The Unequivocal Bill Cain

Telling the truth – then and now. An interview with the author of Equivocation 

Equivocation, opening next Monday at Arena Stage, is an unusual play and its author is an unusual playwright. In the play, Robert Cecil, spymaster to King James I, commissions William Shakespeare – here known familiarly as “Shag” – to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot, an unsuccessful effort to dynamite the House of Lords during the State Opening of England’s Parliament.

Bill Cain (Photo: Jenny Graham)

The play, Cecil instructs, will tell the world about the murderous and treasonous conspiracy of Father Henry Garnet and the English Catholics. Except when Shag does his research, Cecil’s version of events seems implausible. Seems impossible.

In an ordinary play, the protagonist would rail against the public lie, would tell the truth and triumph improbably (a romance) or die (a tragedy). But this is not an ordinary play. In this play, Shag equivocates, and manages to tell a story which is not the truth, but which is not the great public lie Cecil wants. The story is called Macbeth.

The playwright, Bill Cain, is a Catholic priest – a Jesuit. His first play, Stand-Up Tragedy, was originally staged in 1989. It was a hit in LA, a flop in New York. This is his second play. It got its first staging in 2009, and won the Steinberg Award as the best original play staged in Regional Theater in that year. His third play is called 9 Circles. That won the Steinberg Award for 2010, making him the only playwright to have won the prestigious award in consecutive years. He has written a fourth, autobiographical play, How to Write a New Book of the Bible, which made its debut at Berkeley Repertory Theatre last month. He’s working on a play about Lincoln now.

In between playwriting gigs, he served as head writer, under the name of Paul Leland, for a TV series about a Catholic priest called “Nothing Sacred.” It dealt honestly about life among the religious, and thus raised a great howl among some people – one critic called it “slime”. It closed after twenty episodes, yet won a Peabody Award. Cain also occupied his time by founding a Shakespeare company in Boston, and teaching kids in the South Bronx.

We caught up with Father Cain via e-mail, and asked him some questions about art, faith, and moral responsibility. Here are his unequivocal answers:

DCTS: Do artists in modern democracies face some of the same pressures to make their art conform to political purposes that the character of Shakespeare does in Equivocation? What are those pressures, and how do great artists cope with them?

Bill Cain: I certainly can’t speak for great artists. Who knows how they do what they do? I know our task as writers is the opposite of Shakespeare’s. A great deal of what Shakespeare was asked to do – politically – was to create an in-group and an out-group. He had to create warring factions and make sure that everybody ended up cheering the court-chosen winners. Lear talks about this when he is being taken to his execution. He talks about “court news – Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out…” Our struggle is the reverse. The struggle of a democracy is the constant battle to be more inclusive, more compassionate to everyone in the democracy. And beyond. That’s probably why Shag’s last plays – Tempest, Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline – move me so deeply. He got beyond the agenda of his own time. His brave new world eventually included everyone. How did he do that?

DCTS: You faced outspoken hostility from the Catholic League and some other sources for your work on “Nothing Sacred”. Did your battles on behalf of that show inform some of the moral questions you raise in Equivocation?

Bill Cain: Not consciously. Being asked the question made me go back to look at what people were saying about the show at the time. This is a quote from the Peabody Award citation.

  • “All too often, dramatic series on television avoid issues of religion, ethics and morality. Such topics are said to easily offend the sensibilities of viewers, or to risk the loss of support from skittish advertisers and affiliates. ABC, Sarabande Productions, and 20th Century Fox TV, are commended for challenging conventional wisdom with ‘Nothing Sacred,’ a timely, provocative and thoughtful dramatic series, which provided an honest portrayal of the complexity of faith in the modern era…In its all-too-brief run on network television, the program was fiercely unafraid to interweave into parish life such contemporary issues as abortion, HIV, class struggles, and racism. Since it first convened in 1940, the Peabody Board has sought to identify, encourage, and recognize excellence and innovation in broadcasting, especially when such programming has faced ideological attack and the threat of censure. In that tradition, a Peabody is presented to ABC, Sarabande Productions, in association with 20th Century Fox Television, for ‘Nothing Sacred.’”

So maybe. It would be nice to think we were “fiercely unafraid.” Personally, I was scared to death every single day. Though we laughed a lot, I think we all were. Like Shag and Richard, Armin, Sharpe, Nate and Judith – we were just trying to tell the story as we knew it.

DCTS: Have you experienced tension between the need for artistic integrity and the authority of the Church in your own work? If so, how have you resolved the tension?

Bill Cain: a. Yes. b. Who says you resolve the basic tensions of your life? Those tensions – among others – are the generating engines of your creativity.

Anthony Heald as Shag in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2009 production of Equivocation (Photo: Jenny Graham)

DCTS: You portray Shakespeare as a man who used all his wits to resist Cecil’s pressure to write a false, propaganda-laden play. Of course, some of Shakespeare’s plays, such as Richard III, seemed to distort history in service of the Tudors. Does Equivocation represent your view of Shakespeare as a courageous artist? Or are you making a broader point about the duty of the artist in a hostile world, and Shakespeare serves because he is a great artist, universally known?

Bill Cain: So many questions. Let me ask some back. You say Shakespeare is universally known, but the fact is – he is universally unknown, isn’t he? We know his plays – but him? And is he a great artist? Were his plays even considered “art” at the time? Am I making a broader point about the duty of an artist? Am I making a point at all? Is a play an argument? I guess I question the questions. What’s the question underneath?

Shag presented himself to me one day – half way between the Globe and the Tower of London – unbidden – as a writer with a deadline trying to write something true – actually true – and finding it very hard to do. He realizes as the play goes on that you can’t write the truth without living it – and that living it has a cost. And not just politically. Personally – familially – there’s a cost. In Equivocation, he finds a way – thanks to his theatrical community and to a prisoner of conscience – to tell the truth as best he can. Did the real Shakespeare? By the time he got to the end, I think he did.

DCTS: In an interview with Tim Appelo for New York Magazine, you said, “‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ is my favorite book. She told the truth in difficult times”. Are we in difficult times now? Who are the great truth-tellers now among our artists?

Bill Cain: Anne Frank was, of course, unknown in her own time. Utterly unknown. So who has that exact position now in our time? I don’t know. I know that when I was teaching in the South Bronx, kids were able to speak devastating truths regularly and powerfully. Whether their voices will make it into print and media, I don’t know. Who are the truth tellers now working? In many varying ways I have been touched recently by the Dardenne brothers’ films, Athol Fugard, Restrepo, Mark Rylance, Richard Bean, the National Theater of Scotland’s Black Watch, Taylor Branch, David Garrow, “The Wire”, “Friday Night Lights”, Paul Taylor and Company, the food at Homegirl Café, James Agee and, always, Anne Frank.

DCTS: There was a twenty-year gap between your first play, Stand-Up Tragedy, and this, your second play. Were there specific reasons you stopped writing for the theater during this period?

Bill Cain: Stand-Up Tragedy began in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum and it had a charmed life there. (Not so much in New York.) When you have a hit in Los Angeles, film and television producers come knocking on your door. Stand-Up led to many years of work in television where I was able to work on projects like “Nightjohn” and “Nothing Sacred.” I loved that work and stayed with it. (Also, to be fair, when Stand-Up moved to Broadway, the New York Times shot it dead. Some seriously hurt feelings were involved.)

DCTS: Have you found your commitment to the religious life to be more helpful or more challenging to your work as an artist?

Bill Cain: Art and religion? I always feel that I am at the threshold of both. I hope to make it across the starting line some day.

DCTS: Tell us a little about 9 Circles.

Bill Cain: 9 Circles is the story of a young soldier in the Iraq war who is both a war criminal and, unwilling and unwittingly, a man of profound conscience. It’s the story of the birth of a soul – told in 9 episodes – 9 circles – that parallel Dante’s journey into the darkness that precedes the discovery of the most astonishing light. It’s an actor’s piece, really.

I never thought it would be produced but it’s been done in Marin, Boston, and as I am writing this, in Los Angeles (with Patrick Adams for whom it was written) with a production in Denver just around the corner. It isn’t an anti-war play – that’s a kind of warfare on its own. It’s a play that wants to make war unimaginable. And – at least in the silence that follows the blackout at the end – it is my experience that it succeeds. For a moment.

DCTS: Is there anything else you’d like us to know?

Bill Cain: I’m trying to do my best. Apologies for the failures, the shortfalls, the omissions. I always think that the next one will be better and, who knows, maybe it will be. (After writing a play about my family, I’m back into history. Lincoln.) And thank you for sharing the journey.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Equivocation runs thru Jan 1, 2012 at Arena Stage, Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC.
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