About the Author:
At age 29, David Hirson completed the daunting task of writing a play composed entirely in rhyming verse. The next task was even more daunting: getting his script produced. Two decades later, the play in question, La Bête, is enjoying its second Broadway mounting in an acclaimed revival at the Music Box Theatre starring Tony winner Mark Rylance, Tony winner David Hyde Pierce and British stage and screen star Joanna Lumley. Broadway.com asked the Yale- and Oxford-educated playwright to recall his days crafting the tongue-twisting play and chart La Bête's unusual journey to Broadway and back. Hirson's essay offers a lesson in the power of perseverence on behalf of a show that has now been staged around the world.
I finished La Bête, my first play, in the fall of 1988, and spent much of the following winter sending it in cheap manila envelopes to regional theaters and Broadway producers (!) whose names and addresses I got out of a book. Since I had no agent and was, at 29 years old, a complete unknown, it seemed a fool’s errand, yet I continued to trudge through the snow every day to the post office, dementedly undeterred even as the form letters of rejection began to pile up (“We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts”).
I was sustained, like most first-time playwrights, by the potentially delusional belief that there was something special about my work, and that somebody would notice. At the very least, I reasoned, mine must surely be the only new American play written entirely in rhyming couplets, and set in 17th century France! Might that alone not spark someone’s curiosity? Any reader who could be bothered simply to glance at a few pages of my manuscript would, I thought, stumble upon a daredevil, chaotic 20-page monologue in verse that, to my knowledge, was unprecedented (and possibly un-performable!). Add to that the play’s many other unusual—even experimental—features, and I felt it was not strictly delusional to think that it might get round the phalanx of nay-sayers and capture someone’s imagination.
So I persevered, month after month, as the rejection letters continued to pour in.
And then the tide began to turn. On a February afternoon in 1989, I received a letter from one of three judges of a major American playwriting competition to which I had submitted La Bête, a person who had just awarded its annual prize given to a well-established author. “I have never written personally to an applicant before,” he said, “but I want you to know that, even though your play was not selected for a prize, I fought hard for it. Please do not be discouraged. I believe your play is going to be produced, and in a very serious way.”
In the two decades since I received that letter, La Bête has had an almost supernatural journey through the world of theater. It has been produced on Broadway twice, first in 1991 at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in its famously controversial premiere (directed by Richard Jones) and again this year in a revival at the Music Box Theatre (directed by Matthew Warchus). In 1992, La Bête made its London debut at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, where it starred Alan Cumming and won the Laurence Olivier Award for Comedy of the Year. This past summer it was revived at the Comedy Theatre in the West End starring the incomparable trio of Mark Rylance, David Hyde Pierce, and Joanna Lumley (the production that has now transferred to Broadway).
In the 20 years since I wrote the play, that “possibly un-performable” 20-page monologue has been performed by hundreds of actors, and in several different languages. La Bête continues to be staged regularly in productions (and translations) that have had great meaning to me and introduced me to amazingly talented artists all over the world.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, however, this season’s revival of La Bête has special significance to me. For one thing, it has brought my work to Broadway for a third time (between the two La Bêtes came Wrong Mountain in 2000, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre), a truly privileged state of affairs for any contemporary American playwright. But there is a matter of greater importance. When a combination of difficult circumstances cut short the life of the original production in 1991, I felt I’d never again see such a beautiful version of the play, and it pained me that so many people would be denied the chance to experience it. I was wrong on both counts. Matthew Warchus’ exquisite revival is every bit as beautiful as (though completely different from) the original; and many of the theatergoers who were denied the opportunity to experience the play 20 years ago are seeing it at last, and writing to tell me about it!
When the revival of La Bête completes its limited run at the Music Box Theatre in mid-January, 2011, it will have played two and half months in London’s West End and four months in its second appearance on Broadway, and have been seen by a whole new generation of theatergoers on both sides of the Atlantic. Which is more than any 29-year-old with a verse play, no agent and a bunch of cheap manila envelopes should be permitted to hope for.