Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes

Just before the pandemic disrupted ordinary life, Donald Margulies was in Rome. He went as a screenwriter, to meet with the Italian producers of a film based on the novel Benediction by Kent Haruf, set in the American midwest. He made it home safely, but he’s hardly written a word since.

“I don’t know what the world is going to look like, let alone what a play is going to look like,” Margulies says several months later. Instead of writing, the New Havener, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1998 play Dinner with Friends, has been spending several hours a day in the cool, unfinished basement of his East Rock home, making tiny collages out of scraps of paper he’s been collecting for years. While he works, he listens to books he’s always meant to get around to reading: Moby Dick, A Room with a View, Beloved.

Collagemaking might not be the first reaction you’d expect of a playwright to the current crisis—one that has rocked his profession with closed theaters and canceled productions. Yet the shift to collage is really a return to the beginning for Margulies, who originally studied visual arts at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He later transferred to SUNY Purchase, where he majored in graphic design, then landed a job at Scholastic Books in New York City. He’d always loved books; his mother was an avid reader, responsible for introducing her son to the novels of Philip Roth, for example, even when his teachers didn’t think they were appropriate. Margulies found he enjoyed designing books, not just reading them.

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But SUNY Purchase had been the start of something else as well. There, Margulies knocked on the door of Jules Novick, a theater critic and teacher of dramatic literature, and told him he wanted to learn to write plays. In his senior year, he enjoyed the first production of his own words. “It was thrilling to have my work presented in front of people, and miraculously, my parents and my brother attended that one performance, which was so crucial to my coming out as a playwright,” Margulies recalls. That day, he found that he could make the audience laugh with his language and knew what he wanted. “I decided that I wasn’t going to be a starving artist; I was going to be a starving playwright.”

Margulies’s love of theater was seeded in childhood. Raised in Brooklyn, he was brought up on family trips to movie theaters and Broadway. He reckons the first live performance he ever saw was probably the resident show at Radio City Music Hall (which used to change frequently and wasn’t just for Christmas). On occasion, the family took the train from Coney Island to catch a few Broadway shows, paying $3.50 per ticket to sit in the back of the balcony. “There is no equivalent by today’s standards. None,” Margulies says, lamenting the inaccessibility of 21st-century theater. “We could afford to be there. Families of that ilk are excluded now. It’s as simple as that.”

At the age of nine, Margulies saw his first “straight” play—not a musical—on Broadway, Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns. Nearly 30 years later, when Margulies was invited to write an autobiographical piece for The New York Times, he cited Gardner as one of his “spiritual fathers.” A couple of days later, a note arrived in the mail: “‘What, here it is Sunday, you don’t give your spiritual father a call?’” Margulies says, reciting the message. Gardner included his phone number; Margulies made the call and launched a friendship that would last the rest of Gardner’s life.

Despite thrills like that one, the route from Purchase to Broadway was hardly easy for the aspiring playwright. Margulies enrolled in an MFA program in creative writing and dropped out after eight weeks. His mother died. An early play, commissioned by the Jewish Repertory Theatre, received a “devastating” review from New York Times critic Frank Rich. “The fact that I stuck it out is just stubbornness more than anything and vengefulness, I think,” Margulies says. “I think I developed a very strong ‘I’ll show them’ sensibility.”

His wife, retired New Haven physician Lynn Street, has been with him for “the whole shebang,” from the time they first met in 1979. It was 12 years before Margulies finally met with his first critical success, Sight Unseen (1991), a work that was “anointed” by the Times and wound up a Pulitzer finalist. In his third-floor study, Margulies pulls out the letter informing him of that fact; it arrived the same week as Street and Margulies’s son, Miles, in 1992. The Pulitzer itself would be awarded to Margulies years later, in 2000, for Dinner with Friends.

The story of two couples, one solid and one falling apart, Dinner with Friends is an astute record of the “little seismic shifts” in middle age that cause marriages to falter and mortality to reveal itself. “That play came out of that phenomenon that Lynn and I were experiencing of so many couples around us that we thought were as solid as we think we are begin to crumble,” Margulies says. “And it really, truly shakes your foundation.”

Sight Unseen, too, reveals hints of Margulies’s own experience, voiced through successful painter Jonathan Waxman, who finds he must defend himself and his work to nearly everyone else he encounters. “So the critics are salivating, I’m sure,” Jonathan tells his former lover, Patricia. “Ready to chomp into me like their next Big Mac.” It’s a feeling Margulies himself knows all too well.

Still, the playwright says the autobiographical elements of his work are not so much factual as “representative of the things that I am grappling with… Every play that I’ve written comes out of the time in which I’m living and what is on my mind, what am I obsessed about, what’s happening around me, what do I find myself thinking about a lot?” He offers as one example the Tony Award-nominated Time Stands Still (2009), about an Iraq War photojournalist, which came out of “waking up every morning to NPR news about roadside bombings in Iraq.”

At the same time, Margulies strives to get inside the heads of characters who are different from him. “In all of my work, I don’t like to demonize anyone, even people whose opinions I may find reprehensible,” he says. “I try to find the humanity in them. I try to understand how they could think that or be that way.” In Sight Unseen, for example, Jonathan Waxman’s foil is the husband of Patricia, a man named Nick, who is contemptuous of contemporary art in general and Jonathan in particular.

“How is it that all the artists I’ve ever known feel that what they do is so vital to society?” Nick asks. “Does it ever occur to them that if they were wiped off the face of the earth the planet would survive intact?” Though Jonathan certainly sees Nick as a boorish host (he’s staying at Nick and Patricia’s house), Margulies also makes it possible for the viewer to empathize with Nick, who adores a wife who will never love him because she still loves the Jonathan of her youth.

In addition to writing for stage and screen, Margulies teaches at Yale, where he tries to pay it forward, noting how important the encouragement from people like Gardner was to him. He calls teaching a “godsend,” an essential balance to all that writing time spent alone. The production of a play gives him similar pleasure. When he finally gets to sit down around a table with a group of actors and hear his words spoken aloud, Margulies says, that’s “a reward, the carrot at the end of the stick of working in isolation.” The work “doesn’t come alive until people are speaking those words… What a playwright is writing essentially is sheet music. You hear the music in your head, but it’s not the same as hearing an orchestra.” In fact, the act of writing itself may be the least fulfilling part of his work, Margulies admits: “I love having written more than I love writing.”

At “having written,” he has certainly succeeded. The hallway outside his study is lined with posters of his productions. Bookshelves contain memorabilia, a collection of Victorian children’s books, tomes on theater and film. Not everything, however, has come to fruition. A lower shelf holds about 26 unproduced screenplays plus some miniseries that never aired. It’s hard, Margulies says, to do work you’re proud of and never see it produced—even commissioned work for which you’ve been paid.

Still, he’s reached a heady stage in his career. There’s that Pulitzer Prize hanging on his wall, and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library holds his papers. It’s also a stage with its own challenges. “I think that what does happen over the course of a career where you do get your attention and criticism and accolades and all that comes with it,” Margulies says, “is you lose the gift of anonymity, and you become self-conscious.”

And so, at least while COVID-19 keeps the theaters dark, you’ll find Donald Margulies not only in his basement workshop but in another unexpected place as well: Instagram. There, he’s been posting his collages to share with a different kind of audience. In this work that’s old-but-new, the seasoned writer says, he finds a “greater sense of abandon.”

Until there’s a stage and an audience and actors and a production to be shared, he’ll take this small but pleasurable pursuit—a different kind of play.

Donald Margulies
Yale Faculty Page | Instagram

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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