The O’Neill Problem, or Writing Plays About Personal Stuff
by ANNE WALASZEK
USA, IL, CHICAGO, NORWOOD STREET, DINING ROOM, KITCHEN TABLE, CHAIR FACING SOUTH - In the fifth grade, Ms. Benson, the brand new teacher at St. Mary’s School, asked us to write an autobiography of our lives. Ms. Benson was the personification of Ms. Honey from Matilda. Ms. Benson touched even the worst kids. Ms. Benson, drawing back a curtain, revealed God’s gift inside each of us. Ms. Benson, above all else, loved Elvis, Jesus Christ, and black Labrador Retrievers. Even now, in writing this, I struggle to remember a time where she was not bathed in the light of early morning, humming a hymn under her breath, speaking to us in a wispy, low Texas twang. In the morning, while we were settling in, she would look out the window, sigh and look back at us, saying “Just look at this beautiful day our Lord has gifted us. What kind of treasure are we going to gift back?” And we would all nod like we had been thinking the same thing the whole morning. She said autobiography, but I knew she meant magnum opus for her reading pleasure. And also, possibly, for the Lord.
I spent hours that night working on five pages of handwritten notes about the events as I saw them. When I finished, curious at my diligent, heated labor, my mom asked to read it. She was horrified, scratching out parts she said were “too sad.” My father objected, insisting she allow me to turn in the paper as it stood originally. The debate escalated throughout dinner and the rest of the night until, exhausted, my mom conceded. In the late hours of the night, I re-copied the essay to a fresh sheet of paper, since the old was torn and crinkled after its long trial. The next day, with shaking hands, I submitted the essay, fearing I was a traitor to my family.
Instead of receiving my paper and grade like the rest of the class, Ms. Benson asked me to see her after school. I’m done for it, I thought. She was too pure for our stuff. She’s going to call the police and they’re going to know our stuff. The county would deem our family life as “too sad.” The cops would bang on the door of my parents’ new house and yank them out of our new living room, like they did on the tv show, COPS. My brother and I would be sent to live with the grandmas and Luke would get the one that was easier to talk to, because he was everyone’s favorite. They would make a Lifetime movie out of our broken life and feature my face in the epilogue, crying, alone, so everyone at home knew that it was all based on real events. I watched as everyone packed their bags when the bell rang, planning what I would pack into my Tweety Bird suitcase to meet my destiny on my Grandmother’s uncomfortable reproduction Victorian parlour furniture.
I walked to Ms. Benson’s desk, trembling. She turned over my paper to show me her beautiful penmanship across the margins of my life story, forming delicate, red tendrils across my scrawl. “Annie. You are a true writer. You wrote with courage and compassion and really showed me your life. This is your gift from God.” At that moment, she opened the heavens and a golden light shined on me and I have been scrawling ever since.
Even writing this now, I’m batting away tears, remembering.
This saga from childhood has been the parenthetical marks around all of my work up to this point. My best work is personal. I was raised to not show negative emotion or cause conflict. In stories, there is conflict, therefore in plays about my life, I am going against the express wishes of my Midwestern parents. I feel better when I write from my heart and from my flesh. My mother feels better when I write about joy. I can’t say that I blame her.
I think the Dining Room might be one of the most complete things I’ve written, but it feels cruelly exploitative to reveal our family during one of the most vulnerable periods of our relationship as a netted unit. Sometimes, I think if I show it to my mother, she’ll see what I see in the play and be touched by it. Sometimes, I imagine dredging up the things for her that it has dredged up for me and I wonder what the point of that pain is for someone else. What is cathartic for me in storytelling might not be cathartic for her.
And I wrote the play for myself, after all. I wrote it for me alone. The way most people find themselves inside churches is the way I find myself in a theatre. When the lights are down and the grid is on, I am centered in a way I rarely find in outside life. I understand life better through theatre, both in practice and in performance. I understand watching someone die through writing this play. Why should I subject her to something that was born, created, and sustained to heal me? We’re standing at the precipice of a complete first draft and I can’t bring myself to move forward through the next steps of workshopping, performances, auditions: the complete exposure of the story and find myself wondering, is it enough to just be written and let well enough alone?
Eugene O’Neill, for a very long time, was largely considered one of the top 5 Great American Playwrights. His plays were realistic, sparse, and relatable to many kinds of white, male people from many kinds of white people places, being that he was the son of immigrants and a disappointment to them. O’Neill’s magnum opus, A Long Day’s Journey into Night, was much in the same vein of my plays: wholly and entirely ripped from his personal life. A perfect carbon copy.
You are probably saying to yourself, well, Anne, what was this Great American Playwright’s solution? Surely, if he is famous now, he must have solved this problem in a similar way that you can crudely copy.
His solution was to lock his play up in a literal lockbox in a bank and ban performances of it until 20 years after his death. That is not a solution I am willing to accept. I like rehearsal EVEN MORE than I like writing alone at my kitchen table and I LOVE writing alone at my kitchen table. If I want to make work, I have to find new answers.
I asked collaborators and former employers who had a multitude of solutions including simply changing monikers, providing an apology at the beginning of the play, or never apologizing and publishing without permission. But the consultation with my primary collaborator resonates and confuses me the most. When asked about what I should do with the thing, he was shocked that anything would be done at all, calling into question the sustainability of using real life as an ore for playmaking. When anyone who is close to you speaks to you, he asked, how will they know if they’re talking to the writer or to you? To which I answered, both. You’re always talking to both.
As mysteriously as she arrived, so she disappeared. Ms. Benson left us abruptly, with little excuses and a lot of crying. Months later, when her thong-wearing replacement wasn’t looking, we found an Elvis postcard tucked into the back of Ms. Benson’s copy of Tom Sawyer. Thrilled, praying for a better answer than the one she gave, we read it out loud: “My dearest, I can’t wait for you to come back home to Texas and be my wife. Praying that God keeps you safe and counting the days until we’re together again. All of my love, every day, all day. ---T” We gasped, clutched the postcard, passed it around, touched the dried ink, looked at the photo of Elvis he had chosen, puzzled over if it, too, had any meaning. “I knew it had to be good.” I whispered, running my fingers over his indentations on the back of the card.
That day after school, both of us huddled over the essay, I whispered to Ms. Benson through my touched tears, “I was worried it might be too sad,” hoping to both communicate what happened and not tell her at all what an uproar the essay caused in my house. She looked at me, blinked, turned the pages in her hands. After thinking for a moment, she shook her head again and said, “It’s not sad, honey, it’s just true. The truth ain’t sad or happy: it’s just true.”
Anne Walaszek is a Founding Midwife