He was the first living poet I knew of who wove his queerness into the poem instead of making it the subject. The world was larger than who he loved, and he showed it by writing about a world we could not see. His masterpiece, “The Changing Light at Sandover,” showed me what life was like on the other side of so called reality. He lived in a sphere I was familiar with–the spirit world–but I had never known it effected others as it effected the obeah woman, dream book writers, numbers runners, of my youth. And if he could do that, then it was our job–the young writer’s job–to “persevere,” a word he uses in this poem. Also, how could one limit one’s writing to flat facts? The soul was not a fact. It moved, changed shape, became something else. Once, sitting in Indochine with the photographer Darryl Turner many many years ago or just a moment ago, I saw James Merrill, dressed as one would imagine a poet would–in something lavender, or blue. Darryl encouraged me to tell JM how much I loved him, and to get his autograph, you never knew. I didn’t. I was crippled by my humility, and writerly insecurity, too, which can be a kind of arrogance: Why was I not him? How could one achieve that on one’s own? He had done it all. Months later James Merrill died of AIDS, and, with him, the fantasy that I would thank him after I had become more myself. I have since become–I hope–more myself, but I have yet to finish thanking him, and, so, here we are.
Richard Maxwell is one of the more adventurous theatre artists that this country has produced in decades. Born in 1967, he was raised in West Fargo, North Dakota. He comes from a theatrical background. His father had a strong interest in the stage; his sister is the Broadway actress Jan Maxwell. Although Maxwell’s work is driven by narrative, it is very different than the musicals that his sister appears in to such acclaim. Maxwell’s work is about distillation. “I never tell people to avoid realism or naturalism or what feels natural,” he has said. “It’s just that I’m saying you’re not obliged to pretend that you feel something.” In Maxwell’s work, the script and actor live together in a generally bare space; the director finds the drama in being. To consolidate his vision, he founded the New York City Players, in 1999; one of his stars is his wife, the performer Tory Vasquez.
Through April 26th, Maxwell’s New York City Players will be presenting “Isolde,” at the Abrons Art Center, starring Vasquez, in the title role, and Jim Fletcher, as her husband. The four-person drama is graphic and elegant, a prism filled with many ideas and fleeting or slow-moving figures that express them all with difficulty and precision.
I saw an early version of “Isolde” last summer, and I wanted to ask what the genesis was for your show: Were you inspired by reading Goethe? Or Wagner’s opera? Or just by yourself?
Just myself. And then I had a dream where a word presented itself: “Isolde.” I had already written about a couple hiring an architect to realize a dream house, and so the love triangle component was there—maybe I knew the story before that? But not that I recall. Then I looked up the story on Wikipedia and made myself available to elements of the Tristan and Isolde tale.
Have you ever directed an opera on the scale of Wagner’s “Tristan”?
I have no experience in the opera industry. Are they hiring?
Tell me something about your Isolde, and working with your wife, Tory. Is it hard to watch someone you love fall in love, even if it’s fictive?
Isolde is a famous actress who is losing the ability to remember her lines and pieces of her past. I think about Gena Rowlands in “Opening Night.” I think about Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.” I think about Ibsen’s “Nora.” I cast against type with Tory. Tory has an innocent, awkward allure that feels pretty raw onstage. Combine that with the diva-like Isolde and it’s a potent mix, and interesting from a power point of view. Top-knot and heels will change a girl. And I’m fine with any fictive lovemaking between her and Gary. I went to high school with Gary. [Gary Wilmes, the actor who plays the architect.] I know that shouldn’t necessarily be comforting.
You come from a theatrical family. Does it just make sense to you that you would be interested in someone who shared your interest in theatre?
I suppose, but when I think about my family in regards to “Isolde,” it isn’t show business associations that come to mind. Maybe because I feel like I’ve spent my whole life inside a theatre.
You can see where these questions are going: I want to get your opinion about love.
I didn’t see it coming! I started this play to talk about realizing perfection, or a curated perfection, actually. Maybe thinking about desire, but not thinking about love. Maybe I can blame the old Celtic tale for bringing me back to love. But I write and write and keep writing, I also do a lot of cutting, like everybody else. But it seems as you whittle and scratch at the thing you’re trying to shape right, it’s always love that remains, in some form.
Tell me something about the script. How long did you work on it?
It’s something I shelved back in 2009, after a couple months of hammering away. It was painfully normal, I remember feeling that. Then the opportunity came to do a show at Theater Basel [September, 2013] and I thought of this play sitting on a shelf and found that maybe normal isn’t such bad thing. Anyway, the basic parts seemed serviceable and the writing seemed to come. Having a deadline helped, but maybe I wasn’t ready five years ago either.
How did the actors respond to the script?
I think they thought is was funny. But responses from these guys are guarded. And I don’t really solicit comments.
You often make a text as plain and poetical as possible. How do you reduce so many big ideas in your work? In rehearsal or purely through rewriting?
I try to listen to the room as much as possible. In writer terms, I know that can mean what other people think about the writing, but I mean how words are just like sounds and how they bounce around in the air. I also really care that things make sense, from a character point of view. Which doesn’t mean I’m always justifying the words psychologically. I like the tonal differences in how people communicate.
How do you cast? Based on looks or general feeling?
Yeah… I try to work with people who are genuinely curious and have the ability to forego what they know.
Can you talk about what’s coming up next?
My next show is called “Custodian of a Man,” and will premiere at the Walker Arts Center, in January of 2015, then The Kitchen/P.S. 122 will show it, in March. With “Custodian of a Man,“ I’ll enter into the darkness of the underworld in order to continue my exploration of myth and minimalism, drawing on the epics of Dante’s “Inferno” and Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to tell a contemporary American story chronicling the moral decline of a man.
The story, basically, is about a guy named Azzi. a convalescing martial artist, having been injured in a brutal match. He’s cared for by a thirteen year-old girl, trying to get his career back on track. Azzi instead gets himself involved in a series of terrible incidents with bad people. The girl remains his witness.
Photograph by Richard Termine/The New York Times/Redux.