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BWW Interview: Lynne Kaufman of DIVINE MADNESS at MarshStream Explores the Boundaries Between Creativity and Insanity

The award-winning playwright bases her newest work on the unorthodox marriage of writer Elizabeth Hardwick and poet Robert Lowell

BWW Interview: Lynne Kaufman of DIVINE MADNESS at MarshStream Explores the Boundaries Between Creativity and Insanity
Playwright Lynne Kaufman
(photo courtesy of Ms. Kaufman)

If your former spouse wrote a book describing how they left you to take up with someone else, even quoting your personal letters during the breakup - what would you do? That is the tantalizing question explored by Lynne Kaufman in her newest play, Divine Madness, debuting January 30th and 31st on MarshStream. Local stage favorites Julia McNeal and Charles Shaw Robinson will play the roles of celebrated writer Elizabeth Hardwick and poet Robert Lowell, who had a long and intensely complicated marriage. Lowell went on the win the Pulitzer for this work, while Hardwick was left destroyed. What are the chances you would reunite after that kind of public betrayal?

The two performances will be presented live only and will not be available for later viewing. Also, Kaufman will appear on Stephanie's MarshStream on January 28th to discuss the play. McNeal and Robinson will join Kaufman for a roundtable discussion and a short excerpt performance of Divine Madness. For further information, visit www.themarsh.org/marshstream.

I spoke with Kaufman last week from her home in San Francisco to learn more about what prompted her to write about Hardwick and Lowell, and also to talk about her long and productive partnership with The Marsh, where her play Who Killed Sylvia Plath? recently won top honors at the The MarshStream International Solo Fest. Kaufman is a terrific conversationalist, at once uncommonly erudite and naturally chatty. It is also clear that she is a born storyteller. Even the simplest question can lead her to unexpected places, like a fascinating tale of meeting spiritual guru Ram Dass in Hawaii. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Divine Madness is based on the true story of writers Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick. What is it about their story that intrigued you enough to write a play about them?

Well, it started with Who Killed Sylvia Plath? I do a lot of research; I'm sort of a lapsed academic. So I read everything I could about Sylvia Plath, and one of the things that came up is that she had taken a class with Robert Lowell, along with Anne Sexton - they were both in the class. And Robert Lowell sort of introduced the two to each other because he had seen their poems, and he said, "I think you two may have a lot in common." So I came across Robert Lowell that way. And also he had real emotional and mental problems of his own so I thought, "Hmm, that's kind of interesting."

So I read more about him, I read his poetry, and I did always like Elizabeth Hardwick's work. I think Cynthia Ozick said about her, "Her essays have plots." I mean, she's a brilliant writer on her own. He left her after a long marriage, 20 years where she had put up with and nursed him through a yearly bout of manic depression where he needed to be hospitalized. I'm interested in that edge between creativity and madness, though when he was manic was when his best ideas came. He worked on them when he was sane again, but it was this incredible flight of ideas and connections, you know, that he would not have made in a more rational way.

At any rate, they had been married for 20 years, they had a teenage daughter, and he fell in love with another woman. He was always falling in love with somebody, a young fan or student, but Elizabeth put up with all of that because it didn't matter, it was just a symptom of his mania. When it was over, he came back to himself, that relationship ended, and he was back with the family.

Well, this time he wasn't. He moved to England to be with Caroline Blackwood, who was a Guinness heiress, very beautiful and kind of crazy herself. And while he was torn, trying to decide between wanting to go back to his family and to live with Caroline, he wrote a volume of poetry called The Dolphin and published it. He's a totally confessional poet, and he used names and excerpts from Elizabeth's letters to him and her needy phone calls, her emotional outbursts and all. Their friends and many literary critics really thought that that was, as Elizabeth Bishop said, "infinite mischief." That it should not have been published.

So that was what drew me. I thought "Oh, wow! How did she justify staying with him through those two decades?" And the question I often have, and talk about with other writers, is how much of other people's lives is your story to tell?

And the time they had lived in was very literary. Lowell and Hardwick were two of the founders of The New York Review of Books and they both wrote for Partisan Review. I'm still working on the material and I see it as a short novel, and maybe a longer play, you know when we get back to "reality." The material keeps opening up for me because it's not just about them. It's about creativity, it's about mood disorders, it's about long relationships, it's about infidelity, it's about betrayal, it's about just persevering, what pulls people apart, what keeps them together. And the importance of words. I'm infatuated with words because they create the reality. Having that arsenal of words, you know, the acuity of it, the specificity of it. So - it's a paean to people who write, too.

And - I'm not gonna give away the ending - but it has a really surprising, surprising end.

Did writing the play during Covid affect how you structured the play?

Yeah, it absolutely did. Because I was so pleased with "Sylvia." We did it live, many times. It had a run of probably 12 weekends, and then Lorri Holt did it on Zoom for the Festival in very intimate closeup. And I thought that it worked. It brought a value, an intimacy, to it that no matter how good the seat is in the theater, you just don't get. So in that sense, Covid was important. It's going to be on Zoom and I want to write it for that form.

Now, [the actors] Julia and Charlie of course are not in the same room because of Covid, and I wondered if the intimacy [would still occur], because the bulk of the play is a scene between the two of them and they have to look straight out at the camera. Would that work? And - it does, it really does for me. Of course, they're superb actors, and they're of a certain age, you know. They've lived lives, they've gone through relationships. It evokes their own lives, and the richness of that.

Divine Madness certainly isn't your first play that The Marsh has presented. How did you originally connect with them?

Well, they've been around for a long time and originally I'd been an audience member. I think I was introduced through Charlie Varon's work and would go and see what he or Geoff Hoyle did. I would go to these lovely one-person shows and appreciated the writerly quality of it.

And then - you know I've been a playwright for decades - somehow I'd gotten into this pattern of writing very compressed, truncated, almost telegraphic dialog, with multiple-character plays. I felt that I was sort of trapped in this and the only way to work out of it was through writing a long monolog. And the way to write a long monolog, I thought, was to write a solo show, which I had not ever done. And so I did, and the character that drew me to want to write about them was Ram Dass, you know Richard Alpert. I was very interested in his transformation from a Harvard academic to leading the psychedelic movement to his spiritual transformation.

So I wrote a solo play and was in a playwright's group and we did a reading, I think it was at the Mill Valley Library. I liked it so much and I had a wonderful actor, David Keith, do it. And I thought, "Well, I don't want this to just have one or two performances and die. Where can a solo show be mounted?" and I thought about The Marsh. And there was really no precedent for it, because the model they have is the performer writes his own show and performs it. So - here I was writing a show and having an actor, in fact an Equity actor, perform it. And I contacted [The Marsh's Artistic Director] Stephanie Weisman, who is just wonderfully open to new ideas. And I guess we did a [performance for] "Marsh Rising." Their pattern is you do one evening and she comes and sees it and then decides if it should have a run. She liked it and we did it and it was really a big success. It ran and got extended, we opened it in Berkeley and then brought it to San Francisco.

And what was really quite lovely is that I contacted Ram Dass, who was alive - he's very recently passed on - and he gave it his blessing. I sent him the script and then he invited us to a retreat in his home. He was living in Maui, and David did the show for him and a group of like 400 acolytes. [laughs] So there is David on the stage doing Ram Dass, and then at the back of this huge tent is Ram Dass himself, in his wheelchair. And the play starts with Ram Dass in a wheelchair and he says, with the slow speech of aphasia which Ram Dass had, "This is just theatre and so I'm not going to do this." And the shock of the audience as he stood up! It was like ping pong, their heads kept turning you from David onstage to Ram Dass. But he loved it, and at the end of it, he thanked us and said that he had spent a lifetime trying to get rid of his ego, and now that we did a play about him, it came right back. [laughs]

So - that's how it started. And then I did a two-character play at The Marsh about two Israeli psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. And Robert Kelley, who was the artistic director of TheatreWorks, directed it for me. He's such a great guy! He and I have worked together quite a bit. He's done a lot of staged readings of mine, and a [fully-produced] play, too. So Kelley directed it, and it's the first time at The Marsh that we actually had a set. He brought in this wonderful rolling blackboard and desks and what have you. It's very rare to have a two-character play at The Marsh. And that did well, too.

I did Who Killed Sylvia Plath? with Lorri Holt, in San Francisco and Berkeley, and then it was the co-winner of the International Solo Fest that The Marsh ran. And then I worked on something called Exposing Margaret Mead and now Divine Madness. It's been such a wonderful partnership. I mean playwrights need a home, you know? You need to know when you're writing that there's a good chance that it's gonna see the light of day, that it will get produced, and in a reasonable time. So I've been very, very fortunate. And I enjoy writing. I like the intensity of two-character, one-character plays. I like the brevity of it, too. When we can go to the theater [again], I'll write something that'll be no intermission, maybe an hour fifteen, something like that. On Zoom, I feel like 40 or 45 minutes is about right for a one-act.

Speaking of Who Killed Sylvia Plath?, Lorri Holt told me you had created that play specifically with her in mind. Is that a common practice for you?

Well, if I can, yeah. I do visualize an actor when I'm writing, or a personality type. Because I think, in my experience, there really is a fit. Good actors can do anything, but if it connects in a sense with who they really are, it raises it to a higher level. And I know that Lorri was very interested in Sylvia Plath, and she has that range. David Keith helped direct the virtual performance and he gave Lorri just One Direction. He said, "You can turn on a dime." and that really spoke to her about Sylvia. There's a sense that she can explode, that she can be pushed to an edge. I mean the whole way she [Plath] created Ariel, those last poems. And Lorri has that. She can be feminine and soft, but there's a steely kind of intensity that she also has. Lorri is such a good actress. She never did it the same way twice. It's so organic, and actually with Julia and Charlie, it's the same. That is one of the marks, it seems to me, of somebody who really gets what you're trying to do and has the chops. It never is rote. Never. It is played like music; each time it's just fresh.

Even with all the current challenges of making theater right now, what is the best part of your job as a playwright?

The best part - when it's cast correctly - is hearing the words for the first time from the actors, just hearing them read it, and then their becoming [the characters]. Like talking with Charlie the other day. Robert Lowell can be seen as pretty arrogant and selfish and all, and Charlie says, "Well, he's a dick, you know? But then he really does care." And that's right. And Julia would say, "Well, somehow, we don't have Lizzie. She is a writer herself, yet we don't see that." They're so delicate with their little comments, and they're so right on. And I'm like, "Oh, yeah, let me put that in. I know that; I just didn't put it in." So it's two-fold - one hearing it, and two the collaboration. Everyone's on the same page and you're all trying to just birth this experience together. It's so much fun to see it come alive. I mean, you should write a play! [laughs]


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