The characters in Lauren Gunderson’s plays find themselves torn between dualities—work and family, love and personal freedom, selfishness and selflessness, life and death. They are often fighting to finish what they have started, to be seen and heard, understood and recognized. In tackling these themes, many of her plays take their inspiration from history and the lives of scientists and artists.
Such is the case with Gunderson’s new play Bauer, which premiers this September at 59E59. It explores the compromised legacy of modern artist Rudolf Bauer and, in Gunderson’s words, the “two women battling to save him.” Bauer was a leading figure in the non-objectivist movement in Berlin, until he was labeled a degenerate by the Nazis and jailed. With the patronage of Solomon Guggenheim, Bauer was saved and brought to the United States—but eventually stopped painting. The play is set in 1953, a year before his death at his home in Deal, New Jersey. Hilla Rebay, Bauer’s estranged lover and supporter of his work, visits Bauer and his wife, Louise. She brings the news that his work, all owned by Guggenheim, will no longer be shown in the museum.
They won’t sell my work back to me? They’ll lock it up, they’ll bury it instead? I need that work back, that’s my work.
That’s his legacy.
Tasha Gordon-Solmon (Rail): How much of the play is based on historical sources? Obviously you have all the background about Bauer, but in terms of the relationships at the center of the play.
Lauren Gunderson: The only artistic license is the starting premise of the play—which is that Hilla and Bauer meet. We’re not sure if they actually had a final meeting. But all of their love story, and Louise’s love story, all of the stuff about them battling publically [is true]. Part of the premise is a letter that Louise wrote to Hilla after Bauer died. After all of this bitterness, she says, “he wants to be buried on your estate in Germany, and I know he loved you and we should work together. We couldn’t save his legacy in life so we should save it in death.” That was the seed for Louise’s character to be somebody who knows that this woman and she are not friends, but is still willing to be this incredible spirit of generosity.
Rail: Do you feel any kind of extra responsibility or pressure, as opposed to when you write a play that doesn’t come from history? Because in some ways you’re telling these people’s stories, but in other ways it’s art, and you’re telling your own fictionalized version.
Gunderson: I think the pressure is not to make them perfect and saints, because 1) that’d be terrible drama anyway and 2) not quite honest. But I definitely do. I think my personal goal with this play was to figure out: okay, I’m not a dark, sad, tragic ending playwright. And Bauer’s story, if you look at it objectively, is one ending pretty tragically. He died of cancer—not owning his house, his car, anything—and his paintings were locked up in a basement, and he thought that no one would see them again. So knowing my taste for hope, or at least some glimmer of hope at the end, how do you save his soul? How do you give him some kind of ending, something that ends with the spirit of salvation?
We take back your story. The whole of it. Not just the “New York Bauer,” the “Guggenheim Bauer,” we remind them of who you were in Weimar, what happened to you in Berlin. We need to know that you went through this for art, what devotion that was, what strength. You’re not a raving recluse, you’re a fighter. We tell that side of it, we tell it so that the world can decide for themselves.
He needs to be free of his past, not go back to it.
You can’t be free of the past. You can either accept someone else’s version of it, or you can tell your own. They don’t get the last word, we do.
Rail: The people you write about, they’re not the people that get all the credit—whether it’s an organ donor (I and You), an astronomer working behind the scenes (Silent Sky), Bauer, of course. In writing these plays, are you insuring these people’s legacies?
Gunderson: I have kind of collected a lot of obscure woman-scientists and now some artists, and that’s part of the joy of it. I didn’t set out to do that, but there’s this sense of responsibility with these people’s stories. I think for Bauer, whether you think he is this un-credited genius that was swept under the rug, or you think he’s a bit player, he was still a player. The tiny activism of it is: let’s see history as it was. Which is part of the [plays about] women scientists, too. It’s like: read her stuff, just go look at it and understand that this woman had all of these things stacked against her and still made this incredible advancement.
In Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, the title character, an 18th-century scientist, recalls her life trying to make sense of it. At one point, when the task proves too painful, the other characters encourage her to continue:
All this is for you, Emilie. Not us.
And you’re not done.
You can’t be.
You’re not complete.
That question of yours?
So finish this. If you don’t all the Nothing wins.
Rail: Legacy and recognition feel so important in your work, yet Bauer comes to this moment of it not being about what other people see or know. This whole question of who’s ever going see his work—it feels like it becomes just about doing the work.
Gunderson: I think in a lot of these science plays it’s the same thing—of feeling like you have no clue, you can’t know what’s going to happen with your work, what it’s going to mean in the future. You can’t have control; that’s life. So how do you find peace with that? How do you recognize and give yourself props for what you did and just try to be comfortable not knowing what’s going to happen. Even as a kid, I remember—I don’t know if you ever had this thought too—oh, artists make things, and those things outlast them, and that is like immortality and immortality makes me feel safe. Great, I will make the things that last beyond me.
Rail: So many of your plays ask, “What have I left in the world?” or “What have I left people with?”
Gunderson: I think I continue to deal with: How do you approach death with confidence? How do you approach it feeling free and clear-headed and empowered? I’m kind of obsessed with it. I remember thinking these thoughts as a kid. And I think theater, in all of its magic, can give us a place to explore it and make it not scary and make it something beautiful.
The play I and You explores the connection between two teenagers, Anthony and Caroline, who is seriously ill:
I heard or read somewhere something… that in some cases you can feel it coming.
And sometimes you obviously can’t. Like it’s a pretty big surprise. Like a bus (Like a bus is coming at her:) Ah!
Anyway. For me? It’s like, out there there’s a billion ways to die. In here, there’s only one or two. And I know exactly how the first one works. The other ones—I dunno, zombie attack or something. Not really worried about it.
Rail: That is a deeply human thing to wonder about. At the same time, where do you think that obsession came from when you were so young?
Gunderson: I remember that I must have been super young, I must have just learned what death was, and I tried to imagine what happened. And the expanse of all time and darkness occurred to me, and I could not process. I remember running to my dad and not being able to articulate it. I also remember the first funeral. I was at the church I grew up in and it was a similar thought, just sitting there under the pew, drawing or something, and this thought occurred to me like, “What is this thing?” It wasn’t necessarily scary. It just felt endless, and that’s the part that I didn’t get. A lot of these plays deal with this. It’s a sense of: what’s your ideal space to be in that endlessness? For Bauer it’s color, and for Emilie it’s being able to feel like she mattered, and for Henrietta it’s the stars.
In Silent Sky, Henrietta Leavitt works at the Harvard Observatory in the early 1900s, helping map the stars, struggling with limitations imposed on women in the field.
My heaven? Is a cosmos deep in a gorgeous void.
Full of darkness—
Not all darkness—
Mottled with immaculate combustion—
But the stars are—
Hot gas in a lonely—
Don’t say airless—
Deep, vast dark—
Rail: What would your endless be?
Gunderson: I don’t know what it would be. Just niceness. Fresh peaches. But that’s the pleasure of this crazy art form right? Everyone talks about Paula Vogel’s “Make something impossible in your play,” and you know, it’s all impossible. So I think the freedom is exploring the thing that doesn’t make sense, but it would be really nice if it did. And the impossibility of a happy ending, that’s fantasy enough.
Towards the end of Silent Sky, Gunderson imagines a final scene in Henrietta’s life.
On top of a Hill
Just blocks away…
Across the courtyard from my old desk…
where it stood off limits…
The Great Refractor Telescope.
To which we happily break in that night.
And taking Margie’s hand.
I lean close.
Hold my breath.
[BOOM. Stars everywhere—more than ever]
Bauer, by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Bill English, presented by San Francisco Playhouse, will run September 2 – October 12, 2014 at 59E59 in Manhattan. For tickets and further information, visit 59e59.org
Tasha Gordon-Solmon's plays have been developed and produced at Clubbed Thumb, Ars Nova, Dixon Place, and The Flea. Her writing has been published in The Dramatist and The Huffington Post.