LCT held the latest in its Platform Series this week, bringing John Guare and George C. Wolfe, the writer and director of A Free Man of Color, into the Vivian Beaumont lobby for a discussion of the play with LCT's dramaturg, Anne Cattaneo. The event was jam-packed, and as the crowd spilled into the balcony overlooking the lobby I couldn't help but think of A Free Man of Color's central location, New Orleans, where balconies play such an integral role, and not just during Mardi Gras.
In the latest issue of the Lincoln Center Review, of which Cattaneo and Guare are Executive Editors, Guare and Wolfe sit for a joint interview in which they outline the genesis of A Free Man of Color. The Platform event -- whose audio transcript is now posted here -- elaborated on some of those details.
Even in its earliest form, Wolfe said, the play had "an incredible muscularity" and a "foolish fearlessness." Part of the project's impetus, Guare went on, was to provide a vehicle for Jeffrey Wright, "a great actor who's not sufficiently recognized."
Another inspiration: Restoration comedy. "The greatest Restoration comedy, in my mind," Guare said, "is [Wycherley's] The Country Wife." The playwright added that he had seen a production of the work in the 1950s, on Broadway, starring Julie Harris and Laurence Harvey. (That staging, I might add, also featured a young Richard Easton, who has more recently starred in LCT successes such as The Invention of Love and The Coast of Utopia. Further fun fact: The Country Wife was one of the very first plays put on at the Beaumont after it opened in 1965, a production that was its last Broadway revival to date.)
In the LCT Review interview, Wolfe confessed, "What I love about The Country Wife is the Horner character...Someone who would say or do whatever he needed to, to get what he wants." For his part, Guare said he likes the Wycherley, and other first-rate Restoration comedies, because they are "sexy" and "luxurious" and "nobody [gets] redeemed at the end."
The LCT Platform event touched on some of A Free Man of Color's real-life figures: chief among them, Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson. The latter, Wolfe said, "is incredibly contradictory," which makes him "inherently dramatic." Guare added: "So many of Jefferson's words in the play are in fact Jefferson's."
When the Platform discussion was opened to audience questions, one man brought up the hyper-sexuality and impressive physical endowment of Jacques Cornet, the main character played by Wright. Wolfe responded that in the early 19th century, when the play takes place, the country's stereotypes, such as the sexual threat and potency of the black male, were still "being crafted." The play, he added, is "playing with mythologies and prototypes of America" in the process of their invention.
A final memorable question came from moderator Cattaneo. Where in the play, she asked the playwright, is John Guare? "I am everybody in the play," he responded - a wink at a famous remark of Flaubert that Guare had mentioned earlier in the evening: "Madame Bovary, c'est moi."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.