Stages of reality 

Playwright John Guare builds a bold world

The story goes that playwright John Guare, a notorious conversationalist, once overheard an Ivy League dean recounting a story of a young imposter who duped the dean into thinking he was actor Sidney Poitier’s son. Years later, that cocktail tidbit turned into the inspiration for Guare’s famous play, Six Degrees of Separation, which was later made into a movie.

The House of Blue Leaves didn’t come about quite as naturally. Guare’s first play—which is being staged by UM’s Department of Drama/Dance beginning Tuesday, April 22, with a lecture by Guare himself Friday, April 25—was hailed in 1971 for its beatnik sensibilities and poignant chaos. Set in Queens, N.Y., during the Pope’s 1965 visit, the cast features wacky nuns, a GI en route to Vietnam, a zookeeper with Hollywood aspirations and a schizophrenic named Bananas, and the plot includes a headlines-seeking assassination attempt. A 1986 Broadway revival of the orchestrated anarchy won four Tony Awards.

On the eve of his first visit to Montana, Guare spoke with the Indy about how The House of Blue Leaves came about, how it’s changed over 35 years and how the playwright continues to approach his work. 

Indy: This play debuted long before many of the UM actors were probably born. How has The House of Blue Leaves aged over the years?

Guare: Something very odd happened. When it opened in 1971, people would say, “Where do you get these cockeyed ideas? How can you imagine something as nutty as someone trying to kill the Pope?” In 1981, 10 years later, I was in Times Square and I saw on the zipper going around on the news: “The Pope was shot.” My first response was to say, “I wonder what this dose of reality is going to do to my play?” It was playing at the Berkshires at the time and I went up to see what that dose of reality did, and what was extraordinary was how somebody actually trying to kill the Pope—that very real thing—changed the audience’s laughter. What had been kooky and far-out suddenly became I understand the truth of these people’s problems.

Indy: You say the laughter was still there. Is the play still a comedy, or does it have added weight now?

Guare: When I was writing in the ’60s and ’70s, a comedy was something with funny lines and a serious play was something with no funny lines. I feel the play is just the play. I don’t know that I ever wanted it to fit in one or the other.

Indy: Part of what makes House of Blue Leaves so popular is how its themes—fame, religion, politics—still resonate, particularly the fame aspect.

Guare: Back then, in 1971, it was before things like People magazine, before all of that. The play is about saying, “What do I have to do in this world to be noticed, to gain fame?” And I think that element of the play just keeps growing and growing. There are 100 million more people in the world now—what do you do to get noticed? I mean, we have talent-free celebrities who only need to have breakdowns for us to follow them. This is the culture we live in.

Indy: How would the play be different if you wrote it today?

Guare: I don’t think I could. I wrote it when I was in my 20s. I had hitchhiked to Egypt, I was trying to find myself and find out what to write about. When I got to Egypt, there was a big letter from my parents at American Express that said, “You think you’ve gone out to find the world, well, you’re mistaken. The world came to us today—the Pope came here.” They wrote me this long letter about just how much the Pope visiting meant to them, and I thought, “I found my subject.” I started writing the play that day in Egypt in 1966.

Indy: How long did it take you to write it?

Guare: The first act was written very quickly. The second act took me five years. At the time, I didn’t have the technical skills to handle all those people [nine] on stage.

Indy: You’re coming out to speak at the President’s Lecture Series. What will you cover in “How to Read a Play: The Theater and Society in the 21st Century?”

Guare: I’ll tell you something, the subtitle—that was sort of added by the University because I couldn’t think of what to call it. I’m just going to talk about how a playwright puts a play together. Most people don’t know how to read a play—they think it’s just dialogue because it’s not like a novel where everything is filled in for you. I hope to give some idea of a playwright at work, to talk…Wow, it sounds really boring.

Indy: Not to suck up, but I’m interested.

Guare: So someone will be there. I like to know how artists work, how writers write. Well, this is just this writer telling how he writes. It’s about the tools that a playwright uses. It still sounds boring, though, doesn’t it? 

Indy: If it’s about how you write, then tell me what you’ve learned since The House of Blue Leaves and that five-year struggle to finish the second act, and how it impacts your work now.

Guare: I hate to repeat myself when I work. I keep trying to paint myself into corners so I’ll have to learn new tools to get myself out. My new play [set to debut early next year] has 55 speaking parts in it, so maybe I’ve grown a little bit. And I like to write about things that surprise me, to build a world where you say, “Oh my God, how can I put that world onto a stage and make a room full of strangers say, ‘Yes, I understand your fascination with it.’” I like to build an elaborate world and then say, “Now, how am I going to fit into that?”

The House of Blue Leaves opens at the Masquer Theatre Tuesday, April 22, at 7:30 PM, and continues through May 3. $11/$10 seniors and students. John Guare speaks at the President’s Lecture Series Friday, April 25, at 8 PM in the University Center’s North Ballroom. Free.
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