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Essay

Letter from Tim: Marjorie Prime

Tess: What are humans like?
Marjorie: Unpredictable.
Tess: Really? I think we’re pretty predictable. Or at least I feel predictable.
Marjorie: I see.
Tess: What.
Marjorie: You want to be more human too. 
Marjorie Prime, by Jordan Harrison

I have the same reluctance to talk about the role artificial intelligence plays in Marjorie Prime as I had to discuss the nuclear meltdown setting of Anne Washburn’s acclaimed Mr. Burns. In some respects, both plays feel as if they were written in response to our pop culture’s unslakeable appetite for certain sensationalistic science fiction tropes. In Washburn’s post-electric landscape, the highest priority is not to restart the generators but to save the narratives. Similarly Marjorie Prime has no hint of overworked storylines about robots usurping humans. The nonhuman characters in the play, called “Primes,” only exist to try to mimic human identity, to provide humanesque comfort. The skill with which Jordan spins out his plot is as efficient as it is dazzling. And the accumulation of clues about how this world comes together provides one of the “prime” pleasures of the play. But the primary focus of the play is decidedly human.

When I first read Marjorie Prime, I had to blink my eyes several times to clear away my expectations about what it would be. Several years ago, Julia Hansen, former president of the Drama League, approached me about a new commissioning program she was spearheading in conjunction with the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado. Her thought was that three playwrights sponsored by three different theaters would attend the week-long conference and would find inspiration there for a play. I suggested Jordan because I felt confident that any kind of “idea play” he might conceive would elude any preconceptions she or I might have as to what constitutes an “idea play.” I also thought the assignment might challenge and stretch him, and a week in Aspen could amuse him. I checked in with Jordan a few months after he returned and found his response to my query about whether he found inspiration there a bit cagey. And when he eventually turned in his commission a few years later, it did indeed feel unlike any “idea play” I could imagine. I asked Jordan what inspired the play, and he told me about an evening at home where a small reminder of his grandmother triggered a flood of powerful, emotional memories filled with sweetness and loss. (It reminded me of the well-known Proust quotation: “The only true paradises are the paradises that are lost.”) Suddenly the air cleared. Great art never follows expectation. Hand Jordan
Harrison the assignment to write an idea play and he writes perhaps his most personal (and effortlessly original) play yet. The creation of the “Primes” in the play in a way mimics the efforts of the artist to recreate and recapture the lost, precious, combustible Other that haunts our memories. And the efforts of the Primes to evoke the evanescent humanity that is expected of them play into that same dynamic. There is something profoundly touching and artful about Jordan’s
depiction of their attempts to acquire Artificial Emotional Intelligence. The
result is perhaps the most Proustian science fiction story ever told.

I am proud to reunite Anne Kauffmann with Jordan for this production of
Marjorie Prime, their third collaboration together, and the fourth time this indispensable shepherd of new work has directed a play at Playwrights Horizons. It also the fourth time the great Lois Smith has done a play for us. I am grateful for the special relationship Lois holds with this theater and especially for her fierce devotion to this special play. She is a national treasure.

Tim Sanford
Artistic Director