March 23, 2014
My friend, Richard P., a professor at Lake ForestCollege, used to work at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. He would invite friends to previews, so I got to see a lot of theatre. And he would invite me to have lunch with living playwrights. The joke goes, it’s easier to work with dead playwrights—they can’t complain.
I twice had lunch with Pulitzer Prize winner, August Wilson, as the Goodman staged his plays, “Ma Rainy’s Black Bottom,” and “The Piano Lesson.” August, now sadly gone before his time, wrote a play for every decade of the Twentieth Century, on African American themes. He was self effacing, chain smoking (he smoked in “No Smoking” places all the time) and funny. He was raised in Pittsburgh, and his plays reflect on the lives of poor black people, particularly their family memories and how the past is always present. August told me he had a phobia about being alone, which is ironic considering how writing is such a lonely occupation. He lived in Minneapolis, and when his wife went to work, he would gather up pencils and notebooks and drive to a bar that opened early. And there he wrote his masterpieces, perched on a bar stool and writing in long hand on yellow legal notepads. He asked far more questions of me than I did of him. His pet peeve was the “Chitlin Circuit,” small theatres featuring plays that embraced black stereotypes. Tyler Perry came from that background. If you wanted to get August Wilson on his soapbox, mention “Madea,” the motherly icon of the Chitlin Circuit.
Steve Tesich and his family emigrated from then Yugoslavia when he was quite young. The family ended up living in East Chicago, Indiana, and he attended IndianaUniversity, which inspired him to write the wonderful film, “Breaking Away,” about the rivalry between working class boys and college students, particularly in, of all things, bicycle racing. “Breaking Away” is drop dead funny. Steve was not funny. His play, “The Speed of Darkness,” opened at the Goodman Theatre in 1989. Three Vietnam vets meet and drink and reveal very dark secrets. On the last preview night, I sat with Steve Tesich in the back row. We watched in amazement as the play’s darkest moment unfurled. Suddenly, five or six men in the audience got up from their seats, walked down the aisle and climbed onto the stage and lay in fetal positions in front of the astonished cast, and wept. They were Vietnam veterans (a group of vets had been invited to the performance); Steve’s words rang so true to them, they forgot about the Fourth Wall of theatre. Steve Tesich died of a heart attack in 1996. He was only fifty-eight.
Lanford Wilson was a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright for his work, “The Fifth of July.” He was born and raised in rural Missouri, not the most welcoming environment for a gay man. He became estranged from his family, as many writers do, and began to write plays for Off Off Broadway. His first success was the wonderful comedy, “The Hot L Baltimore.” In 1987, his play, “Burn This,” opened at Steppenwolf Theatre (home theatre for Edwardsville actor, Laurie Metcalf). My friend at the Goodman, Richard P., arranged for me to attend the final preview of the play and meet Lanford and the star, John Malkovitch. Once again, the audience was made up of Vietnam veterans. There was a meet and greet after the performance, with refreshments, and John and Landon chain smoking and sitting on the stage apron and talking to the vets. It was amazing to me, how powerful live theatre could be, how great playwrights could place a metaphorical hand on the hearts of an audience. Wilson’s eyes were downcast and he wasn’t particularly friendly. Malkovitch’s eyes were crossed. You had to focus, to talk to him.
In 1995, I had supper with the great Horton Foote, when his Pulitzer Prize winning play, “The Young Man from Atlanta,” opened at the Goodman Theatre. We sat backstage and talked, Mr. Foote dressed in a three piece suit and leaning on two canes, and watched the play’s star, the irascible Rip Torn, pacing the stage and sipping from a coffee cup (Mr. Foote said the cup held whiskey). I told Mr. Foote, now an elderly man, that I had memorized the score of his Oscar winning movie, “To Kill A Mockingbird” (he also wrote the film, “Tender Mercies”). He laughed and said, “You may begin.” I recited about two pages worth of dialogue, Mr. Foote clapping, and then I hummed the wonderful music score. He talked about his friends, Nell Harper Lee and Gregory Peck. About an hour before the play was to begin, Mr. Foote and I sat on chairs at stage left and watched the stage manager running through a checklist. A cell phone rang. Mr. Foote patted his jacket pocket and pulled out his phone. “Excuse me, Mr. Baldwin,” the playwright drawled in his Texas accent. “Hello? Oh—a moment.” Then Horton Foote put a hand over the phone’s microphone and said, “I have to take this. It’s Bobby Duvall, wishing me to ‘break a leg.’” Robert Duvall, a graduate of PrincipiaCollege (just down the road from Genehouse), who played Boo Radley, in Mr. Foot’s masterpiece. I had an impulse, to grab the phone and shout, Bobby, please read my plays!
But I didn’t. I am a footnote, in art. I write things and file them away. Maybe ten people have read my plays and short stories and poems. Yes, I have had about fifteen play productions and published stories and poetry, but mostly I write for one: me. I lost my ambition when my mother was tragically murdered. This Chronicle is my confession. Ironically, the playwrights mentioned in this piece are all dead.
My birthday is March 11. Edward Albee’s birthday is March 12. Horton Foote’s birthday is March 14. I know: coincidence. Yet: “One of these things is not like the others.”
“I have a theory, that from the time you’re twelve years old, your themes are all kind of locked in.” Horton Foote, writer. Died March 24, 2009.