Spring of last year in Manhattan was marked in the theater world by an Off Broadway opening of a one-man play called “Thom Pain (based on nothing).” “A small masterpiece,” wrote a rhapsodic Charles Isherwood, describing the play as “as surreal meditation on the empty promises life makes” and “an affirmation of life’s worth” and calling the author, Will Eno, “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.” The husband/wife Theatremania.com reviewing team, Barbara and Scott Siegel, wrote of the just over an hour-long work that “it contains more indelible truth, painful humor, and soaring imagination than some three-hour classics.”
In all fairness, the applause was not across the board. In an “Off Broadway Roundup” (March 16, 2005,) our US1 critic, noting its ecstatic reviews and audience reception, questioned himself saying, “It is possible I just didn’t get it,” but sums up his opinion with, “slightly more than an hour’s existential gobbledygook.” However, it surprised everyone by running for nearly a year, spanning two theater seasons at the DR2 Theater on Union Square in New York. It had debuted at a reading in London at the Soho Theater, drew audiences at the Edinburgh Festival, and returned to the Soho for more performances before heading for our shores.
The one-man play comes to McCarter Theater Monday and Tuesday, April 16 and 17, starring actor Michael Milligan. Author Will Eno, who received the Oppenheimer Award for his play “The Flu Season,” is a Helen Merrill Playwriting Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, an Edward F. Albee Foundation Fellow and was awarded the first ever Marian Seldes/Garson Kanin Fellowship by the Theatre Hall of Fame, for which he was nominated by Albee. In the United States, “Thom Pain” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Eno is currently a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, and recently shared his views on writing, Princeton, Edward Albee, and being “heroically sane” via E-mail, saying he prefers writing over talking. You’ll see why in a minute.
Is this form of communication appropriate for someone who is called an “existentialist” writer? Whatever is existentialism? That was an ism when I was in college 100 years ago. Does it have a new meaning now?
Eno: I think people call things existentialist whenever they can see that there’s a problem, but it’s not quite clear what the problem is, and whatever it is, it can’t be solved by someone with a gun. I don’t know. Thank you for letting me answer these questions by E-mail. If I can even think on my feet, at all, I don’t think very quickly. So I answered these sitting down.
What’s happening for you during your year in Princeton thanks to the Hodder Fellowship?
Eno: You meet good people in the world, and you meet smart people, but, I don’t think I have ever met as many good and smart people as I have here in Princeton. I also started playing squash. And teaching has been a great experience. I have some real world-beaters for students and I am sure they will do great and grave things in their lives. We have fun and they are very patient with me, as I clarify ideas I never knew I had, and ideas that suddenly appear, once clarified, wrong-headed.
When did you decide you were a writer?
Eno: I got a great pair of shoes a while ago, very writerly-looking shoes, but very comfy and inexpensive, and these made me feel good. I started to feel as if I looked like someone interesting, someone with a pained but inspirational history, or some Scandinavian blood or good scars. I don’t want to sound superficial. This is really a kind of truth. Believing you can do something is important to getting it done. Looking like something can help you be it. Maybe. I don’t know. Great shoes.
We always ask people where they went to school.
Eno: I went to U Mass in Amherst for a few years, until a very exciting housepainting job came up and I moved to New York. I flailed around for a few years, properly lost, doing odd jobs. I had my appendix removed and then got an almost non-paying job on Wall Street, sort of by accident, and did that for about two years until, on purpose, I quit. Whereupon, or, thereupon, I studied writing with Gordon Lish, and this has been, other than reading on my own, my main education. [Lish writes fiction, served as editor at Esquire and then Knopf; taught writing at Yale, NYU, Columbia, and most notably teaches private workshops.]
Tell me about growing up, your parents. Did you see theater as a child?
Eno: My mother and father live in Massachusetts. They are good parents for a writer to have. My dad was a lawyer and my mom liked playing Wiffle Ball. The language around the house was a nice mix of nonsense rhymes and bloodless legalisms. We had a lot of great dogs, the best having been Emily, a shepherd/collie mix. She is practically eulogized in a short play of mine called “Intermission,” which may be produced in New York this spring.
I’d say we all have the artistic bent, which sounds like a crippling disease from the 18th century but is not. My older sister lives in Oregon and is the editor of the Appalachian Mountain Club magazine, and is very outdoorsy. My brother is a therapist, in Boston, working with schizophrenics, and is somewhat more indoorsy. They are both very fine people. They have good stories and nice lives.
As a kid I once went to see the musical “1776,” about which I don’t remember much except a cloud of wig powder hanging over the stage and something about Rhode Island. Still, something about the experience remains. Theatre has always seemed to me, even in the most mundane detail, very mysterious. Even bewildering, in a way. When I started seeing plays, there was a period where I pretty regularly got panic attacks just as the lights were going down.
What play did you see that made you say, “I want to write a play.”
Eno: I couldn’t tell you the title because I don’t remember, but I didn’t like it. And I thought, “Jeez, if you’re going to bother Xeroxing the thing and, on top of that, asking these poor people to memorize it, it should really be a little more substantial.” So it was more a case of seeing the blank spaces and the possibilities, rather than seeing the successful execution of anything, that got me excited. On the positive side, about 10 years ago, I saw a production of “The Wasteland,” performed by Fiona Shaw, in a condemned theater on 42nd Street, that did not hurt, at all. Just 47 minutes, but every one perfect.
Where did the idea for “Thom Pain” come from and how do you describe what it is about?
Eno: Long long time ago, I had an idea to write something about Thomas Paine. I always liked him as a writer. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” And so on. And that stuff about the harder the conflict, the greater the triumph. The more of him I read, the more I loved him, and the more I realized that Thomas Paine was just fine without me getting involved. I re-spelled his first name, wrong, and then took a letter off the end of his second name, and I liked the way that looked on the page. Thom Pain. It looked sort of soft and hurtful — it reminded me of a broken arm.
Anyway I set off. It’s about a man named Thom, who is kind of a sufferer of things. He would be a Christ-figure if he weren’t such a jerk. He is trying, in a most literal way, to make something of his life. Tonight. With you, together with you, in the audience. He is trying to tell you the story of his life, but suddenly, now, there you are, in the audience, and you have become, for good or ill, part of the story of his life. It is only in the end, in a sort of confused moment of distration, that he comes to see things more clearly, to feel things more clearly. He changes. He grows up. Before our very eyes. In the end, the play is very much about anyone and everyone other than Thom Pain. Many people find watching the play to be an abrasive and uncomfortable experience. This is okay. I meant it to be like life can be. I also meant it to honor life, actual life, not some airy philosophical notiion of life, but real live actual life, the life that starts up again for us, right after Thom’s last line. Something like that.
Who has most influenced your writing style?
Eno: Alphabetically, they go: Albee, Beckett, DeLillo, Lish, Wilder. It’s easy, just remember: “ABDLW.” These guys are all great models of behavior for writers and people. Probably, Emily Dickinson is the best, when you are thinking about the Maximum Writer. Lish once said about DeLillo that he was “heroically sane,” and I think that is the thing for a writer to be, for anyone to be.
I’ve read that you are Albee’s protege. How did that come about? And what has that meant to you personally as a writer? It certainly makes a nice tagline when someone is describing you.
Eno: It’s a nice tagline and one I’m proud to have. I would also accept “He’s just like you, except worse,” as a tagline. Edward is a gentleman-and-a-half. I was a Fellow of the Edward F. Albee Foundation in Montauk, many years ago. I was there trying to write fiction but was banging around with some short plays. There was a very small reading of some of these plays at a tiny storefront sort of theater, to which Edward came. Afterward, he said, “James Agee, but with a sense of humor.” Which was a very nice thing to say. Was certainly better than “Chris Farley, but with no sense of humor.” Over the next few years, Edward was kind enough to recommend me for some grants and once helped me get an emergency loan. I never studied with Edward and we only rarely talk about writing, which I am sure is a great relief to both of us. I took care of his cat, Snow, a couple of times. Great cat. Snow is white and very serious. Edward loves her a lot. I once heard Edward read from his play “Fragments,” and it was one of the best things I had ever seen on a stage. He is a great actor. But, so, yeah, protege, catsitter — either way, I’m happy to be in touch with the guy.
Have you ever been an actor?
Eno: I have never been an actor; I was sort of a loudmouth in fifth and sixth grade. Seventh grade took me down a peg or two. And by eighth, I was fairly shy and unhappy and stayed that way until I was 37.
Have you seen the actor who we’re going to see at McCarter as Thom Pain?
Eno: Michael Milligan, a fairly sublime actor, will be performing the play. He did the last months of the New York production. Michael and his brother have a company called New West Knife Works, and they make the most beautiful cooking knives you’ve ever seen. I use mine to poke a hole in the burrito package, but I am swearing I will learn to cook something. Michael was here in Princeton, not too long ago, performing in “Candida” at McCarter.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
Eno: I’m sort of a sports fan. And I like playing tennis. I’ve got a couple of good friends who are pretty funny. I like traveling, to a certain extent. I like seeing dance, sometimes. I always liked it because it didn’t have words in it, but now, all of sudden, it’s started having words in it.
What have you seen recently in the theater that you enjoyed?
Eno: I thought “The Pillowman” [by Mark McDonough] was a good play. And a play called “Pullman, WA,” by Young Jean Lee, also very good. Edward Albee’s “Seascape” just had a very nice production in New York. I felt proud to be human, watching that play. “Attempts on Her Life,” [by Martin Crimp, 2002 at SoHo Rep] which was done a while ago, is a very good play. And I saw a good reading of Don DeLillo’s “The Day Room,” recently — a beautiful play.
How about the movies?
Eno: I liked that penguin movie, the documentary. I thought that it, more than any effort in the “Beckett on Film” series, captured the sense and feeling of a Beckett play, on film. Strange little almost-indiscernible figures struggling across an almost meaninglessly cruel landscape, with a loveable sort of waddle.
Have you written screenplays?
Eno: For no particular reason, I’m not terrifically interested in movies. There is a director in Brazil who directed my play, “The Flu Season,” in Sao Paolo, and he asked if my friend, Sam Lipstye, and I would like to give it a try. We gave it a try. It was liberating to know that the first thing that would happen to it is that every word would be changed. I thought of a great beginning to a movie the other night. I should try to sell it to someone who has a great end for a movie. [“The Flu Season” played at The Blue Heron Arts Center in Manhattan in February, 2004.]
Are you working on something new?
Eno: I just in December finished a little play called “Bully Composition,” which is currently running out in Denver. [It is part of “The War Anthology,” which includes 11 short works attempting to examine the condition of America at war.] And I am working on a new play that I hope will appear in London sometime within the next year. The new thing, at the moment, seems sort of Greek and large, but with a small-town feel.
You’re living in Princeton as a Hodder Fellow right now. Do you miss Brooklyn?
Eno: Brooklyn is really all right. I live in a very Polish neighborhood, which I like. The planes going into LaGuardia are at the just-right height. They’re too high to hear but you can almost read the airline’s name on the side. The meaning of airplanes has deepened over the last five years, but I always found them sort of beautiful to watch. I swear it is like life, somehow, but I don’t know how.
Thom Pain (based on nothing), Monday and Tuesday, April 17 and 18, 8 p.m., McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Will Eno’s monologue reflecting on life features Michael Milligan portraying an ordinary man musing on childhood, yearning, disappointment, and loss. A discussion with Eno, currently a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, and Milligan follows performance. $30. 609-258-2787.