Tim Sanford and Madeleine George on The (curious case of) the Watson Intelligence
Tim: What came first for you, writing or theater?
Madeleine: It’s funny because I was just talking about this with my friend, the great playwright Rob Handel. We were talking about the different ways to get into writing plays. Some playwrights come from poetry and they get in through image and some come from acting and they get in through action or objective. I have a vivid memory of being in my acting class in college and being up there in the middle of an improv and feeling language just kind of volleying forth from me and my acting teacher standing at the back of the room as I was trying to improv the scene, shouting “Objective, Objective, OBJECTIVE!” [Laughter] I come at it from a delight in the surface topography of language as spoken by human beings. I think I can safely say that that is my entry point into plays. And I studied linguistics as an undergraduate, not theater, and I love listening to people talk.
When did you first notice plays? What play first turned you on?
One of my earliest memories of playgoing is going to Amahl and the Night Visitors when I was like two-and-a-half years old. There’s a story in my family that my mother had said, “Well I always cry at the end of Amahl and the Night Visitors…” and then we went to see this community theater production and at the point at the end where Amahl is taking leave of his mother to go visit the Christ child my mother said she looked over and I was leaning forward in my chair, looking at her to see: Was she crying as she had promised she would cry at this crucial moment in the play? That interested me early, wringing emotion out of people, seeing them transform from one state into another.
And did you participate in theater yourself?
I did typical theater-y kid stuff, like, some acting-y stuff. I tried my hand at set design, which I hoped I would be good at, but I was a disaster.
Were you like Watson, you didn’t have steady hands?
Exactly. I sawed apart pieces of scenery that were already hung in the flies moments before Opening Night, I dropped beams on people, I blew the whole budget on like giant octagonal twenty-hundred pound set pieces.
This was in college?
High school and college. I tried really hard. Anyway... I have no visual or three-dimensional sensibility and I was nothing for the stage myself but I was obsessed with language.
Was your interest in language drawing you into the theater at this point?
I mean, when I was an undergraduate I thought, “Well, I have to get serious.” I studied a number of different languages and I went abroad. I took mostly Linguistics. I wanted to know how language worked, very specifically. But then I began to feel like the lives of linguists, extraordinary though they are, are so laser-like—those people are, like, experts on the gradual transformation of a single clitic in a language that no longer exists. You know what I mean? They’re very, very focused. And I felt like I wanted to ask bigger questions about language and using language.
What’s a clitic?
It’s a kind of affix of interest to syntacticians and nerds who like to make double entendres.
What was the first play you wrote that you’re willing to talk about?
That I’m willing to talk about? I was in the Young Playwrights Festival when I was a teenager.
Oh, that’s right. Was that at Playwrights Horizons or the Public?
In 1993 we were at Playwrights and in 1994 it was at the Public.
What were the plays?
The one at the Public was about transformation in its dramaturgy. The one here was a sweet sentimental little romance.
But you were a high school student. I’m trying to reconcile things you said. You were self-identifying as a writer in high school?
I wrote plays in high school, yes. We did student-produced, student-written play festivals.
And what college did you go to?
Is there a theater department at Cornell?
They had a good theater program. But I didn’t participate very much, I mean I did a little run crew, I destroyed a few sets, I took an acting class… I got screamed “Objective!” at…
So here you have this incredible resume of being a playwright as a high school student but you didn’t really pursue it.
I mean I was commuting back and forth to Cornell to do the Young Playwrights Festivals, but I don’t know why I didn’t study more theater there. I think I was afraid to learn too much about theater in a formal way.
What was the premise of the one with transformation?
It’s four women in the waiting room of a liposuction clinic. They wait, and there’s lots of different kinds of found language woven into it, nursery rhymes and chants, and then they interact with each other in real time and in memory and then they have monologues, and…
Is it all contained in one sort of dream time?
And it’s all pre-surgery, for all of them?
Mhm. And at the end they make a sort of bold feminist choice not to have the surgery, in a kind of abstract way.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Cool. So you made the choice at Cornell not to pursue theater seriously?
I didn’t really study theater there in a serious way. But then I was desperate to move to New York, and I was too afraid to do it on my own, so I went to NYU. Right away. From being an undergraduate I went to NYU for graduate school. Which was great for me because I met a lot of people who are really important to me now, other playwrights.
You’re jumping over a step; you went to graduate school in writing, right?
What made you make the shift back to theater?
I mean, I was writing plays the whole time.
Are those the plays you submitted to NYU?
Yeah, what did I submit? I don’t know. Very luckily, I got in. I met Anne Washburn on the first day that I went to NYU, in a stairwell; that was a fateful meeting for me because she ended up being one of the people I collaborated with on this theater company that I was part of.
You’re talking about 13P?
Yeah. And I had some really amazing teachers when I was there. Particularly ones like—Lynne Alvarez was a really important teacher to me. Mac Wellman.
Anne Washburn mentioned Lynne Alvarez too.
Did she? Lynne Alvarez—I had this crazy experience with her where I hated being in her class up until about the last week of the semester when I suddenly realized that she was a total genius and that the way that she had kicked our asses was entirely appropriate and intelligent.
How did she kick your ass?
She was very acerbic and I was, you know, twenty-one and I was really fragile and defensive as a graduate student, and she was ruthless about what was dramatic and functional and what was not. But it was all to the good in the end.
Was it anything like the teacher yelling “objective, objective” from the back?
You know the thing that I loved about her was that she had a bunch of advice in the end for me that was like, “Well it doesn’t matter. You can try or not try to be better or smarter and it doesn’t matter because you’re just a playwright and there’s nothing you can do about it and you’re just going to have to yield to that.” There was something great about having her do that kind of close, spot-critical work on the writing itself, while also basically being like, “None of these criticisms reflect on the essential truth, which is that you’re just going to keep doing this whether you want to or not and I know because it happened to me and it’s obviously happening to you too and you are just going to have to carry on and be a playwright.”
Are you saying you were obsessively self-critical and this helped free you from that?
I continue to ask, even at this moment, “What is it to be a playwright? Is it the right thing is it the right thing is it the right thing?” On some level, there’s always a battle for my soul between utility in the world and the transcendence of art. So far, I have never felt completely comfortable with just devoting myself to making artwork.
When you say utility do you mean…
Something that brings a hammer down on the world, in a way, changes it.
Kant differentiated between the good, the beautiful, and the sublime. And he said, “The good has a use.” Is that what you mean?
I think that’s what I mean.
In your first play, there’s a theme to it, there’s a pro-feminist message in it.
And do you feel pressure in your plays to embrace that in some respect?
It’s more that I feel a bifurcation in the division of my time and my life. I often feel impatient with agitprop; in many instances I feel like that’s the worst possible conflation of those two impulses and that that kind of art neither transcends nor transforms the world. I don’t really believe that art creates social change; social change is made by policy and activism and stuff like that.
A couple of your plays like The Zero Hour and Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England have a little undercurrent of coming-out drama within them.
Yeah, but they’re not positioned to open up something in the world that hasn’t already opened. They may have gay people in them but that’s just because I happen to know a lot of them and love them. I don’t mean for the plays to be instruments of justice, per se.
That’s not what’s driving the plays.
I guess on some level it’s nice if lesbians, particularly butch lesbians, get to be in plays—they don’t get to be in them very often, so it’s good when that happens. But first of all they never have been in those plays of mine when they’ve been done. The plays have only ever been cast with beautiful and lovely straight women who have been fantastic. [Laughter]
Well it’s kind of the Catch-22 isn’t it? There are some butch lesbians that are making a living acting but it’s hard.
It is hard. It is hard. I mean I feel like if I wanted to—first of all there are people who are working on problems of visibility and gender representation in casting right now. Again I would say that to write a play to make that happen is an excellent thing but it’s not the way that I would attack the problem head on. I don’t think. That’s not what I want art to do anyway, or not exclusively. If you want a play to heal your soul on some level then it can’t be focused on altering the exigencies of the material world. Although I could be wrong about this, I don’t know.
Is that what you want? Plays that heal? Have you stopped looking over at your mother to see if she’s moved and are focused on yourself, if you’re moved?
Well you catch me in the middle of the preview process when I’m keenly aware of my responsibility to the play, to the characters, to the actors, and to the audience. And they all need somewhat different things.
Let’s talk about your adult plays. I named two of them.
The Zero Hour, Precious Little, Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England, and The Watson Intelligence.
Precious Little I’ve only read a synopsis of. Was that before The Zero Hour or after?
Did you write The Zero Hour as part of NYU or after NYU?
After. I basically wrote nothing at NYU, I was in a fortress of…
Aren’t you sort of made to write at NYU?
I really worked hard not to write anything while I was there. I was there for three years but I spent nearly all of my energy learning how to be a teacher, because that was how I paid my way through school.
Who were you teaching?
Freshmen. I taught expository writing, which I then went on to do for years afterwards. I was very animated by that problem of learning how to teach, and very fiercely defensive against the people who were trying to reach me in my own department. And all my energy sort of went in this other direction and I barely wrote anything at all.
Are you being self-effacing? You must have written something.
I mean I wrote a thing, I wrote a thesis play quote un-quote.
So you wrote The Zero Hour when? After getting out of NYU?
I started to write it in a serious way when I was living in Germany in 1999. I was there for a few months for this multi-cultural theater project I was a part of.
The Zero Hour has Nazis in it, including an All-American Nazi, right?
Right. There are all these Nazis that are living incognito in NYC at the turn of the millennium and in the play they are played by the actor who plays the girlfriend of this closeted girl, a Jewish woman who is writing a Holocaust textbook for 7th graders. So there are two actors in that play, basically, and they rotate in and out of a series of roles.
But in the production the All-American Nazi was—
Well there’s one scene in the play, towards the end, when a guy—the All-American Nazi—walks on stage and plays a scene with the closeted girl—I really love that, it makes it so unproduceable but I just—that is delightful to me when the random other actor comes in.
It explodes in a frenzy of indulgence from a two-character to a three-character play.
But because it’s only a two-character play that’s such a massive violation of the rules when that happens and I really enjoy it.
Me too. Did you write the whole thing in Germany?
I started to draft it in Germany because I was thinking a lot about guilt, responsibility and honesty, and I was having the kinds of righteous youthful feelings that young Americans have in Germany. I mean I had this idea for a piece of public art in Germany where I would go around to all the Holocaust memorials, because they’re everywhere but no one can see them—you know, they say that memorials are an aid to amnesia, once you put up the memorial then you can forget because the granite will stand there and hold the memory for you, and then grass grows over it and you can’t even see it anymore—and I had this fantasy of running around Dresden with spray paint spraying “Guck Mal!”—you know, “Look!”—on the sidewalk in front of all these memorials. But then I came back from Germany when the theater project fell apart and I was walking around New York and was like, “Oh, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire happened there,” and “Oh, there’s a potter’s field under here.” “Here’s the African Burial Ground.” I became like, memorial obsessed. I could see them all over in my own city. And the righteousness started to come undone. The Zero Hour really came out of that moment.
Were you still conflicted about being a writer? Did you think you were going to be an expository writing teacher?
Sometimes I think, romantically, that I needed to learn how to teach because that particular process of teaching people how to write essays was really teaching people—myself included—how to think critically, which is important to me.
Sam Hunter said he wrote The Whale out of teaching expository writing at Rutgers.
Totally. It’s extremely rigorous to work with people to—I mean, if you’re teaching people to write the five-paragraph essay or compare-and-contrast, it’s not necessarily rigorous, but if you’re teaching people to engage with things that are outside of themselves and make thoughtful, supported claims about those things, that’s it. Everything is that. That’s the only gesture that matters. But you see what I’m saying about utility, like, I was working on Precious Little at Clubbed Thumb and I was doing my day job and then going to the rehearsal room and then at night when I was supposed to be rewriting I would be like, “Well do I spend my time ministering to these imaginary people or do I spend my time working on the writing of these human beings who are genuinely doing something with me right now in this really real way?” That kind of split is persistent in my life.
Talk about Precious Little a bit.
Precious Little is, to continue the theme of obsession with language, the story is about a linguist who collects and studies dying languages. She’s single but she decides to get pregnant and she discovers that the fetus has an abnormality which may result in not being able to acquire language and she—this is where it takes a left turn—through an encounter with this gorilla at the zoo, who’s been sent there because it was part of a language acquisition study that was defunded, she encounters this animal and over the course of developing a relationship with this animal she comes to understand that there is this entire valence of communication which has nothing whatsoever to do with words, and maybe it’s possible to have deep communication with another being outside of what has been her only bandwidth.
So there are encounters with Nazis on the train, then there’s an encounter with a gorilla, there’s encounters with Neanderthals in dioramas in Seven Homeless Mammoths, and there’s an encounter with a computer man. Although maybe you could say that Merrick is gorilla-like at times.
I know you don’t like him.
I love him!
He’s wonderful. He’s a wonderful guy! [Laughter]
Especially as a character on the stage. Right?
I love that character. I was saying to my friends yesterday, “I guess the foundational gesture of my dramaturgy is A Person Stands at a Desk and Shouts.” [Laughter] Every one of my plays features large portions where a person just stands at a desk and shouts. And that’s Merrick in this play.
I guess I threw that out because what you said about engaging with things outside of the self, and those are all pretty out-there versions of other people.
I think, maybe with the exception of Nazis, although not necessarily, these are ways to ask questions about the human. These are kinds of things that are human and not human, or they’re not human but anthropomorphized.
Now I’m assuming you’re a pretty great expository prose teacher, to listen to you; would it damage Madeleine the writer for you as that teacher to give me a thematic assessment of her? Could you do that?
I don’t know. I don’t know that it would damage me, that it’s so precious and delicate or anything, but I just don’t know. I have been thinking a lot about what part of the human soul language occupies. How does language itself get at these questions that I’m also interested in, about others and ethics? This transformation thing is key to it, I think, because language is unique to each person, almost all utterances are unique and have never occurred before and they will never occur again, and they arise very specifically from the dense matrix of identity that the person who is speaking occupies. And yet: language is the thing we have in common. It’s our way of understanding each other. So it’s like different different different, and the same the same the same.
That fiber of sameness and difference somehow feels to me like the essence of what connects us as human beings. The crackly static-y specificity of that stuff, of this crazy web of words and meaning that we’re surrounded by all the time.
It seems to me that just as important as the dazzling crackle of language you find in your plays are those points in them where we feel the insufficiency of language. It’s been a long time since I’ve had any encounters with semiotics but I remember feeling it raised the question of “Is there anything beneath the sign? Or is it all just the sign?”
This is why you have to just like leave academia in the dust because what is that? I mean, really, really, honestly? Are we really gonna ask that question? Is there anything beneath the sign? I’m so over it oh my god I can’t even / even bear it.
That’s why you do theater, right? Because you can ask these questions in a different way: you can use time, space, human beings, and material objects to ask these questions. There’s something irreducible and at the same time 100% evanescent about it. That is the great thing about theater. Made of nothing; made of everything.
It seems there is a common thread in these plays about the difficulties of relationships and how far our empiric minds can go to sustain them and what challenges them and what forces break them apart.
I guess if you’re asking questions about the nature of human beings immediately you’re asking questions about relationships. Relationship is how we see human beings.
You made an off-the-cuff remark with Adam the other night where you said “The Zero Hour and The Watson Intelligence are the same play,” or something to that extent.
Well they’re painfully similar. From my perspective.
In what way are they the same?
Well, in that they’re breakup stories, first of all—the arc of Watson is a little bit bigger but basically it’s a breakup story—and it’s a story of one character who gets left in the dust by another and then there’s this thing where a person keeps bopping around on the side of the central character becoming different things. It’s different in many ways but the spinal cord of the play is the same. It’s like, people wish they could be in love but it turns out it’s really hard and painful.
Another possible essay one could write on your work—I’m sure it delights you for me to phrase it that way—in Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England, the premise involves an encounter with early man and whether to do away with some dioramas or not, and implicit in that tension is our relationship to our historical selves and how we developed, and whether we do away with that in a way is like the voices saying, “We don’t need to teach humanities anymore.”
Yeah, right, right.
And then part of this play is turning your gaze in the other direction, toward the future.
I guess, although it’s full of Victoriana.
Exactly. It looks both ways.
As I’ve worked on this play, a couple of people have asked me, “What do you think is going to happen in the future with these kinds of technologies?” But I don’t know, for me personally, the reason to write about technology is not to speculate about the future but to ask the oldest questions. You know what I mean? How do the new technologies engage the oldest questions?
In some ways the most relevant speeches about our relationship to technology are from Merrick, the way he talks about the gun, the way he fantasizes about this… this… How would you describe his fantasy machine?
His restraint chair?
His restraint chair.
After the first preview I came home and I was like, “Well, one great thing is that I will never now have to wonder what it’s like to sit in a room full of strangers while a scene that I wrote about a man clamping a woman into a restraint chair is performed. I now know how that feels.”
And how did it feel?
Extremely uncomfortable. Now I know! And every time it comes around, I’m just like, “And... here comes the restraint chair again.”
It’s pretty terrible. But I wrote it.
The way Merrick talks about what he wants from technology and the tools that have yet to be invented that will serve us at every turn—in a way it’s good that it’s in this incredibly discomfiting frame. There’s a hint of Frankenstein in it.
The central thing that’s interesting for me about technology and relationships is that the purpose of technology is to improve comfort and ease, and that’s a worthy purpose, but the fact of the matter is there’s no improving the comfort of relationships. Relationships are, by definition, uncomfortable. Or you’re not in one. And so, like, that’s an interesting mistake to make. To think that you’re going to be able to bring technological improvement to bear on what is in some ways the most intractable problem of our existence: other people. That’s an interesting mistake because it’s literally its own undoing.
In order to have what relationship will bring you, which is arguably everything that’s worth having in the world, you have to experience unbearable things.
What were the early “Aha” moments that led to this play? Was it “I’m watching Jeopardy and there’s Watson,” and “Oh, yea, Sherlock Holmes, and oh! computers,” or was it “Computers! And then Sherlock Holmes then Bell…”
I had a moment where I was like, “Oh, there are all these Watsons that are helpers.”
Did you always know about the Bell Watson?
Yea, I always knew about the Bell Watson. That was told as a story in our family.
I don’t know, I guess it’s a pretty famous story; my dad’s a scientist so we had a lot of fun bedtime stories about [Albert] Sabin and [Jonas] Salk and the discovery of penicillin and other things that… so I don’t know when I learned about, “Mr. Watson, come here I want to see you,” but pretty early.
What was the first scene you wrote?
The office scene with Merrick and Watson.
And for a long time that was the first scene of the play.
Yea. But then when Leigh Silverman and I were working on it at Berkeley Rep, we were like, “This relationship is not at the center. This can’t be the first scene. Because the real relationship is with her. She has to have the first line of the play, and the last. She’s the one who’s going to turn in this play, not these two guys. So then quite laboriously we built the computer scene to go in front of it. Those scenes are hard to write— because, I don’t know if you know this—but that guy’s a robot. He’s not a good scene partner. It’s really hard to write those scenes.
I’m a little agape here because it’s a great first scene.
I’m glad you think so. I’m pretty happy with it now, but that scene was so hard to write. And the current scene that is driving me to my grave is the third computer scene. You’d think because I keep writing play after play with frozen inanimate statue-people in them that I’d somehow like that thing, but it’s always where I hang myself.
Would you say that the process of writing this play is similar or different from other plays? I say that knowing, because it was a commission, a little bit about what the process was. So I’m privy to the knowledge that there were more characters: that Bell was a character and Holmes was a character and that in the shaping process you moved a scene around. Is that similar to other plays you’ve written? It’s structurally complex, this play.
Yeah, it’s complicated. But I really wanted it to be linear—once we got down to the three points of this triangle, these three diseased forms of intimacy that these three people represent and their various relationships to each other, then it was possible to try to build the love story in a straightforward way, even with the time shifts.
I want to hear more about the three diseased forms of relationships.
I feel like the three characters are in some ways living embodiments of the three ways that we can go murderously wrong with other people. Dominate them, try to control them; withdraw from them, let them shrivel up, deprived of contact with us; or merge with them and in so doing destroy the separateness that creates companionship. So that’s Merrick, Eliza, and Watson.
How conscious were you—
Not at all. I definitely wanted Eliza and Merrick to be on opposite sides of the spectrum—you know, I think it’s pretty common for people to end up in relationships when they are those two different kinds of people. You know, if you withdraw, you need somebody to come get you and try to put you in a restraint chair. Or you’ll just, you know, stay in your room. But the merger dynamic is the third part of that triangle.
And the relationship to technology, which is part of the play—
This is the thing about technology as an instrument to explore intimacy: how we treat our objects is very revealing. When we treat other people badly we treat them as objects. And so looking at the way we treat objects is a way to think about how we go wrong when we interact with other people.
Modern day Eliza is the only one who interacts with two Watsons—we see her relationship with computer man—an object, a helper object, and human being Watson—who is a helpful guy—there’s overlap between these two guys.
And how would you characterize her learning curve in how the one impacts her relation to the other?
Well the third scene with computer Watson is the scene where she finally accepts that the Watson that she loves, Josh Watson, is a man.
She hasn’t fully grasped until then that he’s not just like a computer.
She’s had inklings, but now she really understands that the guy is a guy. She can’t extricate herself from him because she’s madly in love with him but she needs to extricate herself from him because she’s madly in love with him. It feels dangerous to her—she’s never had that experience before. And so how she uses the computer to help her extricate herself from love is what I’ve been working on in that scene.
So when she asks Watson earlier in the act, “Can I ask you a question? Are you in love with me?” Would she not have characterized her relationship with a man ever before as being a love relationship?
In the game of this play, she only got into this mess because she tricked herself into believing she was safe with Josh Watson because he was so recognizably a computer. Her understanding of computers being that they are perfect helpers, perfect servants, and he seemed so attuned to her—how could he be human?
How did she get involved with Merrick to begin with?
I think it’s that thing—people stumble and fall into a relationship with their diametric opposite because in fact there’s a strong pull there, but usually you have to tell yourself a bunch of reassuring stories about that person—
Well the way Victorian Eliza talks about her husband also applies to contemporary Merrick: “I thought he was so independent and then he was all over me…”
Right. And the contemporary Eliza says the same thing. I think that’s what this guy would have been like at the beginning, he would have seemed independent. He’s a libertarian, right? He seems like he’s all about independence, but then—I mean, to me libertarian philosophy looks so needy, like it wears its desperate need on its sleeve, because otherwise why do you have to protest so much about, like, all the ways you’re being infringed upon every second? They’re very open.
I mean, that’s a terrible generalization, I shouldn’t speculate on the inner lives of individual libertarians. But it just—Tea Party animus seems to me to be an acute awareness of dependence flipped on its rhetorical head and turned into an assertion of independence that is so obviously false.
And of course we’re all super dependent now, more than ever. More than ever we are intricately connected to each other and our objects for survival: natural disasters show it; economic disasters show it, and our devices show it so dramatically. We cannot live without these things anymore. We are completely helpless as soon as they go down. We cannot function. We can’t get around; we can’t remember anything.
That’s why this play and Mr. Burns are companion pieces and they should be in rep in all the regional theaters!
Can you imagine the agony of repping those two plays?
Well, one’s kind of big and one’s kind of small, so they even out to like six and a half people.... Was this play always headed for the final scene with the exes together?
From pretty early on. I spent a lot of time thinking about the structure of the play in collaboration with Leigh Silverman, who is a great dramaturg. A truly inspired dramaturg. And I was interested in this play taking the structural form of mystery, you know? In thinking about mystery as a genre. In Seven Homeless Mammoths I was interested in thinking about Shakespearean comedy as a genre and that play came rather easily because I was modeling it almost exactly on a Shakespearean comedy, so I was like, “Well, now is the forest scene, and now is the revelation scene…”
So the dioramas are like the mechanicals? The rustics?
They are literally the rustics.
Both: They are about as rustic as you can get.
For Watson I read Patricia Highsmith on suspense, and I reread all the Holmes stories. But then, because it’s a love story and a mystery at the same time, it was hard for me to figure out where the turning point would come. You know what I mean? Now I can’t remember what you asked.
I asked you did you always know they would end up—it’s like they’re two lovelorn people in a way. Eliza was the inflictor, but now she’s the inflictee.
Yea. That’s the thing that happens to them at the end: very briefly they’re able to connect and see each other, because now they both understand that other people exist. That’s the gloss of the end. If you try to destroy or control people you don’t really believe they exist, although in a way you believe it more than someone who’s like, “I don’t need anybody.” But then these two people, these two distant opposites, achieve a sort of equality, and a moment of connection, by the end.