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The Hydras of Style and Irony: An Interview with Richard Maxwell

By Daniel Mufson

I interviewed Richard Maxwell in 1999, after his most recent production, Drummer Wanted, had finished its run at the Performing Garage and was preparing to tour to Europe in the late Spring and early Summer.

DM Why do you do theater and why do you do the kind of theater that you do?

Richard Maxwell. Photo: Daniel Mufson.

Richard Maxwell. Photo: Daniel Mufson.

RM Well, I guess that’s two questions. The first is, why do I do theater as opposed to anything else. I think that’s because I think I understand it. I’m able to convince myself that I understand how it works. I don’t feel that way about any other medium. It probably has a lot to do with being brought up by people who were interested and involved in theater. My Dad, my sister. My sister is an actor, and since I was eleven years old, I would go and see her in college productions. And my Dad is an amateur playwright and actor at a community theater. So I would go and see that stuff from age five or six. I didn’t quite understand what it was other than this thing that happened in a dark room.

DM And as for why you do the kind of theater you do?

RM That’s a little harder to answer. Part of it must tie into the fact that I have for most of my life been going to theater and I think there’s an itch to do something other than what I’ve seen. Part of it comes from just having this fascination with irreverence. Irreverence not just in theater but in music. I think it’s interesting when a tradition has been established to the point where it’s not even questioned and somebody comes along and upsets that. That’s exciting.

DM Did your father and sister have an interest in irreverent theater?

RM I don’t know that they would say so, but I think they do, in a certain way, because I get all my humor from them. My Dad has a great sense of humor and an appreciation of the absurd.

DM Do you have anyone in mind when you’re working on the piece? Are you doing it primarily for yourself or for a particular kind of audience?

RM I think I’m doing it for myself. That always gets into a gray area that I don’t understand. I know that it finally will be presented for an audience and that people will see it, and that’s part of what I like about it. When I come upon something that’s interesting, I think, yes, that’s interesting to me, but that could also probably be broken down to saying that that would probably be interesting for an audience to see. But I don’t have a particular demographic in mind.

DM Some people talk about their own work as grappling with a problem, that each play is a different attempt at solving a particular problem that their interested in. I’m wondering whether that speaks to the way you work at all, whether you think of yourself as trying to solve or approach a problem or raise a question.

RM No, I don’t think so. I never really thought about it, but I don’t think so. I guess I’ve always been corrected in theater… I’m thinking of this saying I heard once, “there are no problems in theater, only challenges.” A personal problem?

DM I was actually thinking of it more as a formal problem.

RM When you say that, it reminds me of Richard Foreman. There’s something that he’s going for each time, some nut that’s in perpetual need of cracking. I don’t think of it that way. I’m continually trying to find new ways to present something, trying to widen my palate. “Problem” is a bad word for me because it implies a certain hang-up, something that vexes, and I’m not vexed at all.

DM If the word were “challenge,” would you feel more comfortable?

RM Yeah, but I think that—for your question—that changes things a little bit, puts it in a different realm. It’s the negative versus the positive. A problem would be a negative thing, something that was haunting me, almost; a challenge is something where you broaden yourself and learn as you go.

DM So what’s the impetus then, for working? A lot of your work focuses on America, portraits of Americana, American milieus, contemporary or historical. There must be some kind of preoccupation with that.

RM It’s just what I know. It’s familiar to me. I don’t sit down and feel like I have to present this part of America. It’s usually something that has tickled me somewhere, somehow. It’s generally put in a theatrical context. Things that I’m excited about have to do with an idea that seems improbable on stage. That’s when things start going. I don’t look at it as some kind of social tool, as a teaching tool.

DM What do you mean by “things that seem improbable on stage”?

RM Either things that you rarely or never see.

DM How does that come through in the work you’ve done already?

RM In terms of some of the content. The things people talk about. The fact that, seemingly, nothing is happening, that there’s no action on stage. A lot of it comes from what I’ve been told you have to do to make something interesting. My instinct is to prove that wrong.

DM You could do that also and work from what you don’t know. There’s no shortage of people like Brecht setting a play in Chicago without ever having been there, or—

RM —or Cowboys and Indians.

DM Yeah. But again, you picked an American context for that. Is that just the way it happened to work out?

RM Yeah. I don’t have the capacity to orchestrate something that is going to elicit a specific reaction from an audience.

DM I get that sense in your work in general. Some artists seem to go about their work, they have a certain kind of effect that they have in mind that they know they want to create, and then they go backwards from that and use the techniques or strategies that will yield those effects. And I get the sense with you that you start with strategies and techniques and you’re not exactly sure what the effects are going to be and you’re interested in seeing how it works out.

RM I’m glad to hear you see that, because that’s exactly the way I feel. Although I’m discovering, from seeing the plays and also from hearing what the people say about the plays, that there’s a consistency that often people will peg as style.

DM When we got together with some other people after one of the performances of Showy Lady Slipper, there was a consensus as to the perception of how people spoke or moved on stage, but in terms of the effects that those brought forth, the interpretations, in terms as fundamental as of whether it’s serious or comic, or vulnerable or not, it seemed as though there was not a consensus at all. Was that an exception?

RM No, I think that’s true. It brings up something interesting, the separation between the play and the audience reaction to the play. I was thinking more along the lines of the plays themselves. I think there is that consistency that I recognize, even though I don’t have an intention at the start [to have it]. A guy I know came to see the show, and he asked me, “So, did you just fall into this deadpan thing, or is it something you make all the actors do from the start?” It takes a long time to answer that question because, first of all, it’s the exact opposite of the reaction that you just gave me, where you said that you feel like the strategy is at the beginning. He’s seeing the result and thinking that it’s predetermined.

DM Well, to me it’s a confusion of ends and means. I would say, yes, you have the deadpan-I don’t know if I’d call it deadpan, I’ve struggled with how to describe the line delivery that you seem to get. To me, it definitely seems consistent, almost regardless of the actor and the play that I’ve seen. Some people have described it as monotone, but I don’t think it’s monotone.

RM Flat?

DM Flattened, or emotionally drained but not devoid of emotion. It has the gestures of the emotion, but they’ve become attenuated. You know what I mean?

RM Yeah, I do.

DM That’s a tool that is consistent but to me what’s interesting is the way you use that tool in different plays and it has different effects in different contexts. Much more so than I would have thought. And that’s what’s kept it interesting for me. Because when I first saw House, I thought, well, that’s great, but I can foresee getting tired of this really fast. And what was interesting to me was, in Cowboys and Indians, I wasn’t tired of it. It was the same device but it was having a different effect based on the change in time, milieu, duration of the show, the change in the way you had the music done.

RM It wasn’t you that changed, it was the piece, the effects in the piece?

DM Yeah. My recollection of House was that it was very funny and would occasionally have these moments where the humor collapsed and you caught a glimpse of these very barren and real gulfs that were representing on some level gulfs in the audience, in reality. But they were intermittent. I suppose because the style was so novel for me, I could have been seeing more the dressing than what was underneath. But for Cowboys and Indians, the length was very important precisely because, within that piece, the humor, the humorousness of someone saying something passionate not passionately—you got over it after the first 45 minutes, tops. And then I just started hearing the words a lot more and entered into the whole drama that was being hinted at instead of just laughing.

I noticed something also with Showy Lady Slipper, your work is incredibly ironic. To me, you’re the natural conclusion of a generation of irony. There’s irony in the disjunction between the meaning in the words themselves and the tone with which they’re delivered. But you push the irony so far that you take irony, which is something that closes you off emotionally, or that’s defensive and not vulnerable, and somehow it folds back and makes the characters in your work exceedingly vulnerable.

RM It’s a big question. To me, I try to keep a separation in my head between product, which is what you’re talking about, and process. Sometimes it’s hard to separate them. Your other question, though, “do you have a problem or challenge that you keep coming back to,” it comes back to…. if I can eradicate any evidence of a style, I feel successful. That’s my goal.

DM Right. But what does that mean, really?

RM I understand the ridiculousness of the statement. I understand the impossibility in logical terms. If I can erase any evidence of the process—that’s what it is, it’s trying to get to a place where there’s no evidence of any kind of style, whether it was intended or not. I’m just thinking out loud again, but the answer could be found in many different ways and I’m sure that other people have tried to do this before, but it’s an uphill battle when you have the convention of realistic performance behind you, when you have that history there. Maybe the way to go—and I’m just thinking out loud here—maybe the way to go is the realism route. Maybe you almost have to play a trick on the audience to fool myself, to convince them that there is no style, that what they’re seeing is what it is and nothing more. The most common reaction I get from the audience is that it’s about the formalistic nature of it, the stylization of it, that’s what they’re reacting to. Even though I understand it’s probably unavoidable, it’s something that gets under my skin.

DM How are you defining style?

RM Something that’s recognizable, whether or not it’s intended, as an end, as a design.

DM Style as an end that’s repeated recognizably as opposed to a method, a means that’s repeated?

RM Yes. And I guess some would say, as you have, that it is successful because the content changes. And the characters and the content and the ideas that are presented within that frame change, then the effect changes. But I still recognize something in myself that gets me to a certain place with the actors where I’m giving them the same notes that I gave them in the last show, and the show before that, and talking about the same things, and inadvertently preserving something that I created before.

DM Whose work are you looking at right now? Is there anyone you admire? Are you part of a downtown community? Is there any kind of cross-pollination happening?

Richard Maxwell. Photo: Daniel Mufson.

Richard Maxwell. Photo: Daniel Mufson.

RM A little bit. I like Elevator Repair Service and their daring when it comes down to making theater in the absence of a text, a recognizable text. Did you see Total Fictional Lie? I liked that. They seemed to be exploring through-lines outside of the narrative. I envy that. It looks like fun. It’s exciting to watch. But I don’t know how much that feeds into what I’m doing. I’ve always felt inspired more from pop music, rock and roll. I like the Wooster Group and Richard Foreman, what they do is good and impressive.

DM Did you work there at all?

RM I was at the Performing Garage.

DM It seems like a lot of the younger people who are interesting today at least spent a little bit of time at the Performing Garage. Is that just because it’s a natural place for people who are interested in alternative theater to gravitate to, and that’s where they first go when starting out? Or is it useful as an incubator for people who are trying to figure out what it is they want to do? Was the time you spent there relevant?

RM Somehow. Yes. I saw Brace Up! when I was still in Chicago, and before that I had been introduced by my Theater History professor. It was definitely a seminal experience for me. It does have some relevance in this generation because…. well, people in other generations before us would read an Arthur Miller play and get excited because it was written for them. I think the Performing Garage has that resonance now, or at least it did ten years ago. They’re dealing with technology, it feels like rock and roll, they show fracture. When I got to New York, I knew I wanted to work there in some capacity, as an intern. That didn’t pan out, but I did accomplish one of the things I wanted to do, which was to watch rehearsals.

DM Did that feed back into your own work?

RM I think so. There’s something uncompromising about what the Wooster Group does that I like. Liz’s specificity….

DM When you started talking about technology, I thought about the way you used music in House and the way you’ve used it since. I think Gary Wilmes [an actor Maxwell worked with in Chicago and NYC] was a little surprised, when he told me you were putting out a CD of the music that you had done, I asked if you had brought in a tape recorder for the House songs to get that kind of tinny, distorted sound that you had had in the show. And he said, “Oh, no, no, we re-recorded it so it sounds good!” And I was a little disappointed, and I think he was surprised by that.

RM Yeah, you’re not the only one disappointed by that. We had to make a decision between embracing the Lo-Fi aspect of that, of this kind of machine, that speaker sound, which wasn’t just in House but in other plays, too, before, or embracing the capacity of the medium of the recording studio. We had to cave into the pleasures of playing with those toys. I have to wonder what the CD means to someone who hasn’t seen the show, who doesn’t have the frame for the songs on the CD.

DM Do you preserve the instances where in many of the shows the singers aren’t hitting the note?

RM That’s on there. I guess we did it both ways sometimes. There was just something that seemed false in pretending that this is not a recording studio. It’s a compact disc, the ultimate in technology….

DM How come you shifted to live musicians in the last couple of shows?

RM Actually, if you look at the pattern, the big pattern, it alternates from show to show. I think theatrically, I like the idea that the characters have their favorite radio station and they sing the songs they hear on the radio station, this one song that somehow represents who they are. It’s a way of expressing something, it allows me to express something outside of the dialogue, something emotional. A good excuse to write a song.

DM Why use live musicians, then?

RM I go back and forth thinking that it feels pretentious to have that. I go between the pretentiousness and its effectiveness, oscillate between those two things. I haven’t yet found a way to do both. They have a different power. The live music has something immediate that everyone understands.

DM You seemed surprised last time when I said there was at least a slight affinity between you and Beckett insofar as both humor and pathos are generated by characters’ stasis. You don’t use language in the same way, but the emptiness of the characters’ lives made me wonder if Beckett’s work fed you in any way.

RM I don’t see the humor so much in Beckett’s work. I know that he’s said that exists. His humor seems more sophisiticated than mine, it has more of a satirical edge.

DM Don’t you think you’re working on a satirical level?

RM Yeah, but his satire is social satire and my satire is theatrical satire.

DM You don’t think you’re both working on a level of existential satire? About how people act or do or say simply because they don’t want to be left in that hole where there’s nothing to do or act or say?

RM It’s hard to say how that happens. I’m not going for that. The humor starts for me when I’m writing something that I genuinely feel. For instance, there’s a line in a song in Showy Lady Slipper, “you have to follow your heart.” I believe that. And yet you put that on stage in today’s world, it’s immediately corny, ironic, in a way that comes off as funny. I don’t mind, because I know where that came from, that that’s sincere. Another moment: John is killed in an accident, you hear in the phone call. That’s autobiographical. That happened to me. I got a phone call and my brother-in-law had been killed. That’s something I have very strong feelings about. And I wanted to put it in this play. But by the time it gets to the audience’s ears, it’s something that’s so completely devoid of my intentions, and I have to be all right with that. That’s okay with me. I think that has something to do with the fact that I’m directing what I’m writing. A lot of times I’ll back off from what I know is emotional and I’ll pull away from it and betray it.

DM It seems like in Showy Lady Slipper, the world that’s depicted there just can’t even cope with news on that level; they resort to this one last attempt at using song to express what they’re feeling and it’s inadequate, and then the show just basically shuts down. That world is not capable of dealing with something of that magnitude.

RM I tried to imagine how they would continue beyond that, I struggled and gave up—quickly. What could happen after that?

DM Do you think people are wrong to focus more on your work as a director than as a playwright?

RM No. Do they do that?

DM Yes, I think so. People fixate on what we were talking about as the style, or anti-style, of the direction, and not so much on the writing. But to me the writing is very important to your directing style.

RM My pat answer to that used to be that I don’t consider myself to be a writer. I never considered the work as having a literary value because it’s just an operating manual for what I see on stage. But I’m starting to appreciate the value of a text. I worked with Jim Strahs on Cowboys and Indians, and… it’s so good, what he does. And he’s not a director. He’s just a writer. But he gave me an appreciation for what he does.

DM Could you talk about the nature of that collaboration?

RM He and I share a similar, off the wall sense of humor.

DM Where do you know him from?

RM He’s a theater fan. He likes to go see plays. Somehow, he came to see one of the things I did at the Ontological, and we started talking. I directed a reading of a play that he wrote. I couldn’t get inside it, his writing is so dense. He came by one day with a little picture and black and white sketches, crudely drawn, cowboy scenes, and I responded to the pictures. I liked the idea of a Western as a narrative. He got in deep with the research; he used to work at Strand books, so he had all these books, and we started writing. The workshop was fine, but it was half of a play. It got sticky. My instinct was always to cut stuff, just strip it bare, but he would always ask, “Well, who can say what’s necessary? Keep cutting, there will be nothing left.” We struggled to understand each other. But I learned from that tension, learning to respect what other people want. It’s a tall order to collaborate that way when styles are so discrepant.

DM Would you be open to that kind of collaboration again?

RM I don’t think so.

DM Why not?

RM Not immediately, anyway. I think I’ve established something as far as articulating what I see on stage, in terms of the text and the picture. Those go hand in hand, and I want to explore that.

DM You think you’re getting better at it?

RM Yeah. I’ve started to appreciate the act of writing, to get a better grip of what one can do with text. I never had that kind of respect for plays before. I think I’m trying new things. I have to come to a better understanding each time of what it means to put on a play. If I were to have a collaborator in that, it would just be a distraction.

DM Eric Bogosian did an interview a while ago with Richard Foreman, where Foreman, acknowledging that there’s not a lot of variation in his work, said it’s the slight variations within a given style that’s what’s interesting about art. I’m wondering to what extent you agree with that or take issue with it. If you were able to look at what you’re going to be doing seven, eight, nine years from now, do you expect or want it to be the case that, if you could juxtapose Maxwell’s work in 2007 with Maxwell’s work from 1999, that people would say, “Oh, of course that’s the same artist?”

Richard Maxwell. Photo: Daniel Mufson

Richard Maxwell. Photo: Daniel Mufson

RM Well, Foreman also said he wishes he had the courage to be bad so that he could change. I, too, hope that I have the courage to do that. That’s more interesting to me, to break what you’ve created and start again. Like Neil Young. He’s somebody I admire. And he has lawsuits from his record company because of artistic inconsistency. I think that’s exciting to me, the fact that you can do that and pull it off shows intelligence and an appreciation for things outside of you. No matter what you say or do, no matter how strongly you say it, it’s still all bullshit, because it’s still just theater, or it’s still just music. It’s not life. It’s not as important as life.

DM Earlier in the interview, when I was rambling on incessantly—

RM When was that?

DM Exactly—I was talking a little bit about the way in which your work uses irony in a peculiar way, and you later mentioned that it was interesting to you to put a line like “You have to follow your heart” on stage to see its humorous effect. We’ve sort of grown up in this culture where sincerity needs to be guarded, where we have an infatuation with irony. I wonder if you could talk a little more about your feelings about that.

RM I don’t know how better to describe it than a Mountain Dew giveaway hummer parked outside on the street, I think it was 96th Street. And I watched this whole proceeding. They had a whole vat full of Mountain Dew on ice, and hats and T-shirts. And big fucking loud speakers with music just pumping out. And the people were of course attracted by this spectacle. And I was just watching people’s reactions, and on the one hand, the kids seemed to understand that they were being snowed with free T-shirts and free caps, but at the same time, they really liked the fact that they were getting all these things. So the reaction-the guys who were running the show, their job was to take pictures of people enjoying all their stuff-and so they were putting the kids on the spot, and the reactions were so bizarre. “Oh, yeah!”—it was sarcastic, and yet sincere at the same time. That just illustrated to me the way you can have a fusion of the sincere and ironic. I see this fusion emerging just recently, in the last five to six years, of sincerity and irony. A dangerous combination on many levels. We can’t help our values. We can’t help that feeling that certain things are important even as we catch ourselves embracing them. It’s interesting.

This interview was conducted in New York on November 22, 1999 and originally published on AlternativeTheater.com.

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