Playwrights' Perspectives

Amy Herzog on "The Great God Pan"

Does everyone think of childhood as inherently frightening? I believe I had a happy childhood and yet most of my concrete memories have a tinge of fear.

On a family vacation in California, a car ride up the Pacific Coastal Highway where everyone but me got carsick.

A woman on the ground in a dead faint next to the snack bar at the local swimming lake. A little girl, about my age, saying "Mommy, mommy."

With my brother on a resort in North Carolina, looking for the scheduled talent show and walking into a wedding instead; the laughter of hundreds of formally dressed people when they realized our mistake.

My mother on the phone to a teenage cousin in Vancouver about an urgent matter I didn't understand involving aspirin.

My brother's eyesight worsening.

During a sleepover at a friend's house, the friend's father coming into the dark room after bedtime and startling when he realized I was awake.

My intrepid grandmother swinging on a vine across the local creek, the vine breaking, her long fall into the filthy shallow water below.

Maybe what's in common in all these memories is the mounting sense of confusion and powerlessness in the face of the inscrutable adult world. Sensitive children (and aren't all children sensitive?) are aware of being in the midst of a meaningful situation before the meaning is at all clear. The distance between the clarity of the emotional experience and the fuzzy cognitive grasp is, I think, what creates the feeling of eeriness in retrospect.

I don't like to say that The Great God Pan is a play about sexual abuse. The politics around sexual abuse are not at issue in the piece. I say it's a play about memory and loss. Jamie is thirty-two-years old, which, in my demographic, is roughly the age when people take steps toward becoming full-fledged adults (career stability, marriage, children). He's stuck and he doesn't know why. News of a possible childhood trauma may provide answers, or it may just provide excuses, or it may be a bridge to something unexpected. What does what we do and don't remember have to do with who we are? Sorting through the fragments of his early memories, not knowing how to read their significance or which ones provide the key to his current crisis, is Jamie's work in this play.

The image of a woman falling from a vine into a creek became central.

Like all my plays, Pan is also about well-meaning people failing each other and living with that failure.

Since writing the play, I have gotten married and had a child. My daughter will be almost six months old when we begin rehearsals. I wonder how the shift in my identification from daughter to mother will change my experience of the play. I find the word "childhood" no longer makes me think of my own childhood, but my daughter's. I am quickly becoming intimate with a new set of memories, hopes, and yes, fears.

–Amy Herzog, September 2012