Richard Nelson, the playwright known for his recent, tender coming-of-age plays Franny's Way, Madame Melville and Goodnight Children Everywhere, switches from the personal to the historical with The General From America, making its New York debut at Off-Broadway's Lucille Lortel Theatre through Dec. 22. The play was first performed in 1996 by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and made its U.S. debut earlier this year at Houston's Alley Theatre, so, technically, it came before his trio of young love plays. Although The General has an historical frame — it tells of the corrupt American general, Benedict Arnold, and how he became a traitor — the play explores personal choices and motives as intricately as any of the domestic dramas Nelson has penned, including the musical, James Joyce's The Dead, for which the playwright won the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. Next up for Nelson is a musical adaptation (with composer Ricky Ian Gordon) of a section of Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," My Life With Albertine, for Playwrights Horizons in early 2003. Nelson spoke to Playbill On-Line's Kenneth Jones about writing characters at their most exposed and complex.
Playbill On-Line: How did The General From America come about? The RSC commissioned you, but did they want specific content, or was it all up to you?
Richard Nelson: All up to me. I started a relationship with the RSC in about '86 when they did a play of mine called Principia Scriptoriae, and that went well, and the week after that opened, they asked to commission by next play. That was a process that continued for nearly nine plays. The General, like the others, was the commission of 'the next play.' At the same time, as an American living in America working on a commission for the RSC you think about certain things, and certain interests come up. For example, I had written plays that had some cultural situations between Europe or England and America, like Two Shakespearean Actors, which is about an English actor and an American actor, culminating in the Astor Place Riots in 1849. And I'd written a play called Some Americans Abroad, about American academics touring cultural sites in England. So the tension between [those worlds] was something that was interesting to me...and also reflected the theatre that I was writing the play for. I'm not sure how it happened, but I think I mentioned Benedict Arnold to someone in England and they'd never heard of him. And then I asked a number of people and no one had ever heard of him — a completely unknown figure. So I started to think about writing a play about the American Revolution. At the same time, this was in the '90s when the Contract With America and various early efforts, one felt, to destroy the Clinton administration through scandal were percolating. Reading about Benedict Arnold seemed to be a way of expressing my feelings and frustrations about elements of my country, or how people who disagreed could be criticized for being un-American. As with any play, you write it for a lot of reasons.
PBOL: In The General From America, Arnold profits from the war. Was modern-day campaign financing in your mind when you wrote the play?
RN: It's important to look back on American history and not see it as a simple birth. People like to define our nation in terms of some very basic and simplistic myths, and that can be pretty dangerous. One, it removes our time from that time, in that that was a time of all heroes and our time is darker and more complicated. And that's not really true. It takes us from our history. Part of the effort of the play was to say we're a complicated and confused nation, and it's important to recognize the roots of so many of these things as we deal with things today.
PBOL: How much of the play reflects a playwright's imagination and how much is fact?
RN: I think most of it's there, but with any piece of history you put pieces together — you choose what to highlight and to not highlight, as any historian does. My goal, finally, was to try to show the complexity of people. At the end of the day, I'm not someone who's pushing an agenda, except that I think we should look at the world in complex ways and recognize ambiguity as something that is inherent in people. I keep a quote over my desk from Strindberg's introduction to Miss Julie that says there's "a multiplicity of motivation for any single action." He said it's indicative of his time; it's indicative our our time. Things aren't simple. Whenever anyone has a simple solution, whether it's a simple ideological solution, a simple religious solution, a simple political, expedient solution, I say that's dangerous.
PBOL: In your play, George Washington is as conflicted as anyone. Your play humanizes our history.
RN: That's a good way of putting it. It's not trying to do a history lesson, but trying to involve us and engage us. I think it's pretty amazing that so little of American history has been part of our dramatic culture. How many plays on American history are there, or have there been in the last 50 years? Not very many. PBOL: Am I right suggesting you've been preoccupied recently with the idea of people "coming of age"?
RN: Without question. I saw those plays, Goodnight Children, Madame Melville, Franny's Way, as a trilogy. A "coming of age" trilogy would be a good way of calling it.
PBOL: Why now? Is it because you're in your 50s and you're more reflective?
RN: I think a combination of things: I'm in my 50s and have daughters in their adolescence. Having children, watching your children grow up at a certain age, you look at them and you look at yourself. Adolescence becomes a very rich territory. My themes have always been a sense of being out of place, out of time, a sense of exile — whether The General From American or Two Shakespearean Actors. I learned there was an extension of that theme — adolescence. The connection between adolescence and the feeling of exile is a very tight one.
PBOL: Can you give me your feelings about musical theatre? You seemed to reinvent the form with The Dead — you used parlor songs in it, and then three quarters in, it became a more conventional character-sung musical.
RN: The Dead is something I'm very, very proud of. Again, it's a human tale and it seemed like an effort to begin as if it were a play and have it evolve into a musical, where music became more and more important and the emotions became deeper and richer and more profound. I love the musical form. It seems to have the potential to do so much, to touch an emotion that's not easily touched in a play. It's something I very much want to keep doing. But not necessarily will the plays look like The Dead. Albertine will be very different, but I hope human.
PBOL: Is Albertine operatic?
RN: The Proust novels are very constructed. They are very self-conscious in a wonderful way because they are often about self-consciousness. He makes comments upon that. Our Albertine is a story told to us by a narrator, much like in the Proust, and he will give us his show of his life with Albertine. It's a little show in a little proscenium in someone's house.
PBOL: And is the Marcel character, in the musical, processing his own coming of age? The love of his life?
RN: Yes. Exactly: The love of his life. He's telling you his story, when he was 18 years old and the girl he met — and lost.
PBOL: It makes you wonder who the girl Richard Nelson met and lost was —
PBOL: No comment, right?
RN: [Laughs.] Right.