By Eliza Bent
Back in 2014, Eliza Bent, a performer and arts journalist, interviewed playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins for American Theatre magazine. Here are a few highlights from that interview.
Let’s talk about An Octoroon.
I feel like Neighbors, An Octoroon and Appropriate are all linked in some deep, fundamental way. I don’t think of it as a trilogy but I feel like it’s a thing I have moved through and have come to a conclusion with it.
Neighbors, An Octoroon and Appropriate are all studies in genre. They are all engaged in the act of looking at how the theatre interacts with questions of identity—I hate that word, but I think the question always transforms and that has to do with being alive. Why do we think of a social issue as something that can be solved? Is there such thing as “the last play about anything ever”? Maybe it’s actually like nothing we’re living with is that new. Except for iPhones. We’re still idiots, we’re still human idiots. And we always have been. So there’s that.
What’s your relationship to melodrama?
Melodrama is actually what the majority of our American theatrical heritage was until Eugene O’Neill came along and popped us in the face with modernism. But, in addition to the Greeks, he was super influenced by melodrama— Boucicault being the reigning king of the form in the 19th Century. And I think melodrama is an amazing thing—it’s like the science part of what we do. A generation of French guys literally just kept doing things to an audience and refined a codified formula for making an audience feel the way that these French guys thought they should feel at any given moment. This idea that we’re just these animals that are easily manipulated by certain steps or moves or gestures is so profound to me and made me wonder: What is it that we’re doing? Is it ethical? Or are ethics somehow besides the point?
I became really obsessed with Boucicault. He’s actually like our first American dramatist, because he’s this Anglo-Irish guy that came over here and wrote one of the first, most important plays about American life. It was this huge sensation and a direct response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is this hugely important flag in the history of American theatre. I was interested in how Boucicault would rewrite his plays depending on his audiences—like for The Octoroon, he had two different endings: one in which the heroine died (for American audiences) and another where she didn’t (for the British audiences). To me, that did not square up against the idea of a “responsible artist.” An artist had to make an artistic choice and stand by it. The idea that he would be commercially reworking his work just to make money was just… I don’t know.
But as I dug deeper, I realized that’s not actually how it shook down. He tried his original ending in London and the audiences wouldn’t deal with it. He wrote like all these pamphlets and editorials defending his ending as “truthful” but in the end, perhaps a little out of spite, he rewrote the ending. I think a lot of people see this as some sort of… weakness on his part, but I think it’s telling that he burned that draft—that it’s not even in the public domain anymore. Then he made a cut version for the printing, which was never actually produced and I thought, “This is so amazing.”
I did all this crazy archival research at the New York Public Library and I found this insane unfinished essay he wrote on the art of dramatic writing. One thing I’ve always lamented is that playwrights never really write down what they think in a real way. I love Arthur Miller’s theatre essays—this is me being academic and ridiculous. So I find this Boucicault essay and it says how the whole enterprise for us is creating the dramatic illusion. We’re just trying to create the most perfect illusion, because that is where catharsis begins with audiences. And the way we get that illusion is that we create the most believable illusion of someone suffering. And I was, like, obsessed with this essay and that kind of became the guide for An Octoroon. I wanted to talk about the illusion of suffering versus actual suffering and ask, is there a relationship between the two?
In terms of meta-melodrama, I just like the idea that this isn’t a new idea. This is like Brecht, but the idea that you could feel something and then be aware that you’re feeling it is really profound to me. That somehow we possess these two faculties, one which is intellectual and gets us through the world, but the one that’s always working is the subconscious feeling place, and that’s what we care about that’s what the theatre is obligated to.
To make people feel?
Yeah. It’s about feeling and building emotional experiences for people. That’s a very tall order, and I think it requires thought and care. When you talk about feelings, we’re talking about things we were doing since we were babies. I was with someone the other day and she was like, “Oh, watching theatre is one of the first things you learn how to do. When you’re a baby one of the first things you do is learn to sit and look at everything.” Is that why it’s so familiar to us? This is what I am obsessed with: feelings and that they’re mysterious and that we constantly try and fail and sometimes succeed put language on them.
And yet you’re not interested in telling people how to feel?
Well, no, not how to feel about their feelings. I think my work has annoyed some people because I believe that ugly feelings have a place in the theatre! If you cannot feel angry or upset or, like, scandalized or grossed out or bored in the theatre, where else are you supposed to feel safe to do that?
There were all these crazy talk backs for Neighbors where someone would be like, “I walked out!” I would be like, “That’s amazing! That’s okay. I think you took charge of your life and made a choice.” I want the right to walk out of anything.
There’s a slight paradox at the heart of what we do, and this is when we get to the idea of American theatre. We’re a democracy. A democratic nation is at the heart of the American idea of itself. But audiences are not democratic. Audiences are about consensus. The successful audience is laughing at the same time and gasping at the same time. Well, a democratic audience is actually kind of weird. Sometimes people are laughing and something they aren’t. That feels real to me. I love that. I love it when an audience can howl together, but I’m excited by people who titter or cackle at the wrong time. I love people who walk out! And how everyone looks at the person who walks out. Being in groups is weird! [Laughter.] We don’t know what we’re doing.
From “Feel That Thought” by Eliza Bent. Originally appeared in American Theatre magazine, Vol. 31, No. 5. Used with permission from Theatre Communications Group.
An Octoroon runs September 3 – October 1. Visit artistsrep.org for showtimes and tickets.