Interview with playwright Carlos Murillo on The Javier Plays
Intrigued by the finding of forgotten playwright Javier C.’s writing, Carlos Murillo developed a trilogy of plays that scrambles notions of authorship, authenticity, and American individualism. Both madcap medicine show and literary memorial, the recently published Javier Plays presents a bold move of a book with original essays and images laced throughout.
Murillo’s publisher, 53rd State Press, devotes itself to the publication of performance texts and expanded performance documentation. Carlos and I pre-gamed for his book launch party with 53rd State in New York City by talking shop over an e-mail exchange.
Sarah Matusek: What was the origin story between you and 53rd State Press?
Carlos Murillo: I’ve long admired 53rd State Press for putting out books that document boundary-defying works of theatre and dance. The books themselves seem to wrestle with the question: how do you document the ephemeral aspects of a work that are not evident in just reading the text? I love that.
Having knowledge of their history of doing this, I came to them with this crazy project—a very large book that goes beyond an ordinary three-play anthology to function as a kind of hybrid novel/art monograph packed with images and essays on top of the plays themselves.
I also appreciate the meticulous design of the books in the 53rd State catalogue—I wanted to work with a publisher who apprehended the importance that the book’s overall design was as important as the words contained within the covers, that we were aiming to create a fully integrated experience.
Sarah: How did your time spent cooking up The Javier Plays during your seven-year New Dramatists residency shape your writing practice for subsequent projects?
Carlos: The Javier Plays in many ways defined my residency at New Dramatists. I started the project at the beginning of my residency in 2007. The last thing I did at New Dramatists before I graduated was a weeklong Creativity Fund workshop where we looked at all three plays and treated them as a single contiguous work. This was hugely helpful in creating the book concept and defining what needed to be done to each play to create a continuity they lacked, as they were initially written as stand-alone pieces. It also shaped my thinking about how the essays, images, and other supplementary material would work in the book. I was very adamant about wanting it to be less a traditional play anthology, and more of a total world that is as close to a novel or monograph about Javier as a play collection can get.
Sarah: You refer to yourself as both an archaeologist and “a curator of the small museum” Javier left behind with his body of work. If someone were to spin your life into an artwork, what choice artifacts would you leave behind for them to un-riddle?
Carlos: That’s a bit of a painful question. As I write in my introduction of the book, in 2007 I lost the vast majority of my personal items when my home office in Chicago was destroyed in an incident involving lots of water. I lost my entire collection of books, correspondence with people prior to 2007, dozens of notebooks and handwritten drafts of earlier works, pieces of furniture that were endowed with a lot of personal history, and on and on. So my museum would have a gaping hole of my life before turning thirty-six. Losing all my stuff did change my relationship to things, the impulse to collect them, and keep them in one place for whatever reason. I’ve grown to appreciate the ephemeral—and so my attachment to things has lessened.
If I had to leave anything behind for some future artist or scholar to make heads or tails of, I think I’d want to purposefully be confounding: birthday cards from my children; an old blazer I wear frequently that has in its pockets random things like business cards, play programs, receipts, loose change, post-it notes with illegible jottings; a notebook I used to keep (now lost, but maybe this person could find it) where I kept long lists of the worst possible titles for plays I will never write; the envelopes where I accumulate my yearly tax receipts; the giant pile of papers in my office where I keep scenes my students write in class; coffee mugs I received as gifts; and maybe the contents of my sock drawer.
Oh, there’s also that unremarkable stone I found at a reggae festival in Burlington, Vermont in 1988—I still have it. It was hugely significant at the time to the people I was with, but I am probably the only person who remembers it.
I like repetition/restarting because as information accumulates, the meaning of what you saw before changes, and so it’s illuminating to revisit things from the past to help reframe it.
Sarah: I was struck by a certain parallel between the Javier trilogy and part of your play Mimesophobia—a character reconstructs her murdered sister’s diary much like you tasked yourself with reanimating Javier’s body of work. Do you find yourself repurposing moveable parts of some writing projects for others?
Carlos: That’s a super interesting question—I never drew a connection between what I was doing in Mimesophobia and The Javier Plays. But yes—though I like to think that the vocabularies I use in each play are unique to the story I am trying to tell, there are definitely things that travel from and are repurposed for one work to another. I would say it’s mostly unconscious, but I think all writers have a set of fixed preoccupations that are evident across a body of work.
I do think the idea of seeking meaning through a reconstruction of materials left behind comes up a lot. I have an early play called Schadenfreude, which is about Elisabeth Nietzsche and her brother, the philosopher Friedrich. Elisabeth was an unapologetic and hugely dangerous revisionist of her bother’s and her own history, and that’s one of the themes of the play.
My most recent play, Killing of a Gentleman Defender, is all about reconstruction: a man who was hired to work with inner city youth on an ill-fated play about violence in Chicago is forced to reconstruct a play that no one ever saw from YouTube videos of the rehearsal process. The play he’s making with the youth is about a violent act that was inflicted on a soccer player in Colombia in the mid-90s who made an error in a World Cup game that ended up costing his life. So there’s a lot of scenes with staged replays, which are framed by this man watching and editing replays of the rehearsals that were documented on video. He’s driven to do it because the story they created would disappear entirely from the world otherwise. It’s life or death with him because the price is high for both him and the young people he was working with to make the never-seen play. It was a hugely defining experience for everyone in the room, but if there is no witness other than the participants, did it really exist in the first place? And would the experience have any meaning without witnesses?
I aim to create a densely rich imaginative experience for the person reading it— I would like for them to “see” the world of The Javier Plays not as something that unfolds on stage with actors playing parts, but as real people who might have actually existed, living and acting in the same world as some of the historical subjects and minor characters in the plays.
Sarah: There’s an engine at work beneath your plays that sometimes moves forward by restarting, or by repeating certain images that gain importance over time. A Thick Description of Harry Smith (Vol. 1), for example, begins with three “part ones.” How does this recalibration function for you on the page and on the stage?
Carlos: I like repetition/restarting because as information accumulates, the meaning of what you saw before changes, and so it’s illuminating to revisit things from the past to help reframe it. I also like that stage time is different than real, sequential time; repeating and reliving events is a real gift that you can do in theatre that’s sadly not available in life where we’re confined to the present and memory and its inherent unreliability.
How this pertains to Harry Smith in particular—part of the “drama” of the show is seeing whether or not they can actually get to the end of the damn thing because they’re spinning so many plates simultaneously—the multiple storylines, the vast number of characters, the music, the fact that the whole thing is actually happening as a live radio play and all the images, places, worlds that exist in the play are an act of conjuring—they exist purely in the audience’s imagination. So the audience watches the band tell this story, but they are seeing something else entirely in their heads.
I also think Harry Smith as a person is a butterfly that is impossible to pin down and see in his totality—part of the strategy of having multiple beginnings reflects myself being confounded with how to tell his story. It needed to be completely unreliable, speculative, self-contradictory…I mean where do you even start? So the way it’s put together is as much if not more about the act of figuring out how to tell his story as it is about having a neatly defined thing to say about him.
Sarah: Our relationship with a playwright can remain purely literary if we never see that writer’s work on stage. Even your encounter with Javier bloomed from the literal pieces of paper he left behind. Considering your own readers, what experience do you hope to gift them on the other side of the page?
Carlos: That’s a scary question…First and foremost, I aim to create a densely rich imaginative experience for the person reading it— I would like for them to “see” the world of The Javier Plays not as something that unfolds on stage with actors playing parts, but as real people who might have actually existed, living and acting in the same world as some of the historical subjects and minor characters in the plays. There is a continuity of the world between Javier’s and his cohorts, and the world of Harry Smith, Daniel James, and Richard Nixon; so much that we end up questioning what we actually know or believe about those figures. In other words: if we believe x to be real and y to be real, what happens when we learn that x is not real? Does it make y more or less real? And if the reality of y is in question, what does that do to our own perceptions of reality? I think there is an inherent pleasure in fucking with reality that way that hopefully readers take as much pleasure in experiencing as I did in making it.
The second thing I would say is that I hope readers will consider their own museums after encountering the “museum” contained in the pages of The Javier Plays. I hope they take the advice of the Curator in Harry Smith when she challenges the audience with the following thought experiment:
A thought experiment:
Tonight when you go home to your Tepee.
Pretend it’s not you that lives there,
That the stuff surrounding you
Is the detritus of someone else’s life.
Walk through the rooms as you’d
walk through a museum
Could you infer a life from the accumulation of things?
Would the life in any way resemble the one you lived?
Could you extract anything resembling meaning?
Perhaps doing this will shift their insides a little, make them ask, “What the hell am I doing here?” and in doing so, perhaps live better lives.
Lastly, I sometimes wonder if the book is a preferable form to experience these plays than witnessing them on stage. A friend who recently bought the book posted a picture of it on my Facebook wall after he finished reading it. The volume lay on a bar with an empty Guinness pint glass and an empty shot glass. I wrote a joke comment: “Drove you to drink, eh?” to which he replied: “What else can one do, except maybe fantasize about the possibility of seeing these things on stage?!” Maybe it’s better that way.