Artist Interview: Halley Feiffer
Tim Sanford: Whenever we’re producing a writer for the first time, I like to start my interviews with questions about their background and what led them to become artists.
Halley Feiffer: Oh, great.
But there’s a wrinkle to that question with you because you have kind of famous parents, so questions about them are kind of fraught.
And given that your work is often characterized as “personal,” I want to contextualize my questions about your past within the traps of biographical criticism.
Oh I love this.
When I was in graduate school, the fundamental approach to criticism in America was called New Criticism. It assumes that the starting point for criticism is the text; you exclude biographical details. You look at the text as artistic expression, not personal expression. Approaches to criticism have shifted a lot since then. And in some ways it’s been a healthy corrective to an approach that sometimes leaves content at the door. But I still am cautious when I ask about biographical details not to over-interpret what I learn. So that’s my little introduction. Ok, now let’s talk about how you became an artist.
How did I become an artist? I love this question. It’s funny because I just did an interview for The Interval today and the interviewer, Victoria, asked how biography plays into my work so I feel primed to talk about this. I feel lucky that I was raised in a home with two artist parents. So I was always surrounded by people who were actively engaged in making things. You know, my dad is a cartoonist and a writer, and my mom is a journalist and more recently a playwright and a humorist. So I absorbed from an early age that being an artist entails working from home and carving out space and time for your craft in a way that requires some sacrifice. And so while there is a lot of unpredictability in growing up in a family of artists, I also received immeasurable encouragement — I would even say an assumption that I would go into the family business, which is turning the painful events of my past into darkly humorous stories of hopefully redemption and catharsis.
Was that a good thing to feel the influence? Or was there pressure?
I think it was both. Yeah, I did feel pressure, but I don’t know if that was pressure that was put on me or if it’s pressure that I put on myself. I struggle with perfectionism as a really insidious and corrosive defect of character. I believed from a young age that I had to carry the mantle in a way that no one really ever told me I did. In a way, it served me because I’ve worked very hard. But in a way it also really hurt me because I worked so hard to the point that I really got very physically ill, which is part of the inspiration for the play. And then I had to have a whole other catharsis and awakening around trying to find some semblance of balance in my life and still pursuing creativity but not at the expense of my physical and emotional health.
Is that because of factors internal to the creating of art or external from yourself? Does that make sense?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. My gut is, it’s all of the above. I do have chronic Lyme disease, I’ve been tested and I’ve received a positive diagnosis. But I’ve also been told by Western doctors and Greek oil massage therapists alike that my condition is as much about my attitude and my emotional health as it is about how well I’m taking care of myself physically. So I think when I have been the sickest physically, I had been pushing myself too hard, but there were also certain — for lack of a better word — emotional demons that I needed to process that I do think kind of got [knocks wood] exorcised through the physical pain. And over and over in my life, I’ve had to hit certain bottoms with different patterns that I’ve had to just let go of over and over.
See I always assumed when I read this play that the Lyme disease was a metaphor.
Yeah. I think it is a metaphor in this play too; but in my own life, I think it was in some ways a metaphor too — which I can’t believe I’m saying because for so many years I was furious with doctors for implying as much.
You’ve talked about that, how your doctor infantilized you.
Yes. And he was wrong to do that. But it’s not uncommon. I know when my mom had cancer, for instance, a lot of people said to her it’s all about your attitude; if you’re just optimistic enough you’ll beat this. And it’s a very controversial stance because in some ways I think there is some validity to that. The mind is quite powerful and “mind over matter” is an expression for a reason. And at the same time, I do think it’s very possible that women are told that more often than men, that women’s pain is often disregarded more than men. That there is a centuries-old practice of labeling women’s pain and feelings as “hysteria.” At the same time, I have found that as soon as I had a very remarkable internal shift, my physical symptoms shifted as well. So I think there is some validity in this notion that I had once found flatly misogynistic and repugnant. And I think that ties into the play too, which as you and I talked about from the beginning, is not intended to be a battle of the sexes. The men and the women in the play are equally culpable in crafting their own downfalls. And so what I’m interested in more than even exploring gender dynamics is the human condition and how we’re manufacturers of our own misery because that’s how I ultimately free myself. And I think that’s why I wanted to write the play and cure myself of Lyme disease while I was at it.
I want to jump back to your development as an artist for a bit. The first time I was aware of you as an artist was when I saw you in The Squid and the Whale. That probably kept me married like three more years.
Are you serious?
Oh, it scared the shit out of me.
Oh, because it was all about how divorce affects kids.
Plus I was living in Park Slope and...
But you were fantastic! In that movie.
Oh, that’s so nice. Thank you.
How old were you when you made that movie?
I think I was 18 or 19. It was the summer after college.
Did you consider yourself an actor first?
Well, that’s a good question. I started off writing as a small child. I wrote a picture book in second grade called Coconut Island that was from the POV of the island and I thought that was a really smart twist. I remember thinking, “This is a very good picture book.” I was quite confident in my writing abilities. And I remember thinking, “I really want to be a writer,” but I just didn’t have the discipline and wasn’t able to maintain the required confidence. And I then discovered acting at Stagedoor Manor, this performing arts theater camp. And I fell into acting more because I think, in retrospect, it’s an easier art form if you struggle with discipline and self-confidence. At least for me. So I got a kid’s acting agent and she sent me out on auditions and I acted in a Mentor Project play at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and then I got The Squid and the Whale.
You said you were 18. Were you in college?
Yeah. I was miserable in college and I would come in on the train like once a week or so and just audition.
Was it the wrong college, or just your frame of mind, or...?
I think it was mostly my frame of mind. I was drinking very heavily. It turns out alcohol is a depressant. The way I eventually quit drinking was I went to my psychiatrist and I was like, I don’t understand, I’m very depressed. I think you need to change my antidepressants. And she was like, well, if you’re pouring massive amounts of a depressant on your antidepressants, they might not work. And I was like, light bulb! It had never occurred to me that maybe that’s why I was depressed. But yeah, I think just drinking alone by myself every night and having two to three friends was not a way to enjoy college. I really thought the solution was running away from college, which it wasn’t, but I got to find that out the hard way. I also don’t want to sell myself short. I knew what I wanted to do, which was work in theater and film and television, which is what I get to do now. So I think I was really hungry to start exploring that and I probably should have gone to NYU or Columbia or a place in the city where I could have had a foot in both worlds. But there were a lot of great things about Wesleyan too. I don’t blame the school. I really blame myself and my self-sabotaging actions and attitude.
At the risk of resorting to the kind of biographical criticism I eschewed in grad school, I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard is about a daughter-father relationship where the daughter struggles with feelings of judgment inferred or actual by her father, and hearing you talk about your own struggles, I would have to imagine that having high achieving parents in the arts is both encouraging and debilitating. There’s a lot to live up to. You said you lacked confidence yet you wrote the greatest second grade picture book in history. Why wasn’t that like your entrée? Your, “I can do anything?” You know?
Right! I love this question. You know, I identify as a recovering alcoholic and one characteristic of many alcoholics is grandiosity coupled with inferiority. And untreated, that’s how I’d think, like “I am the piece of shit at the center of the universe,” which is not a way to be happy. And so for me, that’s why I really try to use the plays that I write now in sobriety to examine my own defects in the hopes of freeing myself from the ways in which they’re enslaving me and practice humility because that’s how I can be happy. I’m not lacerating myself and I’m not lacerating anyone else; rather, I’m trying to take an honest and inquisitive and hopefully humorous (albeit often bleakly humorous) look at my foibles, in a way that I also hope other people can relate to so that I’m not the only one getting free here.
You’ve said that you wanted to act in this play because you wanted to be courageous enough to deal with this shit that is from your life. And yet, you’ve also made reference to the one reviewer who said, “Halley Feiffer needs a therapist.” It’s tricky to talk about the lives of artists. There’s a book I love: The Wound and the Bow, by Edmund Wilson, do you know it?
It’s a series of essays on a variety of artists like Strindberg, and Proust, where the organizing principle is Philoctetes’s bow. He was a soldier in the Trojan War who was bitten on the heel by a snake and his wound became infected causing him such agony that his screams and the foul odor from his pustulant wound caused his commanders to exile him to a deserted island where he developed supreme archery skills to survive. Then an oracle declared Troy would not fall but by his bow.
Oh, my god, I’ve never heard that myth.
And in Sophocles’s play, the outcast returns to the fold and is positioned to become a hero. For Wilson he represents the paradigm of the artist. We should not define artists by the pains that have created them. What matters are their acts of transfiguration that they give to us. Yet for some, the temptation remains to define the artist by their origins. So what is your answer to those who would say, “Oh, Halley’s just writing about herself.”
I would say... I mean, what I always have said.
That’s why I cited Joni Mitchell in my bulletin article about you. She would release a magnificent, mind-blowing album, then several months later when lazy sexist journalists got bored, they would start dishing about her love affairs with James Taylor or Graham Nash, as if that qualified her genius in some way.
I really appreciate that analogy and I appreciate the question because I don’t believe that Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams really got dragged through the mud for writing about their families.
Not O’Neill because he waited until they died.
Right! Yeah. Come on. Like, I was going to say something really crude, which I don’t need to, but I mean, you know, grow a pair, Gene. Just kidding. But seriously, no one really faulted Tennessee Williams for essentially lifting his home life and putting it in The Glass Menagerie, for instance, or accused him of needing therapy. So I do think we don’t realize the ways in which we hold women to a different standard than men. Collectively as a society, I think women engage in this kind of faulty thinking as much as men do because I’ve received very harsh criticism from women and men alike related to what one might deem the autobiographical nature of my work, which is inaccurate. What I strive to do is to take elements of my life — whether they be feelings or seeds of moments from relationships or slivers of events — and then sort of blow them up times ten thousand and explore them on a hyperbolic level, because I find that process most dramatically interesting as an artist.
Were you figuring out where the play was coming from as you went?
No, it was pretty clear to me where it was coming from. It was inspired by events that happened years before Donald Trump was even a presidential candidate. I had several momentous events occur in my life in the same year-long period: I got very sick with Lyme disease. I essentially switched careers from being an often-unemployed off-Broadway and occasional film and TV actress mostly living off unemployment to being a TV writer. And I went from not really dating for six years because I was focused on getting sober to trying to start dating again. I was growing a lot. And I noticed a phenomenon that was happening in all three of these worlds—work, health and romance— which was that I felt continually sublimated by the men I was interacting with. And even more interestingly, I found myself shocked by how powerless I felt to stand up to that sublimation, and how I saw myself playing into patterns that were hurting me. And so I wanted to explore this phenomenon in the context of all three of those worlds.
Wait, how did you get the TV job? Was this before you really started writing plays?
No, I had written several plays, but I had almost zero dollars from writing plays. Playwrights Horizons is really one of the only theaters that pays playwrights more than like $5,000 to devote years of their lives to crafting a play. It’s crazy. So this was after How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them. That was the only play of mine that had been produced.
Well, it was super funny, so....
Oh, thanks. Thank you.
Someone might say, “Oh she can be funny.”
Well the way I got my first writing job was actually through a playwright, Alex Dinelaris. I had acted in a play of his. And he very coincidentally happened to be at a bar and have a stack of 10-minute plays that he was leafing through and reading with a friend of his who was organizing a short play festival, and he saw my name on one of them. He didn’t even know I was writing plays, and remembered me from acting in his play at MCC. And he had just written this movie Birdman and then off the success of that film had sold a TV show with the Birdman team and asked me to come interview for his TV show. Which was very crazy because I had literally just been saying to the universe, “Please, I need to be a TV writer, I have zero dollars.” So that all worked out very well.
Even if most of the writers’ rooms you’ve been in have been dominated by men?
Well the atmosphere has always been totally civil, but I have still found myself deferring to men and their opinions and trying to please them and sometimes swallowing my own instincts in order to do so. You know, for instance, obviously sex is a very a prominent part of the storytelling in this play and in a lot of my work. And I think that’s because I’m really passionate about representing women’s sexuality accurately on stage and on screen. And that’s an issue that has come up over and over in writers’ rooms that are run by men. I’ll often advocate for women’s sexuality to be expressed in a way that feels accurate to me and get into civil arguments with the male writers about women’s sexuality. And I think 10 out of 10 times have had to defer to them. And that’s slightly heartbreaking to me because there are certain myths about the female experience that I think are continually perpetuated because women’s voices are again quite civilly silenced over and over because more often than not we don’t get to make the decisions.
I really, really admire the candor and truthfulness of your representation of desire in this play.
And it seems to me possibly the most complicating factor for women who are trying to stake out a life of their own because sexuality needs a partner. So those people who would judge Cat for pursuing a relationship with Guy — like the women who’ve said in talkbacks, “I would have just left the room!” And that woman who cornered you after one of the talkbacks.
Right. It makes some people really angry.
And I think we minimize the power and the importance of desire at our own peril. Shaw called it “The Life Force.” And he was reacting to the role of religion and politics and I would add certain iterations of Freud in circumscribing it. And now I’ve been hearing about how there is a fear of sex among the younger generation.
Yeah. Apparently we’re in a sex drought as a country. Especially because people are more and more engaged in relationships with their phones than with each other, which I think stems ultimately from a terror of intimacy—of really being known and knowing other people— and our culture’s collective obsession with the self. You know, I can’t really have true intimacy with another person if I’m just thinking of what are you giving me or not giving me? And sex requires that intimacy, requires a lot of vulnerability and a lot of selflessness, which I think as a culture we’re quite unpracticed at because we reward the opposite. We reward the worship of the self and self-propulsion and climbing to the top of the ranks and stepping on other people if you need to in order to achieve your goals. And desire complicates the pursuit of our morals, which makes our intentions and actions even more complicated. My higher self and my more desirous self can want diametrically oppositional things. And on top of that—and this is what I’ve said to the people who have, you know, asked me why my character doesn’t just leave the room at the beginning of the play — is that at least in my experience, in our society we’re coded to believe that the kind of behavior that Guy (albeit arguably hyperbolically) is engaging in is a sort of John Wayne-type of machismo that is inherently sexy. And women are indoctrinated to believe that that’s what we want. And that if a man treats us that way, he loves us.
Do you think it’s mainly indoctrination, anthropologically speaking? Or maybe it’s biological? Where do these roles come from? You know I’ve been a kind of late-to-the- party consumer of Game of Thrones, and I was persuaded to watch all the old episodes I’d never seen.
So I’m getting this crash course in this really primitive, hyper-hormonalized version of the sexes. So I’ll watch that and then I’ll come see your play and the sexuality is quite different. Yet not completely so.
Right. Right, right.
So you said culturally indoctrinated. I also see there’s possibly biological roots. You know, who’s the conqueror? Let’s try to be on the side of the conqueror.
But then one might pose the question and I don’t know the answer: is it biological or is it cultural? You know? Because the Amazons for instance were a society that was matriarchal. I appreciate that analogy because Game of Thrones and The Pain of My Belligerence couldn’t be more different except that in both of them that machismo sexuality is in some ways celebrated. Though I think it is picked apart more in our play than it is in Game of Thrones for good reason because people like that element of Game of Thrones. Then again, that show has also received a good amount of criticism for arguably glorifying rape. But I understand why they do what they do, because we’re in a society where — until very recently — that kind of aggressive pursuit of the female has not only been lauded but also viewed as the standard of seduction, which is why I think a lot about those French actresses who post-#MeToo penned their anti-#MeToo letter that argued that if we demand consent, we will be curtailing our own sexual freedom. And then there was a backlash to the backlash, which was, you know, arguing that it’s just so fucked up that we now deem consent as unsexy. And now the question is: is there a way in which we can shift the thinking around this issue, both in terms of our gender roles and of physical and emotional safety concerning sex and romance?
Yeah. We were talking about the toxic patriarchy and how that affects men. And I think I was very insecure as a young boy growing up. My father was a minister, which was my secret shame. I felt like it made me uncool if anyone found out.
Oh, that’s fascinating.
And I did sports but my junior year I quit because the machismo of the football culture was so horrible. This was late 60s. But I just felt very aware that there was this model of male behavior that seemed to my eyes to be attractive to girls.
Right. And we see it in movies, TV, books. Holden Caulfield isn’t a sweetheart, you
know? He’s an asshole. Gatsby is like the most emotionally unavailable man possible. I mentioned John Wayne. Can you imagine John Wayne opening up about his dad on a dinner date with a woman? I think I mentioned in a talk back I had a boyfriend who I kept telling him how nice he was and then he told me that that made him a little nervous that I wouldn’t find him sexy. And I appreciated his honesty with me. And it also made me so sad that now we’ve coded “nice” with “unsexy” in male behavior. Whereas for women, it’s the opposite. Which goes back to our conversation about the ways in which women artists are viewed through a different prism than men. And I think my plays have been critiqued perhaps more harshly than they might be if a man had written them, because they’re not arguably “nice.” They explore darker elements of human nature. And that’s not what we as a society tend to want or expect from a female artist.
It’s easy to fixate on Guy’s manipulations and overlook the degree to which their attraction is mutual. Guy’s desire for her is real.
It is. I think we’ve worked hard to show they are quite physically attracted to each other but they are falling in love, too. And in another world, if they both sought a lot of outside help, they perhaps could have a good relationship.
The other thing that I think that attracts them is they do have similar sense of humor.
For example, in the second scene, she says, “You’ve been fucking two women,” and he says, “There’s also a third one I should tell you about”. And you can hear people gasp – “oh I knew it”. But it immediately disarms Cat. She appreciates it as a joke. And it’s their kind of joke and I don’t know how many people register that.
I think that’s exactly it. And that’s why he falls in love with her — I think because she has this warped, demented, self-deprecating, but also in some ways confident sense of humor that he has too and in many ways she can be his match. And I think he hasn’t met a woman who was his match on that level. Not because women aren’t funny, but because in our culture women are not encouraged to be funny. Men are encouraged to be funny so they can seduce us. I feel like there’s a Nora Ephron movie or something where there’s a great bit of dialogue about how laughing at men’s jokes is a come-hither gesture because a woman throws back her heads and shows the man the vulnerable spot of her neck. There was one guy I dated who kept saying to me, “You’re funny,” in a very surprised tone, which became one of Guy’s first lines in this play. I think he was surprised not only that a woman could be funny, but that someone he found attractive was also funny because he was a comedian and I think he was used to being the funnier person in a relationship. And that made me sad.
What’s the story about the coat rack? It’s referred to twice.
Yes. It was referred to in the first and the last scenes. That’s how Guy and Cat met originally. She came to interview his wife at their shared office and her coat kept falling off the coat rack and he was making fun of her for it. And then she said some kind of zinger back to him. And he laughed. And in that moment, both of them made each other laugh and the wife later expresses that she saw this interaction from across the room and that’s how she knew there was some kind of connection between them. And it devastates her, in a way, because she could never make him laugh. She could give him essentially everything but that.
The other thing about the humor that I love is that, to me, it starts curdling a bit.
Towards the end of the first scene you get a sense of — she is laughing defensively. At least that’s what I’m getting. That it’s both, it’s both real humor and then there’s some degree to which she laughs just because he’s made her uncomfortable.
I really appreciate your saying that because I started feeling in the last couple of performances, and I asked Trip about this, if I was laughing too much and he said no. And I trust him and I’ve been laughing more and more in that scene. And A, it’s because I find Hamish quite funny, just as a performer, he’s very, very funny. And then B, I do think the character is using laughter as a kind of wall, a defense to soothe her own trepidations about the possible dangers of this man. And I think he uses humor quite obviously to dissuade her of any of her hesitations around accepting his advances.
I launched into this interview by talking about form and content a little bit and how I love your play as a play: its artfulness. I think someone at a talkback said, “He keeps biting her on the neck? Why didn’t she leave?” And I said, “Well, Halley is setting up a motif that leads to eventually the tick being sucked out of her neck,” you know. And to me that’s a very artful thing.
Thank you. I think that’s right.
But there is also something rewarding in discovering a tick and then sucking it out and killing it. It’s a beautiful multivalent metaphor that implies he’s both the tick and the tick killer.
Oh, I love that.
And it’s very shortly after that that she throws herself at him.
Oh yeah. I mean that’s I think what seals the deal. That he’s her knight in shining armor. But little does she know that he’s about to draw a sword and kill her.
It the second scene she’s in a full flare-up, physically, but also they’re in a full flare-up of co-dependency. What’s the exposition of what happens between the acts in terms of her disease?
We learn that she didn’t get treated right away and she confesses that it’s because she was so obsessed with him that she didn’t take care of herself. What I intend to imply is that basically as soon as she went on this date with him, he essentially infected her in the same way that Lyme disease infected her—that this hook was set by dint of his employing every single tool in the patriarchal handbook of toxic masculinity that she’s been indoctrinated to believe is synonymous with love. It’s also been established that she comes from a — we don’t know much about it — but an emotionally abusive household. She’s pretty isolated. She lives alone. She doesn’t have pets or many friends. So she’s primed to become dependent on someone. And this is all to say that she basically does not value her own health as much as she values the attainment of a relationship, which in our society—especially for women over 30–is a very primary and primal goal. And so because of all those factors, she doesn’t take care of herself until it is too late.
I was thinking about the best way to characterize scene two, and I looked up “dystopia” in my dictionary. [Holds up Oxford Dictionary from 1989] and it’s too new a word to appear there. But I looked it up online and they say a dystopia is the opposite of a utopia. And I don’t think that they’re in a dystopia. I think they’re in a pathological utopia. It is perfect for them both somehow.
Yes. I think that’s really wise. You could also say they’re in a utopia that then slides into dystopia and then back into utopia. And you could also argue that it is a pathological utopia because these are people who are turned on sexually and otherwise by misery. And that’s really a hallmark of addictive relationships—the people in them confuse dysfunction and intensity with passion. I think in many ways Cat is a slave to her own desire and that her addiction to Guy physically and emotionally leads to her demise physically and emotionally. I really love the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. And in many ways I see that second scene as my response to “The Yellow Wallpaper”: a portrait of this woman who, because of the patriarchy, has essentially been locked in a room “for her own good” and in some ways it’s saving her life and in some ways it’s killing her and it becomes impossible for her to decipher between the two until it’s almost too late.
Let’s talk about the third scene. You’ve talked about wanting to investigate Cat’s culpability as much as Guy’s. As you’ve said, the title is The Pain of My Belligerence, and no one else’s. And so I think your choice to have him die is a stroke of genius. Remove the guy from the play and she’s left with just her own memories and her own turmoil.
And I realized that the last time we see him, it’s fitting that it’s the act of coitus. What’s that French expression? Le petit mort. That’s kind of his last line in the play, really, his orgasm.
That’s so awful. Oh, that’s so good.
Foreshadowing his imminent demise.
Oh, that’s so good.
Did the third scene come to you instinctively? What was your inspiration for it?
I’m very interested in how the patriarchy has affected not only male-female dynamics, but female-female dynamics. And how in many ways we, as women, have been subliminally encouraged to compete with each other and put each other down in order to get “the prize,” which is the man. And we’re sort of fed this line that we’re living in a world abundant with scarcity so we better shove each other aside in order to get that pot of gold which is an unavailable man who will cheat on us with someone else and then we can consider ourselves victims and then can reinforce this narrative that we’re victims. And so I wanted to explore the ways in which this corrosive ideology has affected both these women. And the first version of the scene was quite utopian, perhaps to counterbalance the ways in which the second scene is arguably dystopian. So in that version, Yuki basically accepted Cat’s false overtures, and then offered her benevolence in a way that made Yuki feel maybe a bit two- dimensional. Then I wrote a version where Yuki was just sort of a conniving, punishing villainess.
And then, with all of your guys’ encouragement, I’ve tried to find the hopefully truthful albeit hyperbolic world that balances between those two extremes.
But even though you didn’t know the exact shape of the end, you instinctively knew that a conversation between the two women left behind was another side to this trope that had to be explored.
I did because I think it’s important that Cat never says anything negative about Yuki. The most negative thing she says is, “I don’t want to talk about her anymore.” Guy criticizes her a lot to the point that as Hamish has pointed out, it’s clear that he’s very hung up on her. You don’t slam someone so much unless you have very strong feelings about them. Usually you still love them. But Cat, I think, really admires her. She’s a woman who beat all the odds, especially in the culinary world that’s also dominated by men. And more so in Japan than here, which is where Yuki got her training. And I think in many ways Cat starting to sleep with Yuki’s husband is Cat’s way of getting closer to what she wants to be: a successful, powerful woman. But then, as Yuki says, quitting your job and fucking someone’s husband wasn’t the way to become her. And she’s right about that, too.
Talk about her offering Cat to move in.
Yeah. So that’s weird. I mean, when I talk about my work being heightened, that’s a good example of it. She jumps to that pretty quickly in a way that I hope feels slightly like what we’ve been talking about: that shaky world between utopia and dystopia where it’s hard to tell if this is a nightmare or a dream. What I want is to reflect the ways in which these two women are quite similar in that they’ve both isolated themselves from other people. In Cat’s case it’s because of her illness and her addiction to Yuki’s husband. And in Yuki’s case it’s about her addiction to her work and to success. Both of them have created very myopic lives for themselves and now have lost the person on whom they were both dependent in different ways and see that there is a world in which they could replace him with each other. And
I’m hoping that the miracle that’s apparent at the end of the play is that Cat realizes that she can be dependent on herself as opposed to on anyone else. And that Yuki is, if anything, just as sick as Guy was, if not even sicker emotionally. And that if Cat wants to achieve emotional health herself, she has to “leave the room” and break free from these destructive patterns that she’s been enabling and creating for now almost a decade.
Would you say the “miracle at the end of the play” occurs in the scene with Olive?
Yeah, exactly. I think it is inspired by her interaction with Olive where she ends up giving Olive this piece of advice that feels kind of innocuous in the moment, which is to “just leave the room” when your sister is hurting you. And it’s interesting that at a lot of the talkbacks, as we’ve discussed, some women—especially older women—have been inflamed by the first scene and have asked, “Why didn’t you just leave the room?” And that’s exactly what I as an older woman say to this younger girl in the play and then I realize in so doing that I haven’t taken my own advice. And I do often think when we get angry with other people for not doing certain things—there’s an expression I like call, “You spot it, you got it.” Like, if someone’s behavior is troubling me, it’s very likely that I have engaged in that behavior myself. And the solution is in myself. So that’s the miracle at the end of the play: I finally realize I can leave the room.
And what is she leaving? Why did she go there? She starts off the scene with this fabricated story about doing a follow up interview to The New Yorker interview she did a decade before. And it’s clear after a bit that Yuki sees right through her. So what does she really want? It’s like she feels compelled to go there or something.
And as the scene develops, she realizes some part of the pathology is present there and still in her.
Yes. I’m obsessed with addiction of all different kinds. And I think sex and love addiction is a real addiction—as real as drug and alcohol and food addiction. And I think Cat is a victim of that illness, and that her physical illness is exacerbated by her emotional one. And I think even though the object of her addiction is dead, that doesn’t mean the addiction has gone away. If you put an alcoholic on a desert island with no alcohol, that doesn’t mean they’re not still addicted to alcohol. And so Cat is still addicted to Guy and I think she needs to get her fix. And so she’s probably gone to every place they’ve ever gone together and sought out every way of getting her hit and this is her last resort. Then on top of that, she doesn’t know exactly how he died. She only read the obituary as Yuki said. So she hasn’t really been able to mourn this man. So in a way she comes here to try to get closure, but there’s another expression I really love, which is, “There’s no such thing as closure; there’s only opensure.” And I think that’s what happens here. I think Cat devised plan and didn’t run it by anyone because she literally has no one in her life at this point. Like if she had friends or a therapist, they might be like, “Don’t do that.” But kooky addicted Cat, she’s like, “Great idea. Go to his house and talk to his wife to get closure.” And of course in so doing, she just opens up the wound that he initially inflicted on her.
But maybe she also sees something in Yuki that allows her to see herself.
Yes I think so. In a way, Yuki is a sort of “ghost of Christmas future” figure for Cat — in the same way that Cat is a sort of “ghost of Christmas future” figure for me. Like, “This is what I could become if I don’t leave this room right now and immediately start taking steps to change.” If I hadn’t sought a lot of help for my physical and emotional health, I could have become someone quite like Cat with the same physical and emotional symptoms that she is suffering from. And Cat realizes, in seeing how ill Yuki truly is — in ways that I hope feel both shocking and inevitable—that if she stays here with her, as Yuki is offering, she will only get sicker. And that while she has no idea what the future outside this insular world of Yuki and Guy’s home — and, on a broader level, the somewhat- comforting (because it’s familiar) world of the patriarchy — holds for her, she must take a risk and embrace the void, because staying in this sick world means spiritual and physical death. And I hope by leaving the room physically and metaphorically at the end, it’s evident that this is the first step that Cat is taking in the entire play towards healing.