John Patrick Shanley believes that “writing is acting is directing is living your life.” He writes to change his life, to confront his fears. To that effect, he describes theater as “the ultimate gymnasium.”
Shanley treats his screenplays like plays. He writes only on spec. There can be no coerced rewrites. As a result, his screenplays are structurally unconventional. Five Corners with Jodie Foster and John Turturro has no main character and Moonstruck which was awarded the 1987 award for best original screenplay by The Writers Guild and has also garnered an Academy Award in that category, is pages and pages of speeches.
Shanley chooses characters stretched to the breaking point between rage and love; characters whose dramatic arc begins by being afraid and moves towards a bravery and an exploration of personal courage usually signaled by the confession, “I’m scared. I love you.” His are characters of obsessive passions who match those passions with hyper-melodic language.
Shanley’s plays include Welcome to the Moon (Ensemble Studio Theater, 1982) Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (Circle in the Square, 1984), Savage in Limbo (Double Image Theater, 1985), Women of Manhattan (Manhattan Theatre Club, 1986) and the dreamer examines his pillow (Double Image Theater, 1986).
Currently in production, his film The January Man is a black humor melodrama about the police commissioner of New York and his family in a city that has been terrorized by a strangler for a year. The January Man stars Rod Steiger, Harvey Keitel, Susan Sarandon, Kevin Kline, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Danny Aiello, and Spalding Gray.
The fall will bring a new play, Italian-American Reconciliation to be directed by the author at the Manhattan Theatre Club starring John Turturro and Jayne Haynes (to whom Shanley was married in January).
In the work of John Patrick Shanley, the truth is as charming as it is painful, reality as touched with magic as it is factual, and existence as absolute as it is illusory.
Craig Gholson You’re on quite a roll. How does it feel?
John Patrick Shanley It feels very much the same. I had a moment in my life several years ago where I wrote a little play and put it in front of an audience. I’d already been writing for many years and I’d done several plays but this was slightly different. It was called Welcome to the Moon. And I put it in front of an audience and I knew. I suddenly got it. I suddenly understood what it was. And in that moment I had my own voice.
CG What was your work like prior to that? What changed?
JPS I can tell you the epiphany that I had because it was kind of funny. It was like, “Oh. that’s what they want?—they just want you to write well? They want you to just do the best you can, to express yourself honestly.” I saw a reaction come out of the audience that was so powerful that it didn’t bear any relation to anything I’d ever done before.
CG This was at Ensemble Studio Theatre?
JPS This was just a reading, before they ever did the production. It was only this one little play and I suddenly got it. At this point, I was in a lot of trouble. I had a lot of problems, I had a lot of psychological problems. I was in a marriage that wasn’t working. I was in trouble. I was a man at sea. When I found this out, I used playwriting to solve my life. I used playwriting to focus on and attack the things that I was afraid of. To go in the direction of the things that I was afraid of instead of running away from them. In this one little moment, I suddenly said, “My God, that’s where the power is. The power is an arrow and it is fear and it points in the direction of where you should go.” And I’d always been going the other way. And that moment changed my life, it changed my writing, it changed everything.
CG In your Author’s Note to Welcome to the Moon, the way you recommend that your work be done is to “Keep it innocent and simple.” Again, in the Author’s Note to Women of Manhattan, you request, “Please don’t be mean, arch or slick.” Do you consider yourself a realist?
JPS I don’t think there’s any such thing. I think when you look around the world it’s teeming with realities, different realities, and you must select the one which appeals to you at the moment. The reality which says what you want to say, the world that you want to investigate, and go into that world. For instance, the language in Moonstruck was very stylized. I remember somebody saying, “People don’t talk that way, but if he talks that way in the movie you buy it.” There’s truth and not truth in that. I said, “Well, it’s not the way all people talk, but I was on the train and I heard two women talking and they were talking in the exact style of Moonstruck.” I said. “Well, you know, I chose that.” And that’s what style is all about. It’s just making a choice about which of the many things, many aspects, you’re going to choose to go with for a whole picture or play.
CG One of the things I was struck by in reading and seeing the body of your work, was that there’s no natural light in your plays. The sources of light are Chinese lanterns, candles, plastic pumpkins, neon bar lights. John in The Red Coat talks about “a street light that’s more beautiful than the sun.” In Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Danny says, “The moon just went out.” Roberta answers. “He’s got it on a timer.” Even in Moonstruck, the moon isn’t a source of light, it’s this incredible stimulant.
JPS It’s like a steam.
CG If that moon wasn’t there, those characters would have put it up there with their desire.
JPS It does stay up there longer than full moons naturally ever wanted to. I definitely do have a great love for incandescent light.
CG I just wondered if the sun existed for you and if it does, what it means.
JPS That’s an interesting question. I haven’t thought about it. I’ve thought about it in terms of film, certainly, because I don’t like people cavorting about in the sunlight— To me, it has a certain flat, fascistic quality. In film it translates, at least a lot of the time, into a sort of Aryan view of the world. There’s an idea of what wholesomeness is that I find unwholesome.
CG A lot of your characters talk about an animal being inside of them, of something trying to get out and having to confront that in themselves.
JPS Yes. It’s a simplistic view of yourself and you can extrapolate. You have all these different voices inside of yourself, right? You don’t want to deal with them. And, depending on the degree of repression, you can end up a 20-multiple personality. I certainly have more than one or two and in Savage in Limbo I put them all on stage and let them talk to each other for the first time. I broke it down into several sections because I was in a state of such crisis—I wanted to give air to all the disparate things that were at war.
CG The woman character in Let Us Go Out Into the Starry Night says, “Everything is painful, so why not be honest about the pain?” She says, “What a relief to say these things even if they’re sophomoric. I think there’s a sophomore in a lot of people, just waiting to get out.” Roberta and Danny in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea get together and they confess their “bad thing” to each other. These are moments in your plays when people finally break down and admit to each other what actually is going on. These moments end up being ones of incredible transcendence.
JPS It is the thing, isn’t it? Everybody has these things locked in them, things they consider unlovable, unattractive. And they may well be. But people manipulate, show something or hide something to make somebody else act in a certain way, right? But the manipulator is always a slave to this thing. Usually by the time they get adept at it they’re not aware that they can’t stop. So they end up feeling that they’re in jail all the time because they can’t be themselves. So if anybody loves them, it’s a lie, because they’re not seeing the real person.
CG Tony Aronica in Savage in Limbo talks about having bars around his heart.
JPS He says, “Solid steel this life has put in me.” Yeah, he’s talking about being trapped, he’s talking about being in a cage. But it’s a cage that if you step outside this need to manipulate and you say, “All right, if I am a totally unlovable human being, I will die. Let’s get on with it. Are we going to vamp forever or are we going to get on with it and find out what’s going on?” And the interesting thing to me that I’ve tried to do in a lot of those plays is to get it out there early.
CG You certainly do.
JPS There’s this whole school of playwriting where people promise for three hours and they finally let you in on this big revelation. And that’s the apex of the play. My feeling is that that’s the start of the play, let’s get in there, let’s say these things that are so powerful that they can’t be named. And then let’s go somewhere, let’s see where it takes us.
CG One characteristic that makes your work so distinct is the immediacy in which the audience is in the problem. Within a few scenes of Moonstruck you’ve set it up—Loretta agrees to marry Johnny but meets his brother Ronny and falls in love with him. BOOM—you’re right in the middle of the problem, no hemming and hawing around. In Savage in Limbo, Linda Rotunda comes in and BOOM announces that her boyfriend is leaving her because he wants to fuck ugly women. For you as a playwright, then, the problem becomes sustaining the problem.
JPS Not really. ‘Cause if it’s a real problem, the problem will take care of itself. In other words, if I’m writing this play so that I don’t kill myself, I’m going to really attack this plot for real. I’m not saying, “Well, how can I get a little more theatrical mileage out of this?” I’m like, “I want to solve the problem. I want to solve it as quickly as possible. Call the Fire Department! We’ve got a problem!” I also thought that if I put everything out on stage in the first five minutes, then I’m never pandering to the audience. I am at the same place that they are. I have said everything that I know in the first five or ten minutes of the play and I’m on a road to see where it leads me as opposed to delivering up some past considered knowledge. Which the audience smells instantaneously. Certainly if I do it, they do.
CG Moments exactly like that moment when you walked out of your marriage and really had to change your life occur in all of your plays. Existence comes down to this one moment where you have to either change or die.
JPS Every moment. Every moment of your life. Sometimes it’s more noticeable than others.
CG Do you think the choices for an individual are that absolute?
JPS I think that there are only two choices. How shall I put this? I think that you’re born somebody. You’re born with a specific emotional make-up. Nobody is who they are because of what we describe as intellect, which is divorced from emotion. People are who they are because of their emotional selves. Very specific. Only one person like that. There may be a lot of people sort of like that, but that’s like a fingerprint. That’s who that person is. When you go through life, if you pay attention to your emotions, they will tell you what to do. They will tell you who you like, who you don’t like, what you should do and what you should not do. We’re taught not to pay attention to our emotions a lot of the time. But if you do, if you come to trust that and say, “I am this person. I was born this person,” as opposed to, “I did not choose to be this person. I was born that person.” Now, I can either choose to live that life or do nothing. Those are the only two choices I can make. Because the rest of it’s going to be vamping, it’s going to be a lie. If you step off your road, if you just step over to the side and you stand there for as long as you want—you can’t go back and you’re not going to be on anybody else’s—you’re going to be on yours. So, it’s like choosing life or death, whether you’re going to live your life or you’re not going to live it. Maybe you’re going to stay in a state of stasis and wait for death which you see a lot of people doing.
CG But you don’t write about those characters that compromise. I can’t think of a character of yours who compromises really.
JPS They embrace their fate. People say, “Why did you do that?” I love that question—”Why did you do that?” And no matter who you ask, people say, “Well, I did it for this…” You don’t know why you did that. Maybe in a year you will. It may not be important that you ever know. But we’re in love with the explanation. It’s this idiot rationality coming from the least intelligent part of you—the ego. The most intelligent part of you is not directly connected to the tongue.
CG Dad in the dreamer examines his pillow tells Tommy that Tommy’s women-fixed. “You don’t know who you are ‘cause all you got in your head is women.” Are you women-fixed?
JPS No. I think I was at that time. But already something was happening. There are different selves in a person. Different levels of self and in dreamer, I found out something about this guy who inhabits me, who is really this Dad. I went through a period of three very, very difficult years—well, very lively—and I moved to the Heights.
CG You moved from the Bronx to Washington Heights?
JPS No, I moved from Lower Manhattan to Washington Heights. I went up there.
CG You removed yourself.
JPS I did. You’re in trouble and the man goes to the mountain. I’ve always found it just a wonderful, strange, thing. One of my brothers goes periodically and sits on the top of the mountain by himself for several days and comes back and knows what to do. Look, I’m from New York, I don’t have a mountain, so I went up there and I got in this red robe and I did this after I wrote that play.
CG It’s funny because Dad in dreamer has this Olympic stature. The way the stage is set up he’s higher up in the Heights. It’s not that he’s in a toga, but there’s an element of that.
JPS Yes, when I wrote the play, I had not moved to the Heights and I did not have a red robe.
CG I think it was Carson McCullers who said that she’s careful about what she writes because everything that she writes is either true or will be.
JPS I think that’s true.
CG You have to be very careful about the subjects you choose.
JPS Except that I don’t think that you have to be careful about it. The one fillip I would have with that is that it’s not that you, by writing this, make these things happen. That’s not what’s going on. It’s something very different. It’s like there’s two kinds of artist—there are artists who create—which I find hilarious, and there are artists who I think would probably put it more like they express. Like you’re a big piece of Venetian flawed glass, you know, with different colors and bubbles and cracks. And the sunlight comes through that, when things are going well, and on the other side is this image from the light passing through this very particular ether. I think artistry at its best, is that. It’s affected by the world, it’s affected by passing through you. a little piece of it comes through your universe, comes through you and something comes out the other side. The ego is like the shade and you have to lower this shade because you’ve got to keep the ego on a diet all the time. To keep the ego as low as you can, so that this can go through. So, this idea is not you saying in a year this will happen, it’s you picking up from out there that in a year this will happen.
CG This is Dad in dreamer: “When you start reaching across that line, inta the dark, an pullin things out before your conscious mind is ready for em, that’s when what’s awake an what’s asleep ain’t fixed down anymore.” The idea of crossing a line is the Greek idea of hubris. It’s the unknown and it’s irresistible to humans. It also has a price and that price is, for the most part, deadly. In your work it’s usually represented as the subconscious.
JPS Yes, the only way my characters have to describe themselves is with their conscious mouths and it’s not the most intelligent part of them. But also I think that that line continually shifts. That more and more enters the conscious area, the more that you explore. Dad says to Tommy, “Take a look around, it’s a big place in there.” Tommy says. “I only see one thing.” Dad says, “Relax.” I think that there is a bad image that a lot of people have, and you really have to struggle against it, that if you go into the unconscious and take all these things out and expose them to air and you unravel these things, then that’s it.
CG It’s like money in the bank.
JPS Right. But also that then you’d have no unconscious. Everything is explicable.
CG You’ve said, “My subconscious is odd and very strong.” Rene Descartes wrote, “At least once in your life, insofar as it is possible, you should doubt all things.” You wrote: “I have, at one time or another, denied everything. Every fact of my specific self.” Do you still deny things?
JPS Yes, I do. But much less. You can almost look at photographs of me over fifteen years and see a human being emerging. You see a lot of people like that. You see a photograph of them and it’s out of focus as if somebody took an eraser and left parts of it out. Then you see them ten years later and you see knowledge in their eyes or death, you know. I’m much more myself than I was.
CG What’s the purpose of that denial in the human mechanism? Why?
JPS I think there’s a big struggle going on. I think that when you were a child that basically your job is you were put on earth to kill and replace your parents. And so when you arrive, they look at you and it’s bad news. I mean they’re happy and this and that but it’s a very conflicting and beautiful set of emotions there. Like in my family there was love and there was fear. And we want to stamp this thing out before it gets going. And that’s extremely common. It’s very human. There are a lot of people who want you to stop them. They want you to stop them. That’s the best way I can think of to put it. They’re like a little kid going—you say “Don’t touch that cup” and they touch the cup—and that’s a very basic, human thing. We have this whole idea that these things go away when people grow up and it’s simply not true. There’s also this belief that when people reach a level of accomplishment or whatever that they can separate out from their emotions and have some objectivity. I never met these people. I don’t know who they are. It’s very rare anyway. There’s the possibility of being a big human being. There’s a possibility of being spacious and generous in your view of the world, your view of other people. Of being delighted by someone having a better idea than you. By being delighted by someone who’s more beautiful than you. It’s a wonderful thing. It’s a very rare gift. And I look for people like that. That’s what I would like. I wish that I had a group of buddies like that. I wish I knew ten people like that. It’s very, very difficult. Being a human being is so complex. I mean my struggle with my family ended in a hilariously graphic way—I received a letter of apology—itemized—for every single thing my parents had done to me that was unloving.
CG Who had kept this list?
JPS I wrote them and told them exactly. Ever read Kafka’s letter to his father? I wrote them that letter. I wrote my letter and I sent it. Kafka never showed that letter to his father, which is the tragedy of Kafka because it was so great. And if that had been something that had come out of the blue, I don’t know exactly what it would have been. But it was something that was built to over a period of years. I honestly did not expect a reply, and basically said, “Well, now they’re out of my life. My parents did not love me. And I will survive. I’m going to have a life.” And they responded. And they responded in an incredibly unexpected way. They said, “Well, you’re right. And I’m sorry. You’re right about this and this and this.” There was a level of corroboration that was unthought of.
CG One of the hardest things to remember about parents is that they are actually only human beings. They’re your parents but they’re still just another human being with whatever faults are present.
JPS They are also your parents. They are very specific people. It’s a different relationship than you have with anybody else. It is a mysterious thing—you are of the same cells as this person. If you live a long time and keep your eyes open, you see these things. I sometimes picture a caveman who did this one thing with his hand, and the ghost of that gesture has come down through a million years, used at a dinner table in a house, father to son, mother to daughter. That one breath of life, that one flame is running through all of those people. So that in a sense, it’s just one long, grand gesture with a million people doing a little part of it to make it come out like that. A good, beautiful idea to me. And it’s very beautiful, this idea, of the passing of time. No one person can run this race. And the good news is that you’re not that important. You’re insignificant. But you do have a job to do. You are here and you do have this fate to play out, which is extraordinary because you don’t know what it is. And if you’re willing to play it out, you’ll be very surprised at the way it turns out.
CG I want to backtrack a little bit and talk about the structure of the plays and how the problem is immediately presented and then you go on. You’ve described Savage in Limbo as “more a series of emotional and intellectual events than a conventional story.” I think that’s true of most of your plays. They are not specifically plot oriented. They’re not plays where one event follows another.
JPS Actually the new one is. Italian-American Reconciliation.
CG That’s the question. Film, however, is plot oriented. Did writing screenplays force you to deal with plot in a way writing plays hasn’t? Will it affect the plays you write?
JPS Oh sure. It has already affected the plays I write. I had such a compression of feeling, of world view. It was really small. I could stare at this spoon until it melted. I’ve done that and I’m not going to continue to write that one play. Italian-American Reconciliation is the last play in a four-play cycle. The four plays are Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Savage in Limbo, the dreamer examines his pillow and Italian-American Reconciliation. They are, to me, one big play. Because of that, I would one day like to do all four of them at the same time.
CG What’s Italian-American Reconciliation about?
JPS The play’s about a man who cannot get over his divorce and decides to reconcile with his ex-wife who’s a monster. He tells his best friend he’s going to do this and the best friend says, “You’re Oedipus. I’m talking Oedipus. You are doomed. You’re a tragic man. You are telling me you are announcing the end of your life in front of me.” And actually, the play is fairly plot- oriented. To me, one of the most interesting things that can happen on stage or in a movie is two people sit down and have a real conversation. It’s so rare. I have a couple of cardinal rules in life that I’ve developed from my woes. The first one is: There is no difference between the conscious and unconscious mind when it comes to culpability. And another one is: Everybody knows everything. And there’s a third one and I can never remember what it is. That’s all I’ve come up with. Basically, my entire life’s experience are these three things, but I have found them to be incredibly useful. Unbelievably so. In fact, when I’m talking to somebody and they tell me what’s going on with them, they’re describing the situation, almost any situation I’d say, “There’s no difference between the conscious and unconscious mind when it comes to culpability and everybody knows everything.” And when they think about that, what the implications are, whatever the conversation is, they go, “I don’t know about this case.”
CG In talking about these major conversations in plays, it ties into an idea of a collective consciousness that I think the characters in your plays have. Although your characters remain separate characters, they say the same thing as each other. Your work is like one big play with the same big characters. Ronny’s speech in Moonstruck about how love’s supposed to ruin you, that’s what it’s supposed to do, is kind of a rewrite of Dad’s speech in dreamer, his marriage speech at the end about how it’s never the right time and it’s always been this way.
JPS Except it’s not. It’s funny because that makes perfect sense. Except that when I wrote dreamer, I was getting a tremendous feeling about the incredible disasters that I was perpetrating. I just had to stop and laugh at it— Just how disastrous can you make this relationship with this person? I also had it with other people. I’d just say, “Jeez, I don’t know what to tell you except that this remarkable feeling of glee simply seizes me at these moments when I see something clearly.” It didn’t matter to me whether it was a disaster or not, it just killed me that it was so clear, what was going to happen.
CG It’s a transcendent moment when you get the big picture.
JPS That’s what I felt. I felt good. But in Moonstruck I was in a very different place in my life than I was when I wrote dreamer. I was saying. “If you do this, if you follow your heart’s desire, there’s going to be this incredible price to pay. You might as well go ahead, there’s going to be fire and rocks and mayhem, but do this thing.” Also, you have to remember with Ronny you’re talking in cultural perspectives, too. Ronny says, “What do you mean love the wrong person? Break our hearts, love the wrong person, and die.” It’s true. We are going to die. We have an idea of who we’re supposed to love. And if you love this person, then it’s the wrong person, right? But it’s not a disaster. In dreamer it is a disaster, but it’s not the end of the world either. And in Moonstruck it is not a disaster. But he is not going to try to tell her that it’s not. He’s going to tell her, “Okay, it’s a disaster. You can say it’s a disaster. Fine. That’s the way things are. Fuck it, let’s go have the disaster.” And in that case, things turn out pretty well.
CG Dad in dreamer says, “Go ahead and make the big mistakes.” If you’re going to make mistakes, you might as well make big ones, right?
JPS But he’s also saying, “Walk into your fear. Go ahead. Do it.” What is going to happen? Are you going to die? I think underlying this stuff, underneath the family struggle, is the fear of death, right? It’s a huge thing. It’s the excitement of life. Yes, you do die. That’s part of the thing. That that comes. And you have no control over when that is. But you’re constantly fearful that it’s going to come, and that something that you do is going to elicit it. to make it happen, make it before you. We fear that we will die if we are not loved. People shit in their pants when they have to show their anger. They are so afraid.
CG That’s something that all your characters say. They say. “I’m scared.” And they say it over and over. Some of them don’t even have to say it because it’s so obvious. Then the dramatic moments come when they have to exhibit their bravery. What form will their bravery take for them? What are they going to have to do to be brave?
JPS I think it’s the Greeks who said the highest virtue is courage, that nothing comes near that. I don’t ascribe to everything the Greeks said, but I do definitely think that that is very important. Very important.
CG Your characters have a tremendous need to believe in fairy tales at the same time they deny them. Donna in dreamer says. “What is this, a friggin fairy tale?”
JPS Right. There’s different things going on. In that case. Donna’s father can answer three questions so she says, “What is this, a friggin fairy tale?” Yes, she says that, the audience laughs, and now they know that it is a fairy tale. That’s how the world looks to me. Especially now.
CG A character in Moonstruck says, “Storybooks are bullshit.”
JPS Yes, storybooks are bullshit. But I know what storybooks they’ve been reading.
CG Loretta in Moonstruck makes her transformation in the Cinderella Beauty Shop. And Five Corners is like a Gothic fairy tale the way Heinz lugs Linda around the Bronx like King Kong.
JPS Right. It says in the script: He looks at her. He loves her. He loves her like King Kong loved Fay Raye.
CG It shows. Also, Heinz dies shot by arrows as if he lives in some urban Sherwood Forest, as if he’s some psychotic Saint Sebastian.
JPS In the place I come from, the real name of it is Archer Street.
CG All these people say, “This isn’t a fairy tale,” but their reality is.
JPS They’re struggling with the fairy-tale aspect. I do think an enormous amount of stuff goes back to the family and that’s why I’ve written about it so much. When you’re a child, you’re afraid you’re going to be killed, you’re afraid you’re going to be starved, you’re not going to be loved. It’s a terrifying thing to be a child. And for the child to survive, he must believe his parents love him. And in the most generous way, characterize extremely hostile acts as acts of love. And the mother, in cultivating this blindness by constantly ridiculing, deriding the child, the child says, “Well, that’s what love looks like.” It fosters a specific kind of blindness. And when they become an adult, when they see the same behavior, they say, “That’s what love looks like so that must be what I want.” Then they’re miserable and they don’t know why. There are lot of things like that. You have them in school, you have them with your parents, you have them in your whole culture, where they say, “This means this.” And it doesn’t. And in order to survive because you’re small, you’re vulnerable, you go along with it. But over a period of time, meaning and feeling are divorced from one another and everything becomes meaningless. You can’t afford to see your mother as she really is. You can’t afford to see yourself as you really are. You can’t afford to see your father as he really is. You can’t afford to see your teachers or your society or anything as it really is. And so in your heart you know you’re a coward and you know you’re blind. Which is a bitch of a combination. If you can go back and deal with the first thing, deal with, “Well, she did this and it did mean something.” If you have the conflict, if you unravel that mask that’s put over your eyes, then you recognize that everything has meaning. Every gesture, every word, every article of clothing, a leaf falling from a tree. Everything has meaning. And once you do, then the world looks exactly like a fairy tale.
CG Are you afraid of being corny?
JPS I think that I have proven that I am not. If I’ve done anything in my life, I have shown that I am not afraid to say incredibly corny things. But, what is corn? Corn is when you say it and it’s not true. It’s not really there so that it’s corn—it’s false, it’s a Hallmark card, it’s a McDonald’s emotion. The golden light on grandma in the AT&T commercial is corn. Do people love people? Do people hate people? Do people say, “I’m lonely, I need someone.” All of these things are basic human emotions.