Schulman is also author of more than a dozen plays, including Carson McCullers and Manic Flight Reaction. Her latest project is an adaptation of the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, Enemies, A Love Story, which makes its world premiere this month at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. The playwright will be on hand after the Thursday, February 15 performance for an audience talkback.
Like the novel, the play is set in 1949 and centers around Herman, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who marries the German woman who saved him, later finds his first wife is still alive, and then, incredibly, weds a third woman.
THEATERMANIA: How did you begin your playwriting career?
SARAH SCHULMAN: I had my first play produced in 1979 at 2 am at the Pyramid Club on Avenue A. I was deeply involved in the downtown arts community -- I guess you could call what I did performance art. There were scripts, but I worked with improvisation people and choreographers. 1994 was my last downtown production. I had a show at PS 122 that I really loved, and moved it to HERE, which had just opened. They had no air conditioner, and it was the middle of the summer. It was so hot, the actors thought they were going to pass out. We opened up part of the theater to let the air in and the lot next door was filled with rats. So the director and I were standing at the door with sticks trying to keep the rats out of the theater. He turned to me, and said, "Isn't this glamorous?" And I thought, "I don't want to do this anymore. Enough is enough."
TM: So, then what did you do?
SS: I had to either give up or become an uptown playwright. That took a lot out of me, because I had to learn to write in a completely different way. The innovations of the avant-garde in the last 150 years have not made it into uptown theater. They're still into conventional narrative structure, and "whose play is this?" and "drama is change" and all that stuff that the rest of us know is no longer true. But you can't argue with them. At first I tried to discuss it, but it's not discussable. So I just had to learn how to do it. It took me until 2002 -- eight years -- to actually get in, to cross 14th Street. The way it happened was, I was at Out Write, which used to be the gay writers' conference; it doesn't exist anymore. Craig Lucas was on a panel, and I said something from on the floor, and he got hysterical and started screaming at me.
DB: What did you say?
SS: They were talking about Jesse Helms, and I said there was censorship within the theater community and not just from Jesse Helms. There were power structures that excluded certain people from theater and you didn't need the Republicans to enforce them. And he screamed at me. A few weeks later, I got a phone call from him and he apologized and took me out to dinner. We had a great talk and I told him I was writing a play, and he asked to read it. At that time, he had decided he wanted to become a director. So we started a two year process of trying to get a production of this play, in which we had reading after reading at the Public, the Vineyard, you name it. It didn't get produced, but it got me into the "uptown playwright" circles.
TM: What was your first exposure to Enemies?
SS: I saw the movie version in '89, when it first came out, and it spoke to me because my grandmother had two sisters who were killed in the Holocaust. Even though I had no direct survivors in my immediate group, my family was very impacted. I grew up in New York with a lot of kids who were children of Holocaust survivors. My first girlfriend was a child of Jewish refugees. There were a lot of things in the movie that were familiar to me, such as the way people were yelling at each other, and angry at each other, even though they weren't hurting each other. The pain was caused by somebody else. It's about the emotional consequences of trauma.
TM: That's a theme in several of your works.
SS: I've been frustrated because a lot of what I've written about AIDS or gay and lesbian characters have been very hard to get produced. In a way, I'm using this play as code. I began to realize that when you have a group of people who are despised, like gay people, or Jewish people, or black people, and then they have an extraordinary trauma on top of the usual trauma, the way the dominant culture can deal with representing it is to make them noble, pure, clean, and innocent. So the fact that something bad happens to them is really sad. In that way, you end up with these desexualized gay male characters who are not angry and not in any political movement, and are abandoned and then you feel empathy for them. These types of stories are based on a Christian paradigm that suffering makes you better. But actually, suffering makes you worse. People who were victimized were real people before their victimization. They were complex, some of them were nasty or did bad things. They were filled with contradictions.
TM: In Singer's novel, Herman wasn't exactly a great husband even before the war.
SS: That's one of the things about the material that appealed to me. To show people in all of their flaws before the trauma, does that mean you have less sympathy for their trauma?
TM: What changes did you make in your adaptation?
TM: Given your previous work, I had wondered about that.
SS: I let all the women have complexity and agency. By making the female characters Herman's equals in terms of their desires for themselves and their own lives, it enables them to engage him in active dialogue. They're looking for an answer for their pain and trying to imagine a better life. So, the thoughts that used to all belong to Herman in the novel are now spread out and expressed actively in their relationships. It's really like a different story, yet it engages all the same themes, but for a contemporary audience. Women are alienated enough going to the theater. I want them to see something that will wake them up, emotionally.
TM: How do you think audiences familiar with the novel or movie are going to react to the changes?
SS: I think they're going to love it. It's really funny, and it's very Judaic, very dialogic. It's got that kind of philosophical profundity that's very entertaining. I've always tried to be funny, to look at dark things from the insider's point of view. As Brecht said, when you see the man crying on stage, you want the audience to laugh; when you see him laughing, you want the audience to cry. This material really enables that kind of audience response.
TM: What appeals to you about the process of adaptation?
SS: As an intellectual, I have had to learn that I can't just cut out the greatest works of Western civilization because they're so prejudiced. You have to look for the brilliance of certain human themes and then extend them to include ourselves. That's the challenge and interesting thing about writing adaptations, and it works for me. As soon as I realized that I had to take those themes and expand them to the specificity of other human beings daily lives, I got very excited by the whole process. It's like opening up the world of literature and the world of ideas to include the rest of us.