An Extended Interview with Michael Hollinger, playwright of Incorruptible
In 1996, the Arden premiered Michael Hollinger play, Incorruptible, directed by Terry Nolen. Next season, the Arden will premiere Under the Skin, its eighth Hollinger play—and the seventh directed by Terry. An excerpt of an interview of Michael by Terry is below
TERRY NOLEN: Incorruptible is the first full-length play I’m aware of that you wrote.
MICHAEL HOLLINGER: I wrote a play that preceded it that I buried after about two or three drafts.It had many interesting things but it did not begin with a healthy embryo. By contrast, Incorruptible began with a very healthy embryo; the basic idea was sound. Therefore, the challenge became how to not mess it up, how to realize the basic idea. This required many drafts, many readings, and two major workshops of the play in order to find its final form. And so I think of Incorruptible as my apprenticeship as a playwright. It began as a play where there were no miracles, only shams, and I gradually realized that the play wouldn’t have integrity unless it could comprise the paradox of sham and miracle; only then did it start to fulfill its potential. Because, are there shams in the world? Yes! Are there miracles? Yes! How do we know the difference? When miracles occur, is there causality? What do these inexplicable events mean? I was more interested in the questions than being able to simply write off all miracles as shams.
TERRY: It’s amazing listening to it now how confident your use of language is: your language, your rhythms, how funny it is to hear this play out loud. As you were writing it, stylistically what were you thinking about? What were you trying to grapple with?
MICHAEL: The play began at a time when there were a lot of televangelist scandals going on, and so religion—popular Christian religion—was at a pretty low ebb in America. “All religious leaders are in it for the money” was a kind of public consciousness. So that’s the kind of world I started writing the play in.
Early on in the writing process, however, I felt that the church figures had become too easy of a target for me, and I felt outside the play, like I was simply judging the characters: “Oh look at these crooks.” And it wasn’t until I started thinking about the integrity of their vision and their mission — really, their high ideals — that the play became interesting to me. And that became a much more intriguing knot to try to untie, and allowed me to identify with the characters and the dilemma that they’re in, rather than judge them.
TERRY: Jumping to Under the Skin. What was the impulse for that? When did you start writing Under the Skin?
MICHAEL: The notion of “when does it start?” is tricky to pinpoint. For me, a play basically starts when I open a manila folder. Under the Skin began as a folder called “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” and it had nothing in it but the title. I had been putting my daughter to bed one night and the title ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors,’ came to me, and I thought: “I have no idea what this play is, but I like the title, and I’m gonna start a file.” And sometime after that, I encountered an Ethicist essay [Randy Cohen’s New York Times Magazine column] about a father who needed a kidney, and his two children—a son and a daughter—both wanted to be the one to donate a kidney to him, and they were writing to Randy Cohen to figure out how this should be ethically solved. And Cohen suggested maybe a game of “rock, paper, scissors.” And it instantly occurred to me that maybe this unwritten play had to do with organ donation. I particularly liked the fact that the phrase had three words in it, that there were three personages involved in this conundrum, and that rock, paper, scissors is a game of dominance where each player has something over the others, and I thought, that’s a really cool dynamic for a play. I gradually came upon more information over time about kidney transplantation and the way it gets incredibly complex within families. And so, I started to begin to understand the play as a family issues play—or, if you will, a family tissues play….
I’m not usually a fan of conventional family plays – too much whining about the past! – but as I started thinking of this one as a family play, I realized that there was a present-tense problem that needed to be solved and the clock was ticking — if it’s not solved, a guy dies. And so I found it a really high stakes, very tangible way of looking at family issues.
TERRY: Our audience will have just seen Incorruptible when they read this. How do you think the themes of the plays are connected? Or are they?
MICHAEL: They’re both about body parts. [laughter.]
TERRY: Exactly! Correct.
MICHAEL: I am always interested in the baser matter, and the way that high spiritual ideals — love, creativity, faith — are always brought down to Earth, and how human beings muck about with very tangible things in their quest for these higher values. So, in Incorruptible, there’s that tension between the loftiest spiritual ideals and the fact that we need to make money in order to stay afloat and do the good deeds. In Under the Skin this notion of filial love and parental love gets messed up, complicated by “I need an organ!” So I do think there is a link that way.
TERRY: How about—I’ve never asked you this—what’s your relationship with faith?
MICHAEL: It has, as for many people, evolved over the course of my life. I was raised in a family where both my parents were refugees from Protestant upbringings, and therefore we didn’t attend church. But Bible salesmen or Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the front door, we were instructed to say that we were “Protestant” and that “we don’t go to church but we believe in God.” That was the party line. By the time I was a teenager, I was a pretty devout atheist, as many teens are. I wasn’t rebelling against my family background; I was pretty much consistent with my family background. But my mom got involved with AA when I was 15 and it shook our entire house, not just because she was achieving sobriety, but because she was finding a very clear spiritual source there that made everybody in the family wake up to the notion that there might actually be something more, that a spiritual realm was available to us. My dad then went and did the est training, and so did I, and my sister and mom And this began for me a kind of intellectual quest to sample a lot of religious stuff: I read the Baghavad Gita and I visited churches, I meditated—just kind of a general seeking, which lasted for years until I became acquainted with the Society of Friends through my wife Megan who was teaching at Abington Friends School, where my children attend, and began attending Quaker meeting and eventually joined Chestnut Hill Monthly Meeting. Now I’m a very light Quaker — I attend meetings rarely — but I do have a very strong affinity for Quakerism because it is non-authoritarian, because it is non-dogmatic, because the congregation is asked to bear the responsibility of the religious experience. I think one of the reasons I have always felt cranky about most religion is that it involves a group of people facing in one direction while one person is saying “here’s what the nature of reality and faith is,” and I always felt too uppity about that. So that’s where I currently am at. I consider myself a kind of perpetual seeker, and I guess more Quaker than anything.
A great irony in my life is that I wrote this play [Incorruptible] about an irreverent minstrel who winds up being taken in by the Church, and this sort of mirrors my relationship to Villanova University, where I teach. Here I am, this irreverent theatre guy, who’s been brought into the fold of a Catholic institution, and whose function may well be to poke it in the side every now and then and generate laughter. It’s very funny to think of.