David Ives: In Conversation
Lantern Theater Company Associate Artistic Director Kathryn MacMillan interviews playwright David Ives, writer of New Jerusalem, which runs through September 30, 2012.
Kathryn MacMillan: New Jerusalem has had an impassioned response. Has its broad success caught you at all by surprise?
David Ives: On the one hand, yes, I am surprised by New Jerusalem's reach and success because it's a play about a 17th century philosopher and no doubt looks forbidding at first glance. Yet when I set myself to work on the play I knew that this was a story with extraordinary dramatic and theatrical and human possibilities. Even more importantly, I knew that the issues raised by Spinoza's excommunication and banishment, and by his philosophy, are questions that resonate today as much as in 1656 – and indeed will always resonate as long as nations/societies/communities are troubled by heterodox thinkers, and for as long as people wonder about the nature of reality and the existence of God. That is to say, forever. People come to New Jerusalem because it asks, via Spinoza and his interrogators, the Big Questions, the eternal questions – and asks them dramatically, in a human story. Just consider that, to this day, the argument still rages: was Spinoza the greatest atheist in human history, or the greatest believer ever? Was he a destroyer of God, or "a God-intoxicated man," as one of his contemporaries described him? A pantheist, or a nihilist, or both? And aren't such contradictions the stuff of a great dramatic character?
Kathryn: Yeah, he's fascinating. In a previous interview, you've said of his belief in predetermination, "Even though the universe and everything was determined, there's a kind of freedom in that," and that he faced possible excommunication with peacefulness. Do you identify at all with Spinoza in that way? I rather envy him for it, I must say!
David: There are four great "trials" in the history of civilization: Socrates, Jesus, Galileo, and Spinoza. In each case, the man's life was changed, but so, ultimately, was history. But one of the reasons we revisit those trials is to see how a person acts under the greatest possible stress. We don't know what actually happened inside Talmud Torah Congregation on July 27, 1656, and that was one of the reasons I wanted to write this play: to imagine the scene there, extrapolating from everything we know about Spinoza and his community and his society. We do know that Talmud Torah's rabbi, who was the chief rabbi of Amsterdam and Spinoza's mentor, rushed across town to publicly damn his former student; we also know that, as a result of whatever Spinoza said in answer to his interrogators' questions, he was cast out of the Jewish people with the harshest writ of excommunication in the history of the Sephardic community of Amsterdam. Yet Spinoza was beloved by so many people who knew him. He seemed to meet the world with calmness and quiet strength. The question remains, and the play raises it: was that quiet strength, or simply blind arrogance? But inspiring? Absolutely.
Kathryn: The other great trials you mention – Socrates, Jesus, and Galileo – have been dramatized several times. Were any of those plays, Brecht's Galileo, say, inspiring or useful to you as you wrote New Jerusalem?
David: You might say that Jesus was very helpful, in a way. When I'm at work on a play I often go to pieces of music, something appropriate to listen to between writing sessions. In the case of New Jerusalem I listened endlessly to Bach's St. Matthew Passion – which, besides being the greatest piece of music ever written and thereby naturally inspiring, gave me a sense of size and mass. It's also a trial, in music. Socrates is inspiring any day of the year. As for Brecht, I didn't want to go to that play because I didn't want to be affected or perhaps infected by its tone, which is very particular, very Brechtian, and not at all what I was looking for.
Kathryn: You've also said that you found yourself reading Spinoza at Yale Drama, perhaps as a procrastination tool. What have you been reading lately?
David: I always read a few things simultaneously. Right now it's Let The Great World Spin and Hitch-22 and The Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard's new book about the assassination of James Garfield. I'm also dipping back into Wilfred Owen's poetry.
Kathryn: Is there inspiration for a play anywhere in there?
David: Not for me, but please feel free to steal any of them and go ahead.
Kathryn: You were an editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. Is there a continuum between your life in journalism, editing a periodical on international politics, and your life as a playwright – one who, it seems to me, has travelled from century to century in your work, dramatizing some of the most interesting people and events?
David: I'll take my cue from Spinoza: there has to be a continuum in everything I do, not that I myself can necessarily make sense of it. Spinoza might also say the continuum is the result of the total determination of everything I do. Luckily for me, my totally determined continuum somehow dropped me into the theater, which is the best world-within-this-world one could wish for. Somehow I ended up in the same business as Shakespeare. Not bad, for a continuum!
This interview was conducted on September 16, 2011.
Header Photo: Geoff Sobelle in Hamlet (2009), David Ingram and Luigi Sottile in The Government Inspector (2008), Forrest McClendon and Lawrence Stallings in Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (2009), and Kristyn Chouiniere and Paul L. Nolan in The Hothouse (2008). Photos by Jeffrey Stockbridge.
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