Strangers in the Dark: An Interview with John Guare
American playwright John Guare on Tennessee Williams, writing strong dialogue, and discovering a New Orleans lost in history.
Every year New Orleans hosts a festival named for their adopted native son, American Playwright and longtime New Orlenian Tennessee Williams. This year contemporary American playwright John Guare will speak at several panels, and one can only hope he will attend the annual “Stella!” shouting contest. I sat down with Guare to discuss his most recent play, set in New Orleans and the influence of Tennessee Williams, an artist Guare credits with bringing American language into the theater.
As Guare puts it, New Orleans was a “magic place” for Tennessee Williams, a place that allowed him to stretch who he was (literally, by changing his name). Guare is the author of several Tony and Obie-award-winning plays including Six Degrees of Separation, House of Blue Leaves, Landscape of the Body and Bosoms and Neglect. Like Williams, he is also fascinated by New Orleans. One of Guare’s most recent plays reveals a secret history of the city before the Louisiana Purchase made it officially part of America. Free Man of Color takes place in New Orleans where racial integration was the norm, and the bustling international city was home to free men of every race and creed. Part of what the play offers to audiences is the chance to see history as recursive—how attitudes toward race and sex swing back around, revealing both that history is not progressive and that historical moments repeat themselves.
Although Guare’s plays take place at particular moments in time, they continue to feel contemporary. For example House of Blue Leaves, which was re-mounted last year on Broadway, deals with contemporary issues like terrorism and PTSD. In the play a soldier gone AWOL hatches a secret domestic terrorism plot (in this case, to blow up the Pope). But this almost accidental timeliness isn’t all that makes Guare’s plays evergreen.
Guare’s language stays fresh because it does not rely on cultural shorthand to make an argument or express what a character is feeling. Instead, his language is direct and clear: an actor reading his lines knows when to cringe or when to move across the stage. At the same time, the meaning of every line is not always spelled out. This allows the audience to participate in creating the meaning of the words, inferring what a character thinks and feels. False starts are never truly false, instead they reveal what characters want to say or are afraid to let slip.
As it was for Tennessee Williams, language is a primary concern for Guare—to him, all of the actions and characterizations in a play should be embedded in the dialog itself. Guare’s own conversational style dramatizes this. Several times in our interview he stopped me to correct an imprecision in my question, not the question itself but how it was phrased. His insistence on correct speech seems to me characteristic of a profession whose masters must always ask themselves: “How will I communicate what I’m trying to get across to a room full of strangers sitting in the dark?”[MORE at GuernicaMag.com]