Several months ago we put in a call to Bill Cain, the author of this play, with a question about publicity. How did he want to advertise the play? We knew that the text was based on his real-life experience, but we didn’t want to make any assumptions about Bill’s desire for transparency. Writers, as you might expect, vary widely in their choices about how much information about themselves they want to publicly disclose.
Bill’s answer was surprisingly disarming. “Given the names of the characters,” he said, “I think we should embrace the autobiographical nature of the play.” He sounded both resigned and excited. “The easiest way to approach this is to say that the play is based on an unpublished book I wrote from my diary of the same title as the play. It’s a ritual made from the events of an actual person’s passing.”
The key word is “ritual.” Mr. Cain was able to craft a script that reimagines the events surrounding the death of his mother. The diary-based nature of the material lends authenticity to the play, but his intention as an artist goes beyond the recording of his own experience. He sought some kind of release from the personal pain of his ordeal, some kind of communion with others who had gone through similar trials. He needed to feel a deeper sense of compassion. First for himself. Then for his characters and their considerable suffering. Ultimately, what he discovered was joy—the mysterious joy that comes from the singular act of creation, and the beneficent joy that is contained in the heart of every profound loss.
By doing so, Bill taps into one of the essential functions of theatre: to revisit a difficult experience through the protective lens of an imagined story. And in this delicate, beautiful play, he has managed to do just that. Through his honesty and artistry, he allows us to be transported into the imagined world of his family, a world so recognizable that it connects us to our own families. And he does it with humor. With sadness. And with joy.
Kent Nicholson, a long-time collaborator of the author, returns to the Bay Area to make his directorial debut at Berkeley Rep. We welcome him and his entire creative team to our theatre, our staff and to you, our extended family. Enjoy.
by Madeleine Oldham
Bill Cain’s star is finally, rightfully rising on the horizon of the American Theatre. His first play achieved success on the West Coast, went to New York and closed after 13 performances. It was not until 20 years later that his second play, Equivocation, debuted at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival and also ran at New York’s City Center. 9 Circles premiered at Marin Theatre Company last year, this production of How to Write a New Book for the Bible will move on to Seattle Rep and in an unprecedented repeat performance, Bill won the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association Award presented at the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays in both 2010 and 2011. With this current momentum behind him, his career is right in the middle of seriously taking off. Bill was nice enough to take a moment and answer some questions posed by Berkeley Rep Dramaturg Madeleine Oldham, with special help from Public Relations Director Terence Keane.
Why write this particular play?
The play focuses on three people: my father, my mother and my brother. These are exquisite human beings, and I wanted to ritualize in some way the wonder of their lives as a way of celebrating them. I think the history of both religion and drama is the sins of the parents are visited on the children—as told by the children. And whether that’s Adam and Eve have ruined our lives or James Tyrone and Mary Tyrone [Long Day’s Journey into Night] have ruined the lives of their children. This is not my experience. My experience is the opposite of the general tradition; I have a huge sense of the blessing of my parents’ lives being passed to the next generation, and I wanted to make a ritual of that passage of life visible.
Most of drama really is pointing the finger backwards. And comedy is where we get to celebrate. There’s a drama in generosity as well. I don’t think the only drama is in the scarring or the losses. I think there’s great drama in self-sacrifice and kindness and the cost of kindness. And that’s a ritual I would like people to enter. And exit less afraid and more joyous.
What do you hope people will walk away with when they see this play?
I hope they walk away with a great sense of joy, walk away carrying less fear about how life ends. My parents both gave off light as they died, and they found a way to make their deaths a summation of the goodness they had received and given for their whole lives. The play is very funny. And I think the reason for that is my parents understood that death does not negate life, but it’s one of the things in life. I hope the play works as a celebration of all of the darkness and light and not just some of it.
Was this a play that’s been building inside you for a long time, or did it come to you in a particular moment?
The first part of this play was actually written shortly after mom died. I had cleaned out the apartment and I found myself unable to leave. I stayed in the empty apartment an extra day just hanging out. Then I knew I had to go or what needed to happen—which is the final scene of the play—wouldn’t happen. The apartment needed to be empty of everything. Certainly empty of me. So I took the one thing I hadn’t been able to throw out before—the ironing board—and left—knowing what event would take place in my absence. That sequence—the play’s ending—was written immediately on leaving the apartment. After that—bit by bit—over the next 10 years I wrote the story of the play as a book—which I then adapted into this play.
Plays are full of decisions about what the right information is to tell a story. Were there things that were particularly hard for you to leave out?
Does the play cause you to relive painful moments? If so, do you find it cathartic?
I think of the play as joyous. I don’t feel any regrets about any of the events of the play. Compassion certainly. I feel that my parents and my brother are absolutely exquisite people and I see the play as a celebration of them.
Is this the most autobiographical thing you’ve written?
Is the play pure autobiography or is it a blend of fact and fiction?
“Bill” says early in the play that he’s keeping a journal and writing it all down. “Bill” is faithful to that. Some of the funnier sequences—including the biggest fight in the play—are virtual transcriptions of the events. If I were going to fictionalize, I would have taken out some of my more boneheaded, selfish behavior, but I decided to let it stay as it was.
Were members of your family supportive of your writing this play?
It was a book before it was a play, and my brother loved reading the (still unpublished) book. He’s a little more concerned about the play, but he’s decided to trust me on it—for which I am very grateful.
How does being a priest affect your playwriting and vice versa?
I’m a Jesuit priest, and the Jesuits weren’t founded to live in a cloister or a monastery. We’re supposed to go into the world, find the presence of God there and celebrate it. I’d say that was a pretty good description of what all of us in theatre do as well. Theatre is always proclaiming “attention must be paid” to what is neglected and holy. Willy Loman. Antigone. Blanche. In this play—Mary. The jobs of writer and priest—as “Bill” says in the play—are closely related. In both, you point and say, “Look. Look there. That person you haven’t noticed—he, she matters.”
Can you talk a little bit about why you included the subtitle “A play for an older actress”?
It just is.
Religion in contemporary America can be a fraught conversation at times. Have you encountered any pushback about drawing on the Bible in your play?
I think we all sense the religious nature of family and this play places that—as does the Bible—at the center of revelation. It’s hard to quarrel with that. The Bible—it’s not a rule book. It’s the story of a family.
Did your family have a family bible?
We had bibles, but not the hand-me-down kind from generations before. The Bible for us wasn’t so much the physical book, but the stories. My family lived in stories and both mom and dad were storytellers. Dad couldn’t tell a joke. He’d get laughing so hard he couldn’t get to the punch line—which annoyed us as kids—but he was a champion storyteller. When we were little, he would make up stories with us and all the neighborhood kids in them. Mom’s stories always had a point and the point was usually “Work harder!” But Bible stories mixed in with Irish lore, sports stories, neighborhood gossip, literature and history to create a rich stew of beginnings, middles and endings.
When did you decide you wanted to be a playwright?
I had been a director for many years and was working at the Boston Shakespeare Company when I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Nicholas Nickleby and knew instantly I wanted to write. Four years later, I had a play called Stand-Up Tragedy. It took me 20 years to write the second one, but I seem to be picking up pace at the moment.
Do you write in other formats? What attracts you to writing for the stage?
I wrote for television for many years and loved doing that. Nothing Sacred for ABC-TV was one of the great experiences of my life. It won the Peabody Award and the Writers Guild Award with a bunch of others. We didn’t last long—one season—but, while we lasted, we created a national community and it was an extraordinary experience.
I don’t find much difference between stage and television. I love them both for the same reason—gathering a community around a story—with any luck, with some laughter—always widening the circle of inclusion. I love theatre for its intimacy and television for its vast reach.
Does the process of creating a play look the same for you each time? If not, how was this one different from others?
All are time-consuming, wracking, lonely and…Why do I do this?
What’s next in your writing world after this play?
I just workshopped a play called “thiry.three.” at the Ojai Playwrights Conference, which has been kind enough to host all of my plays so far. It’s also biblically based, which is odd for me. Jesus refuses to rise from the tomb. Just to get out of the Bible, I’m working on (not really working, it’s recreational writing) a screenplay about the sexual coming of age of lifeguards on the Jersey shore. It’s an emotional comedy. Then, finishing an overdue film script about Greg Boyle—a Jesuit who works brilliantly with gang members in Los Angeles. He talks about the basic quality of love being “no-matter-what-ness.” I love that.
What haven’t you done yet that you’d like to?
I’d like to try pole-vaulting at least once. Skydiving at most once. I’d like to live in Florence for a while and soak up some Dante, Canterbury and soak up some Chaucer, Dublin and read the second half of Finnegans Wake. Someday I’d like to really clean my room. I’d like to, for once, fold my laundry as soon as it comes out of the dryer. I’d like to do a one-man show—or maybe I’d just like to be the kind of person who could do a one-man show. There is a great deal of writing I would like to memorize—James Agee’s poem “Dedication” and Teilhard de Chardin’s “Hymn of the Universe.” I’d like to go back to studying karate—that feels like unfinished business. I’d like to go back to teaching middle school in the Bronx—nothing was ever better than that. I’d like to write a play a year for the next 10 years. Or a really good play every two years. Or a great play—once. I’d like to write a new book for the Bible.
by Julie McCormick
The desire to remember and be remembered is a mark of our humanity, a constant refrain in the cacophony of history and change. The profound fear of being forgotten after our deaths underpins the way that we choose to chronicle our lives. After all, if our stories are not kept by those who follow us, it means that our deaths are a meaningless exercise in suffering and loss. We long for some kind of afterlife, hoping that the end of our time in this world will be compensated by some kind of existence in the next. We carve our initials into trees and tourist attractions, tuck our grandmothers’ quilts into a child’s crib and fix fleeting memories to a scrap of celluloid. Though it finds a new medium in every culture and era, the impulse to bear witness and leave a tangible record remains.
In early modern Europe (the late 15th century through the 18th century), commonplace books, the precursors to scrapbooks, flourished. They contained anything from scholarly notes on reading to recipes, medical remedies, proverbs and scientific formulas. Poland has a similar tradition. From the 16th to 18th century, Polish nobility kept track of family history in books called silva rerum, which translates from the Latin as “forest of things.” These enormous tomes chronicled genealogy, family traditions, social customs, legal documents, financial records, farming tips, poems, letters, jokes—anything one generation felt was important to pass onto the next. Instead of being revised and published in editions, silva rerum grew organically from generation to generation, with each owner adding a new wealth of information. Though not intended for general readership, friends were occasionally allowed to borrow the chronicles and add their own commentary. Many of these priceless treasures were destroyed when the Nazis ravaged Poland, but a few remained to inspire a distinct brand of postmodern national literature.
Family bibles served a similar function in 19th-century America. Whether tattered and travel-worn or carefully ensconced in a parlor, many households had a copy of the Bible for study, spiritual revelation, entertainment, show and record-keeping. Your grandparents or the grandparents of someone you know probably have an old family volume stashed away in a box in the attic. Births, deaths, occupations and marriages were assiduously penned on an empty sheet; fancier editions like Harper’s Illuminated Bible included more than 100 blank pages for writing down family trees. Some families incorporated more detailed information, such as newspaper clippings, photographs, important letters or documents tucked between the pages; one bride even sewed pieces of her wedding dress into her bible to commemorate the occasion.
Bibles, however, are far more complicated objects than commonplace books or silva rerum. The Scriptures have been enormously controversial throughout the several thousand years of their existence—the source of wars, migration, social movements, theological debates, persecution, governments and artistic inspiration. The physical books themselves have had no less of an exciting history. During the Middle Ages, illuminated manuscripts were a source of incredible beauty and superior craftsmanship, not to mention income for the monasteries that produced them. Some scholars even suggest that the copy-work of Irish monks is what preserved Western civilization through the Dark Ages. The first book ever printed on a movable-type press was the Gutenberg Bible in the 1450s, and the desire to produce bibles on a massive scale has been the driving force behind many technological innovations ever since. Until printed materials became more affordable, the Bible was often the only book a family owned, which meant that it was where children would learn to read. Well into the 19th century, in homes, schools and society at large, the Bible was the most widely read, produced and distributed book in North America.
Yet amid the beauty and drama of the Bible’s history as a source of spiritual conversation and as a material object, the chapter on family bibles is often overlooked. Family bibles carry a unique significance in American history that go beyond their life as cultural artifacts or as holy books—they also serve as intimate repositories for family memory.
Part of the reason that these texts play such a significant role in family identity is that due to the efforts of one organization, most households owned a copy of the Bible. In the early 1800s, a devout faction of the Christian community worried that Americans were being distracted from the Bible’s true importance by myriad other print sources flooding the market. They believed that if the Bible was the most readily available thing to read, then it would be viewed with the reverence it deserved and resume its place at the center of American intellectual life. Thus, the American Bible Society was founded with the goal of placing a bible in the hands of every American family.
To reach this end, the ABS had to become a revolutionary force in the publishing industry. Printing at the beginning of the 19th century was an arduous, costly process. Lead type had to be set and inked by hand—it could take as many as three people to produce a single page. Paper was expensive; printers only dared to make as many copies as they were sure would sell. To supplement their income, they made other materials like pamphlets and printed sermons; to focus too narrowly meant financial ruin. And that was just the book itself. Most printers didn’t even put covers on their texts—it was up to the customer to get it bound. Many families bought a hodgepodge of whatever was cheapest, but wealthier households could afford to have all their books covered in the same material. This made the family library unique and special—no else would have a copy of a particular book that looked exactly the same.
Bibles, then, were the golden ring of the printing world. At roughly 2,000 pages, it was an ambitious undertaking to physically manufacture an edition and a great risk financially. If the firm didn’t go bankrupt from the initial outlay for labor and raw materials, the book would be so expensive that few could afford it. Some daring souls managed with limited success, but the American Bible Society was the first publishing company to make inexpensive bibles on a massive scale. For one, its goal was to distribute as many volumes as possible rather than turn a profit, so it was able to specialize and only produce bibles. This in turn streamlined the printing process and allowed the firm to take greater risks. For example, the American Bible Society was using stereotype printing (a new technique that created permanent blocks of type for each page, so each page wouldn’t have to be reset for a new edition) 10 years before any other major publishing house. By 1829, it was using steam presses as opposed to manually operated ones, drastically cutting down on production time. The ABS was also one of the first to vertically integrate its business—it not only printed the bibles, but also bound them. Finally, the bibles were sold via subscription as well as in retail locations. This meant that even the poorest, most remotely situated homesteads could purchase a bible in installments. Instead of being a rare luxury item, family bibles were becoming the norm.
Other booksellers recognized the incredibly lucrative market for bibles, but also knew that it would be impossible for an independent person to compete with the low prices and abundance of ABS bibles. Instead, they turned their efforts elsewhere, creating increasingly more of what would today be thought of as “fine press” bibles. These works of art included illustrations, maps of the Holy Land, commentary and dictionaries. Harper’s Illuminated Bible would, for a little extra, even put an image of your local church on the front cover embossed in gold. This new approach made bibles so much more than a place to read the Scriptures: they were also sources of education, delight and identification, much the way that custom-bound books once were. Though contemporary critics argued that these costly additions were distracting, Paul C. Gutjahr, the author of a history of the Bible in the United States, offers another perspective. He suggests that a “more expensive binding material echoed the book’s priceless content,” so that the tradition of binding bibles in durable leather as opposed to the more cost-effective cloth was symbolic of the timelessness of the Bible’s contents. Treasuring the external package meant that the words and memories within would be treasured as well, creating a sympathetic link between the tangible and ephemeral.
Perhaps this link between the longevity of materials and the immortality of ideas is what ignited the trend of keeping records in the Family Bible. The perfect storm of precious words, precious materials and sheer presence made the Bible into the ideal place to secure one’s memory. If the holy words would live for all time and their heavy, gilt-edged vehicle nearly as long, then in some small way, so too would the book’s previous owners. This poem, penned in a bible by a woman named Abigail Torr (1781–1869) says it all:
Abigail Torr is my name
New England is my nation
Durham is my dwelling place
and Christ is my salvation
When I am dead and buried
and all my bones are rotten
When this you see remember me
that I may not be forgotten.
Throughout this play, there are numerous references to the Bible and Catholic beliefs in particular. Though it’s rudimentary for some, others of us could use a little enlightenment. Here are some helpful terms to know.
Baptism, Confirmation, Communion, Penance (confession), Extreme Unction (Anointing of the Sick), Holy Orders, Matrimony
“Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner.”
The Jesus prayer has historically been a part of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. It is a meditative exercise often repeated with the aid of prayer beads. Sometimes used in Roman Catholic/Protestant contexts.
Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, Sirach, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Baruch, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees.
New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts of the Apostles, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation or Apocalypse.
From the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass (services for the dead)
“May the angels lead you into Paradise, [name here]. May the martyrs receive you at your coming and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem. May a choir of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have eternal rest.”
Rebekah tricked her husband Isaac into giving his blessing to their younger son, Jacob (her favorite), instead of their elder son Esau. She deceived Isaac, who was nearly blind, by covering Jacob’s arms with skins. When touching the boy’s arms to see who it was, Isaac thought it was the more hirsute Esau and gave his blessing.
When the Egyptian pharaoh ordered the execution of all newborn Hebrew boys, Moses’ mother Jochebed saved him by putting him in the river in a wicker basket. The pharaoh’s daughter found him, and he became an adoptive member of the royal family.
Sarah, wife of Abraham, was barren until she gave birth to Isaac in her 80s after praying to God for a child.
A beautiful golden box in which the exiled Israelites carried the tablets on which the 10 commandments were written. It disappeared about 2,500 years ago, and there is much speculation on its current location.