By anyone’s definition, John Carter is one pretty hip guy. As past vocations, he lists merchant seaman, railroadman and writer for hire. His poetry placed him as front man for rock groups Eros and Luna, and a performance at the Library of Congress.
New York has welcomed him with stagings of his first two plays, both about psychoanalysts: Where the Roads Meet – (Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung) and Lou (Lou Salome). His poetry had such impact on Allan Pierce he created a revue of it.
And so, with his latest play, I, Jack,am the Knave of Hearts, now onstage at DC Arts Center through this weekend, Carter, who lives in the area, anticipated a pretty enthusiastic reception from DC critics. Instead, only DC Theatre Scene and one other Web site turned up. And reviews, shall we say, were split.
Which prompted us to ask the playwright something we’ve always wanted to know: “How do you handle a negative review?” Through emails, the conversation went as follows:
Lorraine Treanor: What was your impetus to write I, Jack?
John Carter: The concept just came to me. What if Don Juan escaped from Hell and found himself on a stage in front of an audience? I had no idea where to take it, so I just let myself imagine the situation, this libidinous and charming sociopath in front of a bunch of warm bodies after centuries of privation, and it took its own course.
What are its central ideas?
I’ve never thought about that. It’s a journey, an adventure of being in the moment with the audience, of Jack recalling bit by bit his previous life as well as the process of Hell. It exists on three levels of time. I see it more in terms of themes than ideas. Hope and despair, being true to who you are even if it damns you, living to the fullest, and in the end pursuing love whatever the obstacles.
How did the Theatre du Jour connection come about?
I’ve known B Stanley [Theatre du Jour’s Artistic Director] for about 30 years. He had a coffee house at 14th and T when it was the red light district, and he put on events he called performance improv jams. They were wild. People did bizarre stuff. I did poetry, with and without music. B and I stayed in touch, but this is the first thing we collaborated on.
What happened to the play once you started working with Mr. Stanley?
It got cut. Actually we didn’t work together on it much. I know his work, both as actor and director, and knew he would do a professional and innovative job. I went to no rehearsals. I like to be surprised on opening night. That’s one of the thrills of being a playwright.
How does your vision for the play contrast with the production?
Minimally. This is a play that will vary wildly from actor to actor. Imagine Antonio Banderas doing it and imagine Wallace Shawn. I really had no preconceived vision.
How have the audiences responded?
I’ve been to about half the performances. I sit in the back so I can see everybody. Each audience is different. Two of them laughed a lot. I love that. It tells me they’re enjoying it. Some laughed not at all. At one show the audience was four scruffy older men, not a woman in sight. B did an incredible job. He had to create women in the empty seats so he could lust after them, and he made the damned thing work. Once I see a full house I can answer the question better.
Your writer’s review was a bummer mainly because it threatened ticket sales. This is a play that needs big, lively audiences, and we didn’t have them the first week. The reviewer did hit on some points that need work, and that’s the benefit of a bad review. The second review was a godsend. It will help us fill seats. At bottom, it’s all subjective. Your guy didn’t like the play. The second reviewer did. Very few things please everybody, especially work that goes out on a limb, as this play does..
Closes April 6, 2013
DC Arts Center
2438 18th Street NW
Thursdays thru Sundays
Your reviewer said the ending was abrupt, and it is. It will get fixed. The second reviewer saw it in a way that was fresh to me: how does one fit in the grand scheme of things. This pleased me no end, that she was seeing a meaning I hadn’t seen myself. That told me I’d gotten my hand on an archetype and that the play had a life independent from me.
Neither reviewer touched much on what feels important to me about the play, that it’s a testament to the indominatable human spirit and the richness of this gift of life, however much we may suffer. Neither wrote much about the language, which is gorgeous.
What are some of your favorite lines in the play?
Okay, here are two:
“We’re animals, aren’t we, you and I? All of us eat flesh. All of us die. All of us hunger, in our bellies and loins and souls. All of us dream grand dreams and reach for the heavens and fall short and crash and are broken, but ah, the living of it! We are men and women. We are formed of clay and of music. We love. We hate. We sing.”
“Conjure a moon to the sky. Conjure a guitar. Conjure to your presence bodies, breathing, sensing, hungering, warm. And inhabiting those bodies souls hungering just as fiercely. Conjure from beyond forever a memory of how an evening stretches out its arms and you think, maybe tonight, maybe tonight will come magic, and it does. Conjure to your arms a woman.”
Has the DC staging given you thoughts about revisions? or ideas for the next play?
Yes on both counts. A play has to be staged before a playwright, this one anyhow, can see what works and what doesn’t. I saw a number of things I’ll change: to make it more coherent, to fix places where it lags, to coax a few more laughs, to make it more actor-friendly, etc. I’ll cut some lines and add some.
The play I’m working on now is a challenge, to present Judas Iscariot as a tragic figure. I seem to be drawn to great sinners. Watching Jack has already sharpened my concept of how to do Judas.
I, Jack, am the Knave of Hearts has 3 performances remaining, closing Saturday, April 6, 2013.