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An Interview with the Playwright of Deathbed Mark Schultz
January 31, 2008

Written by Marguerite Daniels

Opposite Photo:
Clifton Guterman and Brandon Miller
in Mark Shultz's Deathbed
Photo Credit: Aaron Epstein

Read Marguerite Daniels' review of Deathbed

Question about coming up with the idea of Deathbed:

Mark Schultz: I had just finished something that had a lot of speeches in it, a play called the Gingerbread House, which is very, very, very speech heavy. And at the same time I had read and reread some Carol Churchill and, you know, Carol Churchill is one of the best. I think she’s just amazing. She wrote Far Away which is about forty-five miinutes, and A Number which is probably a little longer, and This is a Chair. They are all gorgeous, but they are all very short. And they are short not in the sense that you feel short changed, but they’re short in the sense of that she is so economical with her use of language, in her development of plot, and of story and situations, and structure. That it’s just amazing. They’re diamonds. They just shine so much. And I wanted to see if I could do something similar; if I could set myself a goal of not writing heavy speeches. If I could set myself a goal of trying to be as economical as possible, and also as quick as possible. I didn’t want to second guess. Because once I sit and write dialogue and I think about what they are saying and I expand and expand and expand. And some of them are speaking in monologues to each other or in very hefty speeches. I wanted to say what I wanted them to say as characters with the least amount of intrusion from me until it came to the point where I had to go back and craft it. At first thought, that was a lovely idea, but I think ultimately any thought is a lovely idea. Or rather not any thought, but whatever works is the best idea.

Emily Donahoe, Ross Bickell, and Clifton Guterman in Mark Shultz's Deathbed
Photo Credit: Aaron Epstein

At the time there seemed to be a lot of plays about middle class, white people with a lot of money, who suffered with things that in a broader scheme of things did not seem to be particularly noteworthy. They’re suffering but in a larger scheme of things it’s not Darfur, it’s not Bosnia. It’s not like global hunger, but it’s treated like it’s the end of the world. But really there is a part of me that thinks it’s the end of the world because we don’t actually think about death. We don’t like thinking about death. We don’t like thinking we are mortal and we’re going to die. So it does feel like the end of the world. And to an extent it is the end of our small subjective world, but there is a much larger world to which we belong that in ways demands that we look beyond our subject world, and engage in something larger. A lot of those plays seem to be characterized by people with diseases, and the cancer play has become a big cliché. And I thought let’s see what would happen if I tried to engage this cliché a bit.

The first versions of the play were very sarcastic, and very judgmental and condemnatory, but as I was writing it, it became clearer and clearer that you can’t sustain that level of sarcasm and still be human. You can’t create a work of art based on sarcasm. Because sarcasm is based on disdain and disdain on hatred, and I don’t think those things can go together to create something like that. An extremity of feeling certainly can. But ultimately I think that a piece of writing is a love letter to world that could care less, and that you have to write the letter. You write the letter that loves even the world that doesn’t care whether or not you love it. You have to commit to the suffering of rejection of the unrequited lover. And I realized I was writing the wrong thing, and I started focusing on every character’s subjective experience of their own suffering and it became, in a way, an oddly redemptive experience, because at the end of it I didn’t have the same feelings about the play as I did at the beginning.

I realized that it’s something that James Baldwin wrote in Giovanni’s Room, it’s not a direct quote, but he wrote that the most cruel thing that you can do to someone else is to belittle their suffering and I realized that that was the enterprise in which I was engaged in the beginning. But by making the play about how to articulate your own suffering in the face of someone else’s pain, then it became more human in the process and I realized what those plays do, how they work and that they are actually valuable, to the extent that they are valuable. So I finished up the play with that in mind, and cancer seemed like a great metaphor for a lot of other things that came out in the play.

Love, an all consuming love that one character has for another that he tries to extract himself from, but ultimately he can’t do it. Memory, there is a character that is really burden by his memories of a horrible past that he had. Death, and cancer, and mortality, as well as betrayal. And all those things meet at a crossroads were all these people are trying somehow to articulate, “I need something from you! I need something!” and all they would get back is that “My suffering is greater!” And a lot of the conversations in the play go back and forth with that idea until a couple characters give that up and are willing to suffer with, to have compassion. They’re willing to be vulnerable. I think that is the core of the play, the willingness to suffer. Some characters give up needing to be comforted, or wanting to be comforted and they are willing to suffer with rather than suffer alone.

Mark Schultz

Recent plays include: Everything Will Be Different or A Brief History of Helen of Troy (SoHo Rep / True Love Productions) for which he won the 2005 Oppenheimer Award and the 2006 Kesselring Prize; Deathbed (Apparition Productions); Polar Bear (Birmingham Rep, UK); Gift (Rising Phoenix Rep / NY International Fringe Festival). Everything Will Be Different, was produced by the Actors Touring Company with Theatre Royal Plymouth under the title A Brief History of Helen of Troy and was seen at The Drum Theater Royal, Plymouth; Birmingham Rep, Birmingham; The Traverse, Edinburgh; Soho Theater, London. Other plays include The Gingerbread House; Magic Kingdom; Brightness. Readings and workshops: MCC Theater; The Vineyard; Rattlestick; MTC; New York Theater Workshop; The Public; Studio Dante; Woolly Mammoth. He was selected for a 2006 Royal Court Residency. His work is published by Oberon, Dramatists Play Service, and Smith & Kraus and had been featured in Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope magazine. He is a founding member and artistic associate of Theater Mitu, a member of Rising Phoenix Rep, and coordinator of MCC Theater’s Playwrights’ Coalition. He holds an MFA in playwriting from Columbia University and represented by CAA.


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