Interview with Alexandra Petri
Question 1 (Mosaic): Could you describe your writing life for us? You opine. Blog. Tweet. Write a syndicated column. And write (and rewrite) plays. Why plays? Of course plays! It truly feels like witchcraft getting to put words on a page and then see them come to life, and I never get tired of it. My favorite genre of writing, whether it's columns or plays or anything else, is when I take an erroneous idea seriously and try to figure out how it would play out, all the nonsense things that would have to also be true if it were true. I love the kind of alternative world that you create for yourself when you live inside a lie. Like when people were talking about crisis actors: okay, so what is the crisis audition process like? Are there callbacks? Just trying to walk around inside an absurd idea long enough that people can see what a universe it creates for you. And plays to me are a fascinating way of getting to that. They're a way to use just words to create this weird space that people have to live in with you for a while, and I love that. Also I love that in plays you can control what people say to each other; conversations can have winners and losers; you can set people up for zingers in ways that I always wish my actual conversations would but they never seem to. Question 2 (Mosaic): How did William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal enter your consciousness? Why Buckley and Vidal now? And why this play after the film "Best of Enemies?" There's a saying, "if two people always agree, one of them is unnecessary," and if that's true, Vidal and Buckley are both absolutely vital. I had always vaguely known about both of them; you can't wander through a used bookstore without bumping into several copies of Vidal's Chronicles of Empire, which I think would both gratify and bother him, and the seersucker ghost of Buckley still echoes through modern conservatism, on and off campus. Of course Buckley was a movement-builder and Vidal felt that he was sounding this vatic note alone uphill both ways in blinding snowstorms, sometimes correctly and sometimes in-. When I saw "Best of Enemies," I became absolutely obsessed with them. I started watching the debates over and over again, trying to figure out why I was so fascinated with them. They're both these strange sui generis figures, both spring from privilege, but they also take this amazing delight in kind of inventing themselves in opposition to what they see as the malign forces around them. They have accents that have to be heard to be believed! The debates themselves are so wonderfully theatrical I wanted to see them onstage, but the great thing about a play is it doesn't have to just be the debates. It can also try to solve a puzzle. One of my favorite classic plays is Frogs, whose thesis, like most Aristophanes plays, is, well, things are bad now. How do we fix it? Maybe if we went down into Hades and brought back one of the old great poets, we could fix things. I think the idea that you can go bring some zombie person or idea back and it will solve things for you is an incredibly seductive one, as we saw in 2016, and that's the idea that this play wants to take seriously. In "Watchmen" (everyone should watch "Watchmen") there's this line, it's dangerous to take someone else's nostalgia. I think this play is about nostalgia. What are we nostalgic for, exactly? Should we be? How has nostalgia stuck us where we are now? It's been fun to play around in a fictional world created by nostalgia and the stories people tell about themselves and others, and try to show the answer to that question.
Question 3: The Vidal-Buckley debates happened around the Republican & Democratic conventions of 1968. But this play takes place now, and the debates are re-created. How do the politics of '68 election speak to where we are now? I think '68 was a year when lots of things broke. The fascinating thing is how many of the debates they were having then are the same as the ones we're having now, just in a different verbal guise. Questions of racial justice, so-called law and order, American imperialism, wealth disparity -- these are all still with us. Question 4: You've done a ton of research about Buckley and Vidal. Give a sense of other colorful characters from history who enter this play? Who have you enjoyed writing most and why? This is tough! I am someone whose idea of a good afternoon is to sit down and watch Norman Mailer yell at Janet Flanner and Dick Cavett about FINGER BOWLS -- it's amazing television! -- so this is like choosing a favorite child. I assume. Maybe if I were a parent I would have one obvious favorite child and this would not be an issue. I loved hearing from the people they hated! James Baldwin and Truman Capote, for instance. One of the things I loved most about this research process was learning just how enmeshed their lives were with the lives of so many people who wouldn't even occur to you and didn't even make it into the show. Gossip elevated to the level of history is one of my favorite genres of history, and Vidal's memoirs are full of it -- Eleanor Roosevelt, all his weirdest encounters with the Kennedys, Princess Margaret. He visited Paris and dropped by Proust's favorite brothel! And then of course you have Buckley who is friends with everyone from Ronald Reagan to Ken Galbraith and who also has all these strange footnotes like his long correspondence with Art Buchwald about their rental car status. Just so many strange and fascinating connections! Honestly, though, Buckley and Vidal themselves. Question 5: What do you hope audiences (young and old) get out of seeing your new play in this particular moment? I hope it is amusing and instructive! I hope it reminds them of the past enough to hint why you wouldn't want to be trapped there. I think of the play as an escape room and I hope they will find the door in it.