As you are writing a play, do you have a certain idea of
what the playís ending will be?
No. I think for me, every play has
its own force, its own momentum, its own rhythm and
tempo. Thatís the fascination of it. Itís like people
who hear music in their heads, or in the air, or
wherever. They attract it in a certain way and it begins
to speak to them. It has its own peculiar set of rules
and circumstances, and complicated structures that you
canít necessarily dictate. I think a play is like that.
What youíre trying to do, in a way, is have a meeting.
Youíre trying to have a meeting with this thing thatís
already taking place. So, I canít really say that I have
a beginning, middle and end every time I sit down to
write a play. Every moment of the play is a beginning, a
middle and an end.
So itís a very ephemeral process?
Yeah, it is. A playís like
musicóephemeral, elusive, appearing and disappearing all
the time. You never reach a final point with it.
Do you see productions of your own work?
No. For the most part, it doesnít
interest me, no. The initial production is very exciting
because youíre involved, youíre engaged in it. After
that point, though, Iíd just as soon let it go and go on
to the next play, because the next oneís going to be
even that much more exciting than the one before it.
Once that first production happens, then I donít care
what happens to it really. Iím not concerned in tracking
it down, in following it around like an ex-lover or
Critics of your plays, such as Curse of the Starving
Class, Buried Child, and True West have often referred
to them as chronicling the break-up of the American
family. To what extent is that a legitimate reading of
Iím not interested in the American
social scene at all. It totally bores me. Iím not
interested in the social predicament. Itís stupid. And
the thing you bring up about the break-up of the family
isnít particularly American; itís all over the world.
Because I was born in America, it comes out as the
American family. But Iím not interested in writing a
treatise on the American family. Thatís ridiculous. I
mean, thatís not fair or unfair to read that into my
plays. It just seems an incomplete, a partial way of
looking at the play. People get off on tripping out on
these social implications of the play and how that
matches up to contemporary America. And thatís okay. But
thatís not why Iím writing plays.
So, why are you writing plays?
I have to. I have a mission.
(Laughs.) No, I donít know why I do it. Why not?
You collaborated on the writing of two of your
collected plays, Tongues and Savage/Love.
Yeah, the ones with Joe [Joseph
Chaikin]. Well, that was a very unique circumstance,
working with someone that Iíd known as a friend for a
long time and never really had a chance to work
intimately with, one on one. I was hanging around the
Open Theater and I knew Joe. We had a lot of things in
common. So we just sat down and collaborated on this
thing, just cooked it up. The thing that was unique
about them, I think, is that they were designed for one
performer, for him in particular. That was the impulse
behind the whole thing. Itís very different from writing
Do you consider your work to revolve around myths?
Well, so many people have different
ideasóof what the word means.
What does it mean to you?
It means a lot of things to me. One
thing it means is a lie. Another thing it means is an
ancient formula that is expressed as a means of handing
down a very specific knowledge. Thatís a true mythóan
ancient myth like Osiris, an old Egyptian myth that
comes down from antiquity. The thing thatís powerful
about a myth is that itís the communication of emotions,
at the same time ancient and for all time. If, for
instance, you look at Romeo and Juliet as a myth, the
feelings that you are confronted with in a play like
that are true for all time. Theyíll always be true.
What relationship does that have to your plays?
Well, hopefully in writing a play,
you can snare emotions that arenít just personal
emotions, not just catharsis, not just psychological
emotions that youíre getting off your chest, but
emotions and feelings that are connected with everybody.
Hopefully. Itís not true all the time; sometimes itís
nothing but self-indulgence. But if you work hard enough
toward being true to what you intuitively feel is going
down in the play, you might be able to catch that kind
of thing. So that you suddenly hook up with feelings
that are on a very broad scale. But you start with
something personal and see how it follows out and opens
to something thatís much bigger. Thatís what Iím
Should one then be able to project his own experience
onto what has occurred on stage?
Yeah, you can do that if you want to.
But it doesnít have any real value. The only time it has
value is when you hook up with something that you donít
know. Something that you canít pin down. Something where
you say, ďI feel something here thatís going on thatís
deeply mysterious. I know that itís true, but I canít
put my finger on it.Ē Iím not interested if it reminds
you of your mother, or your sister, or your cousin, or
anything like that. So what? Everybody has something
like that. Thatís what I mean about this social thing,
that similarities between social neuroses in American
society really donít mean much in the long run because
theyíre always going to change. But if emotions that
come up during a play call up questions, or seem to
remind you of something that you canít quite put your
finger on, then it starts to get interesting. Then it
starts to move in a direction we all know, regardless of
where we come from or who we are. It starts to hook up
in a certain way. Those, to me, are mythic emotions.
What ties do you feel to the American West?
Well, itís all subjective. I just
feel like the West is much more ancient than the East.
Much more. It is. I donít know if youíve traveled out
here at all but there are areas like Wyoming, Texas,
Montana, and places like that, where you really feel
this ancient thing about the land. Ancient. That itís
primordial. Of course, you can say that about New
England. But it doesnít have the same power to me,
because itís this thing about space. No wonder these
mysterious cults in Indian religions sprang up, you
know? It wasnít as though these people were justÖjust
fell down from the sky. It has to do with the
relationship between the land and the peopleóbetween the
human being and the ground. I think thatís typically
Western and much more attractive than this tight little
forest civilization that happened back East. Itís much
more physical and emotional to me. New England and the
East Coast have always been an intellectual community.
Also, I was raised out here, so I guess itís just an
outcome of my background. I just feel like Iíll never
get over the fact of being from here.
Thereís a very disorienting element in some of your
plays. In certain places the dialogue is very realistic
but the situation seems very surrealistic, and this
dichotomy is never resolved.
I think itís a cheap trick to resolve
things. Itís totally a complete lie to make resolutions.
Iíve always felt that, particularly in theatre when
everythingís tied up at the end with a neat little
ribbon and youíre delivered this package. You walk out
of the theatre feeling that everythingís resolved and
you know what the playís about. So what? Itís almost as
though, why go through all that if youíre just going to
tie it all up at the end? It seems like a lie to meóthe
resolutions, the denouement and all the rest of it. And
itís been handed down as if that is the way to write
Whatís the alternative?
Well, there are many, many
alternatives. But I think itís all dependent again on
the elements that you start with and what your interest
is in those elements. If youíre only interested in
taking a couple of characters, however many, and having
them clash for a while, and then resolve their problems,
then why not go to group therapy, or something?
What do you do?
I think of it more like music. If you
play an instrument and you meet somebody else who plays
an instrument, and the two of you sit down and start to
play music, itís really interesting to see where that
music goes between two musicians. It might not go
anywhere you thought it would go; it might go in
directions that you never even thought of before. You
see what I mean? So you take two characters and you set
them in motion. Itís very interesting to follow this
thing that theyíre on. Itís a great adventureóitís like
getting on a wild horse.
But arenít you, the playwright, controlling
everything? Youíre creating it, arenít you?
Iím not creating that.
It doesnít happen by itself, does it?
No, but in a way, itís already in the
air. I really believe thatís true. These things are in
the air, all around us. And all Iím trying to do is
latch onto them. I donít feel like itís a big creative
act, like Iím inventing all of this. I mean, Iím not
putting myself in the same category as Mozart at all,
donít get me wrong, but the story with him was that he
heard this music. It was going on, and he was just open
to it somehow, latched onto it, and wrote it down. True
West is like that. True West is following these two
guys, blow by blow, just following them, trying to stick
with them and stick with the actual moment by moment
thing of it. I mean, I wrote that thingÖit took me a
long time to write that play.
Because I went down a lot of blind
alleys. I tried to make them go in one direction, and
they didnít want to go that way.
How did you know when it was right, then?
I just know. Just like you know itís
right when youíre with somebody. You donít know it
through the headóyou have a feeling.
How did you know when to end it?
Well, Iíve always had a problem with
endings. I never know when to end a play. Iíd just as
soon not end anything. But you have to stop at some
point, just to let people out of the theatre. I donít
like endings and I have a hard time with them. So True
West doesnít really have an ending; it has a
confrontation. A resolution isnít an ending; itís a
Is the point then to leave the audience hanging?
No, no. Iím not intentionally trying
to leave people up in the air. But I also donít want to
give people the impression that itís over. (Laughs.)
Do you write for an audience?
Well, you know, thatís an interesting
question because, here again, the question comes up,
what is the audience? Who is the audience? In a way, you
must write for yourself as a certain kind of audience.
In the midst of writing, it always feels as though Iím
writing for the thing itself. Iím writing to have the
thing itself be true. And then I feel like an audience
would be able to relate to it. The theatreís about a
Between the actors and the audience?
If thereís no relationship onstage,
thereís not going to be any in the theatre. But that has
to be answered first in the writing. If you and I sit
down on stage as two actors, and we donít have a
relationship, whatís the point? A relationshipís both
invisible and tangible at the same time, and you can see
it between actors. You can also see the absence of it.
If itís there, the audience is related immediately.
How are you affected by criticism, both favorable and
unfavorable, of your work?
Well, Iím not immune to it. But
youíve got to follow this thing that keeps telling you
blow by blow what to do, no matter what. Itís very
apparent [to you] what the next thing is. But critics
canít tell you that. How could a critic know what your
inner condition is as a writer? Iím not saying
[criticism] doesnít have a pull on me. It has a definite
pull on me. But whether you believe it or not is what
counts. Iíve been in a few rodeos, and the first team
roping that I won gave me more of a feeling of
accomplishment and pride of achievement than I ever got
winning the Pulitzer Prize. At the same time, Iím glad
that the plays are successful and that they do something
to people. But Iím not trying to win another Pulitzer
Prize or anything.
Do you feel as if the media have certain expectations
Sure. Itís hard to know what theyíre expecting. If
theyíre expecting me to be myself, I can guarantee that
will happen all the way down the line. If theyíre
expecting me to be Eugene OíNeill, they may be
What writers have influenced you? What playwrights?
I donít know. Whatís the point?
Do you go to see plays?
I donít go to the theatre at all. I
hate the theatre. I really do, I canít stand it. I think
itís totally disappointing for the most part. Itís just
always embarrassing, I find. But every once in a while,
something real is taking place.
So, as for contemporary influences on your workó
Have you ever been to a rodeo?
Well, thereís more drama that goes
down in a rodeo than one hundred plays you can go to
see. Itís a real confrontation, a real thing going on.
With a real audience, an actively involved audience. You
should go to a couple of rodeos after you go to the
Do you consider your plays ďexperimentalĒ?
I guess they are. I mean, itís all
experimental. Experiment, by its very nature, has to do
with risk. If thereís no risk, thereís no experiment.
And every playís a risk. You take a huge risk with
something like that.
In its appeal? Its success?
No, a big risk in going into unknown
territory. You donít know where youíre going.
Are the risks in creating unusual situations, or a
totally new way of presenting something? What risks do
Well, I donít know if you feel this
or not, but I feel like there are territories within us
that are totally unknown. Huge, mysterious and dangerous
territories. We think we know ourselves, when we really
know only this little bitty part. We have this social
person that we present to each other. We have all these
galaxies inside of us. And if we donít enter those in
art of one kind or another, whether itís playwriting, or
painting, or music, or whatever, then I donít understand
the point in doing anything.
How does that relate to your own work?
Itís the reason I write. I try to go
into parts of myself that are unknown. And I think that
those parts are related to everybody. Theyíre not unique
to me. Theyíre not my personal domain.
Is there then something cathartic about the whole
process of writing?
No. Catharsis is getting rid of
something. Iím not looking to get rid of it; Iím looking
to find it. Iím not doing this in order to vent demons.
I want to shake hands with them.
How long have you been writing plays?
Seventeen, eighteen years.
How have your plays changed?
Well, actually, theyíre the same.
Theyíre just closer to a verification of what these
emotions are. In a way, that old clichť about somebody
doing the same thing over and over and over again his
whole life is true. Iím doing the same thing over each
time. Iím trying to get closer to the source.
Are you more adept at doing that now than you were 18
Iím moreÖnot adept, Iím more
determined to do it. Iím less afraid. Because thereís
something absolutely terrifying about going into
yourself. ÖItís something that I donít understand. If I
understood it, I probably wouldnít write. Thatís why
itís very difficult to talk about, and why a lot of this
sounds like itís evasive.
Do you feel that you have discovered certain things,
dealt with them in your plays, and then moved on to
Well, I havenít left anything behind
ÖThatís not true. Iíve gotten rid of a lot of useless
stuff. A lot of tricks.
Yeah. Like allowing things to unravel
in a direction that you know theyíre not going to go by
themselves. Like this play [Fool for Love], for
instance. I wrote about 16 versions of it, and every
time I came back to the first five pages. Iíd write like
70, 80 pages and then bring it all the way back to the
first five pages and start againóthrow out 60, 70 pages.
So, Iíve got literally at least a dozen different
versions of the play, but the first five pages are the
same in every one.
Is that because what you felt initially about it was
Yes. The very first meeting there was
something there. I knew there was something there, and I
just had to keep trying. They werenít just drafts. Every
time I think this is the play. Iím not writing a draftóI
wrote twelve plays.
As an actor, how do you approach a role?
I donít really consider myself an
actor. In film you can get away with a whole lot that
you canít onstage. I think almost anyone can get away
with being in a film.
Is that just the nature of the medium?
Yeah. Because if youíre in a tight
close-up, you donít have to do much: You donít have to
do anything; you just say the lines. You donít have to
act. So, I mean, with film acting, for me, itís just a
matter of corresponding certain parts of myself to the
character, finding corresponding parts and just becoming
those parts all the time. Iím not a Method actor or
anything. I donít have any complicated scheme behind it.
Could you act in your own plays?
I could, but I donít want to.
Well, because part of the reason for
writing them is to see them. You canít see them if
youíre in them at the same time. I like having that
Music plays a more significant role in some of your
plays than in others.
I think theyíre all musical. I like
to look at the language and the inner rhythms of the
play, and all that to me is related to music directly.
In True West there are coyote sounds and crickets and
things like that. And the dialogue is musical. Itís a
musical, True West. I think itís very related to music,
the whole rhythmic structure of it. Rhythm is the
delineation of time in space, but it only makes sense
with silences on either side of it. You canít have a
rhythm that doesnít have silence in it. I studied for a
long time with a drummer from Ghana. He was totally
amazing. And I found out that, particularly in African
music, every rhythm is related. You can play 4/4, 5/8,
and 6/8 all together at the same time and at some point
thereís a convergence. Even though it sounds like all
these things are going off in totally crazy directions
that are beating up against each other, theyíll always
come back. That was a big revelation to me, that rhythm
on top of rhythm on top of rhythm always has a meaning.
So the same is true on the stage. There are many
possible rhythmic structures that an actor can hit, but
thereís only one true one. Thereís one moment that he
has to meet.
How do you find that moment?
Well, thatís very complex. It has to
do with an emotional relaxation, where suddenly the
tension goes and itís just there. I was a drummer for a
long time and I realized that a lot of the time youíre
straining to keep the time. And then there are times
when all that drops away and everything justÖit all just
rides together. And those are the times it became
simple. Absolutely simple.
Do you feel closer to certain plays because they
contain more of a sense of that?
Oh, yeah. Some of them have real dumb
rhythms. It depends on each piece, though. Thereís only
one little part of Buried Child that I like, that I
could watch over and over and over again. One little
tiny section. Itís at the beginning of Act Two, I think.
Just the little dialogue between the children and the
old man on the couch by the television. Thatís the only
part that interests me anymore.
Because the rest of it just seems verbose and overblown.
It seems unnecessarily complicated. But that little
simple scene at the beginning of that act, itís great.
Itís perfect. I could watch that all day. Itís just got
a musical thing to it, you know? That kind of thing
Itís been said that nothing can shock anymore. Still,
thereís an element in some of your plays that seems
determined to shock us.
In Curse of the Starving Class, for example, you have
a character pee onstage.
Well, I wouldnít do that again if I
had to do it over again. I was looking for a gesture,
for something without words. Itís funny how you look,
you know? You look at all parts of yourself for it.
Sometimes it comes out when someone pisses onstage. Itís
a little flashy, you know, and overblown, and maybe
embarrassing, but thatís the way it came out. Itís just
a gesture. Like the toasters in True West. Thereís an
intention there thatís intrinsic to itself. It only
makes sense to itself. It doesnít mean anything. You can
call it absurdist or whatever you want to; I donít care
what you call it, but itís true to itself. It takes the
impulse that was behind it to its absolute extreme,
further than you would expect. And thatís what I wanted.
Trying to figure it out is not the point. I think
explanation destroys it and makes it less than it is.
How do you write?
You mean the technical thing? I write
by hand first, I write everything in notebooks. Then,
after I get everything where I want it pretty much, I
start typing it. And as Iím typing it, Iím rewriting it.
Iím copying from the notebook and Iím rewriting on the
Do you consider yourself a poet?
Thatís a very high thing to be, a
poet. Cťsar Vallejo is a poet. Iím not a poet yet; Iím
working on it. I think a poet is a musician. Poetry is
music. So it doesnít matter what form itís in, whether a
line extends across the page or goes vertically. That
has nothing to do with it. Itís the musical nature of
the language and everything thatís going on in it.
Vallejo, Neruda, Hank Williams. He was one of the
original country-western singers. Have you ever heard
any of his stuff? Great American poet. ďIím So Lonesome
I Could CryĒ? You never heard this? Jimmie Rodgers?
Youíve got to look into this.
Do you see your work as evolving to a certain point?
No, I donít see it like that at all.
Maybe itís just going in a circle. I donít know; I
really canít tell you whether itís evolving or not. I
mean, itís definitely different. Thereís more at stake
now; thereís a bigger risk.