*Denotes Actors’ Equity Association
Interview with playwright Michael Weller
Researched, interviewed, and edited by Sharon J. Anderson, CATF Trustee
CATF: What’s the story behind the development of this play with CATF?
Michael Weller: An actor who had played Ronald Reagan in a TV movie wanted to do a one-man show about Reagan. Our respective agents were from the same agency, so I was asked if I would be interested in writing it. Politically, I am from the other side of the world, and I said that it was very unlikely, but let me read about Reagan. As I did, he just started to fascinate me.
CATF: Why? What did you read?
I read H.W. Brands biography, Reagan: A Life, of course, as well as Reagan’s autobiography and notes and a stack of other resources covering his life from all different angles.
Something about Reagan was very elusive. Some things were more familiar to me – the sorts of odd jobs you did as a kid and certain domestic things – but the elusiveness of him as a person made it very difficult to get a sense of who he was. Other accounts all seemed to come to this similar conclusion. I thought, “What would it be like to try to embody the events associated with Reagan? How might Reagan remember them? How might he want to portray himself?” So I started writing it.
I connected with Ed Herendeen about another play of mine that had some controversy at Brandeis, and after telling him about this Reagan monologue, Ed invited me to try it out at CATF. Meanwhile, the actor unexpectedly pulled out of the play, so we had a crisis meeting, asking ourselves, “How do we move ahead? How do we do this?”
For the future of the play and also because of certain elements I had discovered while writing the piece, we began to wonder what would happen if this play that began as an interview with Reagan near his 82nd birthday was actually played by a younger person. What would that yield in terms an ability to connect with Reagan in a certain way? We were intrigued, so moved ahead with that idea.
You have said, “It’s where I am in the bigger journey of a play and what I’m trying to work out in it that matters to me.” What kind of journey are you on in A Late Morning (in America)?
I was raised by Communists. My parents met at a John Reed Club and were members of the WPA. They were friendly with Russians because Russians were our allies during World War II. Left-wing people dominated much of American intellectual life, and this was atmosphere that I knew as a child. I grew into other ideas myself, but it’s still very much in me that labor’s prize is capital and more of it should be in the hands of people who are responsible for generating it.
Many members of the family I married into are Republicans. I wondered what it might be like to honestly enter the mind of a person – really, an icon – who seems to have been quite straightforward, genuine in his heart and stood for virtually everything I don’t like. What would it be like to find out how he could hold his values?
You are known for your play, Moon Children, about eight college students living communally in an off-campus attic in the mid-1960s, as well as the screenplay for the movie version of the musical, Hair. Both are opposite the Reagan spectrum.
The Republicans in my family are among the most decent people I’ve met. In terms of their conduct and how you might feel about a world full of people like this, Republicanism would be a happy idea. The final reductio of the Republican idea – “less government is better,” and you can trust people to be an example of a successful life and community, and if you leave them alone, they’ll all see to each other’s well-being and so forth – is the behavior of Republicans. My relatives are a good advertisement for that behavior. In general, however, the Republican Party is a terrible advertisement for human nature. More and more people seem to be saying, “Maybe we do need help from the State because people aren’t going to help out if left to the natural forces of human nature.” I’ve always been puzzled that people can hold the idea of totaling trusting human nature to take care of the world, unfettered and uncontrolled.
On the other side is a person like Reagan and his ilk whose reductio is you can’t trust the State to take over everything over and control your life. I’ve come to the idea that there’s something in the middle that’s corrupted by the idea of no government because too many people are blindly entering politics with little training, insight, excellence, and expertise. They get disillusioned and don’t hold steady the way professional European politicians seem to do. They don’t understand politics to be a career like medicine. This attracts a lot of ideological loonies.
Early on in your play, Reagan asks, “. . . how could a near-sighted, would-be football player, ex-lifeguard who never quite made it to the top in Hollywood become leader of the free world?” He attributed it to television. Does this explain our current leader of the free world?
I have no idea what explains our current leader. I don’t think anybody does. To be blunt – he was elected by Russians, and that’s not really America. It’s America off guard, and now the offguarded-ness is being taken double advantage of.
America has never dealt with its primal wound which has very little to do with our current leader: this country was founded by immigrants who murdered the indigenous population and then imported another population to do their work for them. Yet we like to call ourselves pure and Christian when we’ve constantly violated that in our past. We’ve never grown up and recognized the big lie at the heart of our country.
Reagan was a great storyteller. How did you decide which Reagan anecdotes or stories to include and not to include?
I was a fish swimming around under all the bait, and I went for whatever looked tasty. Reagan was essentially an actor, and I don’t think he ever got much beyond that. He developed very simple ideas. The real key to both he and Nancy is that they were products of the studio system. The studio system just took care of you; did everything for you. So they developed a kind of mindset that that’s how life is. There’s a grain of commentary going through Reagan’s life that people just wanted to help them; take care of them. They surrounded him with whatever he needed, and he went through life kind of clueless.
I thought, what if you take that and you add to it what was happening to him mentally. Maybe you’d have a series of memories like I would if I read through all the work and then just sat down and tried to remember what I read. What are the things that stand out? What would pop into your head?
H.W. Brands said, “When you look at the development of the American presidency, you see that the presidents who have had the greatest impact are the ones who fit their times most successfully.” How does Trump fit these times?
What we know about the President has changed a great deal over time and what we know about each other has as well. Right now, we seem to know a great deal about Trump as President because of all the White House leaks; all the anecdotal coverage of his life, and so forth. Everyone in New York has known him forever as a laughable con man. He’s also managed to put himself in a pretty desperate situation right now. How he will manipulate that with his Congress, we just don’t know.
So how does he fit the times? He’s managed to exploit the worst part of the media – the fear mongers on the right.
About Reagan, H.W. Brands has written, “He used humor more effectively than any president since Abraham Lincoln. Reagan was not an especially warm person, but he appeared to be. Many people disliked his policies, but almost no one disliked him.”
People who are genial joke tellers are very nice to be around. Reagan was a child of the Depression, and his hero was FDR. How did he reconcile himself to that? I never really could find a rationale. This may be a little bit vague, but by actually making him the image that you watch all night – something so unlike what you’re used to looking at – you might come closer to understanding what went on inside of him.
Me? I think he was just a nice kid who said, “Can I paint your fence, Mrs. Jones? Or is there anything you need done in the back yard? And I heard a good one today at the Barber Shop.” Somehow that’s more real to me than any image I have of him.
In her book, Extreme Exposure: An Anthology of Solo Performance Text from the Twentieth Century, Jo Bonney writes that the key to solo work “is to bring the audience up onto the stage and into the scene with you. It is they who must give you even more than you give them in the way of imagination and creative power.” The audience is a character in your play.
Yes, the audience is the interviewer. Everything in a play starts as a necessary solution to limited resources, and then it becomes a great idea that you develop more and more. In this show, I was concerned that the actor was going to freak out when he saw 40 pages of text, so I put in an interviewer to break it up.
Then I wondered if the interviewer could be something in the audience’s mind asking questions as the monologue went along. Next, I wanted to create some “anticipations” on stage that are classically called “obligatory scenes.” I thought about the possibility of Nancy appearing at the end. And the present that the interviewer brings to Reagan that he keeps on picking up and then forgetting . . . perhaps the audience would also be asking, “What’s in the box?”
What is the importance of memory to you?
If you define memory as a genuine recollection of things that actually happened, then you are barking up the wrong tree. Memory is an invention or re-invention of your past and it’s constantly shifting. More than anything, it reflects your present and it changes according to your present and it sometimes changes from hour to hour. So the importance of it is that you can come to understand it as a necessary resource in defining yourself as you see yourself in any given moment. From that point of view, it’s an important way of looking back; it’s an important fiction to settle onto things in your past that come to your mind. Without it, I don’t know how you would have a sense of who you are at any given moment.
Let me ask you something the interviewer asks Reagan in your play: How do you want to be remembered?
I’m too busy doing what I do to think about that because it’s such an abstraction and a psychoanalytic tool about your own grandiosity or insecurity. I discover my best self in whatever project I’m working on. And it’s not really about how it’s going to be received because as you’re doing it, that doesn’t matter. You’re concentrating on how that paragraph will follow the next one. Do I have the right information? Is that a good sentence? Is that really how it felt when I interviewed him?
Who knows if your work will be remembered? Who knows if it’s going to be remembered at all? What is important is that you’ve got this thing to do and that’s wonderful because a lot of people don’t have that in their life. It’s a fantastic gift to have chosen this kind of work, so who cares what people think of it?
If you were going to write a play about your first memory, what would be the title?