Bruce Norris Artist Interview
SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE QUALMS, THIS INTERVIEW CONTAINS INFORMATION ON MAIN PLOT POINTS IN THE PRODUCTION.
Tim Sanford: In your piece in our Bulletin you talked about how you and a friend went to see a documentary years ago called The Lifestyle and how it upset you, how it pushed all these buttons of judgment that then precipitated a cycle of self-scrutiny. What were your motives for your judgment? You said you came to the conclusion that you were, in part, jealous. You’ve said in previous interviews how your plays begin with a chorus of bickering voices in your head, arguing different sides of a point. Could you talk about how that transpired with this play? And what the voices were?
Bruce Norris: Well, it’s notable that you’re asking me this question this morning because I just had this conversation with my girlfriend about how the older I get, the more I identify myself as the source of that bickering I hear all around me. I no longer locate the source of it quite so much as external—maybe I’m the problematic factor in the world, rather than the world’s being problematic. I still maintain the world is problematic, but I increasingly think that I’m the one who’s got the problem. So the structure of The Qualms, as much as it reflects whatever discomfort I’m having with a specific issue, like say polyamory, more importantly sets up the failure of its protagonist. I like protagonists that fail, but even more so than those in say, The Pain and the Itch or Clybourne Park. Chris [in The Qualms] just digs his own grave, and I feel like I’m, in a timely fashion, digging my grave every time I speak in public or speak in any forum or even write a play, I’m just sort of literally, like, opening up the earth for me to hop in.
Do you remember your story about that guy who saw the reading of The Pain and the Itch at the Philadelphia Theatre Company who asked you afterwards, “Who’s the protagonist?” And you said “I’m not sure there really is one.” And he said “I thought so!” triumphantly. In this case now you could say, “Oh, there’s an anti-protagonist.”
There’s a problematic figure, there’s a catalyst certainly in the play. You have a situation and you throw a new element into it. It’s a really old-timey structure of a farce; you throw someone into a situation they don’t know how to handle and problems result.
My insight into your characterological self-assessment hearkens back to your The Pain and the Itch interview in which you talked about the influence of your father, who you said subscribes to the view that individuals have a responsibility to be compliant and to fit into the social fabric. So you recognize that voice is in you also, even as you seem determined to thwart that expectation at every turn; so the bickering begins right there.
Right, I genetically inherited conflict. My parents had very, very opposing temperaments so one of them liked to stir up trouble and the other liked to punish those who stirred up trouble. And what I would now say is that my father really is not even that interested in social control. What he’s interested in is victory. He’s interested in the victory of the status quo at suppressing dissent. The closer he gets to the grave, the more naked his true motives become. He’s just a subtle tyrant.
Subtle, intellectual, tyrant.
But as far as the bickering goes, Chris is not the only bickering person in the play.
They all bicker about different things.
And are they identifiable by types to you as you look at them?
Yeah, I suppose.
I guess what I’m getting at is, how did the population of this play come to be? Do you find characters enter the play based on what side they might take in an argument?
I have, in my life, people who are my obvious antagonists. And some of those would be, for example, people who believe in God, Republicans, free market ideologues, people who are comfortable with income inequality… I’ve all sorts of people who are the obvious enemy. And to me, people like Roger, who are quite comfortable assuming a kind of rigid Libertarian position, get under my skin. Then there are also subtler antagonists who are often my close friends who will sometimes advance just fantastical notions, like, will say something like, “Well you know bread is very bad for you.”
And they will really, really go to the mat to argue that idea. And I want to say to them… I become… My head explodes and I feel that they’re taking positions that are demonstrably false, and yet, because they seem to have their own set of antagonists which would be, say, Big Agriculture that wants to feed us these dangerous things like whole wheat bread.
You’re not pro-Monsanto are you?
I’m against Roundup, if that’s what you mean, or the seeds that die in every generation, requiring you to buy more seeds? Sure, I’d like to see the Monsanto Corporation defeated, but I don’t think that means that bread is therefore bad for you.
You said in that first interview that you were interested in the way people get caught in loops of language.
They get trapped in their own language. And at a talkback the other night you said that people go to war over language. The way they define things seems very important.
Yeah. People go to war over the most asinine tiny points of theological dispute. I mean the Shiite and Sunni dispute is just a preposterous historical dispute about some mythological prophet who may or may not have existed, and like, who gives a shit, ultimately? Same with Catholics and Protestants.
I thought he did exist and it was actually who owns the proper bloodline to… That unlike Jesus, Mohammed had children.
Yeah. Yes, I guess. I actually don’t know the precise details of the Sunni/Shiite dispute—maybe they’re killing each other for very important reasons.
I think it’s like which cousin is the right cousin or something which seems even more preposterous to me. (Laughs.)
Whatever the basis of it is, I think, from my completely ignorant perspective… It is preposterous and not worthy of the bloodshed that has followed.
Well, what is worthy of bloodshed?
The Prince of Peace.
Yeah. Right. Exactly.
You have said that The Pain and the Itch was a 9/11 play for you, the first play you wrote after 9/11.
Yeah, I think so.
So in that play there is a Muslim character whose wife...
Has died as a result of the panic of the privileged family.
Right. And at a talkback, you said that since 9/11, most of your plays have been about war. You feel the conflict building up in The Pain and the Itch, the climax is kind of an explosion of running around, and Clybourne Park has its own trajectory towards violence.
I would stand by that. I mean, here’s a problem I feel I keep encountering: I’ve been told on a number of occasions by my girlfriend that what enrages people about my behavior is the same thing that makes Mr. Spock not-the-hero of “Star Trek.” Kirk is the hero of “Star Trek,” of the old “Star Trek,” because he’s emotional. Because people don’t like a kind of French philosopher-type who’s going to sit back and press their fingertips together and go, “I recognize you foolish humans for what you are.” There’s something incredibly arrogant about it and people don’t like it when you talk that way, and yet I feel like when we get attacked by another country, by a group of terrorists or something, people go into panic. We live in a culture that celebrates our emotions, and celebrates patriotism, and our feelings, and the pictures of a soldier coming home from the war and his dog leaping up to lick his face, or people proposing marriage on the Jumbotron of a massive stadium. All of our emotions are really, really celebrated but the part of us that pulls back and goes, “Wait a minute, stop the emotion. What’s the actually reasonable, responsible thing to do?” That doesn’t get a lot of support in our culture. And I feel like I’m willing to wave that flag for stopping your feelings and thinking about what you’re reflexively doing. That of course gets me in trouble with the shrinks I’ve gone to at various problem points in my life...
Because you’re supposed to have your emotions.
Right. Emotions are honored, and because we’ve all been psychoanalyzed to such a ridiculously self-indulgent extent, we all are celebrating what we feel. But if we don’t stop what we feel from time to time and go, “Well, what are we doing because of what we feel?” then I think we’re fucked up.
Yeah, well in so far as Chris embodies your self-argument...
And here’s an example of where the sort of person who intellectually parses everyone else’s feelings gets caught on his own tail. He thinks he’s being the rational person in the room and then he winds up being the punitive person in the room.
The next thing you know, he’s calling a woman fat and another guy a faggot and “You’re all morons” and stomping off.
Which is basically, I think in short form, how I live my life.
Poor Bruce. You know it’s interesting, you write these plays… They all have that French philosopher—there’s a little Voltaire in all of them.
Even in The Unmentionables, there’s the Doctor who does that. I don’t know if you remember that play.
There’s an African doctor who, in the second act of the play when all of the Americans agree to torture this African kid in order to get information as to the whereabouts of another American, the African doctor, who has been the cynical, sarcastic voice of the intellect through the play, is the only person who won’t participate in the torture, when even the supposedly rational Americans say, “This is an important moment where we have to take some action, so it’s totally justified to do this terrible thing now because of how we feel, because we’re panicking.” You have to have someone saying, “No, we shouldn’t, even if it feels good.”
What’d you think of Zero Dark Thirty?
I wouldn’t see it. I won’t see that movie. I don’t want to endorse a film that would present a scenario in which it would be a plausible human choice to do that. Under any circumstance.
To do what?
Whenever you’re pressed, often in a very public context, about the fact that you do write these plays that have social content and you’re a thoughtful guy who’s critical of human folly, and so someone accuses you of having some kind of...
Oh. A noble impulse.
Impulse. You go “No, no, no, no. I’m not writing plays out of virtue; I’m just writing to amuse myself.”
That’s true. It’s both true that I say it and I think it’s true what I say. I mean, I think among the follies that I find most exasperating is the conviction that we in the artistic world are actually impacting the world in some profound or meaningful way. Remember, as we do our little plays, we’re here performing in a theater that has something called the “Citigroup Lobby,” one of the companies that contributed to the near collapse of the world’s economy in 2008. So that’s who pays the bills. We’re under that umbrella. So if we want to claim that we’re changing the world, well we’re changing the world in the same way a jester changed the world in Charlemagne’s court or Genghis Khan’s yurt. That’s the kind of difference we make.
Even so you’re doing it for fun...
People respond to it.
Yeah. Well, I don’t know.
Otherwise we wouldn’t continue to do your plays.
Well you’re responding to it.
(Laughs.) Yeah. And I’m here to tell you the audience is enjoying it too.
For about ninety minutes and then they go home and I don’t think the experience really exists outside of those ninety minutes.
But there’s something sort of Beckettian in your perseverance in the face of meaninglessness.
Well, in the sense that Vladimir and Estragon continue to sit under the tree because it’s all they know how to do, sure.
That’s not hopeful! How is that hopeful? That’s just desperate.
People look at Waiting for Godot in different ways.
I know a couple people who really think that Waiting for Godot is an affirmation of all that’s “heroic in mankind.” I think Samuel Beckett… If we could hook up like a belt and a generator to Samuel Beckett’s corpse in his grave, you could power a small city with the spinning of his corpse.
If you told Samuel Beckett that Waiting for Godot was a hopeful play the lights would go on all across New Jersey.
Yeah, but there’s that leaf. There’s solace in truth isn’t there? I mean, I characterize Beckett as courageous to strip things away and keep stripping and to look at things as nakedly as possible. And if you find a way, after having done that, to continue to draw in a breath...
Well, he didn’t commit suicide.
In describing your own work, you said you like a protagonist who fails.
You like a final image of impotence or…
I like endings that are ambiguous. I like endings of things that are… Do you know Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo?
The best ending of any play I’ve ever seen. It ends with the crusading liberal journalist killing the corrupt cops by handcuffing them to a radiator next to an exploding bomb, then the narrator, the “maniac,” says, “Well, that’s not a very nice ending, is it? So let’s try it a different way.” And the journalist, out of guilt and a sense of injustice, lets the corrupt cops go, and then the cops turn around and kill her instead. The narrator then says something like, “See, either way you have to make a choice.” And he says, “See, it turns out bad either way, so you gotta choose.” And that’s Dario Fo’s ending to the play, and that’s the kind of ending I really like in a play. That leaves you at a place where you don’t have an answer. Where your certainty has disappeared.
So, how does that happen in The Qualms?
I’m not sure it does. I don’t think it’s the best ending I’ve ever written.
To what degree does it happen?
I think to the degree that it raises the question, “Do we allow the intolerant back into our circle after they’ve treated us badly?”
And what about from Chris’s perspective? What is his ending?
He gets admitted back to the group.
Why does he want to?
Well, he’d be alone. And loneliness is sad, and horrible, and everyone hates loneliness. Except for Ted Kaczynski… and I have some respect for Ted Kaczynski.
When you say alone, you mean because he intuits that he’s completely fucked his relationship with Kristy?
No, that he’s fucked his relationship in a broader sense with humanity. To occupy that position of intellectual superiority and disdain for the motives of everyone else on the planet leaves you in a pretty lonely spot. So he winds up willing to share, grudgingly willing to share the spoons and the pudding with everyone else. So, much as he might hate what they say and believe in different things from them, that’s not enough to justify a wholesale purge of them. You know, I personally hate everyone. And it infuriates me to live among human beings because everyone’s ideas drive me crazy, but it does not give me the right to silence them, as much as I’d love to silence them.
Why do you have a girlfriend?
You always have girlfriends.
Well there’s that.
You have to get along with another person if you’re going to live with them.
Right, and I tried living without them and you can’t pull that off for very long because... Well unless you’re... I don’t know. I have good friends who don’t have someone in their lives and they’re perfectly happy, but me—I can’t pull it off for very long.
What do Chris and Kristy want in this play? What brings them there?
I think Chris wants to prove that he’s not a jealous, possessive, competitive person. He’s competitively uncompetitive. And I think Kristy knows he will fail at that task and she’s ready to watch it unfold.
So she’s just like … a cat. Watching the mice. In this play.
Yeah, you know, my girlfriend Caroline really doesn’t have respect for cats. She’s very fond of dogs. And I like dogs too, but I do find them kind of servile. And she doesn’t like cats because they don’t demonstrate the proper fealty to their human owners.
And I think that’s what’s incredibly admirable about cats. Their basic response to your owning them is like, “Go fuck yourself.”
I used to have one cat, when I lived in Chicago, that would jump up on the kitchen table and not only reach onto my plate, but would reach up and grab the fork from me as it was going in my mouth to eat my food. And Caroline feels that that cat should have been drowned. That’s not a pet. That’s no longer a pet, that’s just a parasite.
So you agree that Kristy is like a cat?
I do agree that Kristy is like a cat in the play. She’s just like, “I’m going to let this shit happen.” Now, to the extent that it starts to involve her and make her—
But she’s so polite! Her manners are impeccable and everyone likes her.
She’s a very nice cat.
She’s a lovely cat. But yeah, I think she’s letting it happen and when the shit hits the fan, she’s going to dodge it. She’s going to make sure Chris’s shit doesn’t get on her.
But she seems surprised by how appalling his behavior is.
I think she’d prefer it, if she could get through this, Chris would learn a little quiet lesson: “Well maybe that wasn’t for me.” And then he’d drop it. And I think that would be the ideal ending for Kristy, but that’s not the one that happens.
So when Teri starts coming on to...
Well let’s call it seducing.
It is. And Kristy’s kind of watching it inscrutably. I can’t tell if she disapproves or not. I think initially when Gary touches her leg and she screams, it’s revealed; she’s having no part of it. But seconds later, Teri whispers in her ear and they go off so she can give her a massage. And we think, “Huh.”
Well I think if the conclusion of the evening for Kristy was that she had a sexual encounter with Teri, and Chris—in his bumbling, failing way—didn’t get any sexual encounter, that would be fine with Kristy, too. I think she’s purely pragmatic and is not going to let anything fuck with her status or her sense of what her own rules and boundaries are. She has them firmly in place.
And she likes girls, she says...
So maybe she can have something with Teri and he won’t object.
Right, and I don’t think she’s really going to let him sleep with Teri because that won’t advantage her in any way. She might let him fool around with her a little bit, but it’s not going to go very far. I think she’s just pragmatic.
You have talked about having a mechanism in your plays that invites the audience to judge the characters and then doing a little reversal on them. Can you talk about a couple different examples of that in The Qualms?
Well, my brother saw the play the other night and he was very frustrated, as he often is when seeing a play of mine, because he said, “Every time you write a play, I want to get behind one of the characters—and then I can’t after about fifteen minutes because they say some bullshit that I hate.” And I said, “Well why do you feel obliged to get behind one of them?” He’s like, “Because I want to like someone.”
And it’s not just my brother but audiences in general that have a kind of infantile desire to find a hero. Because they want to get on their feet and give a standing ovation to someone. It makes them feel they know who they are. And I just find that kind of childish. I would say childlike, but that seems too sweet. I mean childish. As adults we know there aren’t actual heroes in the world. I mean, okay, so this week you’ve got Bruce Jenner—sorry, Caitlyn Jenner—on the cover of Vanity Fair in a dress with make-up on. And everyone wants to get behind that and say, “This is a hero. This person is a hero because now they are a woman. They’ve decided that they are a woman and it feels really good to be supporting that.” But we’re forgetting the fact that he’s one of the titular heads of a clan of materialistic nitwits. And also a man who only recently murdered a couple of people with his car on Pacific Coast Highway. And now, here we are kind of just whitewashing over the whole thing, we’re kind of like trans-washing by putting this guy in a dress—sorry, this woman in a dress—and calling her Caitlyn.
See, so you don’t do these reversals out of formalistic perverseness. I think it’s actually your point of view. I think it represents your worldview. And you just demonstrated it in talking about Bruce/Caitlyn.
But I don’t think that my worldview came first, I think the perverseness came first. I have a temperament, I was born with a personality and after the fact, post hoc, I have developed an elaborate, pompous, Byzantine set of attitudes and positions that accommodate my crotchety, grumpy personality. I don’t think that my worldview is the right one to have because I studied the world. I just concocted a bunch of nasty theories to accommodate my pre-existing personality.
It’s language in other words.
It’s just language to help me construct an impregnable defense against ever having to change the way I am. (Laughs.) I’ve built it out of language.
So this is a ninety-ish minute play that’s in one scene.
Have you written other plays like that?
Well, Clybourne Park is two scenes of sixty minutes each. And a play called We All Went Down to Amsterdam is a roughly ninety minute play that’s all one scene.
And does one enter a play like that knowing that that’s how it’s going to be?
Yeah, I think construction-wise you have to know it from the beginning if you’re going to do that. It’s a really fun challenge just to sustain the action but it does require a lot of planning. You have to know in advance the circumstances of the characters.
So you have to write towards certain events. Is there an outline?
I knew that the party would not go well, but I didn’t know how we would get there. I didn’t know how it would happen.
And eventually it would lead to a war, really.
I suppose I sensed that… I mean I take pleasure in watching... I think the word you use is “mayhem.” I like mayhem happening, because it’s just funny.
But I certainly didn’t plan the ending. I knew that it had to do with us as animals, and I knew that bananas would figure into it in some way.
Is that because of the YouTube video you’ve talked about with the monkeys and the bananas? No, you started this play a long time ago.
No, actually that YouTube video features capuchin monkeys and grapes, sometimes called, “the monkeys and inequality video,” and it actually had more influence on writing the play The Low Road that we did in London. No, I think partly it was written in the run-up to the 2012 election, and Romney, and Paul Ryan, and all the talk about certain Ayn Rand-ian notions of the glories of competition. We’re living in a world where competition is being celebrated so much, and I find that a really misguided thing to celebrate since it’s what we were doing a hundred thousand years ago in the savanna with spears aimed at each other. I don’t think we need legislation to protect competition. Legislating to promote competition is redundant. I think you make legislation to promote cooperation and to protect the people who aren’t good at competing, not to redundantly reinforce the advantages of people who are good at competing. That doesn’t seem like the purpose... I’m not answering your question. (Laughs.)
How’d you know that bananas would be involved?
Actually bananas and primates have been involved in other plays that I’ve written. There’s a monkey that appears in We All Went Down to Amsterdam, and We All Went Down to Amsterdam ends with a senile man talking into a banana thinking it’s a telephone.
So it’s a favorite trope.
The banana for me, I guess, is a symbol for all the things humans need and want, and that they have to try to amass in order to survive.
So let’s back up from there, because that’s the very end, but the end sort of starts after the big fight.
You said someone pointed out to you that the structure of the play is like a sex act.
Yeah, that it involves an excruciating amount of foreplay, followed by a few seconds of violent activity, and then existential despair.
(Laughs.) So, when existential despair hits, I guess the first thing that happens… They clean up.
Mmhmm. Well, as you do after a sex act, too. (Laughs.)
Or after war.
People have commented on the clean up, the fact that it takes a long time.
I find it soothing to watch people perform a task. That’s why I used to watch cooking shows and This Old House, because I like watching people have to do things, to build things, or fix things. It’s sort of soothing to me, and I feel like what the play needs there for about five minutes is a little bit of soothing.
You have also said that there’s been so much talking, you just enjoy the quiet.
Yeah, it’s a little sobering to realize that what many people most enjoy about the play is when everyone finally stops talking. The part where I do the least writing is what people enjoy the most. (Laughs.)
Also, if a Martian were to watch humans at war in time lapse photography they would just see that periodically humans just blow shit up.
And they bring out their tractors and shovel it away and build stuff back up, and then another hundred years later they blow it up again.
Well that would be great if it was just the buildings, and just the shovels, but there are people in those buildings... so it’s not so great.
So after everything is cleaned up and everyone has changed their clothes, Teri’s just sitting there devastated; her party’s exploded and she’s quietly weeping. And finally she just says, “I’m sorry for yelling.”
And what happens then in the quiet is that somehow they start talking about what happened, and what sex means to them, and each person talks about their first sexual experience. It’s kind of like at the end of the play, you bring in the exposition.
And it ends with that amazing monologue of Teri’s.
Okay. I think that what happens in the play is that everyone tries to top each other continually with theoretical ideas, like freedom, bestiality... “Why shouldn’t I be able to engage is bestiality?” Polyamory versus monogamy. Are people instinctively competitive? Are men competitive? Are women competitive? There’s all this discussion about it and then finally at the end of the play, I guess they begin talking and specifically Teri begins talking about the irreducible complexity of every individual life. And I don’t like to give that much respect in general because I feel like that is the business of most fiction—to honor the “complexity” of life. And that’s the kind of thing that’s generally celebrated in the kind of bourgeois fiction we like to read about the emotions that privileged people feel and the tiny, miniature experiences we all go through, and how supposedly meaningful our lives are. And yet, as an antidote to all the bullshit that we say that gets us into trouble, the positioning and posturing that leads us into war, those kind of tiny individual experiences can sometimes be the balm, the olive branch. You know, if you could say to the leader of ISIS, “Well, what was your tenth birthday party like?” and you could get him to talk about that, maybe he’d put down the machete for a couple of minutes and not cut off someone’s head. I mean, it’s in the contemplation of our actual private, intimate experience of life that we can’t undertake the more brutal, or ideological, actions that continually fuck us up.
And when you break down Teri’s speech and what has governed her life—you know, she says earlier to Chris, “But it’s not your mind that loves her, it’s your heart”—she’s someone who seems to have perpetually acted, despite all evidence that maybe she should change her course, she acts from her heart, like over and over and over again. She acts out love, whatever that means, really. And in a way she’s akin to Bev [in Clybourne Park] in that regard. Once again you’ve got this play with people, and it’s usually men, fighting each other and yelling and screaming and killing each other and then a woman says, “Wouldn’t it be nice just to sit at the table and have a meal?” And unfortunately, Bruce, for better or worse, you gotta own it, the end of this play they sit down and have a meal of sorts.
Well you know, it’s funny, with Clybourne Park… I always feel that the success that was accorded to Clybourne Park has been a function of a misunderstanding of my intentions. There were people who thought I wanted to create an optimistic ending for that play, when in fact my real intention was to create a kind of horribly awful irony. That Bev’s optimism was utterly misplaced and would never be borne out by the actions of her suicidal son. And so everyone who wanted to shed a tear over the end of Clybourne Park, I wanted to say to them, “But she’s a fool. She’s an absolute blind fool who goes on saying these optimistic bromides because she doesn’t know what else to do.” And in the case of The Qualms, the urgency of recovering from the immediate war that’s happened in the room is such that I’m willing to say: maybe an optimistic, bourgeois bromide—here and there and for five minutes, and quickly dispensed with shortly thereafter—maybe an optimistic bromide is a nice thing to do for someone else, occasionally, as a personal gesture. I wouldn’t want to base a life around it, but it’s not a terrible thing.