About the author:
Playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman first teamed up with his friend Ethan Hawke in 1991 to create New York City's innovative Malaparte Theater Company. Hawke and Sherman became artistic collaborators—Hawke starred in Sherman’s short play Sons and Fathers, then directed his full-length dramedy Veins and Thumbtacks. After reuniting on Sherman’s well-received Things We Want in 2007, the duo has returned to off-Broadway's New Group to debut Clive—a play (with music) written by Sherman, directed by Hawke, and starring them both, together with Vincent D'Onofrio and Zoe Kazan. Below, Sherman shares his inspiration for the new project, and how his latest collaboration with Hawke is like "doing it without a net."
It started because Sir Tom Stoppard saw Ethan Hawke play Autolycus in The Winter's Tale in 2009, and mentioned to him that he should play the title role in Brecht's Baal. Ethan asked me if I had read the play. I said I might have read it while stoned at college.
Ethan thought adapting the play might give me a chance to write about a darker period in my life. I've been clean and sober for 11 years, eight months, and counting. I titled the play Clive to free myself up, and because I like the sound of the word, and because I got my Equity card at age 14 when I played The Artful Dodger in Oliver! in the summer of 1983 in Pittsburgh, and Fagin was played by Clive Revill. There was another, more personal reason, for my choice. Before I cleaned up my act, I had a name for my wasted persona, and that name was Clive. It came into existence after a friend of mine, whose boozy nickname was “Grabby the Clown,” turned to me one night and pointed out that I got loaded just as much (indeed, far more) than he did, yet I had no boozy nickname. So I became “Clive.”
Brecht wrote the first version of Baal, when he was 20 years old and still a college student, in response to the play Der Einsame by Hanns Johst, which glorified the life of 19th century German playwright Christian Dietrich Grabbe. Clive is less concerned with the glorification of 19th century German playwrights or poets, and more concerned with the glorification of 20th and 21st century artists, particularly those who become more legendary in death than they were in life.
When I turned 20, I was in the first term of my junior year at Bennington College and the first production of my first full-length play [Women and Wallace] had just closed two days earlier in Playwrights Horizons' old pre-renovation building (a former strip club) on 42nd Street between Ninth Avenue and Dyer Avenue. It's a quarter of a century since then, and now I'm in previews with a play on the same side of the same street on the same block.
There's a beautiful library at Bennington, but I don't remember reading Baal there. I do remember reading Wallace Shawn's terrifying play Aunt Dan and Lemon there, and also one of the wonderful accompanying essays in particular, "Notes in Justification of Putting the Audience Through a Difficult Evening", which has been on my mind lately. It ends with this line:
“What's important, of course, from the world's point of view, is not what's in our heads, but that our behavior should change—our behavior and the attitudes which underlie it—but how can we start to change our attitudes or our behavior if we haven't first thought about why we must change and in what direction?”
A couple of other quotes gave me guidance during the writing of Clive. One was from Stoppard, whose comment to Ethan began this whole experiment in the first place. In his Paris Review interview, he says about adaptations that "you're not doing an author a favor if the adaptation is not vibrant.” Another quote was Brecht's himself, via Eric Bentley: “Anyone can be creative, it's rewriting other people that's a challenge.” I certainly found it challenging, and for that reason all the more thrilling.
I tried to find one example of a way people mistreated each other in the original play that had been eradicated in the intervening decades, and told myself that if I could, I was off the hook and free to write something else (perhaps a light comedy). People are, alas, still abusing substances and other people in all the same old ways, it seems, and in some new and awful ways as well. So here I find myself, putting the audience through a bit of a difficult evening.
This is the third play of mine that Ethan has acted in, and the third play of mine he's directed, but it's the first time he has worn both of those hats together. We've acted together in four plays before, as well, but I only wrote one of those. Having the director onstage and the writer onstage was part of the point, to do it “without a net,” which has made the process of working on the play unique and exciting and dangerous for the whole company (and hopefully, now, for the audience). So if you're on the block and in the mood, I invite you to come check out our experiment.