The American Voice: Behind the Scenes

"Freud has no rivals among his successors because they think he wrote science, when in fact he wrote art." –Camille Paglia

When Freud popularized the concept of the unconscious mind at the turn of the last century, he sort of turned over a massive punch bowl at the stuffy cocktail party we were having. Our lives would never be, will never be, the same. However much we, in the day-to-day, choose or don't choose to subscribe to modern psychological concepts, we can't not be aware that every moment, every interaction, is colored by a now-instinctive knowledge that the people around us are far more complex than we can possibly make out, driven by the chemicals, experiences and non-rational impulses that one accumulates, voluntarily or not, simply by traveling through the world. As W.H. Auden famously said of Freud, "to us he is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion under whom we conduct our different lives."

Of course, every major earthquake in theater history is triggered by a tectonic shift in the way humans perceive the world; and as in painting, dance, music and literature, the shape of theater has splintered off in seemingly endless directions as a result, finding a vast new frontier to explore, one that was right in front of our eyes (or rather, behind our eyes?)—an inner dimension, informed by previously hidden phobias and desires, subliminal perceptions, automatic responses. It's crazy to think what a new concept this is in playwriting, considering the larger timeline of the form itself. When Iago lurches forth at the top of Othello to tell us, "I am not what I am," what was undoubtedly a shocking declaration in pre-Freudian civilization in today's head-shrunk world barely even needs to be said. We approach our encounters, not only in life but with the characters we meet on stage—and with stories themselves—with eyes narrowed, words like "repression," "anxiety," "afterwardsness," "transference," "denial" and "ulterior motives" swirling around behind them. Things, we know, aren't always as they seem; in fact, they pretty much never are.

It's from this vantage point that I've begun to understand the recent trajectory of Amy Herzog's body of work—which, it seems well worth saying, is still fresh out of the gate, her four most recent plays having established her in a few short years as one of the most inquisitive, skillful new voices in the contemporary landscape. Her writing magnifies the shady contours of a character's thought as it lurches forward, hits a roadblock, redirects and finds its expression, as often clear-eyed and lucid as it is distorted, imperfect. The landscape of After the Revolution (2010) is vast, multi-generational and steeped in history, but the fine-tuned intimacy of Amy's character writing never takes a back seat as she spins the story of an entire family forced to re-examine their relationship both to the larger world and to each other.

Since then, Amy's writing seems to have turned a corner, shifting its direction more inward, exploring the contours of her characters' hidden inner workings with the same curiosity and rigor she brought to the terrain of After the Revolution—inner landscapes that are no less vast, no less steeped in history. There's a palpable feeling, stronger with each new play, that what we see of each character is the very tip of an iceberg, the presence of her or his unconscious needs looming over the proceedings, twitchy and erratic and contradictory. But more significantly is the way this psychological precept seems to extend beyond just the characters' behavior to our overall experience of watching the play itself. As though there is a second play happening beneath the surface of the play we're watching, which sneaks into our consciousness without our knowing necessarily how it got there. Just as the characters are impacted by a sub-conscious, we are impacted by a kind of sub-play, hit from the side while we're facing front.

On the surface nothing much seems to happen during the several weeks that her deceptive play4000 Miles (2011) traverses. Actually, at first the play seems to resemble any number of other plays: Leo, a young man, stumbles into his grandmother Vera's Greenwich Village apartment, lost and needing a place to crash; she's accustomed to living alone but glad for the companionship. But the play quickly upsets expectations. Rather than spinning off into antic, hackneyed fights and the trading of familiar heartfelt confessions (in fact, Leo's one direct-hit emotional revelation falls literally on deaf ears, as Vera doesn't have her hearing aid in), this play settles into an extraordinarily well-observed, naturalistic depiction of the private rhythms and misdirected anxieties of the shared household. And another story gradually emerges from underneath the surface as we become slowly attuned to the seismic shifts contained in their seemingly arbitrary, seemingly eventless behavior. Vera and Leo are both in transient states, about to pass into a new life chapter. In ways they themselves don't particularly understand, they're both processing their grief over recent deaths (for Leo, his best friend; for Vera, an entire community of friends), and as the play steps its careful way forward, the apartment they co-inhabit starts to feel like a kind of holding pen for this mental and emotional evolution to work itself out before they move on. The final catalyst for change comes unexpectedly when Vera's across-the-hall neighbor, an off-stage character, dies. On the surface her death is insignificant—at least in terms of its stage value (we've never met her, and what we know of her isn't flattering)—but for Leo and Vera, whose thought processes we've grown to understand (even if they don't), it takes on all the transferred weight they've been carrying.

Though it's a wildly different sort of play, a similar kind of subconscious dramaturgy is at work inBelleville (also 2011), Amy's painfully suspenseful psychological thriller that focuses on (to put it mildly) a bad marriage. Her title refers to the squalid Parisian neighborhood that Zack and Abby move to after Abby's mother passed, where Zack researches AIDS prevention for Doctors Without Borders and Abby quits, however unwisely, her regimen of anti-depressants. The story we confront at first is that of an appealing, compassionate young couple who do their best to take care of one another amidst grief, money troubles, and the disorientation that comes with foreign cities. But almost from the very beginning we sense another life brimming underneath the one we're watching, as their household—for reasons that neither character seems quite able to fully work out—creeps inexorably toward catastrophe. At first, Zack is calling in sick just a few too many times; then there's the question of what's going on behind the closed bathroom door; and then, isn't the bread knife lingering on the side table just a scene longer than it needs to? And suddenly, the emptiness, violence and awful truths that have been pushed below the calm surface of their lives become all that we can see. Deep down, far past the layer of consciousness in which they were living, their marriage was broken, subtly impacting all of their behavior before finally coming to light.

A page or two earlier in this newsletter, Herzog says of her protagonist in The Great God Pan, "Jamie is stuck and he doesn't know why." We can say the same for Vera and Leo, and for Abby and Zack. In each of these three most recent plays, her characters are overwhelmed and driven by irrational impulses, living in the shadow of unconscious motivating forces. But, beyond being an example of first-rate naturalistic playwriting, the truly awesome accomplishment of these plays is in the quiet, sneaky way Amy allows us to perceive the lives we see onstage in the same way: skimming the surface at first, ever-so-gradually becoming aware of the fathomless depths beneath us. The best drama, to my mind, makes the world a more unknowable place. And though the floor may be wet with spilled punch, the party just got a whole lot more interesting.

–Adam Greenfield, Director of New Play Development