Princetonian Marvin Cheiten’s latest play is about a world super power invading a small middle eastern country. Titled "Zenobia," this is not about the current war but rather is set in the third century. Zenobia was a seductive "warrior" queen of the small country of Palmyra, who, by her own devising, incurred the wrath of the super power the Roman Empire. Palmyra was located where the eastern part of Syria is today.
Cheiten finds it very striking that he was writing this play before the United States invaded Iraq. "The parallel is scary," he says. "The underlying message of my play is how dreadful war is. War destroys virtually everyone on both sides."
As we talk in a booth at the Yankee Doodle Tap Room of the Nassau Inn on a Saturday afternoon, dodging wedding celebrants, Cheiten tells the story of Zenobia. A friend had introduced him to this historical character with the lure, "I think you’ll like her." So, he began researching and finding out everything he could about the exotic queen. "This woman lived within me for eight years," Cheiten says. When he finally set down to write the script, it only took him three months. "It went very easily when I got to the writing because I knew her so well and the people around her."
Last year, Princeton Summer Theater did a staged reading of the play, and under the same directorial hand, of Dan Berkowitz, will mount a full production Thursday through Sunday, August 18 through 21. (Berkowitz and Cheiten met years ago when they were college interns at the McCarter Theater and just figuring out their career goals. Cheiten received a PhD in French literature at Princeton in 1971.) Cheiten is pleased to have his old friend and collaborator fly in from California, where he is the west coast member liaison for the Dramatists Guild of America, to direct his play. "He’s painstakingly faithful to what I’m trying to do in my work," Cheiten says.
The cast includes two Equity actors, Marwa Bernstein, in the title role, and Lucas Beck, as Zenobia’s love, the Palmyrene general Zabdas, who recently played Romeo in a national tour of "Romeo and Juliet." The cast also includes actors from Princeton Summer Theater.
Zenobia, the daughter of a tradesman, married the king of Palmyra, who died under mysterious circumstances. Did she give him a little push to the hereafter? No one knows. But she ascended the throne and with the aid of her "boyfriend," the greatest general of the country, began a series of adventures. Because she perceived the Roman Empire as being in disarray, she decided to start "gobbling up" little chunks of Roman territory in the eastern fringes of the empire. She must have been quite impressive, as she managed to manipulate her lover general to do her bidding against his better judgment. "He feared that if they took enough of the Roman Empire, it would counterattack, which they most assuredly did," Cheiten says.
The play covers what he describes as Zenobia’s "golden age," when she was advancing, and her not-so-golden age, when she was retreating. Not just an historical epic, the play concerns her inner journey as well. Her downfall politically set in motion events that forced her to grow as a person. "To my mind, she is a great hero," says Cheiten. "Hers is a story of fall and redemption."
One of the characters in the play is the spirit of Cleopatra, to whom Zenobia has often been compared. Cheiten assures me that Zenobia certainly admired the Egyptian queen and emulated her by bringing philosophers and poets to her country. Like Cleopatra, Zenobia was beautiful, alluring, and able to win over hearts of certain great Romans. But as we all know, Cleopatra did not come to a happy-ever-after ending. "That part of the history Zenobia does not seem to have remembered," Cheiten says. The spirit Cleo in the play acts as a confidant and alter ego for Zenobia. History and legend give various final chapters to Zenobia’s story. Readers will have to see the play to learn how her character ends up but Cheiten says that his ending is closer to what really happened.
Perhaps the most remarkable element of this play is that is it is written in iambic pentameter. That’s right, think Shakespeare. (Iambic pentameter is the meter that consists of five "feet," each of which contains a short, unstressed syllable followed by a long, stressed, syllable) The fact that Cheiten finds it easier writing in iambic pentameter than in contemporary English is very telling about Cheiten himself. A poet and playwright, he likes the constraints of these forms as well as the added discipline iambic pentameter demands.
Cheiten has written two other plays in this verse form: "Queen Jane," produced in 1976 at Forbes College, Princeton; and a work with a contemporary setting, "The Vault," produced in 1980 at the Theater Center in Philadelphia. In all, Cheiten has written seven full-length plays that have been produced, and numerous poems, short stories, sketches, and song lyrics. Over the years, two of his stories and five of his poems have been included in the US 1 annual summer fiction issue. "I’ve never not written," he says.
What Cheiten finds "heartwarming" about blank verse is that "there is a clear constraint about what you can do and what you can’t do. The lines have to be in iambic pentameter, sometimes rhymed, most of the time they’re not. You can’t go too far afield from what you’re saying because of the nature of the line. I find that very appealing. Certainly, this is easier than contemporary English, which I don’t completely understand. Blank verse flows so beautifully. I know exactly what I have to do."
In his play, "The Vault," the hero decides that he hates his life and will lock himself in a vault and stay there. The other characters in the play are good and bad spirits who comment on his life and advise him. Talk about constraint!
The parameters of Cheiten’s world also seem to be carefully defined. He has lived in Princeton since graduating from the university. He has built a very orderly life with a circle of long-time friends, his writing, and philanthropic work supporting his favorite arts organizations. He has long been a supporter of Princeton Summer Theater and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. "Because I don’t have a wife and children," he focuses on "adopting" organizations that he finds "artistically meritorious." He was active in the fundraising effort that refurbished the theater where "Zenobia" will be performed.
A trustee of the symphony for the past 12 years, he says that he has seen them grow from a wonderful small chamber orchestra to an impressive symphony orchestra. "I’m very proud of that group." He feels that individual support for the arts is essential because government support is tenuous. With individuals, you have their personal investment of not only their money, but also their enthusiasm, which translates as bodies in the seats, word of mouth, and rousing applause. At times, he feels that his encouragement has been the impetus for an artist or group to continue working. "Sometimes the difference between going on or quitting is much less than one might think."
In October, 2004, a song of Cheiten’s own composition, "Go On," premiered at Richardson Auditorium. Mark Laycock, music director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, set the lyrics to music, and the orhcestra performed the song – a kind of anthem – with singer Steve Bogardus, whose Broadway credits include "Man of La Mancha," "James Joyce’s The Dead," and "Love! Valour! Compassion!" Laycock also set to music a short story Cheiten wrote called "A Little English Girl," which premiered in February, 2005, as part of the Princeton Symphony’s Chamber Series at the 1860 House in Montgomery.
Cheiten was born in New Brunswick and raised in Highland Park. His father, Samuel Cheiten, was for many years the president of the Water Master Company, a hardware manufacturing company founded by his father. The company has always been a part of Cheiten’s professional life but he says that through all these years, "my love has been the writing that I have done since I was a young boy in the Lower School at Rutgers Prep." Both Cheiten’s father and mother, a former actress, were involved in the arts. As a child, he was taken to concerts and plays at an early age. When he was five, he was taken to the Metropolitan Opera for "The Magic Flute," "which I totally didn’t understand but I knew it was so wonderful." He says that though his father certainly had many business commitments, he always found time to talk to his son about what they had seen or what a film meant. "He was always there to discuss literary things." Regarding both parents, Cheiten says: "I always knew where their hearts were. I don’t think it would have been possible to have two better parents. They made it very easy to grow up."
He feels that he was exceedingly fortunate to have attended Rutgers Prep, where each student received individual attention. When he enrolled, there were just 12 students in his class, which grew to 22 by graduation. "We thought it was a population explosion," says Cheiten.
Early on, his teachers realized his intense interest in literature and writing and were very supportive. He read Racine in French when he was 12 or 13, and considers this poet/playwright as the writer who has influenced him the most. As he talks about "Andromache," the play the first made Racine’s name, he becomes more animated. "Orestes (the son of Agamemnon) goes crazy on stage and yet he keeps speaking in rhymed couplets. I think that’s so great! Even in madness, he keeps this verse style." Is it any wonder that Cheiten is writing in verse form, too?
Even his doctoral thesis followed the theme of constraints: Cheiten wrote about the 17th century French poet/playwright Paul Scarron, who was crippled for life. Cheiten says that Scarron had described himself as only able to move his fingers and his eye lashes. (He was a comic writer, best known for his influence on Moliere.)
"One of the reasons I write the number of things, and in the way I have, is because I take the time. I tend to be very sedentary. To my mind, if I lived my entire life in Princeton and died here, I don’t know that I would consider that a tragedy. A part of me is fascinated by the rest of the human race, but I am very, very sedentary. I’ve lived in a very small radius of this town. Sometimes in my worst, or perhaps, better moments, I compare myself to Emily Dickenson, who lived and died in Amherst, was known to the people around her but not much beyond that."
With "Zenobia," Cheiten may be peeking out at a wider world, even for himself. But for now, his hope is that the audience will be touched by his play, and that it will go on to be performed by other theaters. New York? "That would be lovely," muses Cheiten. Looking at his body of work – plays, stories, and poems – he sums up by saying" "I’d be terribly gratified if after I’m gone, a few of my writings lived on, were appreciated and understood. If one or two are remembered, I really would believe that I had succeeded."
Zenobia, Thursday through Saturday, August, 18 to 20, 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, August 20 and 21, at 2 p.m., Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater. $10. 609-258-7062.