Theater Interview: 9/11, Live Drama, and the Courage to Look God in the Eye
9/11 has inspired a number of movies and TV documentaries, but theater works about the event are rarities. What are dramatists and theater companies afraid of?
In the Name of God, a play by Peter-Adrian Cohen based on the PBS/Frontline film by Helen Whitney, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero. A staged reading, presented by the Nora Theater Company at the Central Square Theater, Cambridge, MA, September 11, 7 p.m.
By Bill Marx
Besides writing theater reviews for The Arts Fuse, Peter-Adrian Cohen is a playwright whose scripts have been produced Off Broadway as well as staged by major European theaters in Switzerland and Germany. (His break-through as a writer came with the 1973 non-fiction novel The Gospel According to the Harvard Business School, which became a national bestseller.)
9/11 has inspired a number of movies and TV documentaries, but theater works about the event are rare. That may explain why on the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attack, a pair of theaters in America (New York, Cambridge) and in Europe are presenting staged readings of Cohen’s script In the Name of God, which is inspired by Helen Whitney’s PBS/Frontline film Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.
Cohen’s dramatic work often draws on real life personalities and events—but as raw material for speculations that go well beyond journalist bromides and canned history. As Cohen says in the interview with me below, live theater has the power to bring us “too close” to the spiritual implications of 9/11—especially when dramatic language is pushed toward the poetry of extremity.
I spoke to Cohen about the impulse behind In the Name of God and what the play says a decade after 9/11.
Arts Fuse: Why did you decide to base your play on a 2002 PBS/Frontline film Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero? What does live theater bring to the material?
Peter-Adrian Cohen: I was watching TV one evening when I happened on Helen Whitney’s film. A man was talking about one of the most intimate things in his life—his faith. Actually, he was talking not just about his faith; he was talking about a crisis in his faith. He was talking about what he had seen on 9/11. And he was asking, Where was God that day? The film kept introducing more voices. And in one way or another they were all asking that same question. And so, with Helen’s encouragement, I wrote In the Name of God—six characters who, in spite of their agonizing doubt—or perhaps because of it—have the courage to look God in the eye.
I had been experimenting with the “documentary” form of theater. The more I thought about Helen’s film the more I was confident I could give it a life on stage, one that would bring out different qualities. My argument to Helen went something like this: By transposing her film to the stage, by concentrating on the words rather than the images, I could create a special kind of intensity. In film you can’t really cut individual words because you’ve got to worry about the images that go with them. On stage you can. I also suggested that I would want to reduce the number of characters from 30 to 6; that would make it easier for the audience to get to know the characters. In my last play, which premiered successfully Off Broadway, I had pushed these techniques. So In the Name of God is merely a continuation of these efforts.
AF: Ten years after 9/11 do you still see the event as a crisis of faith? Or are we now dealing with evidence of faith’s resilience?
PAC: Maybe the most resilient aspect of 9/11 is not the persistence of faith (or the lack of it); it’s the question Where was God that day? To me, the only way to answer that question is to keep asking it. 9/11 is not really about an answer. It’s about a search. With God or without.
AF: Do you see any political reverberations in the script?
PAC: If politics is about how we can live together more constructively, then In the Name of God is a political play. Because living together raises questions such as Is there an antidote to hate? An antidote to violence?
AF: In the Name of God contains individual voices and also an ensemble. Why did you include a chorus?
PAC: As I worked with this particular form—with what used to be called “documentary” theater—I found the form limiting. I realized the documentary form does not have to be anything—it’s a form like any other and therefore open to experimentation, expansion, and renewal. As I did that I became intrigued by the idea of using principles of musical composition, by the idea—and apparent contradiction—that a musician can be both, a soloist—in which he expresses his individuality—and a member of the orchestra where he subordinates his individuality to the whole. What this dual role of my actors does is vary the emotional distance to the material—the audience is soon very close (soloist) soon more distant (member of the ensemble).
AF: There have not been many plays about 9/11. Why do you think that is?
PAC: Films there have been many. But plays? I haven’t seen any. And certainly none that use as radical a form as mine—that go as close. Why the predominance of film? Probably because that is how most of us first saw 9/11—on TV. We saw the impact of the planes and then the monstrous collapse. So the question is What does all this motion signify? Very likely it signifies unfinished business, unanswered questions. It’s about a search, and many people are still in the midst of it.
AF: What challenges do you see in staging this play? Its combination of documentary realism and lyrical language is unusual.
PAC: Maybe that is the challenge—to be, at moments, very detailed, very real and then again lyrical, trying to bring out the resonance of what the characters are saying. Of course the extraordinary quality of what is being said in this play begins with Helen Whitney, the care with which she searched for men and women who are capable of the most profound insights.
Certainly, because In the Name of God relies mostly—but not exclusively—on words (as opposed to images) and on the presence of the actors, every detail becomes critical—the play needs to be not just directed, it needs to be choreographed.
AF: Do you see the play as offering a lesson to audiences?
PAC: A lesson is an answer isn’t it? Here is HOW and here is WHY. There are no answers in this play. I am trying to reflect back to the audience their sometimes agonizing, sometimes joyous search—not just for God but for faith. Again, In the Name of God is a play about questions, not answers.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.