John Guare has had a long, enriching relationship with Lincoln Center Theater. House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation, both directed by Jerry Zaks, were produced here, and Guare is the co-editor, with Anne Cattaneo, of The Lincoln Center Theater Review. Nantucket Sleigh Ride, Guare’s new play, takes us on a trip with Mundie (John Larroquette), a playwright turned New York stockbroker, who ventures from New York to Nantucket on a surreal errand. Because the play is still in rehearsal, that’s as much of the plot as I want to give away. When I met with Guare the other day backstage, we talked not about the story’s specifics but about a few general themes and places that the play invokes.
Brendan Lemon: What is your personal history with Nantucket?
John Guare: Nantucket is a place where you go to change your life. There was a very key point in my life when I was at a dead end, and by sheer chance somebody invited me to Nantucket to start a theater. I leapt at the opportunity. At that time, Nantucket really was a “far-away” island. It is completely isolated and proud of that. And in the winters it was heaven. It was a different place then. It had not been discovered by the hedge-fund people.
BL: How long were you in Nantucket doing the theater?
JG: I went up to Nantucket in 1973. By 1979, I’d met my wife, Adele, there. The back-and-forth to New York got too hard, and I stopped going. I haven’t been there in a couple of decades. But Nantucket has remained alive in my head.
BL: The 1970s figure heavily into this play. Can you speak a little about what that decade was like for you artistically?
JG: In the 1970s, my life began. House of Blue Leaves opened in 1971. Two Gentlemen of Verona [a musical version of the Shakespeare play for which Guare co-wrote the book and did the lyrics] also opened in 1971. Eventually, I started writing my Lydie Breeze plays about Nantucket. I would come back to New York in the winter for peace and quiet and to write because Nantucket in the winter was so busy. The decade ended with Louis Malle calling me out of the blue and our making the movie Atlantic City. That picture was literally finished on December 31, 1979.
BL: When I read Nantucket Sleigh Ride again the other day, I was struck by a sense of how artistically charged the 1970s were – of how New York was bursting with people old and young who lived and breathed art and music and literature.
JG: The city was dangerous and that helped make it exhilarating. Everything felt new and bubbling along. There was a ferocious energy in New York. It was tremendously affordable. I lived in a walk-up at the corner of West 10th and West 4th street, as Mundie does in the play. Then I heard by chance that John Lennon and Yoko Ono were leaving their place on Bank Street and moving up to the Dakota. I got their apartment. At the time, it was so expensive. It was a double floor-through with a studio with a 30-foot ceiling and a spiral staircase to a roof garden. It was $500 a month and I couldn’t imagine paying $500 a month. That apartment became my home base for my New York in the 1970s. I was out a lot then. I loved Fillmore East, although I never went to Studio 54. Apparently, I missed out on the key event.
BL: But you were part of other key events, such as life at the Public Theater, which in the 1970s did Two Gentlemen as well as your plays Rich and Famous, Landscape of the Body, Marco Polo Sings a Solo, and Bosoms and Neglect.
JG: Life at the Public was invigorating. There always seemed to be a dozen shows going on. You’d talk in the halls and wander in on rehearsals. Everybody seemed to be working and you felt thrilled to be working and lucky to be working.
BL: The Argentine writer Borges is a character in your new play. What has been your relationship to Borges as a reader?
JG: I discovered Borges when I was young, and I didn’t know quite what to do with his work. The pieces were so short. But I never let them go. Borges for me was a very slow reveal. He presented such an unusual way of looking at life. I’d never been so aware of anyone whose eyes challenged mine toward a new way to see and challenged my mind toward a new way to think. Sometime in the ‘80s, Borges came to New York. There was a big dinner and I met him. That was thrilling.
BL: When I first read Borges as a young man, I thought: this piece or that piece is only three or four pages long. There’s not much there. Years later, I realized that each sentence opened up a complete world.
JG: As Edward Albee once said, a full-length play is a play that’s as long as it should be. Whether it’s five pages or 200 pages. Borges didn’t need length to prove anything. He came to us in his essence.
BL: Was writing Nantucket Sleigh Ride enjoyable for you?
JG: Writing plays has a nightmare aspect, but they’re my life. Nantucket Sleigh Ride is a play I’ve wanted to write for many years. The main thing that blocked me was: since “I” am a character in it I had to figure out who “I” was. So my main challenge was writing my character.
BL: How long has this play been percolating in your head?
JG: For a few decades.
BL: It must be satisfying to have something take shape in your head after all these years and then writing it and now having it produced.
JG: The satisfying thing is working with Jerry Zaks. There’s a lot of happiness for us in the doing of it here together at Lincoln Center. I hope we get it right. As with any play, your main hope is that it connects.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com