Naively, I have often thought that this feeling of rootlessness was endemic only in my generation. At least I know that many of us like to talk about it. This sense of home, or lack of it, captures our imagination and there is a secret yearning there. I’m reminded of the work of writer and solo performer Kimberlee Auerbach, who often inducts her audience into “The Cube,” a self-revelatory imagination game, perhaps of ancient Sufi origins, which starts with: Picture a desert. In this desert, there is a cube. Some participants imagine that their cube is made of ice and small enough to fit in their hand while others describe a cube-shaped house with a rooftop garden. Kimmi uses these details to reveal how you see yourself in the world, and in effect, where you will find yourself at home.
FRANK: I have designed a home for myself —set in the middle of a desert. Surrounded by walls. Inside—surprises. Worlds. It will never be built.
Richard tells me that Frank Lloyd Wright did build his dream home in the desert. Wright spent the last twenty years of his life at this home in Arizona, called Taliesin West. Its walls contain colorful boulders from the region, and it was built almost entirely by students in an apprenticeship program Wright created. Richard Nelson is a teacher as well, and chair of the Playwriting Department at the Yale School of Drama. Perhaps for entirely self-serving reasons, I ask him what advice he gives young writers.
RICHARD: My advice is always to write, to write what really matters. I ask my students two questions: Why did you write it? And should I watch it? People ask about structure, form, character development, and I’m not even sure what all of that means. Try not to second guess yourself. Form will come if you focus on what you want to say with truth and honesty. Structure is the hand that holds up what you want to say.
Perhaps this is the difference between a house and a home. Structure is the hand that holds up the house, but the home is what’s inside—what really matters. When I ask Richard if he feels most at home in his work, he agrees without hesitation, confiding that he finds his greatest sense of self worth at the table where he writes. The line he ends _Frank’s Home_with is, “Draw. Keep drawing.” When it seems that Wright may never find a home or be able to create one for his family, he begins to sketch. In the solace of his work, he is home.
Cristina Pippa’s work has been produced and developed by the Hangar Theatre, Six Figures Theatre Company, Gallery Players, The Looking Glass Theatre in New York, This Woman’s Work Theatre Company, Lakes Arts Center, and Axial Theatre Company. Her play, CELL CYCLE, is soon to be published in “Scenes and Monologues from the Best New Plays.”
Richard Nelson’s plays include the Tony Award-winning adaptation of the James Joyce’s The Dead; the Olivier Award-winning Goodnight Children Everywhere; Madame Melville, The General From America, New England, Misha’s Party, Columbus and the Discovery of Japan, Two Shakespearean Actors, Some Americans Abroad, Sensibility and Sense, and Principia Scriptoriae. He is an honorary Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company and lives in upstate New York.
Frank’s Home, by Richard Nelson, directed by Robert Falls, runs through February 18th at Playwright’s Horizons. Show times: Tues-Fri at 8pm, Sat at 2:30 and 8pm, Sun at 2:30 and 7pm. For tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com For more info: www.playwrightshorizons.org
Cristina Pippa is a playwright who no longer lives in Brooklyn, but in Buffalo, where she teaches at Buffalo State College and is an Artist in Residence at the Center for the Arts.