“What to Do with Old Work,” Part 2

What to do with old work? I asked in an earlier post. One answer turns out to be:

Pull an old work out of the dusty files and apply everything you’ve learned to cutting the living hell out of the whole thing in a four-hour bout of violent revision. Thereby coming to a realization of what always was ineluctably wrong with it, i.e., wrong with you (me). Thus finally facing up to the self-destructive rage inherent in what, all those years ago, you were really doing. Realize the thing can’t be fixed because you couldn’t be fixed when you wrote it. End the day feeling a million pounds lighter.

Not for the faint of heart. But I do recommend it.

This is not about my unpublished novel, discussed in the other post, but about my second (and final) play, which actually did get a production one horrible summer in the late 1980’s. I was so blocked after my first play (it had an Equity showcase production in ’82 and a staged reading at Williamstown in ’83) that it took me many years and much painful effort to write the second one, and then the play was so off-the-wall that finding a production was almost impossible. A whole story there I won’t go into. At one point it had a third act that nobody could even read; a whole adjunct play, really, which in itself took more than a year of struggle to write; I had to cut it in its entirety.

But by ’87, say, I had a full-length two-act comedy, which was intended to dismantle itself as a theatrical act in the course of performance. Wittily and maybe even brilliantly, thought I. In what I now see as tortured fashion, that is, and from scratch, with no outline or idea to begin with, the play recapitulated everything I’d been doing since the mid-1970’s and brought it all to fruition.

And — now I think — ruined it.

Which made it an impossible piece of work. Written by an impossible piece of work, who had dedicated years of his retreating youth to failing, mainly, to write it. I get that now, only because I stopped occasionally reminiscing about the play and got busy re-writing it. I mean I just took an afternoon off from my real work a few months ago and set myself to “fixing” a decades-old script. You can’t learn anything about old work by thinking about it. You have to do something to it.

I think I started on that impulsive project because I’d had coffee a day or so before with an old, once-good friend I hadn’t seen in like thirty years. We ended up hanging out for hours, and I left full of memories, with some regrets, but also with the sense that I’d been carrying old business around for way too long without even noticing it. I mean I’d thought I was well over our having gone our separate ways decades earlier. I found that it would have been very unfortunate not to have reconnected. I was grateful. Getting older has benefits.

And that was someone I’d known and worked with in the years before I went down that road with that play. When we were young and full of ourselves and (although we were always careful to evince total skepticism about everything) optimistic, actually, about the future of our work in the world.

So I began an afternoon thinking, “What if I got this beloved old thing I keep reminiscing about to make sense? Would I want to try to produce it somehow?” I stumbled out, a few wild hours later, alternately mumbling and shrieking (only in my head, I hope) something like, “This thing was never meant to be produced. It’s about not being produce-able. It’s a huge fuck you. I never wanted this thing to work; I wanted theater itself not to work. It’s not a beloved old thing. It’s a work of rage and hatred!”

I was stunned, elated. The play’s failure had always rankled, because as the last play I wrote, it meant my own failure as a playwright. Now I’d cut it down to its nub, cut all the bullshit, and I could see what it really was. After all these years, I could see in a living, bleeding form what I was once so supremely dedicated to doing.

I should note that I’d long adopted the line that it was the harrowingly awful production of that play that had finally sent me running from the theater, a production so bad (and, man, it really was horrible) that it drove me to prose fiction and finally (skipping a lot of steps here) to nonfiction. That’s the narrative I’d sworn by.

But of course it’s a specious narrative. Nobody ends an attempt to have what we used to call a life in the theater because of a bad production. The play itself was built to implode, to collapse the theater and me along with it. My way out, my way of noting I’d passed the thirty-year mark on this earth: self-immolation, taking as many people with me as possible. Mixed-metaphorically, of course — but the painted veil of this mixed metaphor feels a bit gauzy.

I wish there were lessons here for younger writers. But my experience got so, well, bad, when I was a younger writer that I can only hope others have better experiences and leave it at that. The only lesson, for those having a very bad time of it, is that if you’re capable of change, you might do something about changing, and if you change, you might survive, somehow. Artistically, I mean.

The play used to be called “A Blue Yodel for the New New Man,” and it used to have two acts. Now it’s called “Blue Yodel for the New New Man, or, 1985: a goodbye to the theater in the form of a one-act comedy.” And it comes with this note: “Warning. ‘Closet’ or ‘lyrical’ drama only. Do not attempt to stage.”

Closet or lyrical drama in the sense of an English-romantic dramatic-form poem like “Prometheus Bound” or “Cain.” Because that’s what the play really is.

Now having threatened, in that earlier post, to find some way to self-publish my novel, I might actually find some way to self-publish this play instead, or first, in its new form. As off-brand vanity projects go, I think it might offer something, maybe with this post appended as an intro. I think, that is, my new closet drama does say something about 1985. And I don’t write about myself any more, but I think it says something about me, too. And if it says something about me and about 1985, maybe it’s an okay piece of strange work. We shall see.

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