Winning streaks such as the one now being enjoyed by Amy Herzog are rare in playwriting. The thirtysomething Yale grad broke out last season with the extended run 4,000 Miles at Lincoln Center Theater. Her first play of the current New York season, The Great God Pan, about a journalist named Jamie who begins to remember being molested as a child, was greeted with sumptuous praise upon opening at Playwrights Horizons, and Belleville, which won laurels at Yale Rep last year, will open at New York Theatre Workshop in a few weeks time. Her plays are largely marked by a warm-hearted naturalism and a feeling for character that places personality ahead of plot. Herzog talked to Playbill.com as she prepared to close one play and begin rehearsals on another.
When did you write The Great God Pan?
Amy Herzog: 2010.
Was it a commission?
AH: Yes. A commission for Steppenwolf.
Oh — are they going to do it some time?
AH: They're actually doing Belleville. That seems to be more right for their ensemble members. I don't know if they'll ever do The Great God Pan. What was the germ of the idea that made you start writing this play?
AH: You know, with every play there are so many different things intersecting, I don't know if there is a single germ. But, from when I was young, I was really obsessed with the idea of memory — my own memory, and how my own memories formed my identity. My mom is a psychologist. I had an early relationship with a sort of Cliff Notes sort of Freudian thought. And from my early teens, there were a lot of stories about recovered memory. I was obsessed with the idea that something big could happen to you that you could not remember.
I must say I related to the character, Jamie, because I used to think I had a good memory, but now I've become convinced I have a terrible one.
AH: Well, it does change, doesn't it? I used to have an almost photographic memory; I could remember whole phrases. But in the last year or so it's changed dramatically.
People are always freaking me out by coming up to me and telling me about incidents and conversation in the past that I have no recollection of.
AH: And it's a really good story when you hear those things, right? You hear something really interesting about yourself.
|photo by Joan MarcusN|
Yes, usually it's a good story, so you wonder, "Why didn't I remember that?"
AH: And you wonder, "What is it about you that that memory got imprinted on you and not on me?"
But I guess that's a lot of what the play is about: what you remember and what you don't.
AH: And what's reliable and what isn't.
And it's not just Jamie. It's true of every character in the play.
AH: I think that's right. The [part of the play that addresses] identity is very interesting to me — how experience relates to memory is not very straightforward.
The characters are all learning about people they thought they knew. And it turns out they're missing critical chapters in those people's stories.
AH: That's right.
What was the first scene you wrote?
AH: The first scene I wrote was the first scene in the play, and it's changed almost not at all since I wrote it one morning. I knew a fair amount about the play when I wrote it; I'd been mulling it over. It was a very short gestation period for me. Then it kind of emerged whole cloth from there.
Any reason you decided to make the protagonist a man instead of a woman?
AH: Partly, I'm sure, because I think if you're writing a play with a single protagonist, as opposed to an ensemble play, it's important to identify early some major differences between oneself and the protagonist and have a little bit of distance. I'm sure there was some writerly concern that I have a bit of perspective on this character. But I also think a lot of the stories in the news [about abuse] tend to be about boys, for whatever reason, even though It's actually more common for girls to be victims of abuse. I'm sure those stories were partly in my mind.
Do you want people to think of this as a topical play, or is that too limiting in relation to what you wanted to create?
AH: As I was just saying that thing about stories in the news, I was immediately regretting it, because I don't want people to think of it as a topical play. To me, it's not about abuse, it's about memory and self-discovery. And those subjects are really not limited to the kinds of news stories that might relate to the story in some ways.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Are there other plays that have touched on the topic of memory that have affected you?
AH: I'm sure. Not that this play is directly influenced, but I think The Glass Menagerie is the classic memory play. How I Learned to Drive is another play about memory and childhood abuse. For some reason, when you said that, The Designated Mourner by Wallace Shawn popped into my brain. I'm not really sure how that relates.
Well, in that play we're basically relying on the memory of one man who is talking about a milieu he was in but wasn't terribly sympathetic towards. Do you have an overall sense of purpose as to what you want to accomplish as a playwright, what you think a playwright should do, what kind of plays you hope to write?
AH: Hm. That's a tough one. I don't know that I have a singular and well-articulated artistic vision. I want each play I write to be quite different from the last one I wrote. And I think my overall journey over the last several years has been toward character and away from plot machinations. Belleville is not quite like that; it's more of a genre play.
You do seem to write good characters for actors to sink their teeth in.
AH: Thank you. I hope so. I love actors. And I think one of my primary responsibilities is to write plays that they'll care about doing.
The poem that gives The Great God Pan its title — any reason why you decided to include that and make that the play's title?
AH: Well, I'd be a little hesitant to answer that question too explicitly because it's part of the experience of seeing the play. But I will say it's a poem my grandmother used to recite when I was little. The question at the beginning of the poem always sounded ominous to me. It had resonance for me in my childhood, and seems like an open-ended scary question.