Landscape of the Body
By John Guare
Jean Sidden directs: Hope Theatre Ages 13+
Jan 23, 24, 25, 30, 31, Feb 1 at 8pm, Feb 2 at 2pm
One of John Guare’s classic plays, Landscape of the Body tells the story of Betty, who travels to New York to persuade her sister, Rosalie, to leave her gritty New York City life and return to their bucolic home in Maine; Rosalie is killed in a bizarre accident and returns to the world of the living to witness Betty slipping easily into her persona, moving into her apartment and taking over her job while Betty’s son loses his country innocence and becomes involved in the street life of Greenwich Village. After he is found dead, Betty is suspected of his murder. Moving back and forth in time and space, Guare’s play is a revealing and affecting study of the American Dream gone awry.
Q&A With Director Jean Sidden
1) Why did you choose this play?
This season was given the theme of time travel to work with in our play choices. I thought immediately of Guare because he often plays with time. I’d read Landscape of the Body years ago and have read a number of Guare’s plays over the years. I’ve always been an admirer of his work. I directed another of his plays, Four Baboons Adoring the Sun, in 1995, and may have chosen to repeat myself except the cast involves eight or nine children. But, Landscape of the Body goes back and forth in time, which provides a non-linear structure and that interested me. His intelligent language is something he blesses every character with, no matter what their status. He also has a healthy sense of the absurd and this play is full of odd characters that inhabit New York City in the seventies.
The theme overall is related to our constantly being haunted by the myth of the American Dream and how inexplicable, and therefore unattainable, it is. In fact, I think we, as a society, and the characters in the play, have no idea what the American Dream is anymore. It seems to be a life scheme that, if we can only figure out just the right formula, will deliver material wealth and happiness to us. We base this on what outside sources – television, movies, all media – tells us, but in reality we don’t know what any of it means. We measure it by the gauge of celebrity. Guare’s play is very involved with the role that our obsession with celebrity and media affects our lives and how we remove ourselves from human connection while immersing ourselves in fictions created by media. The characters are looking for the right scheme that will deliver the unattainable and get tangled in their own misinterpretation of what life actually means. In a way, the play is like Waiting for Godot or almost any play of Chekhov’s because it is about waiting for life to start, as we all do, just around the corner or while we’re on our way to somewhere else, it will arrive, like in movies, in an instant, we believe, always in the future and never in the present, when, of course, life is all of it – all moments, big, small, insignificant and detailed.
Though the play was written in the seventies, a time when New York was experiencing a massive low in its economy, services and image, the city still evoked a kind of hope to people who came there, seeking their fortune, if you will, or seeking a different life for themselves. I think we still imbue certain locations with mythological attributes when it comes to our sense of what the American Dream is. New England and its bucolic, small town Christmas card culture, is also explored in the play. In this story New England is exposed as a place where the simple life is also replete with chaos, death and a dark undertone. It doesn’t come off any prettier than New York in Guare’s point of view. Anything that takes our simplistic American myths and challenges them is interesting to me considering we are living in times where every part of that mythology is being trampled economically and ideologically. Again, it goes back to the American Dream and whether we need to re-configure that larger myth to fit different times or see it for the lie it is.
2) In your estimation, what makes this play commercial? To whom will this play most appeal?
Alongside the themes Guare is tackling, the play is a murder mystery, set up from the beginning through a series of flashbacks. Inhabiting this mystery are an assortment of odd and funny characters. And the play is a comedy – of sorts – a dark one, but a comedy nonetheless. The music also makes it commercial.
3) Are there any special effects or theatrical elements that are compelling?
The play has a strong element of the super natural in it, as we have one of our lead characters who is dead and narrating the story from the grave, which is her private lounge act complete with accompanist. This is that rare beast called a ‘play with music’ – not a musical – and Guare has written a number of songs this character and others sing. In a way Rosalie, the ghost, is like the Greek chorus who uses her songs to comment on the action. All of this is not really “special effects” but it’s special and it is very theatrical.
The entire play is extremely theatrical because it is not realistic. This is not your average “slice of life” drama, by any means. Guare loves direct address to the audience and in many ways, particularly because of the character of Rosalie, who is our ghost, the play has a sort of Brechtian theatricality.
There are some other elements that I’d rather keep a surprise.
4) What do you think the public should know about this play?
The play is dark comedy. Guare is gifted at taking serious situations and surprising the audience with the absurd. That absurdism can involve darker themes.
Guare is one of our finest playwrights. His work has been nominated for and won numerous awards, including Tonys, Obies and Academy Awards. These days he is best known for his play, and later the film, Six Degrees of Separation, though one of his first plays, House of Blue Leaves, gained great respect and is still done. This is the first play of his University Theatre has done and it’s a long time coming. Guare was one of the playwrights that started in the Off Off Broadway movement in the 1960s along with Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson and Sam Shepard. He is also a founding member of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, teaches playwriting at Yale School of Drama and serves on the council of the Dramatists Guild.
5) Are there any personal tie-ins or connections between this play and you or the cast that would make an interesting human interest story?
I lived in NYC in 1977 when Landscape of the Body was written. I remember so distinctly what the city was like then as opposed to what it has become. There was still a sense that you could possibly “make it” in New York and everyone I knew came with that hope. I lived there eight years, but like most of my friends, I left. There came a time when the whole New York dream was over. The heroine in Landscape also lives through this progression. She is someone who is constantly waiting for life to start and it takes an avalanche of life, which of course includes death, to convince her that it was there all along.
One of the characters makes a point of saying, near the end of the play, that another character wasn’t from there, meaning NYC, that he never belonged there. Everyone I knew, myself included, was from somewhere else and trying to always figure out the way to wear the city like it was comfortable old shoes and get that feeling of really belonging, call the city “home”. After a certain time, when we started becoming comfortable – in one of the most uncomfortable environments in the country – we were done, like our heroine, and it was time to go; the myth of the city had been blown wide open. Our new home was never going to be any more or less than what we could make of it, like everywhere else, but it had the chaotic strength to affect us in some overwhelming ways. It became better to see it for what it was, accept how it had changed us and contemplate that, in the end, we really didn’t belong.