On a very rainy day in May, on the corner of Gay Street and Waverly, Madeleine George and I had coffee in the West Village to talk about The Zero Hour. The location felt somehow appropriate as the play deals with, among other things, issues of coming out.
Mallery Avidon (Rail): Your plays don’t feel like “gay plays” to me, they just feel like plays that have lesbians in them.
Madeleine George: I feel complicated about it, but what I’m interested in is making the Lesbian into the center of the universe. Making that part of her existence a total given and not terribly interesting, but also there. So not erased, but not the crux of things. But in The Zero Hour it is the crux of things, because it was for me when I was writing that play which is a long time ago.
Rail: When did you start that play?
George: I went to the O’Neill with it in 2002.
Rail: And why did you decide that it was your 13P play?
George: The whole point of the company, well there’s many points, but one of the points is: bring us the play that no one else will do. And really The Zero Hour was very significant for me in terms of opening doors and meeting people, and then it didn’t go. I think it didn’t go for perfectly good reasons. It just was one of those plays that made a circuit and didn’t go. But it had something in it that I was interested in still. And there’s a kind of immense beauty and circularity to doing it now. It’s the play with which I met Rob Handel who’s idea it was to have 13P. And the stage manager for the reading at the O’Neill was a really young person named Maria Goyanes who’s now our extraordinary executive producer. There’s something totally neat about it coming around. I’ve waited so long to work on it, and it feels very salutary, it feels very soulful, to be working on it.
Rail: Is it weird going back to it?
George: In some ways it’s an artifact. But because the director is Adam Greenfield, and he’s such an empath, and such a genius, he’s setting up a very productive and fertile rehearsal process, so already work has been done on it, which I didn’t think would be possible at all. Also the cast is great. They’re both just amazing clever, clever, clever. Smart actors.
Rail: How much rewriting have you done since you started working on it again for this production?
George: Fourteen percent of it is rewritten. Not much. This is the real thing about 13P. The real overarching lesson. It’s not a play I would write again, and that ought to be the case, right? You should leave behind you in your wake one after another shipwrecked experiments and always be moving on to the next mistake. A better and more ambitious mistake. So it’s a little weird to roll back and live in that previous mistake.
Rail: For me it’s the previous version of yourself. It’s not even about the thing being good or bad it’s just about being a different person than you were when you were doing it.
George: Well that’s certainly true. Right now I’m not even remotely preoccupied with issues of coming out and honesty around identity. It’s not at all an inflamed topic for me, but in a sense that makes it easier. I can look at it formally in a way that when I was still kind of panting a little about it I couldn’t really.
Rail: Something I really like about your plays is that they’re about language. Beyond anything else it seems that they’re about language and the abilities or inabilities of people to use language to express ourselves.
George: Yeah, I think that’s what I’m interested in.
Rail: And I would say that they are language plays. But when people say that most of the time they mean something really different, like using language as an object instead of as communication.
George: I feel like there’s no grammar without feeling. I just am so uninterested in the architecture of language divorced from intention. And I’m also interested in wholeness. So I’m interested in structure and constraint and wholeness. You know what I mean? What things that are whole can be contained inside a structure. I find that very volatile and dynamic. I think a lot of people find it trapping and killing. And those people want to make something that is free form. But I don’t find it trapping, I find it highly energized. The relationship between a container and what’s inside. So for me grammar is very much about that. A shape, and then a pulsing energy of meaning inside the shape. And I feel like that’s the thing I do inside my plays all the time. There’s a museum, or a cage, that form repeats and repeats for me—or there’s a textbook. There’s always a structure.
So how’d it go with Hitler today?
Great for him. Not so great for us. He’s busy rising to power right now.
You’re doing the before part, too?
Three parts: “The Growing Storm”: Versailles, Beer Hall Putsch, death of Hindenburg, et cetera. Part Two: “Into the Night,” that’s the blood and gore. Then “Lessons for the Living.” They want me to end it very Hands-Across-America: “Six million Jews died during the Holocaust so be nice and don’t call each other Spic and Kike.”
And Fag. And Dyke.
Are you gonna say that, though?
Fag and Dyke? I don’t know.
I guess. It’s seventh grade.
So? If they can see pictures of bodies being bulldozed into open graves they can see the word ‘homosexual’ on a page, I should think.
I should think so.
(O considers Rebecca critically)
Rail: Talk more about The Zero Hour and where it came from.
George: Literally I was panicking around coming out.
Rail: How old were you?
George: Late. Late. Late. Given the fact that I was obviously a lesbian to everyone around me from the first moment of my earliest life, but like 21, so I was panicking around that. But I was living in Germany for a while in 2000, and it was like this crazy experience living in Germany where I felt like the entire country was in the closet in a way. And I was obsessed with memorials. The place is barnacled with them: they’re on every park bench and tree and paving stone, because the last century was so blood soaked for them. And they’re obsessed with memorializing, but they’re also obsessed with not looking at it. Memorials are also invisible. So I was really righteously angry at the Germans. And then I came back to New York sort of suddenly, and badly, and I started seeing memorials everywhere in New York which I had never noticed before, because I had been in Germany where I was like, “these people need to take responsibility for their history and I’m going to graffiti on these memorials and what I’m going to write on them is: Look Over Here.” And then back in New York I was teaching at NYU and one day I came out of the building and I saw this memorial on the side of the building—the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire happened in the building where I was teaching—and I was like, “Oh My God. I’m like the Germans. I don’t have a clue. I can’t take responsibility for anything.” So it’s like the collision of those things that the play is about: responsibility and the harm that can be done even when you’ve done it helplessly, even when you have no choice. So the Nazis come and visit this one character on the subway. I was living in Queens at the time.
Rail: I could tell.
George: It’s a very pro-Queens play, in my opinion.
Rail: It’s a very pro 7 train play.
George: I love the 7 train. I’m passionate about it. On the 7 train you do have that feeling that you’re being lightly flung out into another orbit. Just leave Manhattan behind, so that’s where these imaginary Nazis can find her, they find her in this liminal space, and then they talk to her about responsibility. I mean they also talk to her about baseball. I mean, you know, whatever it’s a play. It’s super funny!
Rail: Because I live in the bubble of liberalness and gay people I have this really weird idea about what the world is like—
George: It’s great that the world gets more and more open and more and more integrated in its diversity, but it’s also true that it’s really not so much about what is around you. I think it’s so much more about shame. It’s so much more about the construction of a person’s personality and what to them seems like a really intense thing. If you’re sensitive to shame, it doesn’t matter if you’re living in the most [liberal place in the world] because it’s about you. It’s about how you feel about the world looking at you. The whole world. It’s really about the little tiny box deep deep down inside of somebody where they’re like “Who am I? What am I worth? How do people see me?” It’s old school. You can politic it, you can theory it, you can do all that stuff to it, but it takes a long time for that politics and that theory to go into the groundwater.