By Rogelio Martinez, Playwright of Wanamaker’s Pursuit
People are always curious to learn how much I know ahead of time when I decide to write a play. To be honest, I know very little. For me a play is a mystery that doesn’t really get solved until an audience watches it.
Wanamaker’s Pursuit was chock-full of mysteries. Initially, the Wanamaker name attracted me. I learned it was the name of a store that had left a very strong imprint on the citizens of Philadelphia. Oddly enough, the name left an equally strong imprint on me. As a runner, I remember watching the Wanamaker Mile at the Garden in New York. In other words, I had a very personal connection to the family, but not the connection one would expect.
NOISE. NOISE. NOISE
The Gertrude Steins, the Paul Poirets and the Picassos of the play loved to hear themselves talk. They had something to say about everything and everyone (at one time the play was 145 pages long; it’s now 114). However with all these voices fighting to be heard, the young man who was at heart of the play was unusually reticent.
For anyone considering taking up playwriting, it’s a problem when your lead character refuses to take center stage. Nathan Wanamaker was an American abroad. Loosely inspired by Rodman Wanamaker (the real heir to the Wanamaker store who spent a great deal of time in Paris in the 1890s and beyond), the Nathan of my play is ostensibly in Paris to discover new fashions for the family. But, of course, there’s always another reason, isn’t there?
I spent the summer reading and rereading Henry James’s masterpiece, The Ambassadors. Not smart. In order to solve a problem for the stage, I turned to a brilliant novelist but failed playwright. However, James helped me understand the world of Paris at the turn of the century. He helped me explore the idea of the American abroad. Still, the mystery remained.
MYSTERY SOLVED AT THE LOUVRE
Halfway through the first act, Gertrude Stein and Nathan Wanamaker are standing in front of an empty frame that had till only a week earlier held the Mona Lisa. With one mystery before them (who stole the famous painting?), Nathan reveals to Gertrude that he is a man in mourning, a young widower who feels dead inside. The revelation happens in an instant. After fifteen months with this man, I realize that he’s really come to Paris because he is dying inside, and he must learn to live again before it’s too late.
I started by writing that a play is a mystery that doesn’t get solved till the audience walks in. The final mystery for me was whether an audience would accept — no, not accept, but welcome the point of view of one man who didn’t grow up going to Wanamaker’s and coming home with the iconic green bag, whose family did not work for the store, and whose memories of Christmas do not involve the famous organ. It was a fear I had till about two weeks into the run when I started to notice the audience response.
It was a fear that was finally put to rest after the final performance when I had the opportunity to meet a member of the Wanamaker family. I shook John Wanamaker’s hand and in that moment he began to share with me personal memories about his family. He answered questions I could not find answers to. Mostly, he finished solving the mystery.
I felt I’d done right for the memory of the institution while maintaining my own integrity.