- Tim Brown
Marshall W Mason Interview - PART II
Erma: Didn’t you direct Lanford’s “Balm in Gilead” at La Mama?
Marshall: At La Mama, once I started doing shows at La Mama with the big stage and all that, you know "Balm in Gilead" had 33 characters, or whatever 38, I forget, a whole bunch of them. So we had to have a larger space. Then we followed that with "The Sand Castle." "The Sand Castle" had been very successful and then we brought that back to the Cino. It happened sometimes when a show was very successful at La Mama, it would follow up with a longer run, another week at the Cino. Or vice-versa.
Erma: So Ellen and Joe were ...Marshall: Very good friends. She adored him, he adored her. There was competition in a way between people who were Cino-ites or LaMama-ites. Most of us went back and forth pretty easily and there was no competition between Ellen and Joe, at all. Joe, in fact, directed one of the first plays at La Mama. He directed "One Arm" by Tennessee Williams.
Marshall: We were talking about Lanford ... I met Lanford at the Cino. I had been away, after I had done a whole bunch of plays at the Cino and was sort of one of their main directors, along with Neil Flanagan. Then I took a year off to go into professional theater. "Little Eyolf" being my professional debut. After a year of doing this, I read in the Voice about this new play at the Cino called "So Long at the Fair". Michael Smith wrote a wonderful review about it, saying there is such a coup de theater in this play, you've got to see it. So I went on the basis of that review and caught the last performance. I just barely caught it. It was really wonderful.
What I was particularly served by, was not the play, the play was a nice little play, it's a fun play. It did have a wonderful coup at the end, a girl who's been pursuing a boy is accidentally smothered by him. Then to get rid of the body, he folds her up in the sofa.
That was amazing because you're sitting there going, "You can't do that, you can't fold somebody up in a sofa, they would you know…" Then of course at the end, they unfolded her, and she pops out and takes her bow. I guess you can do it, if you do it right. It was a wonderful, one of those plays, which the Cino really specialized in, reality and fiction overlapping in a way that you say, "Can this really happen?"
Anyway Cino specialized in breaking down that illusion and reality kind of. Of course, you're right on top of the actors, so no acting is involved, it's real. It has to be real because you're right there. It's like acting in closeup all the time, in movie terms. So anyway, I saw "So Long at the Fair", but what impressed me was not the play, although I enjoyed the play, but what impressed me was the performance by this young actor named Michael Warren Powell, who was just better than anybody I'd seen at the Cino, so far.
He was amazingly charming and sexy and alive and vulnerable, just a terrific performance. So then I saw that there was another new play by Lanford Wilson at the Cino and again with Michael Warren Powell. I went back to see it, basically because I wanted to see Michael again. I liked the play so I was curious. Of course that play turned out to be "Home Free". Although Michael was really good, the scales fell away from my eyes because I realized that I'd seen a brilliant new playwright, best playwright in my view, in terms of writing, since Tennessee Williams.
Tennessee, as you know Erma, had been a really important influence in my life as a director, going back to my high school years. It was Tennessee Williams that inspired me more than anybody else, and his director, Elia Kazan. So when I discovered Lanford, and saw how brilliantly he wrote, and as I said, only Tennessee can be talked about in the same sentence with Lanford as far as poetic dialogue is concerned.
Erma: I agree.
Marshall: They are on a level nobody else has touched. So the second time I saw a Lanford Wilson play, it was the play that impressed me. This play was directed by Neil Flanagan, "Home Free". It was really, really a charming play. Then I saw the next one they did "The Madness of Lady Bright". Neil himself starred in, rather than directing it. Of course in the long run "The Madness of Lady Bright" really broke all kinds of ground. It was the first play really about homosexuality, a drag queen. It was groundbreaking in that sense. It was also stylistically amazing because we were in the mind of this aging queen. There was a boy and a girl who played all the other roles and just, in terms of form and what have you, it was completely original. There had been nothing, which I know of, like it. It was way ahead of its time, both in theme and format.
Erma: This was in 1962?
Marshall: Somewhere in there – It must have been in 1963.
Then in the summer of 64 was [sic] they brought back "Home Free" in a new production. This one directed by William Archibald, who was a member of the Actor's Studio. Who had written "The Turn of the Screw", the movie. What was it called? "The Innocents" it was called, the movie was called "The Innocents", but it was based on Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw". He was a big deal. He was a famous person, as it were, from the Actor's Studio and he brought with him Joanna Miles, who was also a member of The Studio. Still to play opposite Michael Warren Powell. So I came back to see the second production of it, and all the magic had been stripped away from the play. It was done in a very Actor's Studio-esque like …Gorky.
Erma: How so, was it like Gorky?
Marshall: Very peeling wallpaper, dark stained wallpaper. It was an ugly, tawdry set. The earlier play had had a kaleidoscope as its central metaphor and that had been done away with. It was now replaced with a Ferris wheel that they were building. Lanford had made a number of amendments in the play. The biggest one was that when I saw the play the first time, it was so charming and so inviting. It was this relationship between this boy and this girl who were clearly very much in love and who had this wonderful, magical world that they created together. They were threatened by the outside world. There was a horrible landlady named Mrs. Pruneface that they were terrified of and being young and in New York and worried about how you're going to pay the rent was that sort of thing. It's very real to imagine that outside that door was a horrible world, inside was this lovely, beautiful, wonderful, loving place where this boy and girl had this wonderful relationship.
She was pregnant, and by the end of the play, she begins to have the baby. Something’s going wrong, and she tries to get Lawrence to go out to get a doctor, and of course, we learn at that point that he is really not just confined to the room by choice but because he is agoraphobic. He will not go out and he doesn't go out. She's the only one that goes out. At the very end of the play, we discover that they are brother and sister. Of course when that bomb hit, the audience goes, "Oh." It was a shocking, shocking thing. Because you'd been sucked in and you love these people and now you discover they're brother and sister. It's incest. It's really quite shocking.
Well Lanford decided in the re-write that he was going to do away with that, so the new production, in the opening lines of the play, first thing they say is "We're brother and sister." Right at the beginning you discovered that.
So the second production, for me, was a big disappointment. I had loved Neil's production of it so much. I really didn't care for the kind of stripped down, ugly realism of the second production. It was at this time that Joe Cino came over and said to me, "So how'd you like the play?" "Well I didn't like it as much as the first production." He said, "Oh have you told Lanford that?" I said, "I never met Lanford." He said, "You haven't met Lance?" "No." "Come here." He took me across the room, sitting over by the jukebox, was this angular faced guy with sharp features and a floppy brown hair that flopped down over his forehead.
We didn't have long hair at that point, you understand. This is 64, so the amazing thing about Lanford was his incredible blue eyes that stuck out in front of him like Paul Newman or something. His eyes were startling. They made you uneasy to look into them, because they were so brilliant and piercing. So Joe introduced us and Lanford of course was very impressed that "Oh you've seen my plays." "Yes, yes, I've seen all of them." "Oh you saw 'Home free'?" The first one." "Yes I did." "Don't you think I've improved it enormously?" I said, "No, I think you've ruined it."
Erma: I love that. And he still talked to you?
Marshall: (Laughter) So that's how we met. I explained to him that I thought having the incest at the end was really a stunning revelation and having it at the beginning you saw the play through different eyes. Instead of seeing a wonderful lovely couple that you were drawn in by, you saw a sick relationship as it were, if you want to call incest sick. I think most of us sort of feel creepy about it anyway. He said, "I wasn't writing a play about incest. I don't want the audience to be shocked by it. What I'm writing about is the way people create illusions for themselves in order to avoid reality. That's what I want people to focus on, not the fact that they're brother and sister. The fact that they're brother and sister is just one of the elements of why they are not facing reality." "Yeah, I understand," but I said, "Lanford, that's like using an atomic bomb to defoliate palm trees or something. It's really too much."
Erma: It becomes very hard to get beyond that.
Marshall: So our first meeting was one of disagreement right away, but it didn't seem to bother him very much. Subsequently, I continued to come back and hang out at the Cino. Meanwhile I had done the Ibsen play, off Broadway of "Little Eyolf". Had my professional debut and my New York Times review and what have you. So I was now back to the Cino. Not only seeing Lanford's plays but also I began to do work there myself. Again. Claris [Nelson] had a play that we did called "Neon in the Night". By then, not only had I now met Lanford and Michael but ...We were all hanging out together all the time, but also there was a new person there who was a poet. I mean a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant poet, right up there with beat poets, Ginsberg or what have you. I thought he was better than Ginsberg. I thought he was the best poet I had ever encountered. He had really amazing poetry and his name was Robert Patrick. At that time, he was named Bob Patrick O’Connor. Bob O'Connor kind of became the host at the Cino. He would seat people when they came in the door and all that. He saw Claris' "Neon in the Night". He really liked my production very much. He had seen, of course, Lanford's work. He thought, "You know, I'm a poet, but let me try writing a play", so he wrote a play called "The Haunted Host" and because he admired my production of Claris' play so much, he asked me to do it. I said, "Yes." I loved the play.
It was a play about an older writer who has just lost a lover, his lover's just committed suicide within the past year. He is visited by a young man from the Midwest who is a want-to-be writer. What the young writer doesn't realize is that he looks very much like the suicide. So he's the ghost that haunts the haunted host. It's a lovely play. I thought the best casting I could do of this is to let Bob play it himself. Because he is a writer and he knows how to deliver these comic lines and to snap it and all. Nobody could play it better than the author. So I cast Bob.
Then for the young writer, I thought there was a young man, hanging around the Cino, who had been Lanford's boyfriend and his name was Bill Hoffman. I said, "Let Bill play the young writer." So that was the cast, William Hoffman and Robert Patrick playing in "The Haunted Host". Lanford designed the poster, and I directed and it was really terrific. It really was a super, super show, Bob's first play.
Up next PART III