The Philosophers and the Playwright
BY CELESTE GUZMAN MENDOZA
That’s all the world is: stories and places. You lose one, you lose the other… Forfeit the present, forfeit the past, and you forfeit the future as a house of hope.” So says J. Frank Dobie in Steve Moore’s play, Nightswim, which explores the friendship among three Texas literary legends: Roy Bedichek, Walter Prescott Webb, and Dobie. A native of Illinois, Moore grew up on a farm, studied biology and classics at the University of Chicago, and moved to Austin. For the past 12 years he has been an artistic director of Physical Plant, an experimental theater group. In May he received his MFA in playwriting from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. The critically acclaimed Nightswim, which was produced last fall at Austin’s State Theater, is set in the city’s most beloved locale, Barton Springs. “If I have to fight for this country,” Bedichek once said, “I will not fight for the flag or the American ‘way of life,’ or democracy or private enterprise or for any other abstractions. But I will fight to the last ditch for Barton Creek.” Recently the Observer caught up with Moore to talk about the three old men of Philosopher’s Rock, political theater, and plays as machines for metaphor. The following is an excerpt of that conversation. Texas Observer: You have a science background and worked as a tech writer for many years. How did you go from science and technology to writing plays? Steve Moore: In college I was writing plays that we’d produce at the university’s Black Box Theater. For various reasons, we had the run of the place so we made wild experiments. If there’s a connection to science, it’s that urge to experiment with theater. That doesn’t mean the plays are dry, I hope, but they’re always testing some perceived potential. Nightswim is a good example. It has bizarre conceits that threaten to make it too heady, but having these three men at its center holds it to the earth and makes it very warm. TO: And why these three writers? How did you become interested in them? SM: I would swim every day at Barton Springs. One of the great things about that place is that in 1994, some philanthropists put up a beautiful statue of these three guys called “Philosopher’s Rock.” It’s a very unconventional statue, very casual, with the men sitting in their bathing trunks, though not Webb. He didn’t swim so he’s dressed in shirtsleeves with his pants rolled up. And they’re in the middle of some kind of energetic conversation. Around the statue are beautiful little inscriptions for each of the men, excerpts from their writing. I was looking for a play to do and I wanted to do a political play, which Nightswim is in its indirect way. I wanted to start with something small and talk about things that matter in a human way. I didn’t know whether it was going to work or not because I didn’t know whether they were going to be interesting guys or whether their writing was going to be appealing. But of course it was. And besides their published writing, they had written wonderful letters to each other. The letters were a real window into their personalities and their friendships. Nothing was mediated, nothing was intended for a large audience, nothing was—there was no hesitation. And I fell in love with them, especially Bedichek. He writes beautiful letters: funny and smart and very generous. TO: Did you use the language of the letters for dialogue? SM: I didn’t. I would have liked to, but as intimate as a letter is, you can’t turn an exchange of letters into a realistic conversation. It doesn’t sound right. But the dialogue was much easier to write after I was steeped in the letters—their personalities and their disagreements with each other. They had lots of disagreements. They were each fiercely independent, intellectual men with very different personalities. Bedichek was very much a diplomat in a way, composed and relaxed and amusing and well-spoken. He could speak with anyone at any time about anything. The same is true of Dobie, but he was a little more gruff and occasionally arrogant. He was by nature kind and generous, but cantankerous as well. Webb was quiet and probably, if it’s possible to say this, smarter than they were, but he took his time with things. He was careful. So: very different, but they came from similar backgrounds. They all grew up on little farms in rural Texas and they knew the same things about ranch life and they read the same books. And more than anything, they shared a fear and sadness about what was happening to the land. The fences were going up and the old ways were being lost. TO: It was so painful for me reading about Bedichek’s house, which was torn down. It’s a parking lot now—a library parking lot, which I guess is a good thing, but a parking lot all the same. Was that something you knew before you started working on the play? SM: No. I was just curious to find out where each of them lived so I looked up their addresses in a 1959 phone book. Bedichek lived on a street called “Oldham Road.” I couldn’t find it on any current map. Finally I went back to a map from 1959 and realized it just wasn’t there anymore. The whole neighborhood now sits under the parking lot of the LBJ Library. It’s the sort of thing that happens all the time, but it put me in a funk for days. Webb was interested in geography—a particular notion of geography. He felt that a person’s character was largely a product of geography. If people lived in a place long enough with a certain climate and certain weather conditions and certain soil, their personalities would change to suit that place. And of course he’s right, or he was. It’s hard to have that anymore. Most people don’t notice what the land is really doing from season to season or from day to day. More and more, our sense of geography has become an internal geography—the geography of our own minds and the geography of the people around us. That’s not any less rich or interesting or variable, but it’s a different way of living. TO: There’s a kind of ethereal quality to the 1950s Barton Springs setting, a jelly-like substance that moves between real life and the spiritual world. What made you decide on that kind of setting? SM: I needed the play to begin in a place that mattered. It wasn’t enough for the audience to just find out what these guys were talking about on a particular day. That might have been interesting, but that’s a play for the history museum, not for the theater. Of the three men, Bedichek died first and very suddenly, and of course his death was an enormous blow for both Dobie and Webb. So that seemed like the right place to start, and then from there I needed to keep “Bedi” around somehow. So in the play he haunts Barton Springs for a number of years before passing on to the afterlife. He can overhear the conversations Webb and Dobie have, and when either of them dreams of Bedichek, that person and Bedi are able to have an actual conversation. So to answer your question, there was a lot of practicality involved in the setting and the rules. So much of writing plays, at least for me, is this mechanics of entrances and exits, how to get the configurations of characters you need at certain times and places. You figure that out and then you spend months trying to write elegant justifications for why the world on stage works the way you need it to. TO: What do you want your plays, the theater you’re working in, to accomplish? SM: Mostly I want from theater what I want from poetry—to remind me of some secret that I might know, but that I’ve forgotten. Some secret about the interior life or some secret about the way people act with each other or find each other or breathe each other. I also want to see audiences laugh, to gasp, to get angry. I really want to get inside of their potential to react to things. I’m not trying to shock or insult anyone. But I like provoking people, in some way. This play is much less provocative than other plays I’ve written, but I hope it’s still provocative in a certain way—just seeing these three men relate to one another. They’re very tender and yet they maintain their masculinity so easily. I wanted to show that, for that to be provocative. TO: As I was reading Nightswim, I kept thinking, “I wonder if he likes Beckett?” SM: Good guess. I like a lot of writers; I really like Marie Irene Fornes, Kirk Lynn, Carson Kreitzer, Tony Kushner, Caryl Churchill. I like playwrights who are also inventors, people who build new kinds of plays by solving complicated problems of metaphor the way an engineer solves problems of physics. Of course it shouldn’t feel like it to the audience but a play is really a machine for looking at something close up or looking at its insides or looking at it backwards, whatever. And there’s no shortage of playwrights who are really good at building those kinds of machines. Kushner has a play where Laura Bush has these long conversations with dead, Iraqi children. It’s harrowing and bizarre, but it’s a lens into something urgent. It’s good for people to see it. I do wish more people saw theater, but I’m not pessimistic about it. I see audiences all the time that have big, brave appetites for this stuff. TO: Tell me about your current project. SM: I just got a really exciting commission from the Theater Department at St. Edward’s University to write a play that combines the themes of Islam, democracy, and capitalism. It’s a huge challenge. The trick, of course, as with any political theater, is to avoid the thousand blind alleys that lead off into preachiness and oversimplification. What do you do? You dream up your characters, throw them into these terribly troubled political situations, and you just try to make sure that they keep channeling something human—good, bad, and ugly. It’s easier said than done. Celeste Guzman Mendoza is a published poet and playwright. A San Antonio native, she edits and manages Rio Grande Valley Woman magazine.