J. Holtham interview, with Kathleen Dennehey
Care to expound on the opening quote? Are you a bible reader or a quote seeker by habit? Do quotes inspire you or did you write the play first, then seek a quote?
I am a quote user. I use a lot of epigrams and dedications on my plays. It’s just how I roll. Sometimes the quote inspires, but mostly I use them to set the tone of the play.
As for the Bible stuff: I have a whole set of plays that use Biblical references and imagery. A friend of mine calls them “Bible fan fiction.” I should say this: I’m deeply, passionately, completely areligious. A perfect agnostic. But I do love the Bible. One of the things that bugs me about the conservative Christian thing in America is how it’s taken the Bible out of the public sphere. It’s a gorgeous book, full of amazing stories and imagery. I had a great children’s Bible growing up; it was one of the first books I really loved when I was about 10 (along with The Phantom Tollbooth, Giant Size X-Men #1 and Stephen King’s Christine). The story of Jacob and Esau is a big one for me and was definitely in my mind when I wrote FAVORED NATIONS. Which leads us to…
What inspired you to write this play?
This play has a couple of different origin places. First, and most simply, I was working at a theatre a while back, doing a lot of contract negotiating and I was struck by the phrase “most favored nations.” It had such an old-timey, Old Testament feel. So that rattled around in my head for a long time.
Also: I’m a second son. So the notion of inheritance, birthrights, legacies loom fairly large for me. My childhood wasn’t the worst, but there were enough traumatic things that have left impressions. I think about how the things we do, the things that happen to us as children shape our whole lives a lot. This play is obviously about that.
Family, man. It’s the big one. My plays tend to be about love or family. Sometimes both.
Are you commenting on how vacuous society is that we place an overweening emphasis on looks or do you believe in something more primal like “Biology is destiny”?
My social commentary, in this play, is on the lighter side. But yeah, I think there’s a strand in our society that if you look like a certain thing, then you are that thing. That the packaging is more important than the substance. I wanted to brush up against that a bit.
I’m way more of a “nurture” person than a “nature” person. I think both of these men could have been different, maybe even better, if their father hadn’t been such a monster. The best intentions we have for our children often go awry. So, yeah, no biology as destiny for me.
I am scared to sound dumb if I dare to interpret your play, and interpret it incorrectly, but sometimes the play seems to be about family rivalry and how we are warped by our perceptions of how much or little our parents loved us- then the play seems almost like an allegory about creativity. Care to expound?
Well, it is a play about a writer and how his story is taken from him and how powerful stories can be. Punch’s book changes Polly’s life. Both Punch and Parry have told themselves stories about their childhood which have shaped their lives. Plus there’s the “Cyrano de Bergerac” aspect to it. Do you need life experiences to create? Do you need to have a hard life? Would Parry have been as great a writer if he’d had a life of privilege? I don’t know. I hope not.
Having not read any of your other plays, would you say you have an overarching theme in your writings?
I aim for the grey areas of life. The parts where people are conflicted about what’s good, what’s right, what’s important to them. As I said, I write a lot about love and family. And that theme, not to put a fine point on it, is generally “can’t we all get along?”Someone else described my work as being about that hug that never quite comes. I like that. It’s sad in some ways, but I like that my characters are often holding out for the hug and trying to give it. They just never really get there.
What or who caused you to be a writer?
Oof. Mostly I credit it to my family, in all the expected good and bad ways. My mother is a writer, a poet. My father is really big on history and politics, and largely an autodidact. My stepmother is a flutist and a teacher. Arts runs strong in my family. But I was also a solitary, inside kid for most of my childhood, dealing with some hefty family issues. I spent a lot of time trying to organize the world into a shape that made sense. It wasn’t a big leap to making up worlds that made sense. And then sharing those worlds. I think all writers are believers in the perfectibility of the world and our work is about how either possible or impossible that is.
Which writers currently get you going?
God, the list is extraordinary and all over the map. Lanford Wilson. Zadie Smith. J.J. Abrams. Eric Kripke. Alan Moore (when he’s good). Brian K. Vaughn. Stephen King. Octavia Butler. Paul Westerberg. Craig Finn. Nicki Minaj. Quentin Tarantino. Richard LaGravanese. That’s just off the top of my head.
Which long (or recently) dead writers did you study?
I mentioned him above, but it’s worth it again: Lanford Wilson is my touchstone. I love that he wrote for actors. I love that he tried to capture his time on stage and did it so very well. I love that he wrote personal, deeply emotional plays, but never settled grudges or made himself the “hero” of any of them. In grad school, one of my teachers showed us the American Playhouse version of Lemon Sky and it broke my heart and my brain.
Besides that…it was all pretty standard: Shakespeare, Miller, Williams, O’Neill. All the great dusty classics. Most of them I still love.
Or did you study literature? Perhaps not…
The things I focused on in my education were theatre and 20th Century literature. That’s where my heart has always lived.
You play with language in this play- namely when Punch appears to recede into a childlike-ness. His words appear sermon-like in the first speech to his brother then his language is riddled with made up words. What is going on with this character?
For Punch, I tried to imagine what it would be like if you were truly privileged. In my mind, he’s almost a functional illiterate, someone who knows just enough to fake his way through most interactions, but gets tripped up when he’s outside of that comfort zone. Okay, here’s a weird inspiration: George W. Bush. I mean, he’s such the product of his environment, right? And there was that open letter from Michael Moore a few years back about how he thought W. was a functional illiterate. I always felt vaguely sorry for his dad; George H.W. Bush is obviously a smart, educated man (if out of touch and evil in other ways). He was the head of the CIA, for Christ’s sakes! And one son is a total boob (look up Neil Bush sometime…what a loser), one was successful, sure, but not like him at all, and one, the one who should have had it all, will never get there. There’s the line in the play about how Parry hopes it burned his father’s heart to know how Punch turned out. That’s what I wonder about H.W. Bush. Does it ever keep him awake? Anyway, long way around the barn to say: he’s very, very dim, our Punch, and gets by on looking good.
Would you consider this an absurdist comedy?
Absolutely. I mean, there’s the gibberish talk, the semi-ridiculous situation and, of course, a teddy bear held at gunpoint. I’m not much of an absurdist, but this is my entry into that race.
Parry seems to be one person at the beginning of the play and another at the end—as does Punch. Do they affect each other so much that they alter each other?
Brothers are weird. There is an essential strangeness in looking at someone who has the same make-up as you, but is completely different. I suppose that’s true of all siblings and maybe even truer of twins and all. But there’s something about your brother. About seeing this other path you could have taken, these tools that you didn’t develop or maybe never had. It’s a funhouse mirror. When you see yourself in it, really see yourself, well, like looking in the mirror, you realize, “I look like that? I’m standing like that? Shit. I should tuck that in. I should change this shirt.” If you open yourself up to that, you can’t help but be different. What these brothers have gone through and what they go through in this crazy 10-minute span, it does change them. That’s the beauty of being alive. At any second, something can come along, even if it’s something you think you know, something you think you understand, it can come along and change everything. That’s what family is supposed to do, I think. Make you better. Always make you better.
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