Tragedy with a Chewy Comic Center: MADELEINE GEORGE with Matt Longabucco
I first met Madeleine George in 1999, teaching first-year writing at NYU. We’ve since gone on to collaborate as educators at both NYU and Bard College. But mostly, for twenty years, we’ve been talking together about our writing, and it’s no exaggeration to say she’s taught me much of what I know about making work and trusting its value. Lately, she inspires me most by the strength of her ongoing engagement with activism, social ideas, the intricacies and history of her craft, and the many fields of knowledge about which she is endlessly curious and always learning. Her real ambition to connect with people through writing and stage the conversations that animate her formidable mind, helps show me (and many) what a principled and truly evolving practice can and should achieve.
George is the author of the plays The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence, Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England, Precious Little, and The Zero Hour, among others. She was a founding member of the Obie-winning playwrights’ collective 13P and is an alumni of New Dramatists.
Her play Hurricane Diane, directed by Leigh Silverman, opens February 24th at the New York Theatre Workshop in a co-production with WP Theater. In the play, the Greek god Dionysus returns to form as Diane, a butch permaculture gardener who descends on a cul-de-sac in suburban New Jersey to make new followers of the four women who live there. Carol, Pam, Beth, and Renee are meant to be the first wave of humanity’s restored relationship with the wild natural world. But in the throes of climate change, nature is no longer what it once was, and wildness is far stranger to reckon with, as both the women and Diane discover.
Matt Longabucco (Rail): We’ve been talking about Hurricane Diane for many years now!
Madeleine George: At least five.
Rail: Its ideas are huge, but it’s also so funny, and much of the comedy comes from your incredible ear for the principals. The audience is amazed to hear the speech patterns they recognize from their lives reproduced pitch-perfectly. People often laugh into that gap, like, “Oh, shit, that’s how we sound?” But it doesn’t feel superior. If anything, it’s tender.
George: Most of my love of human beings is expressed through my wonder at the bananas way we talk. There’s a character in the play who typifies a certain kind of New Jersey lady.
George: Pam. She’s the heart and soul of the play. She’s the fiercest fighter among all of them. It’s not really a play about Greek mythology, but if it were, she’d be Hestia, the goddess of the hearth. She’d kill to protect her family and everybody she considers part of her family, which is everybody in her neighborhood.
Rail: She has sex with her husband every single day!
George: That detail is based on something a real person told me—I’ll tell you who after we stop recording. When I heard this person say this—“I have to sleep with my husband every day or I get so angry at him and I’m just like, what the fuck, why are you leaving your shit around? So I make him have sex with me every single day”—I was just like, “When?!” And she said, “After I drop the kids off in the morning!” And really, I haven’t interacted with that person very much since then but I think about it basically every day, and I almost wrote the play just to get that line into it. It gets a very big response.
Rail: “Then he has his juice . . .”
George: “Then he has his juice and he goes to work,” Pam says.
Rail: Pam’s also a writer. “I have a knack for that kind of phrasing.” I love her no-nonsense self-appraisals.
George: She writes inspirational quotes on “soft goods and fine breakables.” My heart is totally with Pam. I mean, there’s nobody in the play my heart isn’t with, but I feel like I always knew I was mad for Pam and mad for Beth, the slightly unhinged character.
Rail: They talk about Beth like she’s a wing nut, but really she only seems crazy to the other women because she doesn’t care anymore about their stupid lawns.
George: That’s right. But the real discovery for me in this second production is how much I care about Carol, the antihero. I’ve always blamed her a little bit for how things go in the play—you can’t blame your characters and be a good playwright, but a tiny little bit I was. And as I’m rewriting her now, my heart is just bleeding for her. I’m able to see exactly how she’s bringing on her own destruction with her eyes wide open. Carol ultimately chooses herself over the planet’s wellbeing, but who doesn’t relate to the wish to self-soothe, especially as things get increasingly bad? Climate change is such a punishing algorithm—the worse the problem gets, the more indefensible it is to cling to our comforts, and yet the more understandable, in a way. The more pitiable we are as defended, suffering individuals, even as we do more and more damage to our world.
Rail: Though it’s interesting, even in the time between when you’ve started writing this and now, suddenly it seems like climate change is on the front page of The New York Times every day in a way that was inconceivable even three years ago.
George: The play was commissioned by Two River Theater in coastal New Jersey, and I wrote it for them and premiered it there in 2017. They had suffered from Sandy in a way that even people in Lower Manhattan didn’t suffer. I think the audiences in New Jersey felt very addressed by the play and didn’t feel like it was a distant issue by any means. But this time around, since time has passed and we’re doing it in New York, I’m trying to get the play to shelter an even bigger territory of concern. The first production ended with an actual storm that happened in an actual place and was survived by actual people. And now the storm that eats the play is bigger, more like a Storm Capital-S, and it makes time accelerate, so by the time we get to the very end of the play, we’re seeing a chorus of people who are abstracted from the human beings that we’ve been watching. We’re seeing ourselves in the future, or we’re seeing those who will survive in the future beyond the mega-storm, the storm of progress.
Rail: The Paul Kingsnorth essay you sent me quotes Walter Benjamin.
George: Right, that’s from the Paul Kingsnorth that I’m obsessed with, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. Kingsnorth spent years in the trenches of activism trying to prevent climate change in an active, physical way. And then he realized that activism hadn’t worked—it was too late, the catastrophe was coming. And he decided that from then on his job would be to live in accordance with his own values as much as possible, and also to try and take responsibility for changing the narratives that drive our petro-fueled industrial culture. In his essay “A Storm Blown from Paradise” he’s like, this notion of time as a linear construct is an industrialized, Judeo-Christian idea. Whether you’re a fatalist and say everything’s getting worse or you’re a progressive and you hope that things will get better, either way your assumption is that time is a line. But the way human animals perceived time for thousands of years was as a circle, or a giant spiral. How do we recuperate that? What kinds of narratives could express that temporal structure? After I read Kingsnorth I started to feel like the play wanted to lift off the ground a little by the end, and occupy that kind of philosophical and narrative space. Not that that’s super easy to dramatize...
Rail: Diane is the Dionysus figure, and it’s funny because while she’s successful at some level—she gathers her bacchants—she’s clearly come back only to be befuddled by what human beings have become. She’s kind of undone by Carol, and is disturbed by the scale of the storms—Dionysus prefers a “mild Ionian zephyr,” and advocates permaculture and natural harmony. You argue implicitly here that there are different natures, and the Greek cycles of nature are decidedly not the cycles of nature that our culture has invented. So the play has to break away from Euripides as source material because the catastrophes we’re talking about are unimaginable to him.
George: I had originally tackled this insane project because I was like, “What form could possibly take on the scope of this kind of catastrophe?” Only a Greek tragedy—with a sitcom inside it, obviously. As my director Leigh Silverman says, “a tragedy with a comedy as its chewy center.”
Rail: I do feel like most of our story with climate change has been waiting for rescue, almost waiting for deus ex machina. What is the magical way that we’re going to get out of this problem?
George: Right, no, there’s no god coming. There’s just us. The thing I’m interested in—and this comes also out of my having lived through a number of catastrophes in New York City—blackouts, terrorist attacks, hurricanes—is this phenomenon where the people near you in the subway car when it stalls, in the elevator with you when it stops, the people on your block, the people in your building, these people become your instant allies. It’s a crazy kind of stranger intimacy, and neighbors are a kind of milder, more durational version of that stranger intimacy. And there aren’t a lot of plays that explore neighbors. Except I guess Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Neighbors. And Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit. And A Delicate Balance. And Streetcar Named Desire. Okay, there’s obviously millions of plays about neighbors, but I guess I was interested in adding to that canon of neighbor plays.
Rail: Thinking about your other plays, it seems clear you have a fascination with ecstasy and zealotry.
George: I guess. In extremity. Exceeding human limits.
Rail: All of your plays have a character who is pushing beyond the rational.
George: I’m very interested in plays that do supernatural things with their characters. Every single day in our normal life a thing happens between people that is unfathomable. Theater, which is made out of a paradoxical mix of the mundane (physical objects, mortal participants) and the magical (no part of it is actually real, it’s all conjured in the empty space between human minds) is the perfect medium to explore that kind of everyday unfathomability. I’ve written a play with a gorilla in it, a play with a god in it, a play with a computer character in it. I’m almost always working with some limit case of personhood. But also, obviously, I have an incredibly simple-minded ba-dum-bum comedic sensibility. I’m very interested in jokes, and jokes take place on the scale of the human being. If you have too high of a proscenium, you can’t do comedy. The proscenium in this play is extremely low.
Rail: To go back to those four characters, I notice that each has a particular relationship to bourgeois life: Beth is leaving it, Pam is kind of using it (she’s very practical about it, as you said), Carol thinks it’s a way to not have to deal with anything, and Renee is almost like, “Great, let’s all get permaculture makeovers, that’s probably how we’re going to get ahead of this.” She’s in many ways the most sophisticated, perhaps the most like many of the people in the audience.
George: Renee’s power and success come from packaging a version of sustainable living that’s appealing as a fantasy narrative for people across the country who will never touch it. She might be the closest to me in a certain way. She’s not in denial about anything, and yet she’s incredibly compromised. She’s driving towards a schizoid break in the play and, to her great credit, she has it—as opposed to Carol, who is like, “I see. If I can make my peace with my own annihilation, I can keep my comforts right up until the exact moment when I’m pulverized by the apocalypse.”
Rail: Well they all have their relationships to Diane, too. Beth is like, “Take me away!” Renee says, “Break me open. I knew this was coming and I’ve prepared for this moment.” Pam: “I’ve been bested by the only person with more force than me.” And Carol: “You’re not going to come after me.”
George: What kind of goal is that, to win by being the most willing to die? That’s us though. I mean, they’re all us.
Rail: Oh yeah, for sure.
George: Oh, what a dumb thing to say. “In a way there’s a little bit of each of them in all of us!” They all dress differently from me, I don’t know. They barely resemble me at all.
MATT LONGABUCCO is the author of the chapbooks Heroic Dose (Inpatient, 2019), Athens Notebook (Imp, 2017), and others. Poems and essays have appeared recently in Folder, Lana Turner, and The Poetry Project Newsletter. He teaches at New York University and Bard College, and lives in Brooklyn.