John Patrick Shanley, playwright: surviving on the bigger emotions
John Patrick Shanley is different from many young American playwrights - he is earning a living by his writing. While not yet the household word that the Stoppards, Simons, and Shepards of the theater world are, Shanley is considered a promising young playwright in a country that often bemoans a lack thereof.
''He packs the kind of energy into a page of dialogue that a Mamet or a Shepard does,'' says Jon Jory, artistic director of the Actors Theater of Louisville, the regional theater that first produced Shanley's ''Danny and the Deep Blue Sea'' last spring. ''That is the clearest sign of a talented playwright.''
While some New York critics expressed reservations about the tough but sentimental nature of ''Danny'' when it opened Off Broadway in June - The New Yorker called it ''a marshmallow underneath'' - its successful run has given its author the financial freedom to write, a dream come true for any young playwright.
''I'm not independently wealthy, but I am making a living right now, which is very nice and an inspiration to my fellows,'' says the lanky young playwright in a distinctly Bronx-accented voice. ''You're lucky if you know one (playwright) a year who's making it.''
This summer Shanley returned to the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference, where he and 14 other novice playwrights spit-polished their latest plays. Whether in rehearsal or simply holding court with his fellow writers on the back porch overlooking Long Island Sound, this witty, confident playwright seemed inexorably at home. On a drizzly New England morning, Shanley took time out from the artistic camaraderie and rigors of reworking his play ''Savage in Limbo'' to talk about being a young playwright in America.
''I've had a lot of jobs,'' he says with a laugh, ticking them off for a questioner as rain drummed overhead. ''I was an elevator operator, a moving man, a paint contractor, a messenger on Wall Street, a sandwichmaker in the Marine Corps. I even worked on the Desert Patrol at Orchard Beach. That's selling orange drink from a cistern strapped to your back and a safari hat on while you walk up and down the dunes yelling 'Soda.' ''
Despite such occupational diversions, Shanley maintains he has had only ''one bad day, when I wondered if I was any good at this.'' During the eight years he has practiced his craft - with time out for college at New York University and a stint in the Marines - he has written more than a dozen plays. But it wasn't until the New York success of ''Danny,'' his intense tale of two Bronx misfits, that Shanley's nonnaturalistic style came into its own.
''I wrote a lot of lighter plays, plays that were sort of looking for an identity. But I wrote 'Savage in Limbo' because I had to. ... I wrote 'Danny' out of very similar feelings. I just had to find a way to say certain things.''
The son of a meatpacker father and a telephone operator mother who grew up in a ''very tough neighborhood'' in the Bronx, Shanley says writing is his way of coming to terms with the violence he encountered. ''I was not myself a violent person, but I came from an extremely violent world ... writing was a way of working (it) out.''
Like many a playwright, Shanley dabbled in poetry and prose before settling on drama. ''I wrote one novel that I subsequently burned,'' he says with a laugh. It wasn't until he wrote his first play that he says he discovered the literary style most suited to him: the opportunity to write from multiple points of view. ''It's the natural disagreement in the material,'' he explains. ''Since I found that I did not agree with myself, there was no way I could write consistently in any other form.''
He describes his spare, volatile works that confront desperate male-female relationships as ''emotionally real, but not taking place in the real world.'' ''Savage in Limbo'' he calls ''a concert play of different voices.'' He says the five characters, variations of the Bronx misfits first encountered in ''Danny,'' ''are my heart, my mind, my soul, my love of the status quo, and my lunacy - at a very specific moment in my life.'' Yet it is not a structural point he expects his audience to see. ''I think I would have written a very bad play if that had been my intention,'' he says.
Like many young playwrights, Shanley chafes at most drama criticism. ''One of the weirdest things about criticism is that people spend all their time describing what's not there and its like, how do you build on that?'' he asks. ''The worst thing that can happen to a playwright is to have everyone identify the one scene that doesn't work.''
Indeed, some observers have likened Shanley's streetwise, monosyllabic dialogue to that of playwright David Mamet. But Shanley brushes off such comparisons. ''It's not realistic language, but it is its own idiom,'' he says, adding about Mamet: ''He's Chicago and I'm the Bronx. My characters say everything they are thinking; Mamet's characters are, like, mysterious.''
Shanley also insists that his subject matter is distinct from the Chicago playwright's. ''What we have in common is urban and cursing,'' he says with a smile. ''His work is very much like ... a social critique of men. What I'm interested in are the really big, big, emotions in people.''
It's a premise that Shanley extends to the current state of American theater. ''I think it's heating up. It was dreadful for a while, but it seems to me that audiences are demanding more feeling on stage,'' he says. Shanley describes plays such as the recent musical ''Sunday in the Park with George,'' by Stephen Sondheim, as emotionally ''cool'' to the touch. ''Whenever an artist gets to the point where they're ... basically putting themselves on stage and saying, 'Look how hard it is to be an artist,' that's just narcissism,'' he says. ''I think that there is more of a hunger for plays of a larger size, more emotional validity. I think that people want to be moved.''
It's a mission to which Shanley dedicates his work. ''An audience can walk out at the end of a play dispirited,'' he says. ''Or they can walk out and be filled with energy they did not have when they came in. That's what I want to do for an audience - recharge them.''