Between the Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof and his new piece, The Journals of Mihail Sebastian, currently being staged by Off-Broadway's Keen Company, Auburn also shaped the well-received three-actor musical by Jonathan Larson, tick, tick...BOOM!
Is he purposely writing for fewer and fewer actors?
Auburn talks with Playbill On-Line about the challenge of writing "one-man shows" and his attraction to the life and words of Romanian-Jewish novelist-playwright Sebastian (real name, Iosif Hechter), whose World War II-era diaries he has dramatized for a New York run featuring Proof veteran and fellow Juilliard School pal Stephen Kunken.
PLAYBILL ON-LINE: I'm curious about the subject of your new play. Mihail Sebastian is not a playwright that I know.
David Auburn: Well, he's not very well known. He was best known as a novelist in the [World War II] period in Bucharest. There was a very lively and rich literary scene. Bucharest was known as The Little Paris. Sebastian wrote several plays, they were sort of boulevard comedies that are still produced today in Romania and sometimes in French. I don't know that they've ever been done in the U.S.
His plays are kind of in the [Ferenc] Molnar mode, sort of bright, melancholy. I think Molnar would have been his model: To have his plays being widely produced in Europe and possibly in America in translation. As a novelist, he was more of a modernist. I think he was influenced heavily by Proust and Gide. My sense is that he thought of his novels as being more artistically ambitious. It may be that his journal is his greatest legacy. PBOL: What kind of research did you do beyond the journals?
DA: I really branched out. The journals pulled me into his world. I read as much as I could of his other work, whatever was translated. The play incorporates some autobiographical material that he wrote, and a little bit of material that I wrote myself in order to clarify things that might not have been clear from the journal. And I spent a lot of time talking to people, both in the states who were experts on Romanian history or Romanian literature, and in Romania. I went over to Bucharest and tried to meet as many people as I could who had some association with Sebastian. There aren't many people alive who knew him because he died in the '40s. I met people who knew many of the principal characters who are mentioned in the journal and in the play. I just sort of spent time walking the streets and figuring out what that world might have felt like, even though it's changed a lot.
PBOL: What attracted you to the pages, the world of Mihail Sebastian?
DA: There are really two things. One is that the story of what he went through is an extraordinarily gripping and eventful one. He was a Jewish kid from the provinces who made is way purely on the strength of his own talent into the highest levels of the Romanian literary elite. A lot of that literary elite was right-wing and anti-Semitic and became increasingly so. A lot of the journal is about Sebastian's struggle to hold onto his place in this society in the very time that it's turning against him. It's both a practical struggle — how to continue to make a living — and a personal struggle where he's trying to decide how much he can tolerate: How much he's willing to put up with.
The other thing is just the voice on the page: He was an incredibly charming, humorous, incisive observer of everything that was going on around him. This character that comes at you from the pages of the journal is so — irresistible.
PBOL: I was sent an advance copy of your script, and I do love how sex and appetite and drinking are all part of it — it's so human.
DA: I tried to pull those strands out of the journal and make the play about the contrast between these huge political events that are happening and his personal and private life he's trying to sustain in the midst of all of this.
PBOL: Is the play chronological? Did you cut and paste?
DA: It's roughly chronological. I had to combine entries and move some entries in order to make the narrative work. I didn't pull anything out of context — I didn't pull anything out of a period two years [in the future] so that he would seem to be more prescient. It's all true to, roughly, the period in which he wrote it. I tried really hard to strike a balance between shaping it into a piece of dramatic material, which the journal isn't, and not violating the basic chronology of the material.
It's not a dramatic work, obviously. It was a real challenge and a struggle to figure out how to shape this into something that could be performed in two hours and still represent, fairly, the range of his interests and activities. The journal and the play both cover all of World War II and four years prior to World War II. It's a huge canvas. It started in '35 and ends in '44.
PBOL: The journals are published in English now. When did you come across them?
DA: I guess I first read them about two years ago. I think I read a review in the New York Review of Books and then I bought a copy. Pretty soon after I finished reading it for the first time I had this impulse to read it again — which is a strange feeling when you've just finished a 700-page journal about a Romanian writer you've never heard of. The more I thought about it, the more I felt like something had to be done with this. I got in touch with [the editor] of the journal for publication in the states. I just sort of started badgering him about doing something with this and he was enthusiastic about it and helped me get in touch with the publisher and obtain the rights. I sort of couldn't help myself.
PBOL: If Sebastian was a dairy farmer or a cobbler would you be as interested in the story?
DA: Part of what's extraordinary about the book is that he was a writer, and a very self-conscious literary stylist and he wrote dialogue for the stage. So the words on the page are vivid and composed in a way that, I think, was clearly intended to have an impact on a reader or a listener. If he hadn't been in the business, I don't know if that would have been true.
PBOL: Does the current conservative political situation in the U.S. inform your writing? There's a line by a character in the play about the right-wing party of the time, The Iron Guard: "All who are not Iron Guardists, all who engage in other kinds of politics are national traitors..."
DA: I don't think that anyone can watch this thing without thinking seriously about the current political situation. I think it would be glib to suggest there was a very close correspondence, I wouldn't want to do that. These questions that he's dealing with — How do you behave in moments of sudden political change? What do you do when you see your country moving sharply to the right? What do you do when there are these historical forces that appear to be destructive and outside of your control? — are really present in the journal. Sebastian had a very strong awareness that he was living at a key moment of history, and I think we are also living in a moment like that. All of those emotions, he's dealing with — even down to, "What does it feel like to live in a city that's under attack, or to live in a city that's been blacked out, or to live not knowing what's going to happen day to day...?"
PBOL: Are you in touch with theatres in Romania? Is there a chance this may find a life in Europe?
DA: Yeah, I've talked to people in Romania about this. There's a lot of interest in Sebastian. His journals created a firestorm when they were published in 1996 in Romania. I think there have been other efforts in Romania to make movies and things about him, so I'll be really interested to see what happens with this over there.
PBOL: The publication of the journals "created a firestorm" because of Romania's denial of anti-Semitism?
DA: As part of the response to the communist period, there was a kind of nostalgia, I think, for the right, and a willingness to excuse or overlook the right's — and the whole country's — participation and collaboration with the Nazis, and participation in the Final Solution. I think people coming out of the communist period were inclined to be nostalgic about the pre-communist period, inclined to whitewash it. This journal really blew the lid off that and named names. A lot of what's happening in the journal is Sebastian talking about his friends — people who are famous literary celebrities in Romania even now — and detailing their incidences of callous, stupid and shameful [behavior]. He exploded a lot of myths about people Romanians still revere.
PBOL: Tell me about your relationship with the Keen Company.
DA: Carl Forsman, who founded it — he's directing the show — asked me to be on the board when he started it. I've tried to help out since the beginning. I've known Carl for a really long time. He directed some of my first one-acts and we've always been friends. We both wanted to do something together. I wanted to write something that this small company could produce. It felt like it's the right thing to do right now: To do something with a small company of friends for no money and going back to work the way we did when we were starting out. It turns out, it's a huge show. Even though it's a one-man show it's by far the most complex and technically elaborate show this company's ever done.
PBOL: How do you activate something like a journal, which is passive by nature?
DA: The key is, you're moving rapidly through time. Unlike most one-person shows where it's someone reflecting back from a future vantage point, everything is in the present tense here. Sebastian is always speaking to you from the emotional moment he's in. The set, lights and sound are meant to support that. You keep jumping from day to day, through the months, through the years. You're watching him change and age and you're watching his physical surroundings change and decay and all of that as life gets harder for him. It's fluid, it changes: It starts out and we're in a kind of abstracted cafe, with tables and chairs and props from his life. As the war goes on, and his situation changes — I don't wanna give it away — some pretty extraordinary things happen visually.
PBOL: Is the era of writing a play for 20 actors over?
DA: I would love to write a huge show. I don't know if I know how, but I would love to do it. There are theatres that still produce big shows — a lot of them are in England, unfortunately. The willingness of producers to take a risk is underrated. There are plenty of people out there who want to do things even if it puts them at financial risk.
PBOL: Your next play is not 20 characters?
DA; No, but it'll obviously be a bigger show than this. I never thought I'd write a one-man show. As a form it never particularly interested me. This demanded to be done this way. I hope we found a way to do it that'll feel different to people even if you've seen a lot of one-actor shows.