Resident Dramaturg’s Notes

“A sad tale’s best for winter.”

(Mamillius, The Winter’s Tale II.1)

I’m sitting in a Saturday morning tech rehearsal for The Year of Magical Thinking and, as usual, I’m trying not to make too much noise. Across the house from me is the design team, the director, and the technical staff, their faces ghostly from the light of their personal computer screens.  They’re all watching the stage as Josh, the assistant director, marks out a simple, elegant choreography with a half-smirk on his face as Mary Beth Fisher, the actor playing the character of Joan, delivers her lines from a seat in the house. It’s an exercise designed so that Mary Beth can comprehend the new context of light, space, sound, and (yes) video projection that she’s been recently loaded-into this weekend. Josh, for the moment, is her sole understudy, carefully reconstructing her blocking down to the inch as Mary Beth speaks the lines to herself. It’s a strange piece of performance art, but an oddly fitting embodiment of Joan Didion’s prose: formal, structural, a kind of dire game of Twister. “Half-step downstage, Josh,” directs Jennifer Tipton, the lighting designer. He moves.

In late 2004, Joan Didion began writing about the recent death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the ongoing illness of her daughter, Quintana. Those early notes—some composed at the height of bewildering grief—became the book The Year of Magical Thinking. The manuscript was already finished and sent to the printers when Didion’s daughter passed away in August 2005. Published barely over a month later, the book became an immediate bestseller and garnered a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography. In late 2006, at the encouragement of producer Scott Rudin, Didion began work on a play based on The Year of Magical Thinking. The play retained certain passages from the book, but it also included certain new material, including an account of Quintana’s death and the aftermath. For Didion, an author of five novels, eleven works of nonfiction, and a handful of Hollywood screenplays, it was her first piece of writing for the theater. Produced in London in 2007 with David Hare directing and Vanessa Redgrave in the role of Joan, The Year of Magical Thinking: The Play has been produced on Broadway and at regional theaters throughout the United States.

“A sad tale’s best for winter,” says Mamillius in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a play that’s been on my mind lately. If ever there was ever a story that advocated the practice of magical thinking, it’s this one,  a play that invites its audience to believe in a world where long-dead loved ones can be resurrected by the transformative power of art. I’m usually moved by that final scene of The Winter’s Tale—the scene where dead Queen Hermione’s statue comes to life—but in Didion’s wake it seems naive, delusional, even cruel. The world of The Year of Magical Thinking is our world, a world without resurrection—but nevertheless one in which we will need resurrection, it warns us, we will look for it, wait for it, despite all logic. The Winter’s Tale asks us to look for the return of the dead, while Didion admonishes us to “relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.” The only consolation she shares with us are the angular words of the Episcopalian liturgy—“As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end”—which is the consolation of an eternal mise en scène that’s indifferent to the petty pace of us and our loved ones.

It is this conclusion, combined with the subject matter and the timing—January, Chicago—that has justly earned The Year of Magical Thinking the informal title “most depressing play” in Court Theatre’s 2009-10 season. I’m not here to argue against that. I do take issue with “depressing.” It is not depressing. Hamlet is depressing. The Year of Magical Thinking is unsettling.

Unsettling as all strong journalism should be, and “journalism” is arguably the proper genre to describe this play. It is not a memoir; it is not recollection. Didion is reporting—as she reported the social movements of the 1960’s or the political parties of the 1990’s—in the idiom that Tom Wolfe coined “New Journalism,” a journalistic style that foregrounds the first-person perspective of the reporter and borrows literary devices from fiction and memoir. The subject of Didion’s observation just happens to be herself and her own grief. Without sentimentality, Didion reports from the scene of her own mental state following the death of her husband. No detail is too ephemeral: the book John was reading just before he died, the half-forgotten lines of poetry that in the following weeks inexplicably pop into her head, the familiar radio stations that call forth too many memories, and the little illusory castles of logic she builds to convince herself that she can bring John back. At one point, she finds herself unwilling to throw out his shoes because “he would need shoes if he was to return.”

Shoes, crosswords, oldies stations—the study of the quotidian objects is the reason I encounter Didion’s report with either instant, visceral recognition of my own personal experiences of death, or with the speculative vision of some future catastrophe. She renders the strange familiar. Lately I’ve been reading news reports from the devastation in Haiti, as I’m sure you have, and what draws my attention in the photos are scenes of the everyday rendered grimly: survivors leaving voice messages on the cell phones of missing family members, grocery stores filled with detritus, a corpse wearing a wrist watch. Didion invites you to notice the hairline fracture that separates the living from the dead. In The Year of Magical Thinking¸ the ordinary is no refuge from death: “It will happen to you.”

So it’s journalism. Then what on earth is this story doing on the stage? The dramatic suitability of Didion’s text is, I think, still up for debate. Despite Didion’s efforts at adaptation, I’m agnostic that there’s much dramatic conflict here. Nor am I bothered by that. My experience of watching The Year of Magical Thinking approximates Bertolt Brecht’s model for epic theatre—that of watching an eyewitness on the street corner, reporting to bystanders about a traffic accident he just saw. In Didion’s case, she is both eyewitness and victim, and the real interest is not in what is told but in the act of telling, in confronting a hopelessly irrational event and to compose it into a rational structure. The crucial difference between the book and the play is that the book is a story told and printed and bound into a real object of weight, but the play is bound up, compulsively, with the act of telling, night after night, as if never satisfied that enough has been said, or that we’ve said it correctly. “’Correctly’ is important to me,” says Joan in the play. “Must you always have the last word?” her husband used to demand of her. The Year of Magical Thinking: The Play is about the search for the last, right word to explain a subject that resists whatsoever any meaningful explanation.

–Drew Dir, Resident Dramaturg