Just before rehearsals began, Education Dramaturg Ted Sod sat down with Roundabout Resident Director Doug Hughes to talk about The Big Knife.
Ted Sod: Why did you choose to direct The Big Knife?
Doug Hughes: I’ve always felt that it was one of Odets’s most striking and powerful plays. It's also one of his most neglected. Odets was a great American playwright who was staggeringly influential. Critical opinion has identified entirely with his pre-WWII work and the Depression era. But I think he had something remarkable to say about the America that emerged victorious from the war. That short period between Hiroshima and the Korean War fascinates me. What was this country going to do now that its military, economic, and cultural power was unassailable? Nearly seventy years after that moment, I'm interested in looking closely at The Big Knife, which took the temperature of postwar America. We were either at the start of “The American Century,” as Henry Luce called it in Time magazine, or "The Century of the Common Man,” as Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s wartime Vice-President, who had very different ideas, dubbed it. In a very powerful, very personal way, I think Odets was writing about the tension between those two aspirations for our country. Charlie Castle, Odets’ protagonist in the play, wants to be an uncompromising artist; he yearns after an idealistic, altruistic pathway through life. But he also has an equal if not overriding appetite for power, for security, and for, as he puts it, “the life of a rajah.” This was a life-long dilemma for Odets. Somewhere in The Time is Ripe, which is the title of the published version of a journal he kept in 1940, there is this entry: “I want to be a poor poet and a powerful businessman, a sensational young man and a modest artist with a secret life.”
TS: The studio system in Hollywood was still in place during the time this play takes place, correct?
DH: It might be past its heyday, but it’s still very much in place. There are still big stars under long-term contracts. There are still studio heads who kept their own police forces, ruthlessly defended their territory, and dealt darkly with unpleasant secrets. These guys were totalitarian dictators. They were dedicated to driving up the company stock price and increasing their own power and prestige. They were making a lot of money. They were also, it has to be said, making some great movies. So, yes, the studio system was very much in place at the time of this play, which was first done on Broadway in 1949.
TS: Do you think Odets’ life in Hollywood or the life of his first wife, Luise Rainer, who I know was ostracized by MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, is reflected in this play?
DH: The story of Odets' time in Hollywood can certainly offer up a parable of the poet lured to Babylon. The notion that Hollywood corrupts the artist, that the system is rigged against the artist, is a tale that's been oft told. That's old news, and I don't think it's what Odets was writing about. He isn't writing a polemic. He's offering us an experience. The studio system is what it is (or is what it was); it operates on its own rules, just as Wall Street does or Washington does. And the play's central character, Charlie Castle, is a man who has thrived in that system and has played beautifully by its rules. But as the events of the play unfold, he finds himself entering an impossible situation. He is in a place where there really seems to be no way of avoiding soul-killing compromise. It’s Charlie’s story -- not a tale about how dreadful Hollywood is. That's not the way I’m going to approach it. I'm thinking of The Big Knife as "The Passion of Charlie Castle." Don't get me wrong, everyone involved in the show is fascinated by the milieu of that time and place--studios and starlets and fancy homes in the Hollywood Hills and such. But we are after other things as well.
TS: One of the things that I love about the play is the relationship between Marion and Charlie. It seems like Marion is offering Charlie an opportunity to get his soul back. Do you think their marriage is an important aspect of the story?
DH: Oh, it’s the most important thing. It’s a very intense, very complex love story. They are soul mates who bonded in a world that more closely resembled the early days of The Group Theatre than the world they live in now, the high life of late '40s Hollywood. Are they going to make it? Can their relationship survive the violence and lies that have beset it? Odets is writing about the familiar fact that the person who can most deeply wound you is the person who loves and knows you most deeply. Both Charlie and Marion keep secrets. Both are capable of betrayal. There's lots of betrayal in this play. Charlie is the sort of man who can both inspire and resist profound love. That paradox is one of the major tensions that animates the play.
TS: What were you looking for in casting the play?
DH: It all dates back to a conversation over five years ago with Bobby Cannavale. We were doing a play of Theresa Rebeck’s called Mauritius on Broadway at the Biltmore; and one day we were chatting in between scenes and we discovered our shared admiration for this play, which I had read years and years ago. I had picked up a copy at a second-hand bookstore and Bobby had seen a production directed by the phenomenal Joanne Woodward at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. That was that until about a year ago when Bobby and I got together socially and The Big Knife came up again. With my patented firm grasp of the obvious, I mentioned that he was superb casting for Charlie Castle. He seemed to agree and we both got enthusiastic about working on it together. So I took it to Todd Haimes, who knows every play ever written, and we built it from there. We did a reading last March, and it was one of those great occasions where, in nearly every case, the people I asked were available and interested and similarly captivated by the play. And nearly everybody from that reading will be reassembling a year later to do the production. Odets’ plays are orchestrated for a lot of different voices. And I think we’ve been lucky enough to interest actors who are brilliantly capable of playing the fantastic score of this play.
TS: Will there be a film noir quality in the design?
DH: I'm very interested in the movies that fall under that heading and I’m always one for shadows and high-contrast lighting -- that seems to be a proclivity of mine. I did a production of Born Yesterday a couple of seasons ago on Broadway and it falls exactly in the same era and, if it isn’t too paradoxical a statement, I think of that as a noir comedy and I think of this as a noir tragedy. A lot of the anxieties that animate Born Yesterday are alive in The Big Knife: Just how aware are we going to choose to be? Just how honest are we going to choose to be? Just how brave are we going to choose to be? Will we get found out? Will we get out alive? Those are the concerns of what is called film noir, in which there is often a system, a status quo, that hums along nicely until somebody runs afoul of the rules, and thereby hangs a tale.
TS: You’ve assembled an amazing ensemble, and I’m excited to learn how our audience will respond to it.
DH: This is why theatres like the Roundabout exist. Who else would have the guts to do The Big Knife? And who else has cultivated an audience as interested in venturing away from familiar titles? There is such a thing as the neglected play, the lost play of genuine stature, of true merit. The concerns of The Big Knife seem to me to be perennial ones. I am so grateful to Todd and Roundabout. I'm thrilled to be a resident director here because the whole operation is designed for just such an exploration of a fantastic but forgotten play by an essential American genius.
The Big Knife plays March 22 through June 2 at the American Airlines Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
2012-2013 Season, A Conversation with, The Big Knife