Thursday, August 11, 2011

Camelot interview

I recently answered a number of questions via e-mail for Sarah Wash (who went on to write an extremely flattering reflection on the show for Minnesota Playlist). With responses for the show ranging from enthusiasm to bafflement, I thought a more detailed exegesis might be of interest. Copied below, and spoilers ahoy.
1. I saw in a couple of places that Camelot is Crumbling is part of a trilogy--one for which you did a lot of background research. What did you research? And what can you tell me about the third show in the trilogy? Has it been written yet? How does it complete the picture?
Ha -- not exactly a trilogy (though I'd be curious to know where you read that). I see it as an ongoing play cycle, something akin (in style if not necessarily in quality) to Shakespeare's history plays, insofar as each one of the stories is self-contained, but placed in sequence they detail longer character arcs. (I'm actually quite wary of advertising the fact that I visualize a sequence of plays, since I fear that that might alienate audiences from wanting to see them individually.)

"Research" also feels a bit grandiose, for an activity that I do largely for pleasure -- the plays are a by-product of a lifelong love of medieval romances, rather than choosing to read the romances solely to inform the plays. This show in particular draws heavily (word-for-word in places) on the last book of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, a fifteenth-century epic novel written by a soldier in captivity. The book's notable in particular, I think, for painting an incredibly psychologically complex portrait of Lancelot.

I visualize Camelot is Crumbling as the final play in the cycle. I think that it speaks for itself, but it may be of some interest to note that it's heavily cut down for Fringe -- in the full draft, there's a third storyline revolving around Percival, tying the action back to The Rise of General Arthur (which largely features the exploits of his father, Pellinore). Light and darkness is a major recurring theme throughout the cycle, as well, and Percival is noted for being the knight that "pierces through the middle." Again, no idea how interested anyone might be in that bit of trivia, but there it is.
2. I'm not sure whether or not I was reading into things or not, but I sensed that there was some intense personal significance for you in writing about these issues--something that came through particularly in some of the things Mordred said and did. Can you tell me anything about the life experiences or personal reflections that led you to create this show?
I'm extremely wary of attempts to draw connections between a play and the playwright's personal life -- and in many respects I think that the playwright is potentially the worst person to draw those connections -- but I've commented that I think that Camelot is my most autobiographical show (and that's including my autobiographical shows). It's the one that's most intimately concerned with the theological issues that preoccupy me. It's interesting that you saw the connection with Mordred, because I find myself identifying more closely with Lancelot -- particularly with his kind of destructive, all-or-nothing stubbornness. I have a tendency to latch onto extremes, and to struggle with the idea of compromise -- certainly not on the nation-shattering level that he does, but it's a recurring problem for me. Moderation requires discipline, and in that respect the two of us are profoundly immature, undisciplined men.

Much of Mordred's dialogue was written over a decade ago -- heavily, heavily rewritten in that time, but I see him as expressing the frustrations of a younger man, whereas Lancelot is dealing with some seriously grown-up problems. The place I still connect with Mordred is in his irrationally anti-authoritarian streak, his desire to lash out against anyone in a position of power, justly or unjustly. It's that impulse to self-destruct, and to take out everything in range. There's a line of his that I cut from the play (but included in the trailer): "Destroying Camelot is only action that could have any meaning." I've been asked why he does what he does, and I think a lot of it is simply that the destruction of Camelot is a big red button in front of him that he's not supposed to push. And, yeah, there's definitely periods of my life where I identify with that.
3. What is the significance of the symmetrical, side-by-side staging (other than the content and the symmetry between the two characters)?
I think you've largely answered your own question here, but to expand on the idea a bit: the play largely revolves around comparing and contrasting the two men, the white knight and the dark knight. Philosophically, they both form their position from the same premise -- the absence of God, or an objective moral reality (and this is probably the respect in which I've drifted the farthest from the romances -- Lancelot is traditionally quite pious, for all his failings). Mordred uses this as a rationalization to indulge his impulses, whereas Lancelot views this as necessitating an even higher moral standard (although he, ultimately, struggles with that conclusion as well). The irony is that both paths (Mordred's destructive nature, Lancelot's unbending principles) lead them to the same place -- the crumbling of Camelot.

Moderation's a major theme of the Camelot cycle. Once Lancelot swears himself to an absolute, he's to some degree abandoned his own freedom, rendering his own behavior both predictable and easy to manipulate.
4. What do you hope your audience gets out of being a part of this experience?
Oh, man -- on the most basic level, I hope they have a good time. I think the two characters are relating exciting, compelling stories, and if that's not coming across that's my failure. Beyond that, I hope that people identify with the characters and the problems they're struggling with. One thing that fascinates me is that people tend to walk away from the show picking a side -- they're either Lancelot people or Mordred people.

The most gratifying thing I hear, and I've heard it a couple of times, is that it leads people back to Malory. He's a better writer than I am, which is why so much of his writing shows up in the show.