IN CONVERSATION WITH LAWRENCE WRIGHT
A few weeks before the first rehearsal in the fall of 2017, Skyler Gray, the Alley Theatre’s former Literary Manager, called playwright Lawrence Wright at his home in Austin to talk about his work and the world premiere of his new play.
Lawrence Wright: Hello.
Skyler Gray: Hi, Larry. We are so excited to have you join us soon!
LW: I’m very excited to be heading there.
SG: So, let’s just jump in. As a journalist, what draws you to the theatre?
LW: I think of all my writing as storytelling, in one form or another. Whether it is an article or a book or a movie or a play, it is a way of communicating with people about our condition. Of course, some material works better in one medium than another.
SG: When you have an idea for a story, how do you decide which medium to write in?
LW: Usually when an idea comes to me—or any writer, I suppose—it comes in a package. It says, “Hi, I’m a movie” or “Hello, I’m a book” or even “I’m a song.” Normally when you receive these moments of inspiration, which are rare, you have an idea of what it is. Although, I have found on many occasions that one idea can translate into several different media. For instance, I wrote a play about Camp David and later wrote a book, called Thirteen Days In September, that would have been the book that I adapted for the play. I’ve since written a movie script based on both the book and the play. A single idea can ramify through different forms of expression.
SG: It’s like a case of the chicken or the egg—which one came fi rst? You’ve also done it the other way with your Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Looming Tower and your solo show My Trip to Al-Qaeda, correct?
LW: Correct. The play was based on my experiences reporting on Al-Qaeda. In part it was stimulated by the fact that I didn’t want to do a book tour—I thought that I’d let the audience come to me. [Laughs] It was my first experience standing on a stage since high school. I found it very exciting.
SG: That’s great. And then you also turned it into an HBO movie?
LW: That’s correct. They filmed the play and then made it into a documentary—Alex Gibney was the director.
SG: How is your research process different when working on a play rather than a piece of journalism?
LW: Well, they are related. I tend to be drawn to real events, and that may just be the legacy of my long journalistic career. I am always intrigued by how things actually happened. So, I research my subjects. In the case of Cleo, I interviewed as many people as I could. Many of them have passed on since, but I talked to Jack Brodsky, the publicist on the movie who wrote a book about it, Tom Mankiewicz, son of director Joe Mankiewicz who was on the set with his father as a young boy, and Rosemary Matthews, the script supervisor. So I spent some time just as I would if I was researching a first hand account. I read everything I could get my hands on, in terms of biographies and other types of accounts about the making of the movie. As with my other reporting, I make note cards and fi le information about different characters—what their relationships are, their personalities, all those things—so when I am writing I can rely on the research I’ve done as its all assembled in an orderly manner for me to use.
SG: We were so excited to have Cleo as part of the inaugural Alley All New Festival in 2016. Can you talk about the development of the script and the way it has changed? You mentioned Rosemary Matthews, and I remember her being a character in earlier drafts of the play.
LW: That’s right. So I’m working on draft 85—I’ve been writing this script for much of my adult life it seems. I started before 9/11 and at the time I was envisioning it as a movie. I was planning to become a movie director, so I was writing scripts for me to direct. And then 9/11 came along and I had to get back on the fire truck so I set this project aside. Only after The Looming Tower was published five years later did I return to this project. I decided then that it wasn’t going to be a movie, nor did I ever want to be a movie director, so I was going to try Cleo as a play. I immediately had so much fun working on it. What drew me to the concept in the first place was this ancient sex scandal—the biggest scandal of the ancient world—and one that has elicited a lot of very interesting literature from Shakespeare to Shaw. And then you have this other parallel scandal—the biggest sex scandal of the twentieth century—by two people who were playing Antony and Cleopatra. It seemed like there was so much dramatic juice to be gotten out of this. And the characters were just so large scale that I relished every moment. It has been a long time in development. About seven years ago, I hooked up with Bob Balaban [the director of Cleo] and he has been helping me shape it—he’s a wonderful dramaturg. And now we finally have this opportunity.
SG: And even between the reading during the Alley All New Festival and now, the script has undergone a lot of development. Do you foresee the script changing once rehearsals begin?
LW: Well, I’m working on it right now. I suspect that when I get to Houston, that first week I’ll still be making changes based on the feedback from the actors. It’s a first work that is still untested and I think it has a lot of raw potential.
SG: I totally agree and we are so excited to be a part of it. So in your writing, how do you walk the line between historically factual and inherently theatrical?
LW: I love the factual material. For instance, I cherish actual dialogue that I might find from someone’s account or memory from one of my sources. If I have the words and know exactly what happened, those factual pins form a kind of bridge. It is like placing boulders across a river—you know that this was said around this point in time so you put that rock down. Generally you can see a way across the river. You don’t know exactly what was said, but you have a pathway that you can play out and connect those moments with inherently dramatic material. I think in that way you can create an approximation of what must have happened and also make it theatrical.
SG: Is there a point where you have to let the facts take a backseat to the theatrical story you’re trying to tell?
LW: I get inspired by something that I read. For instance, I read that Eddie Fisher had a gun. Suddenly it gives me the opportunity to imagine what he would have done with that gun. It is an inherently theatrical idea—it was really true but we don’t know what he did with the gun. So then there is an opportunity for the dramatist to emerge and find a use for the gun.
SG: Were you a fan of the Cleopatra movie?
LW: I was never a fan of the movie—it is a terrible movie. It might have been great at one point had Joe Mankiewicz been able to achieve his vision. There is a school of thought that had he been able to do the two part movie that he wanted—which was originally going to be Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra—that it might have been one of the greatest cinematic achievements. I thought the movie was ponderous and stuffy. What caught my attention was the affair. I was 16 when the movie came out and the country was still very puritanical. There was very little sex in movies and the behavior of movie stars was very carefully policed by the studios. Astronauts were not allowed to be divorced. The whole idea of sanctity of marriage was highly protected in our country. Then comes this scandal that rips it all open. The hypocrisy about our sexual relationships— moreover it spews out this passion and lust and taboo in relationships. As a virginal teenager, this was very titillating for me. America in particular was wrought up; there was a resolution in Congress to forbid Elizabeth Taylor from returning to the United States. The Pope condemned her behavior. It is hard to imagine now where such behavior on the part of movie stars is almost seen as borecore. Back then it was breaking an enormous social taboo. The power of their romance is hard to overstate. They were really attractive people and I think the entire country was fixated on their romance because they were these powerful sexual magnets. No matter what you think about their relationship, it casts a light on your own relationship and sexuality. For that reason it was the match that led to the sexual revolution that quickly followed.
SG: They were also the first celebrities.
LW: Correct. Elizabeth Taylor was the most famous woman in the world. Now we have a pantheon of celebrities, but the celebrity culture hadn’t magnified until Elizabeth Taylor came along. There aren’t any actors right now that have the same international stardom that she did at that time. She was a star since she was child and then became this immense celebrity with this very dramatic life that unfolded in public. She lived her whole life in public. Since she was 9 years old she was a figure that people in America were familiar with. She became an international celebrity at 12 in National Velvet and after that every single step of her life was followed avidly by fans.
SG: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s affair is one of the wildest and most publicized scandals of all time. As a journalist, what is the most scandalous event you have covered, or uncovered?
LW: I guess the one I probably had the most to do with was during the hysteria of recovered memories in the 80s and early 90s that I wrote about in an article for the New Yorker and later in a book called Remembering Satan. This was something that had grown out of therapist offices and daytime talk shows and later in police culture. Young women—especially suffering from eating disorders—were advised by their therapist that they had been abused, probably by their father, but had repressed the memory. It led to this incredible outbreak of recovered memories that then became about satanic abuse. In Austin we had four hospitals, each of them filling up the disassociated disorders wing with multiple personality’s disorder. Many, even my own therapist, told me that they were being inundated by young women that had multiple personality disorder, a rare and controversial diagnosis and that many of these young women were recovering memories about being abused by Satanists. I charged into that and I found this one person—in the whole country—who had been convicted of a crime of satanic abuse. He was a former deputy sheriff in Washington who actually confessed. So I thought if there was anything to it that would be the case to prove it. What happened is that I found he had been hypnotized and persuaded by his evangelical preacher that God would not allow him to have any false memories. The upshot was that the story broke the spell of this satanic idea in America. Since then the insurance companies decided not to cover the multiple personality disorder diagnosis and the whole thing began to vanish. It was an amazing experience.
SG: In addition to being a writer, you are also a musician and the keyboard player of the Austin-based band WhoDo. How did you get into music?
LW: I got into music when I was 38 ½ and decided that I was going to learn how to play “Great Balls of Fire” for my 40th birthday. I started taking piano lessons—that was a long time ago—and I’m still trying to have the adolescence that everyone in my band had. It has been the most joyous addition to my life.
SG: Several characters in Cleo sing or hum at some point in the play. Does your musical background infuse itself into your writing?
LW: It can’t help but do that. I’ve found that once I’ve added that portion of my life, it has opened my brain to other kinds of thoughts.
SG: So what else are you working on?
LW: Hulu just launched a ten-episode series, "The Looming Tower," based on my book of the same name. It stars Jeff Daniels, Alec Baldwin, and a wonderful French Algerian star, Tahar Rahim. Also I’ve got a book on Texas coming out [on April 17th] called God Save Texas which is a personal history of living in the state.
SG: And are The New Yorker articles you recently published a part of that?
LW: My editor at The New Yorker, David Remnick, asked me to explain Texas because he couldn’t understand why I live here. I reminded him that I get paid by the word and that’s a very big question that he asked me. So that led to a book.
SG: The articles are amazing. I’m from California and the rivalry you point out about California and Texas is fascinating.
LW: They are two polar opposites with very similar outcomes.
SG: It is these two states that think they are complete opposites but are much more alike than they want to admit.
LW: That’s a good point.
SG: Well thanks so much. We look forward to having you at the Alley very soon!
LW: Looking forward to it!
The original interview was conducted in August 2017, in advance of the Cleo run planned for October but then later rescheduled due to Hurricane Harvey. Facts have been updated to refl ect the present.
April 6 - April 29, 2018
A comedy about the titanic love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the filming of 1963’s Cleopatra that created a worldwide scandal.