Shortly after Mark St. Germain premiered Freud’s Last Session at Barrington Stage Company, in 2009, we met for breakfast at Dottie’s in Pittsfield. Since then there have been some 200 plus global productions of the play. Currently he is working on a movie script for the drama.
The Dottie's meetings continue as he presents new work in the Berkshires. Barrington's St. Germain Stage honors his long association with the company. Meanwhile, our meetings and e mail correspondence have developed into a personal and professional relationship.
The traditional view is that critics do not interact with those they write about. Prior to an era of ever-eroding print media, there was a separation of writers doing interviews and feature stories from critics who review productions. The concept was to maintain objectivity. A notable exception was the bond between the former New York Times critic, Frank Rich, and Stephen Sondheim. It started when the playwright wrote a note of appreciation for a review in the Harvard Crimson.
The wearing away of print media, shrinking of the news room and drama desk, has changed the perceived firewall. Now most, but not all, critics are expected to conduct interviews and write features including puff pieces.
I have long felt that the creator is a valued primary source. There is more to be gained than compromised by digging into the critical thinking that informs a work of art. So, Mark St. Germain and I met recently to discuss current projects as well as work in development.
CHARLES GIULIANO: A lot is happening for you. You are here (Barrington Stage) for a revival of Camping with Henry and Tom (1993).
MARK ST. GERMAIN: It's great to see it again after all these years. Julie (Boyd) did it when she was at Berkshire Theater Festival. I think it was her first year. We've know each other for some 30 years.
When I first started writing plays, her lawyer directed a play of mine in Jersey City. It was a non-professional production. She was looking for somebody to work with. He said "Get this guy. He's easy to work with."
CG: How are you updating the play to reflect the current political atmosphere?
MSG: When it was done, Ross Perot was the guy in the news. Now there's another guy in the news and he's slightly different. There are a lot of similarities between Henry Ford and Donald Trump.
It hasn't been changed in a major way. There are perhaps ten different lines. I brought out more that he felt personally that he could save America. He had quotes very much like "I want to make America great again."
CG: Are we going to sense the similarity?
MSG: I think you might, but it's not that on the nose. He's not playing Trump. It's a whole different thing.
It's very scary today politically. Ford was potentially very scary in what he could have done to the country.
CG: He was a racist and anti Semite.
MSG: It's ironic because in the beginning he was such a champion of the worker.
CG: "Dollar a day, why that's white man's pay." That's why Blacks emigrated from the south to Detroit to work for Ford.
MSG: He hired black men not just as workers but promoted them as supervisors and put them in high positions. He looked at himself as a really open, democratic kind of guy. When they unionized, he got his forces to come out with clubs. He just couldn't take it. He's very contradictory.
CG: What about Edison?
MSG The Edison in the play is a little different from the real Edison. In the play, he does not come off as ruthless as he was. He had a lot of prejudices which aren't really expressed. John Burroughs, who went with them on the camping trips for years, wasn't at all like that. He was an essayist and naturalist. He wrote a lot of books about the physical world and nature. He was a more contemporary Thoreau.
CG: What inspired that play?
MSG Just the idea that why in the world would anyone invite Warren G. Harding on a camping trip. I couldn't understand it. He was invited, and it was the last time for Edison. So what happened on that camping trip?
You had a man who hated being president and wanted out. He was in love with a young woman and had a baby with her. He wanted out of the whole business.
CG: His wife poisoned him. I read a book about that some years ago.
MSG: (laughing) I think she did.
CG: There was the lady in the White House washroom scandal. (In July, 1923 on board the U.S.S. Henderson the Hardings were traveling to Alaska. The president appeared to be healthy but died suddenly. Circumstances created suspicion that Harding had been murdered, especially since his wife, Florence, refused to agree to an autopsy. She died one year later. Harding was one of our most popular presidents. Only a few years later he came to be regarded as among the worst presidents. The Teapot Dome Scandal and other troubles were starting to appear. Harding had at least two active mistresses, plus an illegitimate child. Americans did not know about this, but his wife probably did. Had Harding died suddenly of natural causes at 57? Was he perhaps murdered or assassinated?)
MSG: Calvin Coolidge completed his term as well as another one.
That's what fascinated me, and of any of them, I fell in love with Harding. He was a good man who was torn up because of the corruption around him. What he liked most was his lunch hour. He would go out on the lawn and people would line up to shake his hand. He called it his "hand shake hour." He was so proud that he shook a million hands. He loved meeting people and this daily activity could take an hour and a half.
I think the play is timely. The character shows that somebody like Harding couldn't exist anymore. Unless you're clawing to be president it doesn't happen anymore.
His campaign manager told Harding that he was running. They decided he was going to be president. He said "I don't want to be president." This is a guy who had been in mental institutions several times. Before he was president he had a couple of breakdowns.
CG: Why didn't that prevent his running?
MSG: His opponent knew it but refused to allow it to be used in the campaign.
CG: (Harding ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1920, but he was considered an also ran with little chance of success. The leading candidates, such as General Leonard Wood, could not gain a majority to secure the nomination, and the convention deadlocked. Harding's support gradually grew until he was nominated on the tenth ballot. He remained for the most part in Marion, Ohio and allowed people to come to him. He won in a landslide over Democrat James M. Cox and Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs. He was the first sitting senator to be elected president.)
MSG: Harry Daugherty said "But Warren there are no first-raters out there. You're the best of the second rate. You're going to be president." He was one of the people who turned it into a graft machine once Harding got into the White House. From my reading, Harding found out but was not a part of the scandals. He was devastated. He was the kind of person we will never again have in politics. (The Teapot Dome scandal took place from 1921 to 1922. Secretary of the Interior Albert Bell Fall leased Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming and in California to private oil companies at low rates without competitive bidding. Fall was convicted of accepting bribes from the oil companies and became the first Cabinet member to go to prison. Nobody was convicted of paying a bribe. The scandal damaged Harding's administration already diminished by controversial handling of the Great Railroad Strike of 1922 and his veto of the Bonus Bill of 1922.)
CG: The latest project?
MSG: It's about Albert Einstein (1879-1955). When he died letters were found between he and his first wife. (Mileva Mari Einstein) They were rare because a lot of letters were destroyed. They referred to the daughter they were having. At one point she had scarlet fever. They were writing back and forth about that.
MSG: He never saw the daughter. He never made the visit. She was with her family in Novi Sad.
(It is the second largest city in Serbia, the capital of the province of Vojvodina and the administrative seat of the South Baka District.)
He was away teaching and said he couldn't join her so she went to her family. Then he got a job at the patent office in Bern, and he still didn't join her.
CG: So this is early around the time of his theory of relativity. (Introduced in Einstein's 1905 paper "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.")
MSG: This is just before that and after two years, there is never again a mention of her (the child). He never talked about her. It was as if she didn't exist. All the Einstein experts have theories on what happened. Some say she died of scarlet fever. Some say she went into a convent. Some say she was adopted. There are all different angles.
CG: What became of his wife?
MSG: He divorced her. He gave her a list of rules for being married to him. If she wanted to remain married she could not talk to him. She was to leave three meals a day in his study. She was never to criticize him, and he could go out and sleep with somebody two nights a week.
CG: Why did he marry her?
MSG: He was in love at some point. She was very bright and the only woman in his class at the university. She was very smart and I think that attracted him.
CG: Do we know her response to his demands?
MSG: She went along with them. In a letter he said to a friend that "She wants one thing out of life and that's to be Mrs. Albert Einstein." From the first day, she called him "The Great Man."
CG: But he wasn't established at that point.
MSG: No. He was a student, but people were already saying that he was going to be great. He treated her horribly but finally bought his way out of the marriage because she didn't want a divorce. So he gave her his Nobel Prize money.
(The prize was awarded in 1921 but he received it a year later.)
Then he had to decide did he want to marry his cousin or his cousin's daughter. He married his cousin, but her daughter ended up living in their house. When he was at Princeton he continued to have an active sex life with various women.
(After an early visit in 1921, he returned to Princeton in 1933 as a life member of the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study and lived there for the remaining twenty-two years of his life.)
The play (Relativity) is really about what is a great man? Does a great man have to be a good man? The two things are totally different, and the daughter comes there for a specific reason which I won't give away. She wants to know who he is. She has started to find out all these things about him. This is a man who threw his granddaughter down the stairs because she came into his office and touched papers. He presents himself as a lovable eccentric. I think he cultivated it deliberately. He hated being with people. He said "Every human relationship I have is a chain around my neck."
CG: What about his professional relationships with colleagues and students?
MSG: I think that was much different. I don't think it was intimate it was just intellectual.
CG: What drew you to this project?
MSG: I always wondered just what do they talk about when they talk about a great man?
CG: Is it a two-hander?
MSG: Three. His housekeeper is also in it.
CG: It seems inevitable to ask how this differs from your great success with Freud's Last Session?
MSG: The play premiered in Sarasota and not one review mentioned Freud. The dynamic is totally different. Freud was a very civilized discussion. This is not civilized. It gets very heated. It feels totally different, although I was worried about that.
CG: You have mentioned thinking of reworking Freud as a screenplay?
MSG: I'm doing it now. There is a producer from Ron Howard's film company who wants to do it. There has been talk of shooting it in Freud's house in London.
CG: That sounds like an inexpensive production. How would it be different from the stage play?
MSG: In the film, Anna is a part of it. You see things happening in London during the time of the war. It's the day that England entered the war. There are cutaways. You go to Anna's school where she was teaching. Instead of talking about Tolkien you see them having discussions. You see Freud with his father. So it's different in that way. It's definitely opened up.
CG: Do you like that idea?
MSG: I don't know. You hit the budget question. This would be a more costly movie than to film it with very few cutaways and just one set. I'm not sure which way to go. When the screenplay's done we'll see what the reaction is.
CG: You've written for theater and television (“The Cosby Show”). Have you done a film previously?
MSG: The movie I made with Carroll Ballard was called “Duma.”
(A 2005 American family drama adventure film about a young South African boy's friendship with an orphaned cheetah from a story by Carol Flint and Karen Janszen, set in the country of South Africa directed by Carroll Ballard director of “The Black Stallion” and “Fly Away.”)
CG: So Relativity has already premiered?
MSG: It was commissioned by Florida Studio Theater in Sarasota. It opened there in August.
CG: Is it still being worked on?
MSG: There are some things I wanted to change with input from the actors. Good ideas you take advantage of.
CG: When did Richard Dreyfuss come into this?
MSG: A couple of years ago when I was talking about this, a friend of mine told me that Richard is a fanatic about Einstein and you have to go meet him. So I met him, and then there was nothing for a year and a half. When we were casting his partner called up and said that Richard is very interested in doing it. So that's how it really came about.
CG: How does that change the landscape?
MSG: Much less than I thought it would. If there's a problem with rehearsal, it's that Richard has so many stories that he loves to tell. Once a day, during a break, it's story hour. Someone can mention “American Graffiti” or “Close Encounters” and he'll go on with stories about it.
CG: My favorite is “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” (1974). That was his first film shot in Canada.
MSG: His second I believe but no we haven't done that yet or “Jaws.”
CG: What is his background in theater?
MSG: From nine years old he was on stage. Whenever he can he still does a lot of theater. He's done a lot of Shakespeare, He's faithful to theater. It's not just all movies.
CG: So what are the plans for this production?
MSG: Theoretically, there will be the production at TheaterWorks in Hartford and one in California then bring it to New York after that. There are a couple of California theatres interested but it's not settled yet. With him involved people are interested.
CG: How does it change the dynamic having that star power? That wasn't the case with Freud.
MSG: Much less than I thought it would. I was concerned about it. I was concerned that he would overwhelm it and pull the star card but he doesn't. Everyone seems very much on the same team.
CG: What's your role in the process? Are you attending rehearsals? Whom do you talk to? The director?
MSG: It's people sitting around the table. It's very collaborative. Everybody has input. It's like us sitting here but with a couple of more people. It's very democratic.
CG: Is that usual or unusual?
MSG: It is usual. I've done a couple of plays with people like Estelle Parsons. I was concerned that he is a movie star. I didn't realize the amount of theater he did. We haven't put it up yet to begin blocking.
CG: What's the challenge of doing Einstein from the historical person to a character on stage? While he was arguably the most brilliant mind of his era it also seems that he was a jerk.
MSG: That's a reveal as it goes on. In the beginning he's very charming because he doesn't know who he's talking to.
CG: How long is the play.
MSG: Right now it's an hour and a half, and that's too long. I don't have patience for two act plays anymore.
CG: We have often discussed the adversity of a life in the arts particularly as we age. There is always the difficulty of balancing personal and professional life. It seems that Relativity and its star casting is re-energizing.
MSG: I have been really fortunate that I haven't had a career that was huge in the beginning and then petered out. I recall spending time with Robert Anderson (1917-2009 best known for Tea and Sympathy and I Never Sang for My Father).
He was then in his 70's and he had trouble getting people to read his plays. I thought that was ridiculous. They should be jumping on a play when it came in.
He was no longer the rage and had difficulty. That's why I'm so lucky that there are a number of theaters, there's no guarantee that they'll do it, but they will give it serious consideration. There's no reason to stop as long as people do them.
Some things have slowed me down. I used to work seven hours a day and it is hard to sit that long. There was a point where I was tired of doing plays and wanted to go back to doing movies or perhaps writing a book. It just never happened. Something would come up.
I'm working on the Freud screenplay, and after that I would like to do another one. I got the rights to John Updike's book "Gertrude and Claudius," the pre-Hamlet story. It's beautifully written, and Orlando Shakespeare is going to do the play. You can't turn that down. It will be fun to do. I haven't started yet because the contracts haven't been signed but they will be. I have to get this show open (Relativity) before I do it.
CG: Judging from several plays you done here starting with Freud it seems that you have been enormously productive. We have seen Best of Enemies, Scott and Hem, Dr. Ruth and Dancing Lessons. In that time there were other projects including the musical, The Fabulous Lipitones. That's been a steady pace of about one a year since we met when Freud opened.
MSG: It's been a really good period. Some of my friends are starting to retire and I can't understand the concept. If you don't like your job, sure, but if you enjoy what you do why stop?
I retired actively from the Writer's Guild, which doesn't stop you from writing. You just take your pension early. That's the base plus whatever you get each month from royalties is how you pay the bills.
CG: Of your work what is currently being produced?
MSG: Freud is being produced as well as Dr. Ruth. There are always four or five productions of Best of Enemies going on somewhere. Thirty years ago when just starting, I did a musical Gift of the Magi which is still being done.
CG: That's a holiday show.
MSG: Every year it's being done, which is amazing.
CG: What impact does the potential success of Relativity have?
MSG: I've lost all fear. There's no concern anymore of where I am in my professional life. I am not at all worried about critical reception. I always wanted to leave something when I'm gone and some of the plays will be around.
CG: Freud has become a classic. How many productions have there been?
MSG: Hundreds. Counting professional and amateur productions, probably a couple of hundred. Dancing Lessons is being done a lot in Europe, but it's not being done here. It's now in Germany and will tour France and end in Paris. I think that will be around but maybe not as much as Freud. I feel I've left a tiny little mark and hope to do more.
CG: Looking back would you recommend a life in the arts?
MSG: No. (both laugh). Were I to do it over again, I would probably be a psychologist.
CG: Isn't that a playwright?
MSG: Yeah, it is. Totally.