Laugh Lest You Go Insane

A Conversation with Playwright George F. Walker
by Dan Rubin

In 2013, George F. Walker spoke with the critic and scholar Don Rubin about his play, Dead Metaphor, on the occasion of its premiere at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. They also discussed why, after a decade spent writing for television, he had resumed writing plays.

You recently returned to theater after a ten-year hiatus. Why did you leave?

I didn’t so much feel burnt out by theater, I just sometimes found that the theater closes in on you. It became claustrophobic all of a sudden. I just needed a change. To get away from it. See what a different kind of writing was like.

I was asked to develop This Is Wonderland with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and I did that for a few years. It took a couple years to research because it was a show about the lower court system, so I attended court for a year or two. It had three seasons, and then I did another couple of cable shows up here.

I did that for a while, and then TV started to close in on me, as well. It all started to seem too much like a business, which it really is. So I stuck my toe back in [the theater scene] a little bit, and then I kind of had an outpouring of plays. I’ve written six or seven plays in the last two years. A friend of mine asked why that was, and it’s partly because TV writing clogs a writer’s psyche. You can’t really go to where you need to go to as a writer, which is [to write about] what’s swirling around in your mind. As a TV writer, you have to do what’s needed, not what you want to do.

You have to work within the restrictions of that show.

And even when you are doing what you want to, you’re not digging down as deep as you would if [the writing] just came to you—rushed out of you like it had to come out. You’re not allowed that kind of indulgence in TV. You’re not allowed to say to everyone involved (including the network), “Oh, it just had to come out of me! That’s why it’s not completely linear and has a messy ending— like life has. That’s why it’s not tidied up.”

How would the networks respond?

They’ll just look at you. They don’t know how to respond, because they aren’t used to writers saying that to them, so I learned not to say that to them. They just look at you like you’re nuts—and you’re already kind of nuts to them because you come from theater. And they had heard of me and already had a notion of what I was like.

I tried to hold onto in TV what I try to hold onto in theater: character. Character drives the narrative, not the other way around. In a lot of writers’ rooms in TV, you’ll hear, “Let’s have the character do this, let’s have the character do that”; the narrative comes first and then you fit the characters into the narrative. That’s the opposite of how I think it should happen. When I was working with younger writers, I would say, “Don’t ask what you want to do, ask what the character wants to do. They’ll get you to a better place.”

Some of your recent plays deal with mental illness—schizophrenia in And So It Goes and dementia in Dead Metaphor—but your work has always been interested in characters at psychological extremes.

Totally. Absolutely: desperate. Someone once told me that if I wasn’t exploring desperation, then everyone [in my plays] would be okay. If everything was all okay, I wouldn’t be writing. I’d be relaxing. My characters have always been desperate. I’m drawn to the up-against-it. We’re more and more up against it all the time.

With the current global economy, it feels like more and more of us are up against it. Your work has always explored class and the lives of marginalized and disenfranchised working-class characters, but your more recent plays have started to also deal with characters from a disenfranchised middle class.

I think that’s true. It is an interesting point you make because I didn’t go looking for them: they came to me. They’ve been drawn into my world, rather than me being drawn into theirs. They are now on my radar because they’re messed up, too—because they are struggling and they don’t know if all the things they believe in about security and aging and family are true anymore.

[A.C.T. Dramaturg] Michael [Paller] asked me where the title for Dead Metaphor came from. One of the reasons for it was the thought that there used to be a time when we didn’t send soldiers off to fight wars and then forget entirely about them, like they weren’t even part of our society. Less than one percent of both our [countries’] populations have anything to do with them. So something that used to mean something—soldiers fighting for their country—is now irrelevant. It is a dead thing. We don’t even know where they are. Off they go and then they come back into our world, many of them in trouble, messed up and with nowhere to go. They come back and they only get noticed when they’re in trouble. And we’re in trouble too.

And yet, of the characters in Dead Metaphor, Dean is perhaps the least “troubled,” mentally at least.

That’s right. I didn’t want Dean to be messed up. He came to me as strong, compared to the world that he is coming back to. The only thing that is messed up about him is that the skills he learned over there are not applicable here—and because of that, he can’t get a job. So, he isn’t messed up: the world is messed up. He comes back with his head on his shoulders. He has dreams he doesn’t want to talk about, but he’s not that clichéd tormented soldier. And yet, where has he been? He doesn’t fit in here. He’s not psychologically messed up; he’s sociologically messed up.

I think that Dean and Jenny are their own class within their class. It is interesting to me how people on the edge of the middle class can have children who so quickly fall downward. Frannie and Hank are lower-middle class, but their children, Dean and Jenny, are now working class. They’ve dropped down into a world where I know them. The soldier and the wife of a solider: unemployed, pregnant. Those are my people! I understand them.

Middle-class kids, whose parents have a couple of degrees, are going to tech schools to become plumbers. They consider that their futures are not going to be easy, and they say to themselves, “I’m not going to be able to get a job with a degree in English. If I get a degree in English, people are going to laugh at me and say, ‘You might be qualified to serve at Starbucks—maybe.’”

And that’s assuming that Starbucks is hiring.

Right! “Maybe, if there is a job available.” That’s a big adjustment. Not only is there no upward mobility, there’s downward mobility within families.

Your earlier work doesn’t look at downward mobility because you are dealing with characters that are already at the bottom.

Right, and my big fear was that that class of people was being forgotten. People come to Toronto and say, “It’s such a pretty city. Where’s the poverty?” And I say, “Oh, I’ll show you. Let’s take a drive. It’s not in the middle. They don’t want it there.”

As you said, Dean is pretty well-adjusted, but Dean’s world—our world—is a mess. And for you, it seems, that mess stems from people like Helen Denny. I think a lot of our audience members who aren’t familiar with your other work will think Helen is a new idea for you, inspired by the Sarah Palins and Michele Bachmanns of our world, but you’ve been interested in political extremists for a long time.

That’s true. Palin is just the one we recognize now and will be the audience’s reference point, but I’ve been seeing these characters in every aspect of life. They’re there. It’s hard to even think about attempting to write Sarah Palin, because anything you write is not going to be far out enough. Same with Michele Bachmann. I’m puzzled by her: that she says these things she says and they don’t try to have her locked up somewhere. She opens her mouth and I wonder how could you possibly put that onstage. What possible context would you have for her other than a clown show? A person comes on with a big funny nose, squeaks it, and says the stuff that she says, and runs off. Seltzer in the face or something. I was thinking I was making Helen more like [South Carolina Governor] Nikki Haley—a person who at least appears to be reasonable until she says what she really believes in.

Extreme political views of all kinds have always been there. I’ve always been aware of them and terrified by them and fascinated by them. And for someone like Dean . . . he is returning from this simple world of hiding behind a rock, shooting at people who are trying to kill him. At least that is something he can understand. That is a simple and declared conflict: “You want to kill me; I want to kill you.” But what is going on here at home?

That is exactly what Jamie says in The Art of War: “I am in the politics of staying alive.”

And Dean is trying to stay alive in a world that is just as scary and somewhat scarier than the one he has just come back from. I love Jenny’s point of view. She walks the earth very solidly, trying to hold her ground. In particular, the way she explains things to Dean. This young woman says to her husband, “This situation is fucked up.” And, I think, Dean never thought it was fucked up until she says that. He thought he was failing. When he came back, people made him feel like a failure because he couldn’t get a job. But Jenny says, “No, it’s weird out in the world, and we have to do something drastic to protect ourselves.”

I am so interested in your social view, because your liberal-minded characters admit that the world is chaotic and everything might be descending into darkness. But anyone who is trying to prepare for this impending doom inevitably goes too far and becomes tyrannical. Throughout your work, you have these right-leaning characters who sound rational when they start talking, but then they keep talking, and it becomes clear they are calling for totalitarianism.

It is hard to hold on to goodwill and the spirit of possibility. Think what your country, with all of its innovation and its power, could do if it only had to listen to a progressive voice? Nothing to hold you back. A voice that says that everything is possible, including fairness and open-mindedness . . . Extreme conservatives can say things about the world that can be true, but when push comes to shove, where do they go? Have you heard about that lunatic [Alex Jones] on Piers Morgan? His CNN rant? He is a radio talk show host who went on TV and just lost it. I thought he was going to kill Piers Morgan right on the air, screaming, “This is 1776 again, and if you try to take away our guns we’ll just annihilate you!” There are normal people and then there are the crazy people who go into schools and kill children. This guy is in the middle, but he is closer to the crazy people. He might have had a reasonable thought at one point, but now he’s out of control.

So, how do you fight fire? I worry that the progressive voice, especially in your country but here, too, is muted because it begins with compromise.

Your plays can get pretty violent. I am trying to think of one that doesn’t have a gun in it.

Well, a couple of the new ones don’t have guns in them, although my daughter calls Dead Metaphor and The Burden of Self Awareness the assassination plays, because there are a bunch of hired assassins or characters who want to hire hit men. It’s a popular fantasy. A friend of mine said, “If this theater and TV stuff doesn’t work out, why don’t we all quit and become assassins and kill bad people.”

I don’t know where the violence comes from. I actually try to forestall it, but I don’t have a lot of control over these characters once they get going. I control it just enough to keep it from going off the rails. But I do believe that the violence is what needs to happen for some of these characters. It’s part of what their world is, so it is part of what the play is. But the nature of that violence is Beckett-like: it’s beyond cartoon and it’s surreal and wonderful. It’s metaphysical. It’s not real. It’s like dream violence.

As violent as your plays are, they are always hilarious.

Because the violence is pushed that far. As far as it can go. And that’s dark comedy. Someone said to me, “Take the comedy out of your plays, and they are the darkest things you can imagine. If you take the comedy away, they are pretty bleak views of the world.” And I told him that you can’t take the comedy away, because it’s the motor. It’s what allows these stories to live. The comedy is not part of the play, it is the play.

According to scholar Chris Johnson, that pretty much sums up your world view: it’s bleak, but comically so.

There’s the simple cliché: you either laugh or you cry. Well, I think you laugh or you go insane. I mean really insane. I never feel better than when I see a really brave comic go for it, like Sarah Silverman just letting it out. So little of the world makes emotional sense: how we govern ourselves, how we keep going to war for no reason. It doesn’t stop. You have to introduce humor into the procedure.

I remember John Cleese talking about how Monty Python did these really brutal parodies of the Church of England. They thought that would be the end of the Church of England. How could it possibly survive that kind of satire, being exposed for the idiocy that it is? But people have been mocking the church and the government for a long time, and they go on and on. As a writer, you yell, “But didn’t you read what I wrote about you!? How can you keep doing that!?”

Do you feel your plays are social commentaries that you hope will change society?

I just like to air things, just to talk about these preposterous things that are said. I watch a lot of political news, and I’m always thinking, “Put a comedian into this—fast!” Put a comic in the middle of these political conversations and let them say honestly what everyone else is talking around. I treasure people like Bill Maher and Jon Stewart. When I am watching their shows, for a brief moment I can pretend that what they are saying is the world view everyone has. Everyone sees the world for what it is. But then you flip stations and you realize, “Oh, no. No one sees it. Just those few people see it.”

So that’s what my plays are doing, talking about what I see. That’s why they are comedies. They’re dark because I think that’s the world, and they’re comedies because I don’t want to go insane—or anyone else to go insane. Comedy gives you distance from reality. Even my characters want distance from it.

Do you know where your plays are going when you are writing them?

Never at the beginning. I follow the characters. With Dead Metaphor, I had Dean, this guy coming back, and I put him where he would go: to job counseling. You always have to ask yourself, “Would he do this?” Not “Do I want him to do this,” but “Would he do this?” Dean would visit a counselor and they would talk, and I’m learning more about Dean just by having him in this scene with Oliver. After four or five exchanges I had the play. I didn’t know where it was going, but I knew what it was about. It was about Dean. And when Jenny was introduced, I knew her, too.

You attach yourself to the characters and they start to tell you about things. The first few moments of a play are the most exhilarating because they speak, they come to life, they are saying the things they want to say, and you start to figure out what it is all about. I’m learning more. I love that: they’re teaching me. You put them into scenes and that’s all you do. The more you get going, the less work you do. You’re just hearing them.

It may sound a little flaky, but it’s like stenography. My wife calls it channeling. She thinks I’m just gone when it happens. But you’re really just hearing them talk and writing it down as fast as you can.

It is interesting that Problem Child (one of your Suburban Motel plays), like Dead Metaphor, has a character named Helen, and the two share some similarities in terms of the high-horse delivery of their social views.

And with Problem Child, there are many, many people who could easily attach to Helen’s point of view, but she crosses the line from doing the right thing to judging in the nastiest way. It is the same in Dead Metaphor. There is a moment when Oliver says to Helen, “You used to be a reasonable person.”

But when we meet the Helen in Dead Metaphor, she’s already crossed the line.

But she has other lines still to cross. How far will she go? Where is the cutthroat in these people?

It is less surprising to me that Helen becomes cutthroat than Oliver. In The Art of War, your liberal character, Tyrone Power, loses because he doesn’t have it in him to do what needs to be done—to shoot General Hackman, the conservative militant. But in Dead Metaphor, Oliver does have it in him to, at least, hire someone to take out the threat.

The liberal has evolved. He at least recognizes the enemy. Tyrone Power was the feckless liberal who couldn’t get it together. He could talk a good game, but he could never compete with someone like Hackman. Whereas Oliver knows that Helen is getting worse and worse, that she has tendencies in the direction of Stalin and Hitler. There’s an awareness. There’s a change, you’re right. Maybe that is me searching for a character that can stand up a bit more.

Is that a hopeful thought for you, or is it just one more element in the screwed-up game of social politics?

I don’t know that it’s hopeful or not. Maybe it is desperate. We have to find some way [to neutralize Helen], because she has all this power.

Do you still write with Toronto in mind?

No, I’ve traveled enough to know that [these characters] exist everywhere. Any big city. Especially in our two countries, and especially characters like Dean. Because we’ve had similar experiences. Our countries lost proportionately the same number of people: us in Afghanistan, you in Iraq. And it is the same in both countries that the public is barely aware of it—or of the soldiers coming back. My nephew was over there, and I knew about it from talking to my sister. These characters are everywhere, defined by class and circumstance.

Click here to read about the Western Edge production of Dead Metaphor and to buy your tickets now!