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Pulitzer Prize winner is special guest at Northeast Indiana Playwright Festival
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
When artists talk about their childhood, the story is often a familiar one: a deep love of their particular field, followed by a ďeurekaĒ moment very early on, when they realize that ďthisĒ ó music, art, acting, whatever ó was something people did, and that they could do it, tooÖ
But it wasnít quite like that for playwright Donald Margulies. True, he always had a love of theater and enjoyed going to see plays, but Margulies was a visual artist when he was young. He was studying visual art at college when he wrote his first play at age 20. ďYou know, itís one of those mysterious things where I donít really know why play writing,Ē he says. ďI dabbled a little in fiction, but for some reason I was intrigued by the form and the possibility of live theater. I had my first play produced when I was 20, and it was really a life changing experience.Ē
ďLife changing experienceĒ might be an understatement coming from Margulies. Because there are award-winning playwrights and then there are Award-Winning Playwrights, and Donald Margulies is one of the latter. Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1992 and 1997, Margulies won the prestigious award in 2000 for Dinner With Friends, a story about two married couples ó long-time friends ó one of whom is going through a divorce.
In addition to the Pulitzer, Dinner With Friends garnered a lengthy list of other awards and nominations, including two Emmy nominations in 2001 when it was made into an HBO movie.
And Dinner With Friends isnít alone ó Sight Unseen, Collected Stories and Time Stands Still, to name just a handful of Marguliesí plays, have all received considerable popular and critical acclaim. Heís also worked in film and television; recently, he finished an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenidesí novel Middlesex for HBO.
Margulies will appear at the Northeast Indiana Playwright Festival, where heíll give a talk on his career, attend a reception or two, and lead post-show discussions for 1st prize winner Whispers to the Moon.
Margulies lives in Connecticut, where heís taught at Yale since 1990, but heís currently in Los Angeles, in the midst of rehearsals for the premier of his next play The Country House at the Geffen Playhouse. ďIím describing it as my ĎChekhovian pastoralí,Ē he says of the play. ďItís a Chekhovian mash-up, in contemporary terms. Itís set in the Berkshires, in Massachusetts. Iíve extracted different themes and archetypes from Chekhov and sort of created my own collage of it.Ē
Fort Wayne Reader: Is there any particular theme youíre drawn to in your work?
Donald Magulies: Itís not conscious, but itís been pointed out to me by critics and close observers of my work that ďlossĒ seems to figure prominently in just about everything Iíve written. Loss of love or talent or a person or loyalty or something. So thatís something that probably finds its way into everything I write whether I realize it or not.
Itís sort of fundamental to who I am and my autobiography, I suppose. I lost my mother in my early 20s, I experienced a devastating fire when I was 19, where I lost everything I had. So thereís the sort of watershed events in a personís life that sort of form a personality, and form an aesthetic, I guess, for an artist. I guess thatís mine. Itís something that just sort of happened for me, and itís what Iíve made of it. Itís what Iíve turned those experiences into, which is what art is. You take what you know or perceive and turn it into something else.
Itís certainly true of The Country House. But itís not as if I sat down (with The Country House) and said Iím going to write a play about loss. It just seems that thatís what it is. Itís a play about grieving. And itís a comedy. I want to stress that itís a comedy.
FWR: Thatís what I wanted to ask. I read one critic who called you a writer of comedies ďwith a serious heart.Ē There are a lot of serious themes in your work, but most of your plays donít seem really ďangstyĒ or ďheavy.Ē
DM: Well, I hope not. I wouldnít want the dramatic stuff to be excruciating for an audience.
FWR: Youíve written a lot of plays. Is there one that you think didnít get the recognition it deserved?
DM: This past summer I had the pleasure of seeing one of my ďproblem childĒ plays revived. Itís called The Model Apartment, and it has had sort of a tortuous history. There was a piece in the New York Times before it opened, where it talked about the really fractured history of the play.
The play is very dark, itís difficult. Itís about Holocaust survivors and their crazy daughter who bedevils them. In October it was given a revival, itís first production in New York in 18 years, and I got some of the best reviews of my career for this very problematic play with a very troubled history. That was very gratifying. I wish other theaters would do it now, but I donít think the stigma has quite lifted on that one.
FWR: Many of your plays have appeared on Broadway, which sort of surprises me, since I think Broadway these days is associated with big, big musicals, and you donít write musicalsÖ
DM: Actually, Iím working on a musical right now. (laughs) Iím writing the book of my first musical. Itís been an education for somebody who is used to working with his own fragile ego to have to deal with several others. ItísÖ interesting.
ButÖ to get back to where I think your question was goingÖ yeah, youíre right, the nature of theater in New York ó theater all over the country, really, but in New York in particular ó has changed.
I came of age through the not-for-profit theaters and the regional theaters. The Manhattan Theater Club is more-or-less my New York home. The Country House is coming to Broadway in their (Manhattan Theaterís Clubís) space there, and thatíll be my 10th production under their auspices. So, my reputation has changed over the years, and the work has found its way to Broadway.
Thatís been very gratifying, though I must confess it was never my goal. I never aspired to being a Broadway playwright. When I was coming of age in my 20s, Joseph Papp was the king of off-Broadway; all I wanted was to be produced by Joe Papp, and I achieved that by the time I was 29. I didnít make it to Broadway for some years after that.
I went to a lot of theater when I was in high school and my 20s. My friends and I would cut school and see a matinee ó we were a very dangerous bunch (laughs). But I was a visual artist when I was young, and went to art school. I didnít start writing plays when I was 20.
FWR: A lot of critics say you write great roles for women
DM: Itís amusing to me. People ask ďhow do you write such great women characters?Ē Weíll I donít know. It doesnít seem that alien to me. I love very smart, complicated, funny women. Iím married to one. Sheís certainly given me a lot of practice. I just enjoy women like the ones I write.
But hereís why that question always strikes me as a little strange ó and youíre not the only person to ask it, believe me. But all playwrighting is about empathy. Itís about getting inside the head of somebody who isnít you, whether itís somebody of a different gender or race or ageÖ itís all about trying to imagine what itís like to be that person. Itís a kind of performance, a kind of improvisation.
FWR: Was there a character you found particularly difficult to get inside the head of?
DM: Yes. Probably the character closest to me. It was an earlier effort I wrote called Heartbreaker that I abandoned. It eventually became Sight Unseen. But Heartbreaker had an alter-ego that was far too close to me. It proved to be very difficult to try to find something stage-worthy about me. So I put that play away and re-imagined a character who was not me, but may bear certain biographical similarities, and that enabled me to have a distance on the character.
FWR: Youíre appearing at the Northeast Indiana Playwrights Festival. What sort of questions do you typically get asked at events like these?
DM: Many of them are about what youíd imagine ó where do you get your ideas, how do you get an agent, etc. But in these settings, Iím mostly interested in talking about craft, so I try to steer the question away from the nuts-and-bolts and try to talk about the craft.
Donald Margulies appears at the Northeast Indiana Playwright Festival May 30 Ė June 1. See the sechdule for more information