Gilman explores the Johnstown Flood through the lives of a traveling theatre troupe. “Bohemians were thought of as scum,” she says.
In the spring of 2000, the playwright Rebecca Gilman was about to step onto the national stage for the first time. Her drama Spinning into Butter, about a liberal arts college dean confronting her own racism, was set to open that summer at Lincoln Center in New York City. Both the primo venue and the play’s patrician setting were a far cry from the trailer courts and prison cells of Gilman’s outstanding breakout play a few years earlier, The Glory of Living, a shocker about serial killers staged modestly at Forest Park’s tiny Circle Theatre.
By the time it opened in New York, Spinning into Butter had that most elusive and invaluable asset going for it: legitimate controversial buzz. The source of the controversy was a speech in the second act, a 20-minute harangue in which the main character confesses to her pasty academic peers that riding the CTA systematically made her a racist. That lightning rod of a monologue shocked plenty in the upper-middle-class white audiences that had long patronized the Goodman, where the play was first produced. Yet to others it seemed a suspicious red herring. Some detractors thought the play took the easy way out by pretending to raise the issue of institutional racism while implicitly letting its audience off the hook (as if to say, “See? Not to worry. You’re not the only white person who secretly feels this way”). Others found the drama itself half-baked, a thin construction propped up by the gimmickry of a single speech.
But naysayers did not hold back the play’s success. Positioned perfectly on the dividing line between Clinton-era rigid political correctness and Bush-era rationalization of social prejudices, Spinning into Butter somehow managed to criticize and indulge in both at once. Gilman’s formula struck a chord with the entire American theatre scene; within a few years, the play was produced in almost every region of the country, and Gilman was a brand-name playwright.
A decade later, after several more plays that examined society’s ills through Gucci lenses (Boy Gets Girl, Dollhouse, The Crowd You’re in With, all Goodman Theatre premieres depicting white upper classes and their problems), Gilman is returning to a world she once inhabited herself: that of impoverished bohemia. This month the Goodman opens Gilman’s latest, A True History of the Johnstown Flood, a historical-fiction look at a rarely examined 19th-century disaster, the failure of a dam upriver from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which unleashed a torrent that killed more than 2,200 people.
This time around, though, instead of using members of the upper crust, Gilman filters the events through the lives of one of the lowliest castes historically in any society: a traveling theatre troupe.
“Bohemians were thought of as scum,” Gilman says of the era in which the play is set. Given that some Americans are now more likely to learn about Africa through the activities of Madonna and Brad Pitt than through hard-news journalism, it’s easy to forget that actors and entertainers were once regarded as little more than social parasites.
Gilman’s play was sparked by a David Brooks column in The New York Times, penned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, arguing that the social inequalities exposed by that disaster—and the popular anger they unleashed—bore similarities to the aftermath of the Johnstown disaster. Though the play is far from pure allegory, Gilman admits that for some time she had been looking for a way to return to narratives about the less privileged, and she saw a window of opportunity with Johnstown.
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Photograph by Katrina Wittkamp
Class acts: In earlier plays, such as (from top) Dollhouse and Spinning into Butter, Gilman depicted the affluent and their problems.If critics question whether Gilman’s characters’ selfish candor is a gimmick, it should be clarified that her own candor in conversation seems entirely authentic. The Alabama native—the daughter of a secretary and a bookkeeper who regularly took her to musicals at the Jewish Community Center in Birmingham—uses a disarmingly unpretentious vocabulary to talk about her chosen profession. “I think theatre is still a middle- to upper-class art form,” Gilman says in her sandy chirp of a voice. “I love Glory of Living, but it’s one of my least produced plays, I think, because poverty is depressing to theatre audiences, and they’re likely to think plays in trailer parks are distasteful.”
It was a lesson she learned early. Gilman recalls that when the Goodman’s former literary manager, Susan Booth, first approached her about writing for the theatre, Booth said, “The Glory of Living is a great play, and we’ll never do anything like it here.” A scriptwriting instructor on the Northwestern University faculty, Gilman says she feels obligated to steel her students to this reality.
The Goodman’s artistic director, Robert Falls, who directs Johnstown and who has shepherded much of Gilman’s career, concedes that most theatregoers don’t care to be confronted with the unfamiliar. “I think our audiences are pretty smart,” Falls says, “but audiences have a natural tendency to want to see plays about themselves.”
Her departure from such subject matter may make Gilman a moving target for critics once again. Because she has so often been pigeonholed by her gender in a male-dominated craft, it’s worth noting that, a decade into her fame, it is difficult to tell where she falls on a continuum as a feminist—and this is most likely a compliment. I can vividly remember when many of my female friends and I were wildly offended by her 2005 revisionist take on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, set in Lincoln Park, which ended with an ironic addendum. After Nora, the heroine, walks out on her infantilizing husband—that final door slam in the stage directions is one of the most famous endings in all of Western dramatic literature—Gilman’s Nora returns to her home and instead tells her man, “You’re gonna pay for this.”
On the other hand, Gilman’s favorite character on 30 Rock (the only show she follows) is Jenna, the cruelly, sarcastically amplified prime-time bimbo starlet played by Jane Krakowski. Even among 30 Rock’s devoted fans, there are few enthusiasts for this daringly unpleasant female scion. Yet Gilman throws her head back laughing while recounting Jenna moments.
This is the same Gilman who admits to feeling uneasy about the community theatre mockumentary Waiting for Guffman—beloved by most theatre practitioners—because she thinks the humor comes at the expense of hard-working, well-intentioned small-town folk. Gilman launched her career by paying uncommonly focused attention to such people before guiding tours through academic ivory towers and immaculately decorated living rooms in her later works.
The question is whether her return to society’s lower depths in Johnstown will open a new floodgate.