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Home > Publications > Bulletin > > Theater and Society: The Poison Tree
Spring 2001 Bulletin

Theater and Society: The Poison Tree

Gordon Davidson, Robert Egan, and Robert Glaudini

The Performing Arts Center of LA County

The Music Center of Los Angeles County was the setting for the 1836th Stated Meeting, hosted by the Academy's Western Center on July 15, 2000. Academy members and guests attended a matinee performance of Robert Glaudini's The Poison Tree, in its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum. After the show they adjourned to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for dinner and the Stated Meeting, presided over by Western Center Cochair Jack W. Peltason. Executive Officer Leslie Berlowitz welcomed members and guests and described some of the new studies and other activities under way at the Academy. The focus of the meeting then returned to The Poison Tree through an interactive dialogue with Gordon Davidson, artistic director/producer of the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theatre; Robert Egan, producing director of the Mark Taper Forum; and playwright Robert Glaudini.

About The Poison Tree

A triple murder has La Jolla, California, in its grip, and a young girl from a rich and powerful family has been charged with the crime. But Superior Court Judge Ronald Rogers has more than these delicate proceedings to oversee. His wife, Rockie—a fragile woman enveloped in a fantasy world—has formed a dangerous, sexually charged friendship with St. Gerude, a young university professor and popular poet. The Poison Tree is a fascinating play of poetry and seduction that explores deep secrets of the psyche as it uncovers the quirky mannerisms and neuroses of modern Southern California life.

Gordon Davidson

Gordon Davidson, playwright Robert Glaudini, and Robert Egan

My sincere welcome to Academy members, and a special thank you to Executive Associate Paul Silverman for his tenacity in staying with a two-year effort to make this American Academy–Music Center event a reality. It is my hope that the first time will not be the last time for such a gathering. We want audiences such as this one from the Academy, representing people of thought and caring, to come together to share in a dialogue about the varied aspects of stage production.

My role with the Music Center goes back some thirty-five years to UCLA and a production of Candide, which led to my being asked by Mrs. Dorothy Chandler to take on the challenge of running the Mark Taper Forum. Tonight I will share some thoughts about running a theater in today's changing world, which I hope will connect to some of the issues that Academy members deal with in their own respective fields.

The role of dramatic arts in a civil society is a big topic, with hard questions and no easy answers. It has led me to ponder what it is I do in the theater at the dawn of the twenty-first century and how it can better reflect the community, the society, and the world in which we live. It seems that all art speaks to the social conscience; all art has an obligation to tell stories and make images that tell the truth about who and what we are and who and what we might become. Picasso said, "Art is a lie that tells the truth." Sometimes it is a beautiful truth and sometimes it is a frightening truth, and the artist must tell it truthfully.

Why, then, are artists in this country having such a difficult time with matters concerning the acceptance of art, the artist, and the process by which art is made an intrinsic part of the fabric of this nation? Why has the National Endowment for the Arts' exemplary record of achievement been distorted and its accomplishments maligned? What is so dangerous about the support of the free expression of ideas? The impact of federal funding for the arts has been to encourage the widest range of expression and access, establish standards of excellence, confer legitimacy on a diversity of ideas and endeavors, and enrich the lives of millions of Americans. A few arguably controversial exhibits cannot be allowed to obscure the fundamental value of a system of public support for cultural preservation and advancement that has worked so well for a quarter of a century.

Being a member of the National Council of the Arts, I have found that it is a different experience now than it was in earlier years, in terms of pressure and the constriction of arts funding. In the founding days of the Mark Taper Forum, major challenge grants made it possible to accomplish some of the most creative work in our repertoire.

The South African playwright Athol Fugard described what it is like to be involved in the making of theater, which is at the center of what is happening in this society. For him, art is a psychic survival kit. It is also capable of bringing about change. He describes living under censorship where ideas are considered dangerous, where those in power behave brutally and lethally to repress them. There is a double standard of acceptability, and Fugard reveals that he worries most about self-censorship and "the moment when the pen hesitates before it writes."

Charles Mee, historian and playwright, wrote:

History does not march forward into enlightenment; some people change while others don't; some people embrace the future while others embrace the past; some people are compassionate, others are not; some people value religion, others do not. The struggle here is a struggle between competing understandings of right. Artists belong out front in society not because they are elite, but because it is their job and if they don't do this job, they have no other. Artists are the canaries in the cave. Artists belong out at the edge of society and beyond where the pain is, where the raw nerves are, where the subtlest and most delicate and most easily overlooked things are. This is not to say that the only art is the art of anguish or of criticism and never of celebration or ecstasy, but it is to say that every work of art to the extent that it doesn't simply Xerox the consensus is a challenge to the consensus. The most interesting art is the art that challenges the consensus in the most interesting way, and the most daring art is the art that challenges the senses in the most daring way.

Vaclav Havel, who has become both the symbol and the reality of the poet, playwright, philosopher, leader, jailed hooligan, criminal, and president of his nation, wrote this in his book Disturbing the Peace:

I just want to do what every writer should do—to tell the truth. The idea that a writer is the conscience of his nation has its own logic and its own tradition in the Czech Republic. For years, writers have stood in for politicians. They were renewers of the national community, maintainers of the national language, awakeners of the national conscience, interpreters of the national will. This condition has continued under totalitarian conditions where it gains its own special coloring. The written word seems to have acquired a kind of heightened radioactivity, otherwise, they wouldn't lock us up for it. The theater must be more than a factory for producing plays. Ideally it should be a living, spiritual and intellectual force, a place for social self-awareness, a vanishing point where all lines of force of the age meet; a seismograph of the times, a space, an area of freedom, an instrument of human liberation.

What are the assumptions that first brought us to do the work we do? What were the givens then, what are the realities now, and why do they keep moving the goalpost? Maybe this is the time to question the givens. This is a time of unprecedented economic growth and of political, spiritual, and artistic/aesthetic unrest. A time just before change is about to happen. It is not so much a time for reflection as it is a time for anticipatory action. One wants to be out front, like the canaries in the mines—testing, exploring, challenging, validating our sense of purpose, looking at the world—but with new eyes, fresh eyes. We should be the Murine of society, which means embracing the complexity of our pluralistic society—its multiracial, multiethnic diversity and complexity—in the face of all the dangers, misunderstandings, resentments, and fears embodied in that complexity. All of this must be accomplished in a world of changing financial structures; a world in which the menace of communism has been replaced by the unpredictability of capitalism; a world, not just a nation, of competing national interests, national identities, ethnic cleansing; a world in which the givens are perhaps no longer valid. In our case the givens are subscription audiences, tax-deductible contributions, governmental support, corporate support, and the assumption that the next generation of talent will always be there.

The Mark Taper Forum has introduced over fifty world premieres, including Twilight, Zoot Suit, and The Trial of the Catonsville Nine. Our artistic staff is the most culturally diverse staff in the nation. They are bright, alive, interested, and interesting artists with a passion to be heard. They are Latino, African American, Asian American, and disabled performers and writers who have original stories to tell of specific cultures and of universal relevance and meaning. So we attempt to revolutionize the idea of performance in the nineties before the revolution of the social structure leaves us hopelessly behind in the twenty-first century.

I leave you with a quote from Anna Deveare Smith: "It's not a dream, this business of multiculturalism, it's a reality. If people keep thinking about it as a project for the future, they are going to miss the event because it's happening now. Don't wait for it, just let it in."

I have no easy solutions, even after thirty-three years of continuous juggling, tap dancing, punting, and occasionally scoring. I still have lots of questions, lots of angst, and lots of wonderful memories of moments in the theater and shared journeys with artists and audiences. Something tells me that I always will.

* * *

The Poison Tree has a very real base in life in Southern California, but it is also a play partly related to my earlier comments and partly related to the work that Robert Egan and I and others on the staff have been trying to do. It pushes the boundaries of what works in the theater. Robert Egan has been my colleague for many years. He is the producing director of the Mark Taper Forum and directed The Poison Tree. Robert Glaudini, the author of The Poison Tree, is known as part of what is often called the avant-garde.

Robert Egan

I was trained as a Marxist aesthetician at Oxford University, Stanford University, and Boston College as an undergraduate. So I come from at least the intellectual position that all art is political and that all art, whether intended to or not, secretes ideology. By ideology I mean a system of values, beliefs, and discourses by which an individual or group of people attempts to represent the real to themselves. To me, any work of art sits in one of three positions to what I would call the dominant ideology of a particular country or society, and I am not being pejorative about any of those categories.

It can sit in a position of sameness, and I would consider Neil Simon to be a playwright whose work does that. A play can sit in a position of partial disjunction to the dominant ideology, and I include the work of Mr. Glaudini in that group, as well as that of playwrights such as Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. Some people call them critical realists. They ask questions, observe, point out the disjunctions and contradictions that exist in the social fabric. The third category would be the one in which Bertolt Brecht's plays exist: a position of radical contradiction. Not only do they oppose the dominant ideology; they also posit an alternative ideology that they want the audience to go to. To me, all works of art are political because they are all doing that in some way. I think great political plays analyze the relationship between an individual and this thing we call social reality.

I think social reality is a very concrete thing. I obviously have certain qualities and characteristics that are particular to me, but I believe I would be a very different ideological being if I had grown up in South Africa rather than the United States, reacting to and making choices based on the particular culture, political system, and ideological apparatuses that I encountered on a day-to-day basis. So I am fascinated by plays that care about examining the relationship between the individual and social reality. Plays that don't do that can be highly political too. One reason I came to the Mark Taper Forum was that Gordon Davidson has been doing this kind of work since day one.

Robert Glaudini's play attracted me because it exists on two planes. I think it is a play that reflects many of the contradictions we confront in this country today. There is the world of the court case and of this girl—surreal, absurd. No one really ever asks about the causality or the motivation. What we do find out in the course of the play is that both the left and the right seem to have the same opinion about the girl. The right thinks she's an unwanted reflection of who they are; she's a bad product. The left feels that if blacks and Latinos are persecuted for crimes, a white girl should get it too. So they both call for this girl to be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

At the end of the play we hear the judge's wife, Rockie, screaming about Ronald Reagan, and the judge coming to her and telling her that Bill Clinton, not Ronald Reagan, is the president. Consciously or not, Robert Glaudini has unearthed something about the ideological experience in this country today. You hear the Democrats talk, you hear the Republicans talk; ultimately, it all begins to sound the same. There aren't any really exciting ideological alternatives. There seem to be no politicians in the public realm who are really questioning the ideological world in which we live.

The other thing I like very much about The Poison Tree is the personal realm that exists within this sort of oppressive, nonanalytical social world. Through the play, you're looking at the inability of a husband and wife to look at their marriage and imagine the skills necessary to work at that marriage. I think they do find them in the course of the play, and her actions under the deck with the poet put that in perspective. That is another aspect of the play that intrigues me, and it causes me to ask if it is true that in America today, in order to discover oneself, one needs to participate in acts of self-destruction.

Questions and Answers

Question: Could the playwright please share his perspective on this play?

Robert Glaudini: I wish the play weren't so mystifying; for me, there are many things in it that I can't explain, and I don't know why they happen. If we discussed the play with each other, I think we could come to an understanding of some of the things that are hard to follow, as in our own lives.

We don't know why people do certain things. I don't know if you have ever been at the point where you know emotionally that something is very true for you, and you find yourself grasping for almost anything when you are trying to tell someone about it. It's like when you were a little kid in school, trying to explain something really well, and the teacher interrupted to say, "That's a double negative." The important thing for you was the emotional truth and your commitment to what you were saying, not that technicality.

The play doesn't present people who act according to how we want them to act. Rockie is asking her husband to accept her imagination and her stories and is fearful of what is going to happen because she is on a very slippery slope with the young poet. Her husband is mystified about her experiences with the people she mentions and wonders whether those experiences are real. He's trying to cope with it. You know he has immense jealousy, but in a way he is also placing her in this position. It's a hapless situation you get into when, as a man, you are trying to allow your wife the freedom to associate with whomever she wants to. You can see that there is something going on, and you're practically helpless in knowing what to do about it. I don't know if it is his error, but it is certain that she's very close to knowing that she is going to act out her feelings. At that time she shows him the photo and says, "Just say you believe me, even if you don't. Give me something to go on." It is an unconscious cry she is having at that point.

Some have asked if there is a relationship between The Poison Tree and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. People who have read the play as well as the actors have mentioned it, but I was not thinking of Virginia Woolf when I wrote it.

Question: In writing and producing a play, is there a polarity between intellect on the one hand and passion and expressiveness on the other?

Robert Egan: I think the polarity that you are perceiving is dangerous and very American. You are suggesting that intellect cannot have passion and that expressiveness cannot have intellect or reason, and I think that is a sad point of view. Tom Stoppard and Bertolt Brecht have intellectual propositions, social and political, that they want to explore, and they write from that. My job, as a director, is to try to give some order to the chaos that is in a particular play I am directing. Otherwise the actors can't act it, and we can't design it or give it shape. In Arcadia Stoppard talks about how chaos embodies both order and disorder. My role as a director, and my training in the academy, was to learn a diversity of languages so I would not impose the bias of my directorial point of view on a writer. That being so, I could sit in a room with the author—in this case, Bob Glaudini—and talk to him about the intrinsic life of his work of art without pushing something of mine onto it. Bob was interested in hearing from me, and he received a lot of feedback. We were involved in a dialogue, and that is collaboration, and that is creative. Many people in the American theater get very frightened of intellect. I think it is really dangerous when you begin to separate intellect from passion, from expressiveness. I don't think they do that in Europe, but we tend to do it here.

Question: Could you comment on the evolution that a play undergoes in the course of a stage production's development?

Gordon Davidson: You learn about a play and its presentation not by written questionnaires or angry letters or letters of praise, but by what the audience does with the silences—where the coughs are, where the laughter is or isn't. Why is it that one day they have it and another day they don't? It's a very exciting process. I enjoyed watching today's matinee—I hadn't seen a performance in quite a while—and seeing that the actors own the material now, as opposed to those first days. When the critics come to see the show, the actors are just getting on board the train, and it's very hard. In the old days, plays used to go out of town for pre-Broadway runs, and they would stay out of town until they fixed them. You could carpenter many of those plays together. Opening night on Broadway was the culmination of a long process.

Most of the regional theaters in America, even to this day, do maybe only two previews before they open because they can't generate an audience before the official opening. They don't really have a preview audience. Here, we're fairly unique. By instinct, I figured out a way to do about ten previews. I was able to carve out an audience that was willing to take chances, not having been told what to think, with no advance word except the play itself. Those can be some of the most exciting and scary audiences in the world because they come in with no prejudices. We learn from them. The great thing about the theater is that, perhaps more than any other performance form, it is ever changing. The performance you saw today was unique to this time, this place, and this energy.

Question: What sort of feedback does the playwright get from audiences?

Robert Glaudini: In talking to people, I find that sometimes the first act doesn't work as well for them as the second. The actors say there are times when they feel that the audience is not there for them in the first act, and then suddenly they are really there for the second act. At other times it all works fine for them. So maybe there is something more to be discovered in the textual structure and work of the play. I've always had difficulty with the last fourth of the play, when everything comes together. Maybe what works best has not been found yet, and that gives me something to work on.

Question: Some reviews of this play have been critical of how the ending is handled. What is your reaction to that?

Robert Egan: There is a process in getting to an artistic ending, and maybe we're not there yet. We've had people say to us that it is not a happy ending, that it is a dissonant ending.

You learn a lot while you're watching a play over the course of a sixty-four-performance run. When a scene builds courageously to a poignant and beautiful moment, there is a point at which both the author and the director ask the question, "Have I delivered the goods?"

Gordon Davidson: Because I come from a science background, I believe there is a very close relationship between art and science and the processes used. There is a difference between the process of critiquing an aspect of a play, whether it is correct or not, and the process that any playwright goes through in imagining it. You have to leave all the possibilities there. Martha Graham once said to me, "You prepare your imagination and then let it loose, and out of that comes something one hopes is called art."

It is an interesting problem for a variety of reasons. We live in a time where there is more gray than black and white. When I look at the history of world drama, there is always a kind of universe that comes apart—certainly in Shakespeare—and somehow, at the end, even if the stage is littered with corpses, someone comes along to carry on and in some way to resolve things—to show that life goes on, and somehow you can move on with it. I think audiences crave that and artists believe that.

Life today is complicated, and there are no easy answers to so many issues. The so-called happy ending doesn't seem to operate in the world we live in. What the audience brings into a theater and what the artist is trying to do—both as a writer and through the interpretation of a group of actors and directors—is a very complex dynamic, and it is amazing when you absolutely hit it. You just don't know all the reasons. We did a play this season called Jitney, by August Wilson—the first play he wrote as a young playwright—which was extremely popular and very successful. There were some obvious, mechanical things about the plot, but somehow it spoke to a predominantly white audience in a total, universal way. It was a great ensemble piece, and that is hard to capture.

Robert Glaudini: I hear a yearning for talk about what happened to the characters, the background of the characters. There is a driving language that happens all through the play to the end; it's a desire restlessly moving through these characters, and it cannot be put in a box.

Gordon Davidson: I think one thing that does happen in the play, which the drama begins to lay bare, is that involvement in the social world becomes a way for people to sublimate, avoid, deviate from the truth of their personal lives. The second act gets exciting when that ritual starts to become more and more apparent.