Who are the bravest men currently working in the theatre? The producers presenting David Hirson's Wrong Mountain, currently playing at Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Not only does Hirson have only one other play to his credit, but that play happens to be La Bete, the short-lived, 1991 fantastical, modern verse play which inspired advocates and detractors of equal ferocity. In addition, Hirson's latest is likely to engender more heated discussion. The story traces the spiritual and artistic journey of an obscure, bitter and egomaniacal poet (played by Ron Rifkin), who, on a bet, achieves success in a field he has long loathed: the commercial theatre. Among the play's many, actively cerebral themes are -- ahem -- the mediocrity of Broadway and its audiences. Hirson obviously has a lot going on in his head, about his chosen profession and the world of art in general. He shared a few of his notions with Playbill On-Line.
Playbill On-Line: So, in the nine years since it closed on Broadway...
David Hirson: Don't say nine! Has it been nine years?
PBOL: Afraid so. Time flies. In that time, La Bete has risen to the level of legendary production.
DH: Yes, it has a kind of strange legacy. You just never know how time is going to treat a play. I feel very lucky that that play, given its short life on Broadway, has gone on to achieve the place in the consciousness in theatregoers that it has. It's far enough away from me now that it almost feels as if it were written by another person. That being the case, still, on the rare occasion that I have to see it done -- I have a friend whose wife did it up in [northern] California, when I was in San Francisco with Wrong Mountain, and I went up to see it. I had all those kind of weird reactions of seeing a child of yours -- and I don't have children -- but I suppose it's like seeing a child of yours and thinking, "God, does that have anything to do with me?" And at other moments, feeling quite proud of it and thinking "Oh, I recognize that." The fact that it has the sort of legacy it has is very gratifying to me. At the same time, I have a very complicated relationship to it, in the same way you'd have a complicated relationship to your first child.
PBOL: Wrong Mountain seems to be stirring up a lot of debate, about its themes, and about the life of plays on Broadway in general, much as La Bete did. Do you enjoy being at the center of controversy?
DH: You know, I try not to think about it too much. I think if I thought about it too much, it would make me take to my bed. It's not a question of enjoying it or not enjoying it. My way is to do my work and try to find a producer who's passionate enough to do it, and then work as hard as I can with the producer and director to have it represented in such a way that is as close to what I want it to be as it can be. If it's viewed as controversial, it's viewed as controversial; if it's not, it's not. That's not something that I actually seek or have strong feelings about, because I try to defend myself from becoming too concerned with what's surrounding the play.
PBOL: Some of the comments made by Rifkin about the middle-class, Broadway audience strike pretty close to the bone. Are you afraid of offending the audience?
DH: Like many dramatists, I think I create characters who express views, sometimes very strong views, which are not necessarily my own. In the case of Henry Dennett [Rifkin's character], if what he says is striking close to the bone, I suppose it depends, to some degree, on what environment the play is being performed in. He's merely a character in a play that is expressing these things. I think what you find is the views he expresses are not presented in an uncomplicated way. It's part of the way that ideas are set into conflict in this play. With La Bete, very often, there seemed to be quite an urge to find a character which actually expressed my point of view. And I remember saying once, if you took all the characters in La Bete, you might have some idea of what's going on in my head. And if you added to that all the characters in Wrong Mountain, you'd begin to have an even better idea. But not one of those characters actually expresses what I think, because I wouldn't be writing the play if I knew what I actually thought. Part of being a dramatist is to be living in a degree of doubt -- the questioning and questing, and sorting things out in a way that is stimulating dramatically. That's a rather long way of saying, it's certainly not my intention to give offense. It's my intention to have a character in the play who adheres to these beliefs and then watches these beliefs be subjected to scrutiny by other characters in the play. PBOL: How long before you actually picked up a pen after La Bete? And then how long to write this play?
DH: I never actually put down the pen. It's my habit to fill notebooks with ideas and fragments. I've done that since I was a kid. The odd thing about writing a play for me is I'm not actually sure I'm writing it until I'm well into it. You have a few things on the burner and you see which one is speaking most deeply to your passions. I think this play was really begun in earnest in the beginning of 1995. I spent two-and-a-half years writing it. I spent one-and-a-half years writing La Bete, so it's interesting to me that a play that, on one level, does not seem as formally demanding as La Bete, took so much longer to write. At the same time, in many ways, it was much more formally demanding. Structurally, Wrong Mountain was a real headache to put together. And part of that had to do with the visual vocabulary of the play, which was something I was quite interested in; and the fact that -- unlike La Bete, which was almost one continuous scene from start to finish -- this play plays a great deal with time and space. So, for me, it was much more an act of plate spinning.
PBOL: Besides writing the play, what else have you done in the meantime?
DH: Worry. I worry a lot. I live a very contained lifestyle in order to be able to devote myself entirely to playwriting. Part of the fortunate legacy of La Bete is it's enabled me to do that, in a very spartan way. I've been financially shrewd, in order to contain my life in such a way that I can really have days when I'm working on my playwriting and it's not coming, and not feel that, God, I'm going to starve if I don't get this done by such and such a date. At the same time, I have supplemented my income by doing a little screenwriting work, generally in the story phase.
PBOL: Your plays always benefit from a striking set design. Is this something you look for?
DH: La Bete was such a densely verbal play that I don't think I ever committed a great deal of thought to how it would look. The horizons of my visual imagination were severely limited. When [director] Richard Jones became involved in the project and brought with him not only his very highly evolved visual imagination, but also what could only be called the painterly visual imagination of [designer] Richard Hudson, it was a great education for me in how a look of a play can take you to a whole other realm of pleasure and appreciation. When I wrote this play, I did begin to think in visual terms, and this play evolved a rather unusual visual vocabulary, with the notion that if Richard Jones was interested in doing this play, he could bring those aspects of his imagination to bear and have had a playwright who was applying some visual cues he could actually pick up on. I think the experience of La Bete definitely informed the visual nature of Wrong Mountain.
PBOL: It's been nearly a decade now, so you can tell me. What actually happened with Ron Silver dropping out of La Bete before it came to Broadway?
DH: Well, I vowed at the time that I would never discuss the issue until the point that I felt that all the dust had settled in such a way that whatever I might say might not harm the people involved. And, in my view, the dust has not settled, so I'm not ready to talk. [Laughs] How do you like that answer?
PBOL: It sounds like you worked out that one with your lawyer. You know, Ron Rifkin, your current star, acted with Ron Silver in Broken Glass. Silver dropped out of that play, too, before it hit Broadway. Do you and Rifkin ever talk about your Silver connection?
DH: I vowed at the time that I would never discuss the issue....
PBOL: Alright, I got it.