Durang on Life, Lore and Theater

Christopher Durang '71 is a playwright of extremes. His plays and musicals combine sophisticated literary allusion and bawdy sexual humor. He parodizes and satirizes such revered institutions as religion, the family, and the literary canon. According to Durang, the only rule in writing is "whatever you write about, you must have a strong reaction to it." Ironically, the one institution Durang seems to have no strong opinion about is his alma mater--Harvard.

Durang does concede having a "liking" for Harvard, and was pleased to speak here this week. Yet Durang's years at Harvard were mostly unhappy and unproductive. Though he liked Harvard and the area, Durang found it impossible to write as easily as he had in high school. In addition to the usual self-doubt that most freshman experience, Durang was overwhelmed by the authoritarian tone of Harvard courses: "Certain Harvard classes...present things as if they were the most important thing, and I would sort of go, oh well, that must be the most important, and whatever I had to say or think was not that important... It just made me get quiet, very quiet."

Durang slid into a kind of depression while at Harvard, lifting only in his senior year, when he found himself able to write again. To amuse his friends, Durang had been making up alternate lyrics to musical comedy standards, and soon had enough material for an entire musical of his own, entitled "The Greatest Musical Ever Sung."

The irreverent piece, based on the life of Jesus and including such spoofs as "Everything's Coming Up Moses", was performed in the Dunster Dining Hall. The audiences and the Crimson reviewer loved it, but some people on campus were outraged. One Jesuit priest wrote a letter to the Crimson comparing Durang's work to "a pig trampling in a sanctuary".

Though the reaction against his musical foreshadowed Boston's heated reaction to Durang's plays many years down the line, the success of his show "upped my feelings of confidence and also reminded me how much I enjoyed making an audience laugh". Thus lifted from his slump, Durang wrote his next play, "The Nature and Purpose of the Universe" in a matter of days. This one act play, stretching Catholic theology and family drama to outrageous limits, is the first incarnation of the sophisticated satire which characterizes many of Durang's plays. "I felt like it was an enormous relief doing it," Durang says of this early work.

Looking back on these years now, Durang traces his negative experiences at Harvard more to his own psychological state than to Harvard itself. "I found that most of my identity issues happened in college and not in high school It's just a much more difficult and formative time. I just didn't write much and questioned myself."

Having escaped Dunster for the Yale Drama School, Durang began a prolific career in satire, farce and parody. Despite the vitriolic nature of some of his pieces, Durang claims they arise not out of opposition to any of these institutions but from disappointment in them, especially with Catholicism. The Catholic church "set up this whole system of how the world works, which had a real comfort to it, even though the rules were kind of strict," says Durang. "And once you leave those strict rules I think there was a sort of feeling of disappointment and being unmoored."

Surprisingly, his Catholic upbringing is responsible for the sexually explicit subject matter of much of his work, according to Durang. "Given my Catholic training, as well as my family... there is a tendency not to want to talk about anything controversial or psychologically upsetting," says Durang. "I think there must have been some psychological glee in going to the other side of that."

Despite this acknowledgment of the shock value of some of his plays, Durang was initially surprised by the negative reaction of some groups to his work. "When my plays would offend people I was sort of surprised. It started out being people in my parents' generation, so I would say, oh, well, that's grown ups. And now I am a grown up. And some people are still bothered by my plays. And I guess is just a question of different tastes."

In 1983 and '85, Durang's one act play, "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You," was nearly prevented from running in Boston and St. Louis. Catholic groups were offended by Durang's satirization of parochial school education and Catholic attitudes in the central character, the murderous and manipulative Sister Mary. "What I didn't realize in writing the play," says Durang, "is that religion is just a really strong thing and if people feel that you're attacking their beliefs or making fun of those beliefs it's very enraging." Durang was aggravated, however, by the adhominem tactics of these groups, which attacked Durang and his work as anti-Catholic rather than engaging in a dialogue about the play. "We didn't talk about the issues at all. We just talked about the accusation."

Problems with his plays arise, Durang says, because "there are some people who don't understand humor is about things that are serious. They think, its either serious or its funny but it can't be both. And I'm always trying to combine the two. Someone who doesn't like to combine or feels they can't be combined is often made very surprised by my plays."

Durang's attitude towards critics has varied over the years. "I had a period from 1987-92 where I felt really upset about the way theater in New York was so connected to how you are [received by] the New York Times". On the one hand, says Durang, "usually when I write I think everyone is going to like it." However, he takes criticism seriously. "I do find it interesting when it's over to sit down and look through and see the range of them and see if certain scenes show up...If the reviews brought up enough similar things, it helps to rewrite it."

The most positive critical response to Durang's work thus far was, ironically, to the controversial Sister Mary which ran for two years in New York. His recent series of one acts, including the Tennessee Williams parody "For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls" have also been well received by the New York critics. These parodies, says Durang, "are never from a dislike of great literature. Most of the parody I've done has actually been of things I've liked. I do like Glass Menagerie. I'm just overexposed to it."

Despite their renegade perspective, Durang's works are quickly becoming a part of the late-20th century canon. His plays are shelved next to W.E.B. DuBois at Lamont, and are sandwiched between Lord Dunsanay and Marguerite Duras in encyclopedias of drama. Yet for Durang, the bigger pay-off is the popularity of his plays among drama students. "I'm very flattered by that and then when I get a bad review, it makes me think, oh good, then the play isn't ended just because a critic didn't like it."

Durang doesn't try to rationalize the paradoxes of his work, which can be at once high-brow and happily vulgar, at once a send-up of the literary canon and an addition to that canon. He acknowledges, too, that there is a double edge to his satire of societal institutions, a vilification belying a genuine disappointment in their failures. The measly contradictions of his plays, says Durang, come naturally and reflect the impulsiveness of his creative process. "I start off with the rules to a particular universe, which are really crack-pot. I just sort of expect people to come along because it's fun."

Christopher Durang spoke yesterday as Adams House. The Harvard Crimson was granted a private interview prior to his appearance here