Honour

Honour

Honour

Written by Joanna Murray-Smith
Directed by Tony Taccone
Main Season · Thrust Stage
May 20–July 3, 2005
West Coast Premiere

Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission

Broadway veteran and OBIE Award-winner Kathleen Chalfant partners with John Doman of HBO’s The Wire for an exquisite portrayal of desire and infidelity. The story centers on Honor and George, who have been together for 32 years when a young and seductive journalist enters their lives. Suddenly, the sacred bond that holds this couple together begins to unravel at an alarming speed. Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone directs this tight, four-character drama. “Intelligent, powerful, and gripping,” raves the Times of London. In laying bare our most intimate institution, says London’s The Guardian, the play “brings fresh life” to a timeless tale of love and commitment.

Creative team

Joanna Murray-Smith · Playwright
Tony Taccone · Director
Annie Smart · Scenic Design
Lydia Tanji · Costume Design
Alexander V. Nichols · Lighting Design
Andre Pluess · Sound Design
Ben Sussman · Sound Design
Cynthia Cahill · Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Ellen Novack · Casting
Eddie Kurtz · Assistant Director
Megan McClintock · Production Assistant

Cast

Kathleen Chalfant · Honor
John Doman · Gus
Emily Donahoe · Sophie
Christa Scott-Reed · Claudia

“Bracingly honest and deeply moving.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“Brilliant.”—Contra Costa Times

“Staggering eloquence…Honour finds unlikely beauty in midlife madness.”—Oakland Tribune

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

Some plays tell stories that are rare and extraordinary. They describe characters that seem very different from ourselves or create situations that seem far removed from our daily lives. Our fascination is tinged with voyeurism, a sense that no matter how moving or powerful, we maintain some distance from the reality being portrayed on stage. The goal of the artists working on plays of this type is often to find a path to bridge that gap, to find analogous images, thoughts and emotions that serve to heighten our understanding and connect us to the material.

There are other plays that tell stories of ordinary life, that “hold the mirror up to nature” within the realistic framework of everyday existence. On the surface, these stories seem typical, mundane, the stuff of cliché. They deal with issues that seem smaller in scope but when molded by the proper hands they are somehow made larger, resonant, uncovering truths and contradictions enabling us to recognize ourselves in a provocative and unique way.

Such is the strategy employed by Joanna Murray-Smith, whose play Honour elegantly and incisively probes the search for intimacy and the infinitely mutable meanings of the most used and misunderstood word in the English language: love. Using the familiar backdrop of a small family forced to grapple with a mid-life crisis triggered by a sudden love affair, Ms. Murray-Smith brings the full force of her talent to reveal what lies just beneath our most obvious desires: the limits and power of language, the gap between image and reality, the different ways we experience time when we are engulfed by romance and trauma and our need to cling to various personal mythologies.

It is a delicate, nuanced, fragile world, requiring actors of the greatest skill. We are privileged to be able to present to you a wonderful cast, led by the glorious Kathleen Chalfant in the title role and met with equal verve and distinction by John Doman, Christa Scott-Reed and Emily Donahoe.

Honour is the final offering of our season, one whose challenges were only exceeded by its rewards. We thank you for your support, your belief that the theatre is a place where risks of the greatest variety can be taken, where intelligence and imagination can find a happy home and where we can all continue to renew our spirit.

Tony Taccone

Till death do us part?

Why do human beings fall in love? Why do we marry? Why do some of us commit adultery? Or leave our spouses? Or stay happily married forever? These questions have inspired creative artists for thousands of years. The topics are not new in the theatre; Euripides, Shakespeare, Ibsen and Pinter—among many others—have written plays about these issues. But that doesn’t mean the problems have ever been solved.

The subject of infidelity is as relevant today as it has ever been. Current statistics show that 67 percent of all first marriages culminate in divorce and that overt adultery heads the list of reasons why. Even by the most conservative estimates, in the United States, 1 in every 2.7 couples—some 20 million—is touched by infidelity. And yet over 90 percent of all Americans will marry. We are either an incredibly optimistic society or an incredibly foolish one.

Is monogamy natural? It depends on how you define monogamy. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the condition, rule or custom of being married to only one person at a time.” By this definition, monogamy does not imply fidelity but rather social monogamy. Studies have shown that forming pair bonds is the norm for human beings; 84 percent of the world’s cultures prescribe polygamy, but only 5 to 10 percent of men in polygamous cultures actually have more than one wife. So, perhaps we can safely say that social monogamy is natural. There is a lot of speculation, but most agree that humans pair up because it’s a lot easier to raise a baby with two parents than it is to do it alone. While it’s difficult to find examples of social monogamy in our fellow mammals, for years scientists have compared our mating behavior with that of our feathered friends. Not coincidentally, baby birds have exceptionally quick metabolisms and must be fed copious amounts of food—sometimes every 15 seconds or so. Clearly, having more than one parent attending to the offspring’s needs makes it easy to understand why birds would want to stick together. Similarly, baby people are helpless for so long that having a couple of people to share the decades-long job helps ensure the well-being of the young (and the sanity of the parents).

Is fidelity natural? When asked, a lot of folks would say, “Of course! Why, all you have to do is look at birds—don’t they stay with one mate for life?” Actually, no…recent research by biologists who examined avian pair bonds found that the eggs of these mated birds were often not all fertilized by the same father; extra-pair couplings, it seems, are quite common for most socially monogamous creatures. Most species of truly sexually monogamous animals live in communities where the chance of extra-pair couplings is rare. Usually they are isolated from others of their species and live a hermit-like existence. If we rely on statistics, then fidelity isn’t “natural” for humans either.

Perhaps the answer lies in our body’s chemistry. People describe being in love as a natural high—and science backs this up. When first in love, the body is swamped with amphetamine-like chemicals which include the powerful phenylethylamine (PEA). But these drugs biologically can’t last forever. Either the nerve-endings habituate to the high levels of these stimulants, or levels of these chemicals begin to drop. The average amount of time that scientists have found that these chemicals can last is between approximately 18 months and three years.

These natural drugs are the ones that make you feel infatuated, euphoric and tormented by the beloved. Only a few of us haven’t experienced the feeling of obsession that takes over during the beginnings of a relationship—replaying conversations, waiting by the phone, sleepless nights, longings for the next encounter, chronicling every fantastic facet of the loved one to anyone who will listen. The lover becomes the single focus of one’s life. The two most common sensations during this period are hope and uncertainty. Perhaps we are lucky that these amphetamine-like drugs do end their tyranny so that we can move out of our infatuations into a more stable, mature and sustaining love.

In this next stage of love, a new chemical system takes over. As PEA production slows down, the brain begins to release endorphins. These endorphins are chemically similar to opiates and narcotics and, unlike the melodrama of PEA, reduce anxiety and produce a sense of security and calm. But if a person hopes to maintain an exciting relationship with this now long-term partner, s/he has to work on it. In many ways keeping excitement alive in a long-term relationship means going against biology. It is so much easier to find excitement in someone new and very hard to deny the biological pull that variety and infatuation offer.

Given this information, it’s not surprising that divorce counts peak among couples who have been married about four years. Perhaps we should speak of the four-year itch instead of the seven-year itch. Once infatuation ends, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain connection. And, if one of the partners finds him or herself feeling infatuation for someone else, it is very difficult to choose to stay in the less exciting relationship.

While in the period of infatuation, it’s hard not to interpret your reaction as true love. What else can explain an all-encompassing obsession? But this period is marked by perceptual distortion. During this time the love object is assigned more positive attributes than one person can truly claim, and at the same time, the lover screens out any negative qualities that might mar the image of the beloved. The focus and attention that the lover gives to the beloved is often translated as meaning that this person must be the only one. These distortions help to bond partners in the beginning of relationships so that they will stay together. But these same distortions can end the initial relationship should one of the partners find it with a new person. It is extremely difficult for a long-term partner to compete with a new lover during this period.

There are some marriages that allow for extramarital affairs while maintaining commitment, but it is the exception to the rule. It is very hard for humans to separate sex from infatuation, and hard for them to understand that infatuation isn’t true love.

On the sunny side—for every marriage that ends in divorce, there is one that lasts. There are many psychological and sociological reasons why some couples stay together and some break apart, but there is no question that by choosing to stay married, individuals are happier and healthier. Statistics show that people who stay married live four years longer than people who don’t. Research undertaken in nearly every country has shown that married people are less likely to suffer from serious health problems and are on the whole happier than their unmarried counterparts. Staying in an unhappy marriage doesn’t provide the same health advantages; an unhappy marriage can increase your chances of getting sick by roughly 35 percent. But a happy marriage can provide enormous benefits. An economist from Dartmouth calculates that having a marriage gives you the same amount of happiness as an extra $100,000 a year in income! If that isn’t worth the extra fight against biological instincts, I don’t know what is.

Joanna Murray-Smith speaks to dramaturg Amy Utstein

What were the challenges in writing this play?

I wanted to take a very familiar, not to say clichéd, story and tell it in a way that breathed life. I started from the character of Honor. I was interested in this woman, a cultivated, intelligent woman who has willingly sacrificed her own aspirations in order to nurture her husband and child. I was moved by the idea of her being abandoned just at the point in her life when she ought to be reaping the rewards of those sacrifices. I was fascinated by how much wisdom the witness to ambition must be…to have watched her husband ascend, to watch her child come into herself…The mother is the receiver of so much information about human beings, their strengths and follies. And yet so often, these remarkable women are left and have to begin their lives again. I was also interested in how a certain generation of women was not represented by mainstream feminism. They felt alienated from its more hard-line emphasis on career, and unrepresented as mothers. So Honor started me thinking.

But I soon found that the only way this story could really be interesting and moving would be if the audience understood the motivations of all of the characters. I strenuously wanted to avoid painting Honor as the only victim and Gus as a facile, vain bastard. I also didn’t want the girl to be a bimbo. I thought: how interesting it would be if the audience could move through the play experiencing the competing feelings of all of the characters. Only if this succeeded would the tragedy of the story come through. I didn’t want the audience to have a simple moral position confirmed on leaving the theatre. I wanted them to feel how confusing life is…how there are no simple villains or victims…and how even when we understand what the right way to behave is, we are nevertheless often compelled to behave badly. The theme of the clash between the heart and the head is somewhere in everything I write. I find the insufficiencies of ideology endlessly interesting territory.

Was this play inspired by events that touched your own life directly or indirectly?

No…ironically, there is no direct experience that fed this play. My parents were married for over forty years when my father died and were completely in love with each other. My own marriage is very happy, and my husband is the love of my life.

How did being a mother and wife affect the process of writing this play?

The play was commissioned in Australia at the same time as I was awarded a scholarship to write in the Writing Program at Columbia. At the same time, I was about to give birth to my first child. My husband persuaded me that somehow we could do it all.

We arrived in New York in the middle of winter with a three-month-old son (Sam) about whom we knew absolutely nothing. The airline lost our luggage. We had no money. The apartment we’d rented was a cockroach infested dump. I had to time my university sessions to fit in with breast feeds. I cried solidly for at least a week. I used to look up at the lights of the theatres around Times Square as we wheeled our teething baby around in the evening wondering how a playwright ever found a way of making their voice heard. But magic was definitely in the air.

It turned out to be the most marvelous year. Ray and I fell madly in love with our baby and each other as parents. Columbia was hugely stimulating with brilliant teachers and fellow writing students, and the play just flowed. I joined a writer’s group, and one of the writers, John Patrick Shanley, took up the cause of my writing, and within a couple of years Meryl Streep was reading the part of Honor.

You write novels, screenplays and articles for newspapers and journals—why did you want to tell this story on the stage as opposed to one of the other media available to you?

At that point in my life, the play was definitely the thing. I was bedazzled by the possibilities and intrigued by how you make a play work, how you keep an audience interested. That question still drives my working day. I think, only in a play could you make such a familiar story feel bitterly, ecstatically alive. I hear ideas in the form of voices arguing…so that lends itself to theatre, and I am drawn to the moment when the lights dim and the audience catches its breath.

Adult children of divorce

“Perhaps not surprisingly, older adolescents and adult children experience much of the same trauma as younger children of divorcing parents. They also need to find ways to accept the changes in their family relationships…Divorce often creates such a powerful sense of loss of a parent that the young adult may not feel like the parent is available to them in making the transition to independence. Because the adult child is in a period of major transition in his or her own life, it is difficult for him/her to readily accept the changes that the parent(s) are, of necessity, experiencing. The adult child can reasonably expect to go through a grieving process when his or her parents divorce. This will probably include periods of anger at one or both parents. There may be a strong feeling that their family is irretrievably fragmented. Feelings of confusion concerning how to relate positively to the parents are normal. Adult children will likely question how holidays and other family traditions can ever be meaningful again.”
—Susan M. Jackson, “Coping tips for adult children of divorce,” The Kansan, November 1998