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Essay

The American Voice: The Known World

Robert: And what are you trying to see with this little set-up here?
Isaac: Everything.
Robert: Everything.
Isaac: How everything moves, all of it. Basically if it’s something I can’t see, I want to see it.
—Isaac’s Eye

“Can’t know, who knows.”
—Death Tax

Three summers ago, Lucas Hnath sent me an email at Actors Theatre of Louisville, where I used to be the literary manager, with a Word document attached. “Well gosh,” his message began, “this was kind of fun. I went through my list of notes and organized it and turned my shorthand into complete sentences. So here are 17 ideas for plays.” (“There were even more that I didn’t include,” he added.)

Just a few months before, after witnessing the premiere of Lucas’s gripping deathbed drama Death Tax in the 2012 Humana Festival, newly minted Louisville artistic director Les Waters had commissioned him to write another play. Lucas told me then I should expect an email like this one. He had a lot of possibilities in mind, he said, and might want help narrowing them down. Titled “Play Idea Warehouse,” the document he’d attached contained a ridiculous embarrassment of riches: seeds for plots, intriguing structural conceits, characters around whom a story might revolve. Each entry had an evocative dummy title (“TWO ROOMS”; “HOT SHOWER/COLD SHOWER”; “MOTHER [AKA, GUESS WHO THIS PLAY IS ABOUT]”), followed by a short description. They were as attention-grabbing as they were thoughtful, each wildly different from the last. I kind of wanted him to write them all. 

So I shared the list with Les, and we geeked out about it for a while (“I’m in love with this man’s brain,” Les said), and then told Lucas he should write whatever he wanted, some big help we were. And Lucas mulled a bit longer, and eventually settled on the idea he’d nicknamed “MEGACHURCH.” It would focus on a political rupture within a church community, he said, and probably would operate something like a Shakespearean history play. 

By then it was no secret that the sheer scope of Hnath’s imagination was a bit obscene. After earning an MFA in dramatic writing at NYU in 2001, he spent his first decade out of grad school making scrappy experimental work downtown, buying his own props at dollar stores and generally reveling in the creative freedom that self-producing afforded him. In Sake Tasting with a Séance to Follow, he adapted one of Japanese bunraku master Chikamatsu’s love suicide plays into an audacious participatory experience for small audiences, climaxing with the apparent death of the performers. Odile’s Ordeal, a loose adaptation of Cocteau’s Orphée, called for the actors to strap cassette players to their bodies at the beginning of each performance; the play was then performed entirely in lip-sync. 

Those early projects of the aughts laid the foundation for the astonishingly productive period that has followed; during the last five years, Hnath has been busy creating a distinctive body of work at an almost dizzying speed, and has seen productions of his plays mounted at theaters around the country and abroad. Along the way, he’s refined a kind of dramatic signature, one that combines self-conscious formal inventiveness with intellectual heft, and an idiosyncratic approach to language and theatricality with a concern, above and before all else, for a good story.

If an overarching project has emerged in this ever-growing body of work, it might be to document the human impulse to strain against limits. The conflicts in his plays frequently arise from the machinations of characters attempting to work out their destinies in the throes of two powerful, probably opposed, desires: to know peace of mind in life, and to beat back the specter of death. Sometimes this tension manifests as ambition; in his freely fictionalized bioplay Isaac’s Eye, Hnath offers an account of a young Isaac Newton’s grasping attempts to earn a spot for himself not only the Royal Society, but in immortal history. In the propulsive, muscular Red Speedo, a world-class swimmer on his way to the Olympics confronts the limits of his own physical ability and the sacrifices implied by his total attention to his sport. In other cases—as in the aforementioned Death Tax, or the linguistically gymnastic A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney—it manifests with literal, manic attempts to forestall death through expensive medical interventions (including, in Walt’s case, cryogenics). And beyond the more obvious, mortal limits, his characters also wrestle, again and again, with epistemological ones—what are the boundaries of what can be understood?

Many of his plays (Isaac’s Eye and Disney, among them) invite audiences to engage with familiar figures in unexpected ways; he renders vaunted icons of history on a disarmingly human scale, or makes tabloid figures mythic. In The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith, Hnath imagines octogenarian J. Howard Marshall’s parking-lot proposal to single mom and stripper Smith as a kind of Faustian bargain, to captivating effect. Hillary and Clinton, which launches in a New Hampshire hotel room on the eve of the 2008 democratic primary, is as much a portrait of a marriage as it is a chronicle of political maneuvering. In all cases, he strives to subvert the expectations generated by his familiar subjects, making gleeful fictional leaps in pursuit of a larger truth.

Given these various preoccupations, his early notes for a megachurch play seemed to describe a familiar Hnathian premise: iconic setting, classical underpinnings, a collision of wills and conflicted desire. “I’m interested in the moment where a church grows to the point that it becomes a business and becomes a place of political power,” he wrote of the play back then. “In tensions within the church, people jockeying for power and influence.” Lucas has a definite talent for developing a juicy argument, pitting strongly held points of view against one another to follow where they lead, and who lands on top. Had he written it, I bet it would have been a very good play.

Somewhere along the way, though, Lucas’s frame of reference changed; he wasn’t writing a Shakespearean history play, he realized, but something more akin to Greek tragedy. When I read them now, what’s most striking about those early notes is actually how little they have to do with the play he ended up writing. The Christians does unfold as a series of difficult arguments between a pastor and those closest to him. But these characters don’t jockey for power or influence, so much as they attempt to find language to articulate their strongest convictions, their most urgent beliefs. Again and again they attempt to reconcile their conflicting perspectives, only to discover that such reconciliation may be impossible. For all their disagreement, they are reaching toward one another—and their hunger to connect makes their impasse all the more brutal. In this way, beautifully, it seems to me that Lucas’s abiding interest in the elusive nature of truth finds fuller expression in this play than ever before. As he charts Pastor Paul’s increasingly fraught search for clarity and communion, Lucas evokes the ache of human longing in the face of those greatest limits of all, the distances which are too vast to traverse: between ourselves and other people, and between what we know, and cannot know.

Sarah Lunnie
Literary Manager