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Divide and Conquer

Brit scribe David Edgar expounds on his "great American play," Continental Divide.

The candidates (Demetra Pittman and Bill Geisslinger)
debate before moderator Bob LeJeune (Mirron E. Willis)
in Daughters of the Revolution
(Photo: David Cooper)
When David Edgar talks about writing "my great American play," it's not with the slightest hint of irony. "I've been fascinated by the great Shakespearean story that began with Kennedy's election," he told this reporter with unalloyed earnestness. So he isn't claiming the adjective "great" for himself; he's saying there's an important American story that he wants to tell on stage.

Edgar has spent much of the past year conjuring Continental Divide -- the umbrella title for two plays, Mothers Against and Daughters of the Revolution, that were jointly commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. They opened in Ashland on March 1 and will move to Berkeley in the fall.

From one vantage point, Edgar isn't the likeliest fellow to tap for a great American play: He's not American. He is English, born and raised in Birmingham and educated at Manchester University. Edgar is the force behind some of the most outstanding plays to ship from Great Britain in the last three decades, all a product of his own activism. Perhaps best known for his eight-hour adaptation of Charles Dickens's Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, he has also won fame and prizes for The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs, Maydays, The Shape of the Table, Speer, The Prisoner's Dilemma, and his sprawling drama Pentecost -- which, if "greatness" is being bandied, may well be the great English play of the '90s.

Pentecost hasn't been widely seen in the United States because of its large cast requirements, but it premiered in this country at the Yale Repertory Theatre under Stan Wojewodski Jr. and was subsequently directed by Tony Taccone for both OSF and BRT. (Taccone is helming Continental Divide.) Set in an Eastern European church where a fresco is uncovered that could cause the history of art to be revised, Pentecost includes at least one lively and bright American character, while Prisoner's Dilemma has three. "I've written widely about America, and my plays are full of American characters," says the author. These creations tend to be sympathetic, not satirized. (Okay, Edgar's 1974 Dick Deterred, a Richard III travesty about Richard Nixon, isn't intended to be all that congenial.) Moreover, Edgar has repeatedly considered political activities and ideologies that are anything but limited to his native land -- so much so that, he said, "I sometimes think I'm a travel writer."

David Edgar
Edgar talked about all of this at a small Greek restaurant tucked into a narrow street in London's Fitzrovia in mid-December; he was in town to complete errands before leaving once again for Oregon and the rehearsal period preceding the inaugural OSF run. He's a large, focused man who carries his papers in an attaché case that looks as traveled as he is. Walking towards the restaurant, he resembled one of those graduate students with no time to stop for a chat because there are more pressing things to do. But once the dramatist settled in over his dish, he couldn't have been more affable and gregarious.

"Why not do it?" he asked rhetorically about his decision to tackle American politics by zeroing in on a gubernatorial election in an unidentified western state. "It's like the southern part of Oregon and the northern part of California. I wanted to include the logging industry, but with more of a Spanish feel. The Latino vote is an issue." The melding of N. Cal. and S. Ore. is also commercially savvy since the plays were written as a compromise reached when both OSF and BRT, thrilled with their Pentecost experience, asked Edgar to write two separate pairs of works for them. He suggested he only had time to write two plays in toto, but OSF and BRT could share. (The cost of the enterprise, not including $155,000 in development grants to OSF and BRT, is $2.03 million, and that's just the OSF part. There's a cast of eight for Mothers Against and 16 for Daughters of the Revolution; American theater finances being what they are, Edgar kept things more economical than usual.)

Edgar described the smartly titled Continental Divide as a "European epic play that has an American subject." He noted that "Europe has an epic theater tradition, a traditional realism less naturalistic than American. I'm not sure America thinks in terms of political writing." But Edgar always does. Mothers Against takes place at the home of a Republican candidate for governor, Sheldon Vine, on a weekend when his family -- including a dissident daughter -- gathers for a debate rehearsal. Perhaps in keeping with its Republican subject matter, Mothers Against is, according to Edgar, "more contained than what I usually do." Its conservative structure is at intriguing odds with the more, well, radical flashback-and-forth Daughters of the Revolution, wherein Democrat Michael Grain, a college professor on the point of retiring, learns that a close acquaintance had informed on him in his activist days. (Incidentally, Edgar chose the names Vine and Grain without any reference to food chain essentials like bread and wine in mind. "I quite like the names being basic," he remarked.)

The playwright's familiarity with America began in the same way that he became conversant with political systems around the world: "I got interested in Eastern Europe by going there." As early as 1979, he drove across the U.S.. Since then, he's done much supplementary research, and he uses David Stockman's Triumph of Politics -- published in 1986 -- as a helpful source of information. The Stockman book carries the subtitle "Why the Reagan Revolution Failed," and both "revolution" and "failure" are favorite Edgar themes.

A discussion of the campaign elicits
varying responses: Bill Geisslinger (standing),
Michael Elich, Robynn Rodriguez (right),
and Vilma Silva in Mothers Against
(Photo: Jennifer Reiley)
Having gotten stateside politics under his belt, Edgar reported that he felt adventurous enough to take some liberties with the election process in Continental Divide. "I invented a proposition that requires an oath of loyalty signed by all new or registering voters," he offered, going on to say that the proposition prohibits "pursuing ends by force." He called his flight of fancy "Proposition 92" and it's a topic of dramatic discussion in his interlocking pieces: Will candidates Sheldon Vine in Mothers Against and Rebecca McKeene in Daughters of the Revolution decide to endorse said proposition?

If Edgar expressed confidence in his command of some subjects, he admitted to misgivings in others. He conceded that "there are three trouble areas I don't know about -- sports metaphors, clothing, American popular television. No, four: Yiddish. I'm buttonholing everybody Jewish I can find." He also needed to get some guidance on the delicacies of scripts that "dovetail with each other." To that end, he consulted with Michael Frayn -- whose Noises Off Edgar saw as another intricately designed play -- to find out about potential pitfalls.

Edgar has constructed Mothers Against and Daughters of the Revolution in such a way that chararacters mentioned in one play are also mentioned in the other. Asked if events in the two plays overlap, he pulled a face and replied, "Mothers Against takes place between Act II, Scene 1 and Act II, Scene 2 of Daughters of the Revolution." Then he thought for a moment and said, "I'm wrong." Then he let the subject go, not wanting to be too specific about an interlocking work over which, at the time of our interview, he was still slaving.

For the same reason, he didn't want to be talked into quoting a line from either of the plays that might sum up the content of the entire work. "When I was doing The Prisoner's Dilemma," he noted, "they wanted to include a line of dialogue in the promotional material. By the time the play opened, the line had been cut."