[Twenty-two years ago, after I’d started assisting Philip C. Kolin of the University of Southern Mississippi on several of his projects, he asked me to do an interview for publication in Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, the annual journal which he co-edits. I was at that time working with stage director Leonardo Shapiro (about whom I’ve written many times now on ROT) and he, in turn, was working with playwright Karen Malpede on the première production of her play, then called Going to Iraq. (The play was later retitled Blue Heaven for the production at Theater for the New City—and then returned to the playwright’s original title.) I offered Kolin an interview with Malpede, one of the most interesting emerging dramatists on the New York theater scene at the time. He accepted immediately and I proceeded to make a date with the writer at her Brooklyn home to do the interview. Below is the transcript of that session, conducted on 17 July 1992, with my original introduction (slightly amended). (I was preparing a lengthy profile of director Shapiro at the same time, published the next year in TDR, and I had previously interviewed Malpede about her collaboration with the director on 20 February 1992.) Though Malpede’s career and, indeed, her life have progressed significantly since this interview, and I’ve captured some of that development in my final comments in this introduction, I haven’t changed the interview text, which is a snapshot of how we—Malpede and I, plus the state of the theater and, I daresay, the world—were at the end of the 20th century.
[Though often drawing on ancient myths or mythologized historical events, Karen Malpede’s plays always focus on the plight of ordinary people and the nobility of the human spirit—or, at least, the potential for nobility. She is committed to social action and political protest, but her work encompasses the poetic language and rhythms of the Greeks, the theatricality of the Living Theatre and Open Theater, and the philosophy of Bertolt Brecht. Her plays reflect a search for an aesthetic she calls “compassion and hope” which led her to compile a collection of the writings of theater women in Women in Theatre: Compassion & Hope (1983). Malpede, whom Judith Malina of the Living Theatre called “one of the most consistently coherent of contemporary women playwrights,” is unapologetic about calling her work “feminist,” and insofar as it concentrates on women characters, it is. But at their base, her plays are about all of us who, at one time or another, for one reason or another, find ourselves on the outside facing the forces of a power elite.
[To Malpede, art is a powerful force itself. In a letter published as the preface to her first book, People’s Theatre in Amerika (1972), she wrote, “POLITICS ARE NO LONGER SEPARATE FROM ESTHETICS. They do not seem any longer to be two separate things.” In fact, for her they are not separate. In an earlier interview with me, Malpede declared, “I believe that the theatre is a political, moral, spiritual voice for our time . . . ,” and she challenges her audience with both her themes and her theatricality. This can confuse and frighten some segments of her audience and mainstream critics have been frequently unkind to her plays, accusing her of being “anti-theatrical,” of making the audience “study, rationalize, deduce and define,” of putting too many ideas and themes into her work, of wordiness and pretentiousness. In contrast, others have appreciated her “fluid and sophisticated weave of drama, movement and music,” her “strong and resonant” language and her “absorbing and unusual” vision. She describes her own work as “plays with lots of ideas, lots of words, lots of characters—many-layered images—but also very theatrical plays.”
[If theater is a political force for Malpede, it is also a catalyst for enlightenment. “I think theatre can surprise people . . . ,” she has said. “It surprises you into your own depth of feeling—that through image and word and power and beauty of the stage event, you, yourself, are changed. The audience is opened—literally opened—opened to their own deeper selves. The theatre is, therefore, a transformative event.” Malpede picked up this notion from her observation of the Open Theater, the subject of her second book, Three Works by the Open Theater (1974), and the Living Theatre. She subsequently put it into practice at the New Cycle Theater, a politically oriented company founded with Burl Hash in Brooklyn in 1976 and dedicated to making “the poetry of dialogue, characters, and deep psychological exchanges . . . part of the theatre again.”
[Poetry and theatricality are the two common components of Malpede’s dramaturgy which she devotes to a condemnation of violence and alienation and a pursuit of “intimacy, trust, and tenderness.” Her plays [at the time of this interview] are A Lament for Three Women (1974), Rebeccah (1976), The End of War (1977), Making Peace: A Fantasy (1979), A Monster Has Stolen the Sun (1981), Sappho and Aphrodite (1983), Us (1988, directed by Judith Malina) and Better People (1990). Malpede also contributed texts for Collateral Damage: The Private Life of the New World Order (Meditations on the Wars), a Gulf War (Desert Storm) protest collage in June 1991 assembled by Leonardo Shapiro, artistic director of The Shaliko Company, and Roadkill, a street event conceived by Shapiro for the finale of Theater for the New City’s First Annual Eco-Festival in May 1992. In March, WBAI radio in New York City broadcast an early version of her play Blue Heaven, then called Going to Iraq, which subsequently premiered at Theatre for the New City in September and October. Blue Heaven was originally planned as a co-production with Shaliko under Shapiro’s direction, but Malpede and Shapiro developed serious differences near the end of the rehearsal period, and he withdrew as director but remained credited for his production design. At the time of this interview, Malpede expressed great respect for Shapiro as an artist, but has later declared that she no longer held her former high opinion of him. (Shapiro retired to New Mexico in 1993 died in 1997.)
[In her 1989 biography in Contemporary Authors, Malpede lists her politics as “Anarchist” and her religion as “Nonviolence,” both underlying precepts of her art. Her father was Italian-American and her mother Jewish, an ethnic conflict that also figures in her work. Malpede’s father was a passionate man, but was also abusive and neglectful until he died of cancer at 42; domestic violence and such losses as she and her family experienced appear in her plays. She is the twin sister of performance artist John Malpede and includes in her plays many images of paired opposites (living-dying, birth-death, dreams-deeds, vulnerability-strength, freedom-oppression, tenderness-violence, peace-war); she is also the mother of Carrie Sophia Malpede-Hash whose birth in 1980 has been an important influence in her work. It would be correct to deduce from this that Malpede’s art is not only political, but remarkably personal as well. But then, “Politics is personal” is a feminist tenet.
[Karen Malpede was born in Texas, grew up in Illinois, and lives in Brooklyn. She has a Bachelor of Science with Honors from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a Master of Fine Arts in theater history and criticism from Columbia University. The author or director of 17 plays, Malpede is a McKnight National Playwrights and New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow and has received grants from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture Award for New Jewish Plays, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, Eastman Chemical Company, and Art Matters. In 1995, she, producer-director-actor George Bartenieff, and late Obie and Bessie award-winning choreographer, writer, and actor Lee Nagrin (1928-2007) founded the Theater Three Collaborative to develop and produce “poetic, character-driven plays on crucial topics of the day.” In 2001, Malpede and her partner Bartenieff adapted the journals of Holocaust survivor Victor Klemperer (1881-1960) as I Will Bear Witness: The Klemperer Diaries, which Malpede has directed and Bartenieff performs worldwide as a one-man presentation. In addition to books she’s written or edited (A Monster Has Stolen the Sun and Other Plays, People’s Theatre in Amerika, Women in Theater: Compassion & Hope, Three Works by the Open Theater, and Acts of War: Iraq and Afghanistan in Seven Plays), Malpede’s writing has been published in New Theatre Quarterly, Journal of Contemporary Psychology, New York Times, Soho News, and Theatre Times, among other periodicals. Featured in Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights (1987), she has taught at Norwich University, Smith College, John Jay College of the City University of New York, the CUNY-Graduate Center’s Continuing Education program, and New York University’s Department of Undergraduate Drama. Her latest play, 2013’s Extreme Whether, “a bitter debate over the future of the planet [that] becomes a meditation on the sublime in nature,” was staged in October at Theater for the New City in New York East Village.]
Rick: Your degree from Columbia University is in theater history and criticism, and you started out to be a critic.
Malpede: I didn’t actually start out to do that, but that’s how it turned out. I had always known that I was going to be a writer from the time I was ten years old. But, then, what to write became progressively narrowed as I became more educated—in traditional education—as I came to believe that women didn’t write plays, you see, because I had never read a play by a woman. The first thing I wanted to write was novels because that’s what I read. But something happened to me as I became more and more educated: I lost faith in my own voice. So I kept narrowing down what it was that I was going to write, and it ended up finally being theater criticism.
On the other hand, I’ve always been glad that I didn’t study playwriting and that I did study plays—that my education was based on reading plays and reading a lot of them very, very closely. It ultimately became more interesting to me to study Shakespeare with Bernard Beckerman at Columbia than to study playwriting with Jack Gelber and Arthur Kopit, not only because Shakespeare is a more interesting playwright to study, but also because of the attitude towards women students and women playwrights that was around at that time—although it still is quite pervasive now—which is this sort of unspoken—or spoken—assumption that women can’t write plays, or, if they do, their plays aren’t as good—they aren’t real plays.
Rick: But you did start out as a writer about theater—how did you come to writing plays?
Malpede: I came to writing plays because I noticed that the plays that I wanted to see weren’t being written. So, I spent some time trying to convince other people to write them. Quite specifically, the end of the Open Theater was the time that I wrote my first play—Lament for Three Women in 1974. At that time, Joe Chaikin had invited a group of us to sit around and talk about what the theater should be like and what kind of work we thought should be done and what kind of work we were doing. And the more that I listened to everybody, and the more that I talked to myself, the more that it became clear to me that in order to have happen what I wanted to have happen in the theater, I would have to write those plays. In other words, I knew what I wanted to do, and no one else could logically be expected to do it.
So, Jean-Claude van Itallie said, after I gave a rather long talk about how I thought plays should be, “It’s easier to talk about it than to do it”—which is certainly true—and suddenly, I was forced back to what had been my original project all along, which was writing fiction. And that was able to happen because of a couple of things. One was that the woman’s movement had started and there was suddenly a woman’s community which had formed to support women’s work. The other thing that I think happened was that I had also stopped writing fiction when my father died when I was eighteen. It was a very complex situation, and there was really nobody to discuss it with. There was no way to work it through, so I think I simply shut down the part of my feelings that is used to create fiction for those years. I think Lament and Us deal with a character like my father or the situation like the situation I was in with my father, although both of them are fictionalized. And again, what I think allowed those feelings to be dealt with and processed was the woman’s movement.
Rick: In the introduction to your first book, People’s Theatre in Amerika, you said, “Politics are no longer separate from esthetics. They do not seem any longer to be two separate things.” How is it for you that politics and art are so inextricably connected?
Malpede: In many ways, I’m an extremely unpolitical person, in the ways that the word “politics” is usually used—and I probably wouldn’t use that word any longer. What I still do believe is that the world view of the playwright comes through in the plays that the playwright writes. This is true of Neil Simon and it’s true of Mac Wellman and it’s true of me. A world view has a lot to do with how people relate to one another —how people could relate to one another; how people do relate to one another; how people should relate to one another; how people might relate to one another; how people want to relate to one another, but can’t; how people think they’re relating to one another, but aren’t.
To me, what’s interesting when I write a play are those relationships and also the relationship with self, because how you relate to yourself has a lot to do with how you relate to other people, and how characters relate to themselves—how much they know about themselves and how much time they spend wondering about themselves—has to do with how much they know about other people and how much time they spend wondering about other people. Every play in that sense is political, since the world view of the playwright takes place in the social-relational world. So, Wendy Wassertstein is as political a playwright as I am. Her politics are different, or shall I say her world view is different—her concerns are different, her sense of what’s possible is different, even where she casts her eye to look at what’s interesting is different—but it’s every bit as political as mine.
I think that there’s a set of politics implicit in The Heidi Chronicles, for instance—a set of feelings and a sense of how the world is that asks certain questions and doesn’t ask others. For instance, if you were to go out and adopt a child tomorrow, there’s a whole set of interesting questions—moral, ethical questions—that arise. Where does that child come from? Whose child was that to begin with? Why is the person who’s giving up that child, giving up that child? Where do you have to go to get the child? Do you have to leave the country, or do you not leave the country? Do you pay money, or do you not pay money? Whom do you pay money to? What kind of life are you going to provide for the child? Why is it better for the child to be adopted by you than to stay with its birth mother? I’m bringing this up because this is how Heidi Chronicles ends—the woman adopts a child—but none of this is ever addressed; the audience doesn’t know where the child came from at all. It makes a socio-political statement that it doesn’t matter where you get the child; if you want a child, you go out and get one. It doesn’t matter what kind of life the birth mother of the child had because you want the child. That seems to me to be a very concrete statement about how the world ought to operate which goes along with capitalism essentially: if you have the money and you want a thing, you go out and get it. Other questions are not interesting. Kathy Tolan wrote a play called Approximating Motherhood about a woman who adopted a child. She had a different socio-political-moral interest in the question than Wendy Wasserstein, so she double-plotted it so you saw the life of the birth mother and you saw the life of the woman who adopted the child.
Rick: The matter of how much you know about yourself and learning about yourself is in all your plays. Sappho and Aphrodite is all about discovering yourself. In A Monster Has Stolen the Sun, the one who most significantly learns himself is Conor, the young boy, who actually makes a flip-flop.
Malpede: As a playwright, I am very interested in this inner journey for the characters; whatever the shapes it takes, people tend to change in my plays. I think that they change perhaps in the way that Conor changes, which is that they become more what they were really anyway. Conor’s dilemma is that he wants the love of his father, which I think is something that we all want. Certainly men have this dilemma. Then, he’s literally turned into a hunter by his father. That scene is also the link between Conor’s relationship to nature and his relationship to women because he wasn’t a killer of birds, he was a very innocent and lovely young man, and then he gets turned into a killer of birds and becomes a conqueror of women. Then he comes back to himself.
I think another person who really changes in the play is Owain, Conor’s father. In the cave scene, assisted by the young Etain, Owain suddenly contacts his own grief, and at the moment he contacts his own grief [over the death of his wife, Queen Etain], he contacts his own love for his son. Then in the fight, he puts down his weapons; he disarms in front of his son who’s come to kill him. His son’s murderous rage at the father who has never loved him in the way that a child has to be loved disappears.
Rick: Conor was going to live out that traditional scenario in which the prince kills the king and becomes the king and his son will overthrow him in one way or another.
Malpede: That’s right. But the prince can only kill the king and become the king if the king continues to be the king. What Owain does is de-king himself and become the father. Owain, in the second scene of the play, is transformed by Brigit into a father, but it’s in a dream, and he wakes from the dream. It’s very startling in production, because the actor actually gives birth, so it’s hard to forget. But, it’s also a scene that’s out of time. In other words, it’s not yet Owain’s time to be able to become the father that he does at the end of the play sixteen years later, by which I mean the nurturing, caring man. Internally, he can’t yet work the change, so he snaps back into being the sort of macho king. But there’s that hint at the beginning that it’s there, waiting to be released, waiting to be fulfilled, waiting to be found.
Rick: You wrote in a 1985 essay about your conflicted ethnic background and you said that coming from “two despised peoples,” meaning Italians and Jews, you really belonged to no group. You have dealt with that kind of inner dichotomy in at least two plays: Us and Blue Heaven, where Aria is an Israeli and a Palestinian at the same time. Palestinians and Jews have for generations been peoples who have warred against one another, and here in this one character is a person who is both at the same time. Is that a way of dramatizing the problem of living non-violently in a world made up of differences?
Malpede: Yes, sure. Everywhere right now, we hear a lot about ethnicity and multi-culturalism and diversity. What has happened because of diversity and waves of successive immigration, is that many of us are, indeed, half or less of different peoples. I happen to be half Italian and half Jewish; my daughter happens to be a quarter Italian, a quarter Eastern European Jewish and half French Huguenot, and on and on. In effect, we don’t belong to any one group either by how we grew up, because often what happens is that parents who make this kind of match leave their ethnic group and they live somewhere else. I didn’t grow up with Jews or Italians; I grew up in the Mid-West with Protestants—Anglo-Saxons.
But to get back to Aria: the reason that I did that was that it’s so easy to blame someone else for every problem and it seemed to me that that was exactly what was going on with the war in the Persian Gulf [Desert Shield and Desert Strom]. A lot of the people followed the government and decided that, not only was Saddam Hussein Hitler or the devil, but that the Iraqis are not to be considered as human beings and therefore all right to kill. It seemed to me that it’s much harder to do that if you hold the warring factions inside yourself, which is Aria’s dilemma. She can’t hate the Israelis or the Palestinians because she is half Israeli and half Palestinian and she has to work it out somehow. This seemed to me a much more interesting dilemma than to decide that all people who were not me are bad—or that specific different people are bad.
Rick: Whereas Sada takes the more traditional view; not having that conflict, she has no problem getting behind the war.
Malpede: Sada’s also a contradiction, actually, as all the characters in the play are. I think what’s interesting about people are their contradictions, not their seamless oneness. Again, it’s what they don’t know about themselves and what they do know about themselves that gets in the way or affects their actions. Sada’s a big contradiction because Sada is the one who feeds everyone, and Sada is the one who feeds on everyone. Her view of herself is that she is probably one of the best people in the world. The reality is that she is a kind of nurturing vampire.
Sada is also trapped in a historical set of circumstances that give her her emotions. She’s trapped in two ways. She is not herself a Holocaust survivor, but she has a very strong memory of the Holocaust. She’s an Eastern European Jew whose family was split, and her sister [Aria’s mother] ended up in Israel and she ended up here. So she has strong fears. And she’s also trapped in a past incest life that she hasn’t dealt with. That’s why she projects onto [Aria’s daughter] Sierra. But Sada’s emotional life in the present is determined by what happened in the past, which she has not dealt with.
Rick: This is the “knowing yourself” question, and she doesn’t. She essentially refuses to; she’s shut it down.
Malpede: Yes, she’s shut it down because it’s too painful and it’s also temperamentally easier for her to manipulate other people than to look inside herself. That’s why she also never moves in the play, except one time, and she gets fatter and fatter.
Rick: What brought you to Blue Heaven? Can you connect the dots for me?
Malpede: The same thing brings me to every play which is some kind of emotional connection to the material, some kind of passion. With Better People, it was a passionate concern about Mary Beth Whitehead, about surrogate motherhood. I was very involved in the feminist defense of Mary Beth Whitehead, and people kept saying to me, why don’t you write a play about it. And I kept on saying, I don’t really write single-issue plays, which I don’t—my plays are layered. That’s why in eighteen years, I’ve written only nine plays; it’s a play every two years. It takes me a long time to write a play because they’re complex plays. I think it does take time to put everything together in what is a very condensed form: a play.
But Better People didn’t just come out of the Mary Beth Whitehead case, it came out of a passionate feeling that the reproductive rights of women were under attack, and not only by the pro-life people, as they call themselves, but also by the reproductive technology people. That in turn led to a larger concern with Western science as a way of looking at the world—with mechanistic science, of which genetic engineering is the latest manifestation. Nuclear power was a slightly earlier manifestation. Now, we all know now that nuclear power is maybe not such a good idea, and how you put the genii back in the bottle is one of the problems. Well, genetic engineering is right at the point where it’s being released from the bottle.
The same situation led me to Blue Heaven, which was two things. One was a very personal connection to the murder of [artist] Ana Mendieta, which had to do with the plight of the woman artist in 1980s/90s New York City. I was working on that story in the fall of 1990 as the build-up to the war began, and then I felt a very real emotional connection of terrible grief and sorrow and rage and upset about the war in the Persian Gulf. So those two things led me to Blue Heaven.
For me, it was impossible not to write about that war, although, while the war was going on, I put the play away. Now, it’s as if that war never happened; it’s been repressed—like all traumatic events. Just like a rape or an incest story that you can’t deal with as a child, you forget that it ever happened. That’s what the American people have done with that war, led by their leaders in both parties. It’s the playwright’s role to deal with what the society can’t deal with. I don’t know what it means to do a play about the Persian Gulf war now. It’ll be interesting to find out.
Rick: But Blue Heaven’s not only about the Persian Gulf war, it’s about this need to beat people up.
Malpede: Why do we do things, too, that we have to forget so fast? In that sense it’s about trauma—about collective trauma. It’s also, on the flip side, about art and community and people’s ability to heal. Leo [Shapiro, founder of The Shaliko Company] is fond of saying that everybody in the play is a wounded healer, and I think that’s true. One reason we changed the title [from Going to Iraq] was to address the deeper issues that the play is about, and not just to focus people’s minds on a war that is too easy for them to dismiss. We wanted to make it more difficult to dismiss that war by opening up the field of vision and call the play Blue Heaven. It has to do with the song as the quintessential version of make-believe America.
What also led me to Blue Heaven is that since Us, I have been writing plays with a particular actor in mind—George Bartenieff [co-founder of Theater for the New City]. One of the things I was dealing with in Blue Heaven was not only writing a part for George, which is the Herbie-Hermes part, but also dealing with the particular relationship in that play of a Hermes-like character who releases in Aria her own art and her own self. In other words, it’s a particular relationship between a man and a woman, which in the play is not sexual, and it’s not at all a relationship based on any kind of power dynamic. It’s a relationship based on a kind of muse dynamic, where he sees in her things about her that she doesn’t see or doesn’t believe yet in herself, and his seeing allows her to be. That’s something I think I dealt with in Sappho and Aphrodite, too, in a community of women where being seen by someone allowed you to become yourself.
Beyond that, I was very interested in creating in Aria a character who was torn in as many directions as I could tear her. So, she’s Palestinian and Israeli; and that’s not enough, so she’s the mistress of a man who’s married; and that’s not enough, so the married man whose mistress she is actually kills his wife; and she’s a wanderer, a homeless person, coming from nowhere with no place to call her own; she’s a mother; she’s an artist; she’s a lover; she’s blocked. In as many different ways as I cold pull her apart, I wanted to pull her apart because I do feel that that’s not only my situation often, but it is a woman’s situation—that we are many, many things. And those many, many things are very complex. Unless you make a choice, as somebody like [author] Camille Paglia does, to live a celibate, solitary life and devote your entire energy to your intellectual production, you are likely, if you are a woman artist, to be torn in about fifty or sixty directions.
Rick: Blue Heaven is your most nearly realistic play. It’s also the closest to ordinary speech; your other plays, except Better People, are unequivocally poetry.
Malpede: Yes, my earlier plays are more clearly non-realistic because they’re set in myth. You know, I’m a Mediterranean person. It’s only since I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Italy and recently to Greece that I realized that English is only my language because my grandparents and great grandparents settled in this country. My emotional language is that of the Mediterranean—one that is an emotional language. English happens to be the language I write in; but it’s not exactly the language of my self. So, I think what I’ve done with English is heighten it.
A lot of my plays, including Blue Heaven, have music in them. Sappho and Aphrodite was almost an opera—it was almost all song when we did it. These are plays that take place in an emotional terrain. They don’t take place in the livingroom. Although, you’re right, Blue Heaven takes place in a cafe, and it was somewhat intentional to set this play in what looks like a realistic setting.
Rick: In various comments over the years, you’ve characterized men, at least symbollically, as the embodiment of wrong-thinking. You have made the statement, for instance, that “The men who were the central figures in the [avant-garde] movement were either scared of the new insights [of feminists] and so blocked them out, or they continued to believe . . . that women’s lives are of so little consequence that they could not possibly affect so august a form as the theater.” Earlier, you made the same comment about the rejection of women writers—the assumption that they can’t write or don’t write real plays. At the same time, you’ve worked very, very closely with a number of men who have been very important to you: George Bartenieff, who’s been in most of your recent plays; Leonardo Shapiro, for whom you have considerable respect as an artist; Burl Hash, with whom you co-founded the New Cycle Theater; Ned Ryerson, who supported your early work; and, of course, Joe Chaikin and Julian Beck who were early inspirers of your principles.
Malpede: What you’re saying is that I have been a harsh critic of patriarchy, which is true, but I have worked with, admired and loved individual men. There’s a difference between a social system and individual people within the social system. I have actually a twin brother, and it’s quite in me from the womb on—womb to tomb—that I would have intimate relationships with men as I spent my first nine months wrapped around this twin. My experience in the world is that there’s a great deal of violence which is perpetrated by men against the rest of us—meaning women, children, animals and other men—much of which has become institutionalized. Shakespeare’s plays are virtually made of men who are, as you say, wrong-thinking—men who do horrible things. Nobody notices this because the situation is not being critiqued; it’s not being held up to notice. There are also a lot of good people in the world—interesting people, caring people—who are men and women, and that’s what I try to get at in my plays. One thing I have noticed about violence is that women are expected to write non-threatening plays. In fact, they’re rewarded for writing non-threatening plays. If they don’t, they’re not rewarded and it’s also seen to be somewhat suspicious that they have pointed up the fact that patriarchy is a violent system.
I feel that playwrights do say things that are deeply unsettling. That’s the tradition that I see myself in—of people who actually wrote plays, not boulevard comedies or commercial works, but works of literature and art and heart and imagination. I don’t care if people are upset. My plays are strong; that’s why I love the theater, and that’s why I persist in writing plays. I do feel that plays are powerful vehicles for speaking a truth— your personal truth—and that personal truth often has elements of social truth in it. That’s what plays do; that’s what they’re supposed to do. That’s why you can discuss the entire psychological history of the Western world by talking about Oedipus, Hamlet, The Master Builder.
Rick: Of course, the fact that your plays are disturbing, to a great extent, makes critics reject the work. You’ve said that a lot of establishment critics are uncomfortable when they’re made to feel things.
Malpede: To tell a critic story: [New Yorker critic] Brendan Gill was invited to see A Monster Has Stolen the Sun. The producer who called him explained that the play had a scene in which a pregnant woman wrestles with a man. That piqued his interest enough so that he wanted to come. I stood in the balcony and watched him literally kick the pew in front of him—it was done in a church space—in rage during that scene. I surmised that it had never occurred to him that she would win this fight. In fact, the incidence of wife beating goes way up when the women are pregnant—this is a documented, sociological fact—and most of the blows are aimed directly at the abdomen of the woman. That contemporary historical fact is being dealt with in this mythic play, but it’s being dealt with in a way that the woman is victorious.
We did that play in Trenton, New Jersey, as part of a street fair. The Passage Theatre Company wanted to produce the play, but they didn’t have enough money to do the whole play at that moment, so they excerpted pieces of it. We walked through the fair and we went into a performance space and threw the doors open and the audience followed in. The audience was multi-racial, multi-class—women pushed baby carriages in, dogs came in; it was just a street-fair crowd. The woman who played Macha was actually seven months pregnant, and when it came time for the wrestling match, Macha took off her dress and there was a real pregnant belly there. They wrestled and she won, and the women in the audience were hooting and hollering and cheering in approval, and saying, “That’s they way it is! That’s the way it is!” It was this very volatile, wonderful theatrical experience. In fact, George, who played Owain, had been uncertain about the play; he thought it was a historical play and mythic and poeticized and wouldn’t really reach people—until that experience when he saw that it was more direct than anything could be.
After that experience, the Passage Theatre dropped their plans to do a full production of the play. One reason that I could figure out was that these two performances had such strong reactions. They told me that certain people on their board came up to them and asked them if they intended to do that feminist play. The response was incredibly positive, but it was strong. The thing is, you’re not supposed to say these things.
When we were doing Us at Theater for the New City, it was mobbed every night—standing room only. The set was sixty feet long and eighteen feet high and three feet wide, so it was this great, huge, long expanse of the wall. The way that Judith Malina staged the incest scene, where the father’s in bed with the mother and the baby and he’s rolling over on one and then the other—it’s a very brutal scene and a very heightened piece of the reality of incest—the bed was perpendicular so that the actors were standing up and the audience was looking as if they were looking down on the bed. Every night the people who were sitting right under that scene walked out; but they walked out in a particular way: the man pulled the woman out. She wanted to stay, and she kept looking at the scene. They had to walk across the whole sixty-foot expanse, and it became almost a part of the production. It’s too disturbing to tell the truth about certain things, or to experience the emotional truth about certain things. It’s not that Us, for instance, dramatizes violence, it’s the way in which Us dramatizes violence that’s upsetting—that it dramatizes violence from the point of view of the victim, that it shows the emotional upset of the perpetrator.
It always sounds so serious when I talk about my work, but most of the plays have humorous moments to them, with the exception of Lament and Us. Actually Sappho and Aphrodite and Better People are very funny. Blue Heaven is funny in parts.
Rick: In 1981, you wrote, “We require an impassioned criticism . . . which presupposes critics who are brave enough to make themselves vulnerable before a work of art, and so be profoundly moved.” What is “impassioned criticism,” and how do we get it?
Malpede: I have no idea how we get it. Let me just say that I don’t have a problem with audiences. I do have a problem with critics. How we get an impassioned criticism—how we get anything—is by having the idea of it, first of all.
Rick: Well, what do you mean by “impassioned criticism”?
Malpede: I mean a criticism where the critic is willing to be passionately involved with the experience of the work. That means, of course, that the critic is writing literature himself, or herself. So often you read theater reviews in the daily papers that talk about what bad writing they’d just seen on the stage, and the review is so badly written that it’s just laughable that somebody who wrote like that would dare to say that somebody else doesn’t know how to write. It’s just silly.
I’m very ambivalent about the critics, because I’m not a person who likes to be seen. I’d prefer to be invisible. I have always felt that it’s been, in a way, a luxury not to be understood, because it left me totally free to keep on experimenting with each play, and to work in a kind of absolute freedom which I don’t think you have, or I think would be a lot harder to come by, if one were an immediate success. After writing plays for almost twenty years, I think I could easily tolerate success, but I think that it’s suited my character to have this kind of difficult critical go because it left me very free.
Rick: You said in 1987, “Every age has its own obsessive question, one that becomes the central dramatic action of its plays.” What are the “central questions” for the 1990s?
Malpede: The question that I have, in fact, been obsessed with through all the plays is the one of violence and non-violence and looking at how it is that we might live together on this planet in a non-violent way. I do think that’s the central question of our time; I think more and more people are getting it. I think the ecological crisis is making it very clear that we’re not only violent to one another, but we’re violent to the very life that supports us and sustains us. That is the obsessive question: how do we live together in a world of many different kinds of people and many different kinds of species and not destroy each other—and not destroy ourselves.
Rick: You link this volence, which, in dramatic terms, is the agon, the struggle in which the tragedy always ends in death, to the patriarchal system. In your alternative aesthetic, the conflict doesn’t have to be a violent one ending in death. The development of this non-patriarchal aesthetic results from “the love women have recently openly expressed for women,” which you assert was the genesis of the rise of so many new women playwrights. Do you think that men, who don’t generally express such affection for one another, can and therefore ought also to be working in this kind of aesthetic? Or do we need this bifurcated kind of aesthetic?
Malpede: I don’t think there’s much to be gained by violence as the inevitable way to go anymore because the world is threatened by humanity’s own violence, not by anything else. Nature is still working to sustain life and people are working to destroy life. The theater rose historically in the West with patriarchy—after patriarchy, but to reify it—to solidify it in the minds of people. The Oresteia is the great statement of father rite. I think we’re at another turning point, another nexus of two worlds where we have to move into a world that is based on non-violent principles.
Rick: It would be interesting to imagine the kind of art men would produce under your aesthetic.
Malpede: Well, Leo and George are going to do that. They haven’t written any plays, but they’re going to do Blue Heaven. It’s an interesting aside that George and I are a creative team and now Leo has joined that creative team, but that it’s not the actress being directed and written by the playwright, as has happened in the past with Olga Knipper and Chekhov and Eleanora Duse and Gabriele D’Annunzio; it’s a female voice and a male actor who realizes that voice in quite an extraordinary way.
Rick: I think it’s more than just interesting. It’s possibly a glimpse into that future. Up till very recently, dramatists were essentially writing plays about women based on the same aesthetic as men. We seem to be getting this Linda Hamilton-Sigourney Weaver kind of feminism, or Thelma and Louise—male myths with female bodies put on them.
Malpede: And what I’m trying to do are gyno-centric myths that include men—because they do include men—and have major women and major men characters.
Rick: And some of the female characters have been essentially patriarchal. Some of them have been rather dichotomous: Brigit, for instance, in Monster, is not always right.
Malpede: Well, nobody is always right. It’s not so interesting to see a character who’s always right. I have never been touted by the feminist critics, either. My plays don’t sit well with people who have a certain agenda; they only sit well with people who are open to the artistic experience. Art is more complex than an agenda.
[Versions of this interview were published as “An Interview with Karen Malpede” in Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present (1993) and “Karen Malpede” in Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights, edited by Philip C. Kolin and Colby H. Kullman (University of Alabama Press, 1996).
[In addition to Malpede’s own books, articles, and interviews, sources for my quotations are:
· John Paterson, “’Making Peace: A Fantasy’ Stays Earthbound,” Villager [New York, NY] 4 Oct. 1979
· Jennifer Dunning, “Dance: Karen Malpede,” New York Times 23 Oct. 1983
· Rosette Lamont, “Women and Anarchism,” Other Stages 3 June 1982
· Marianne Evett, “A giant step for womankind, the stage,” Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 14 June 1989, sec. F (“Wednesday Food”)
· Hal May and James G. Lesniak, eds., Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series v. 26 (Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1989), s.v. “Malpede, Karen (Sophia)”
· Clare D. Kinsman, ed., Contemporary Authors, v. 45-48 [Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1974], s.v. “Taylor, Karen Malpede”
[Three articles by Malpede that yielded quotations are “Tending the avant-garden: Can feminism save avant-garde theater?” “Soho Arts I,” Soho News [New York City] 13 Oct. 1981; “Feminist Plays & Performance: Ending the Violence We Have Known: General Introduction,” Women in Theatre: Compassion & Hope (Drama Book Publishers, 1983); and “Speak Out: We Need An Aesthetic Fit for a Nuclear Age,” Theatre Times [Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York] May 1987.]