A Lover’s Guide to American Playwrights—I Married a Playwright

Karen Hartman

 A woman looking at the camera
Playwright Karen Hartman. Photo by Todd London. 

 

I’ve been adding to this column since HowlRound began, writing about playwrights and plays I love. I still haven’t written about the writer I love best, however, even as I’ve paid tribute to her peers. Why should marriage disqualify me from celebrating a playwright I wrote about before we got together, even though I find her work as important as any going? Why do I keep silent about the very plays that led me to her, that got me into this marriage in the first place?

The title began as a punch line. I was speaking at the first conference of the Dramatists Guild of America: “I work alongside playwrights, keep their company. I run with them, fight their fights, celebrate their triumphs, witness and pay tribute to their growing bodies of work.” Then came the joke. “Two and a half weeks ago, I married a playwright. It sounds like the title of a 1960s sitcom, I Married a Playwright, and, of course, life with a playwright is a lot like a 60s sitcom.”

As laugh lines go, it’s lame and not really true. My marriage to playwright Karen Hartman has a lot of Lucy and Ricky in it, but I suspect that’s more because of who we are than what she does for a living. Moreover, as years of marriage to one playwright—literally—and to a profession of playwrights—metaphorically—has shown me: it's no joke.

I want to write about Karen and I want to write about the writers she stands in for when I’m thinking about what it means to make a life writing for the stage. It’s tricky. She is just one writer and yet I see her as representative—especially when I think about the struggles of mid-career. Still, she is just one writer, my own personal resident playwright.

I’ve written about Karen twice, once before we were together and once after. The first time, in 2002, I was asked to introduce her breakthrough plays, Gum and The Mother of Modern Censorship, for publication by Theatre Communications Group (TCG). I began: 

We are in a faraway country, a “fictitious faraway” country. Two girls, veiled head to toe, stand in a garden bounded by a high wall. They share a piece of gum.

This image—the opening moment of Karen Hartman’s dazzling Gum—is a detail writ large, like the ones you find in art books, where a background scene played out in the shadow of a doorway is blown up for inspection. In close-up, the girls’ faces become visible. They are smiling with anticipation. [...] The eye notices the wall that keeps the world out, the clothing that keeps bodies in, the excitement over the gum. Then in a concentrated burst, one of the sisters says, “I have Gum.” 

I dwell on this opening moment as a way of introducing Karen and her plays to you. It contains so much of what I love about her work: its unexpectedness, the striking yet believable oddity of its setting, the charged vibrancy of its lyricism, its fusion of metaphor and reality, and, most important, the sheer physicality of its expression. Here gum is a tangible—chewable—fact. It is also a metaphor that spreads right through the bodies of the sisters who share it—a metaphor for pleasure, release, desire, transgression, America, the forbidden, the secret sexual act. [...]

“The juice of the gum became fire inside me,” Rahmi effuses. “The spirit of the gum was conquering me. I moved in a new rhythm, as if my body chewed.”

…her characters embody their desires in a way that is the province of the born playwrights. Action springs from want in a Karen Hartman play, want from hunger, hunger from the body—bone, viscera, organs, pumping heart. … Hunger brooks no obstacle, and the tension between it and constraint brings to life vibrant theatrical images.

The second time I wrote about Karen Hartman was October, 2006, two years after we’d coupled up. She was completing her seven-year residency at New Dramatists, the place we’d met, and, as artistic director, it was time to pay tribute to her as I did with every “graduating” writer. She was part of an outgoing class of extraordinary talent and (in some ways still) potential, including Bridget Carpenter, Lonnie Carter, Lisa D’Amour, David Lindsay-Abaire, Lynn Nottage, and the late-great John Belluso. I wanted to celebrate her fully, as I did with each of her mates, and I didn’t want my appraisal to be tainted by my ardor. I opted for irony, presenting "A thoroughly objective, unassailably impartial, and staunchly unbiased account of the seven-year residency of New Dramatist Karen Hartman, in which artistic director Todd London catalogues and anatomizes at great length and in painstakingly factual detail Hartman’s contributions and artistic accomplishments without prejudice, conflict of interest, or rose-colored glasses."

This past year Karen received the Playwrights’ Center McKnight National Residency and Commission, a fellowship for a “celebrated national playwright.” I’ve used such awards as occasions for these love notes to writers before; let this be my excuse now. The McKnight signals a rare moment of fruition in the life of a playwright, the end of an endless period of  “emerging.” Emerging is where the support is, but maturity—chops—is what we want, ultimately, from our artists. Maturity is what they work toward, and it’s where we as a field abandon them. In the Playwrights’ Center brochure announcing her award, Karen is quoted as saying, “I want to make a T-shirt that says, ‘Emerged, Bitches.’ I think a lot of people could use that T-shirt.”

But this moment marks a different, harsher emergence as well. She has only in the past couple of years passed through what I think of as “the wilderness of mid-career,” a wasteland I’ve seen swallow too many playwrights. This wilderness lies in wait at the end of emerging playwright grants, post-grad-school commissions, and first Off-Broadway and regional theatre productions, all of which Karen was one of those talented and fortunate enough to enjoy. The wilderness of mid-career isn’t about age. It’s the American wasteland of no-longer-new, no-second-acts, of cultural attention deficit. It’s the time after your champions in literary offices have moved on, after an agent change or two, after the freshest voices of your micro-generation start giving way to the fresh voices of the next.

It’s been the fate of so many of our playwrights—from Tennessee Williams to Edward Albee, from Adrienne Kennedy to the pre-1990 NEA-funded writers who built our nation’s new play development world only to be deserted by it. And then there are the late-bloomer writers we’ve never heard of, because there are few pathways to a career that doesn’t begin in grad school. The wilderness has also been the fate of too many playwrights to count, who could have made our theatre great but instead sparked a golden age of television. When I think of the parade of playwrights who have led or helped build this golden age—on shows like The Wire, Six Feet Under, Friday Night Lights, and The Riches to new pioneers such as House of Cards, Nurse Jackie, and Orange is the New Black, not to mention network franchises like Law & Order, that have been smart enough to raid the playwriting ranks—I try to imagine what kind of renaissance American Theatre might have had if these same writers had been subsidized, sustained, and consistently produced. By contrast, our field is an island of squandered gifts. Wasteland, indeed.

I have heard Marsha Norman talk about playwrights in their early thirties losing the anger that fuels their early work, and, whether or not she’s right, I’ve seen nothing like a systemic attempt to nourish those rage-dwindled artists through the years necessary to identify and stoke other sources. Ours is a culture that favors the new and funds the emergent, and for every artist who, like novelists Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, or Marilynne Robinson, makes it across the badlands from youthful inspiration to mature evolution, there are hundreds who wander a parched landscape or turn to that other, small-screen, talent-hungry medium. I couldn’t write about my beloved when she was wandering thus, or the bone I had to pick with our field for its neglect of artists would feel merely personal. I couldn’t write about Karen then because, while she fought the good fight in relatively good spirits, to me it was just too grim, enraging, wrong. The clouds have parted—despite the fact we moved from Brooklyn to Seattle this year—and so here it is.

Karen began writing plays at fifteen, thanks in large part to a remarkable organization that worked with San Diego kids, The Playwrights Project, founded by a woman who became her friend and mentor, the indefatigable Deborah Salzer. Even before I knew the details, I considered Karen a playwriting prodigy, a description I instinctively applied and use rarely. I use the word prodigy for two reasons: first, her “voice” as a playwright appears to have sprung into being full force, even in her most youthful plays. You can hear it on every page: the vital, diamond-like, whip-smart, impacted dialogue that is unmistakably Hartman. (I think of her contemporary Doug Wright this way, too, an impression confirmed when I read his first teenage attempt for his own New Dramatists graduation, and among newer writers, Christina Anderson.) I once heard someone, maybe Wynton Marsalis, say of Miles Davis that the notes he played contained “more information” than anyone else’s; Karen’s dialogue shares this crammed-full, layered, and deep quality. Even her most recent play, SuperTrue, set on a Catskill porch in the most contemporary milieu—of fertility treatments, virtual design, fortieth birthdays, and obscene income disparity—contains multitudinous worlds reduced to essence.

JANELLE
Do you know the story of Hannah? Samuel, chapter one?

[...]

Hannah’s mouth could not make the words for what she wanted.

Hannah came to the temple and she curled in a little ball on the ground, and she tried to say, I am love, I am unbounded love, my name means grace—allow me a child to love.

She tried to say, my parents are dead and my sister is far. I must increase love.

She tried to say, I am empty, I am open, I am a vessel. Lend me someone who needs me.

But she was so tangled, her yearning so vast, that the sound for baby came out fucked up, maybe like:

A BAAAYAH

[...]

And love was something like:

A LAYYYA

Karen also strikes me as prodigy-like because her characters embody their desires in a way that is the province of the born playwrights. Action springs from want in a Karen Hartman play, want from hunger, hunger from the body—bone, viscera, organs, pumping heart. Donna, the female Don Juan in the farcical seduction-fest that is Donna Wants, scrawls her motto on the backs and legs and arms of her lovers, as she leaves them—“Donna Wants.” When bodies aren’t enough, she skywrites the words from an airplane soaring above the Torrey Pines Glider Park in Southern California. “Donna equals want,” as do all of Karen’s characters.

Emily Morse, artistic director of New Dramatists, once told me that she believes that Karen’s characters proceed from appetite. It’s a great word for what drives them, whether it’s Donna’s appetite for conquest or the hunger for some solid kind of life that animates the immigrant Jews in Going Gone. “When something good walks into your life,” Mama says in that play, “you clutch. You squeeze. Something even middle-good. Don’t wait for better. There is no better. You grab.” 

Hunger brooks no obstacle, and the tension between it and constraint brings to life vibrant theatrical images. There’s a scene in Going Gone between Harry Hartman, a pioneering radio announcer from the early baseball broadcasts—based on Karen’s grandfather—and his son, Hanky. Harry has lost his job and, increasingly sedentary and obese, his health. In lieu of putting him in the hospital for six months to lose 100 pounds, the doctors wire his jaw shut. He begs his son to let him eat. Finally, the only way to feed his father is for Hanky to chew up meat, spit it in a spoon, and feed him, a baby bird in reverse.

She takes her inspiration from the object of a longtime obsession, Georgia O’Keeffe, about whom she’s written more than once. O’Keeffe’s lesson: create beauty from that which is apparently stripped of vitality—bone, rock, desert, the black of a closed door.

These are the polarities of Karen’s work, too: the death-songs of bone, desert, shell, stone, and the life-calls of body, door, sky, road, girl, treasure. These words recur throughout her corpus. You can see how they work—as in O’Keeffe, the dry bone is the source of the twentieth century’s most compelling, even erotic art. The desert yields miraculous vegetation, vegetation that holds water. In Girl Under Grain a girl—like Ruth in the Bible—walking the roads of dust bowl America finds love in the body of an old woman. A young girl in a devout Islamic world discovers ecstasy in a stick of gum and the back seat of a car. A bride in Anatomy, 1968 sprinkles her body with the hair of dead soldiers her doctor husband has carried from Vietnam.

I married a playwright as she began the journey through the wilderness of mid-career, in which, like so many others I’ve seen, she reached maturity as a writer and wrote her finest plays, only to see those plays shelved, neglected, or premiered before getting sucked into the black hole of second productions. Goliath, first heard at her New Dramatists graduation, had public readings all over the country, in festivals and forums, and won a prestigious new play prize. It was read—wait for it—seventeen times. The play, set in Israel’s Gaza strip, keeps flipping the question of “who is David and who is Goliath.”

Karen specializes in fanatics and fundamentalists, and here the fanatic is a delusional teenage boy who over-identifies with his ancient namesake and sees himself as a conqueror who will save his righteous followers from the Goliath that is secular Israel, currently trying to relocate Gazan settlers. Always, Karen offers a woman’s-eye view of the world of power. Here, a Palestinian woman and her soon-to-be-former Israeli employer make an illegal pact to preserve a hard-won flower garden in Gaza. And, for the first time on stage that I know of, we meet a young Ethiopian Jewish woman, also a soldier.

Goliath, part of a national spate of civic forums on the horrific occupation on the West Bank, though workshopped in Los Angeles, has never been fully produced. Here’s the thing: a playwright never really knows why a play doesn’t get produced. (Nor does her spouse.)  I have always suspected it was the sad timing of the play following the Rachel Corrie debacle at the New York Theatre Workshop in New York, and that, while  seventeen theatres saw fit to use the play to show their political chutzpah, no one really wanted to step into the shit that is Israeli politics, especially with a play written by an American Jew. (Ari Roth’s recent firing as artistic director of Theatre J in DC, on the grounds of “insubordination,” adds evidence to this theory.) The producer of one of Goliath’s public readings, the head of a flagship theatre, publically stated that we’ve had enough plays about Israel from Jewish writers, though I confess I can’t think of any.   

The fate that befell Karen’s next play is sad-absurd in a different way. Goldie, Max & Milk, a heart-stopping collision between the lesbian single-mom of a newborn and an orthodox Jewish lactation consultant, seemed like a new dawn. The dialogue is characteristically crafted and crystalline, but it’s more accessible than Karen’s younger writing. The rhythms are brightly comic, despite the crisis of an attempted suicide by the consultant’s closeted gay daughter.

GOLDIE
The let down reflex is a miracle but it’s not guaranteed. You must work for what God gave you.

MAX
I don’t believe in God.

GOLDIE
I don’t believe in single homosexual parenting. And yet, you exist.

MAX
Help me.

After Goliath’s long stretch of also-ran nonproduction, Goldie had three theatres lined up for a National New Play Network rolling world premiere. Then one of the theatres folded and with it the NNPN opportunity. The play premiered in a strong production at the exciting Florida Stage, a mid-sized company with a long commitment to new plays. Seeing Karen’s joy at the full realization of an exuberant work written at the height of her powers—and after the birth of our son—was a high point in my playwright-marriage.

Then Florida Stage went suddenly bankrupt. Karen and the other three playwrights who’d been produced there that season, went unpaid, their royalties poured, instead, into electric bills, actor fees, and the subscription brochure for a next season that would never happen. Her earnings were supposed to pay for our small wedding and honeymoon, but in the grand tradition of playwrights everywhere, we accrued debt instead.

How can a class of artists be so wishful, despite what nearly all their experience tells them? I don’t know how they keep on writing. I do know why they leave the theatre for television, where they have the company of other writers, assured income, clarity of outcome, audience, and a chance for advancement and, even, the power to lead. I do know why they struggle with bitterness. William Inge, one of the first New Dramatists, once refused a request for donation with a vitriolic letter that he’d never do anything to encourage another writer on to such an inhuman career path.

I married a playwright, though, who wants to write plays and, so kept on keeping on, despite the lack of second productions, the feints and evasions of the “deciders,” the inability to rub two nickels together on a regular basis, the death of her greatest champion, and years spent on three musicals and two starry international collaborations that came to nothing but a dribble of advance money.

She keeps writing. Day after day. As in the old children’s chant, when you come to the wilderness you can’t go over it, can’t go around it, gotta go through it. And then came a new kind of opportunity and, with it, an epiphany. A commission from Chicago Shakespeare came with a trove of letters from the Krakow ghetto circa 1941–3, written from a family that would be dead soon after. It led her to two generations of children from the sole survivor of that family, the man to whom the letters were addressed, and to another survivor, a man in his late eighties who at twelve, had been saved by a stranger. Karen’s longtime hero, Studs Terkel, had been on her mind, especially when, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, she began to reconceive her role as playwright: interview, document, listen.

And as she tried out a new approach to writing, some new doors opened. A residency with People’s Light and Theatre bought Karen a year to observe a Philadelphia treatment court aimed at getting women out of prostitution and drug addiction. She travelled back and forth from Brooklyn to meet with the recurring cast of that court. An exciting collaboration between Yale Rep and the artistic director of Long Wharf now has her interviewing firefighters, lawyers, and journalists involved with a race discrimination case in New Haven that was decided by the Supreme Court. And with the McKnight, a chance, finally, to make a play from the experience of her own father, a pediatric hematologist whose young hemophiliac patients died of AIDS-tainted blood in the 80s. For now there’s more than enough work, and an expansive sense of possibility and, with it, creative joy. She is married to a hopeful skeptic, though, who has seen how ready our profession stands to disappoint. Once out of the mid-career wilderness, is it possible to remain out?

We live in boom-times for women playwrights in the US. In many ways, they define the present and, so, the future of our theatre. Just as writers (and often teachers) like Maria Irene Fornés, Marsha Norman, Paula Vogel, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Marlene Mayer made new things possible for Karen and her contemporaries, so has she, along with Nottage, D’Amour, Diana Son, Kia Corthron, Melissa James Gibson, and others—made the current explosion of artistic ambition and difference possible for those coming close behind them. I want theatre to stay possible for these amazing playwrights. I want them to stay.

Maybe I mythologize, but the experience of this playwright I love is rich with the symbolic, and it mirrors the mythology of other writers I know—the ecstasy of discovering voice, the heady hopes of emergence, the long wilderness trek, the shift that (for the lucky) clears the way for the new, the hunger that drives an artist to “yes,” despite the world of “no.” The heart is the body’s hardest working muscle. It’s also the most active organ in a Karen Hartman play.

To marry a playwright is to marry the disappointment of theatre itself. To marry a playwright is to marry a solitary artist whose primary desire is to get in a room with other people. It’s to marry someone who finds her voice by finding the voices of others. To marry a playwright is to marry someone who creates drama, and not just on the page, who thrives in extremity and feels at home with conflict. It’s to marry someone who is, in turn, married to a project body and soul for years and then gives it to others to briefly dally with before moving on.

The playwriting life is ill-advised, maybe, but how else to find that full expression of self coupled with the communal effort that makes life in theatre a joy? Except when it’s not. To love a playwright is to revel in the courageous, clear-eyed engagement with the world, to writhe helpless on the sidelines when the world shows its hideous stripes, and to be astonished by one of the most Quixotic expressions of imaginative freedom we’ve got.

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Todd, You've enticed me with this intriguing fairytale, where the enchanted princess wanders through the wilderness and bad encounters, searching for the rewarding golden prize. Along the way she finds a loving prince-- and like most fairytales, there's a happy ending, inspiring the rest of us who follow her to keep dreaming and searching for our own happy ending . . . .

I love the candor and the detail of this tribute, which is also a fantastic little piece of storytelling and a compelling gesture of advocacy. Also love the vivid and reportorial detail with which it conveys the contours of one specific playwriting career with all the incremental triumphs that come with talent and all the staggering disappointments spurred by circumstances beyond one's control.

What a lovely tribute to a living, breathing playwright (and playwrights). I hope Mr. London gets an opportunity to explore more in depth at some future time the impact of the end of the "pre 90's" federal support of playwrights and "developmental programs"...

One of life's mysteries is why there aren't more productions of Karen's beautifully wrought plays. Karen is an equally dedicated teacher, and one of the most astute global citizens. This desert wasteland you speak of is a parade of fine writers in it for the long haul, with the mirage of water ongoing, and some fierce drive to stay the course. As Erik, another fabulously talented playwright and gifted teacher writes in the comments, (and I paraphrase and riff) what if we don't stick to the script of what careers look like and re-envision what our own definitions of fulfillment are -- what then? Every playwright needs a Todd London-sized champion, someone to recognize our beating hearts and whisper --or yell-- your words matter, I love you, keep going.

So beautifully said, Todd. And Winter. How can we expand our notion of fulfillment and make work thrive, produce and support each other in untraditional ways? Karen's work is a beating heart that needs to live, to be seen and heard, to effect. I wrack my brain on how to turn that tide.

What a gorgeous piece of writing and a beautiful tribute to Karen and playwrights in and out of the wilderness. Thank you, Todd.

yes. if no second act then skip act structures and live beyond frame in pure action... thanks, karen and todd!

Thanks for also giving a shout out to the amazing Deborah Salzer and Playwrights Project who started me as a playwright at 15 as well!