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A Conversation with Playwright John Logan

February 23, 2012 by Goodman Theatre, Chicago in Red

A Conversation with Playwright John Logan

Q: What was the impetus for Red?

John Logan: My initial attraction was to the Seagram murals themselves. I was in London filming Sweeney Todd [for which Logan wrote the screenplay], so I was there for months on end, and one day I walked into the Tate Modern and went to the room with the Seagram murals. I knew very little about Mark Rothko, very little about Abstract Expressionism, but I found the paintings themselves profoundly moving and kinetic in a strange way. I went to the wall and read a little description about how he painted them originally for the Seagram Building and then decided to keep them and give the money back. And I thought, “Well, this is an interesting story.”

Q: Do you have a background in visual art?

JL: No. None whatsoever. The great, daunting challenge of Red is that Mark Rothko is such an intellectually challenging artist and he knew where he belonged in the continuum of his art. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of painting and of artists, so I realized I would have to gain a significant understanding of art history. I spent eight or nine months researching art history. In a way it was like learning a new language for me – the language of visual art. It was necessary because that language was Mark Rothko’s frame of reference. So before the character could speak about anything, I felt as though I had to have some facility in the visual arts and in the specifics of the language of art history.

Q: In what ways is Rothko important as an artist?

JL: He’s important because of his absolute, uncompromising purity. He deeply believed that art mattered. He felt that it should be like a religious experience, and his great dream was to create a space that was like a church. He wanted people to take art that seriously because he believed it was redemptive. He believed that it was important to the human spirit to create art, to experience art, to be open to art because he truly believed it allowed an exultation of the heart and the spirit. I think he did something that no one else has quite done – particularly in Abstract Expressionism – and that is to create something that is profoundly simple and profoundly moving. There’s no clutter, there’s nothing unnecessary; his paintings are austere and savage. And I think his contemporaries were influenced by other movements in art: Op Art, Pop Art, Impressionism. Rothko was too, of course, but he stayed the course on his vision, on single-mindedly
doing what he believed he could do.

Q: Rothko was not religious as an adult, but do you see vestiges of his Jewish upbringing in his work?

JL: Yes, I think there’s a rabbinical streak to his work. And he brought a Talmudic seriousness and level of analysis to everything he did, while still letting it be pure and simple.

Q: You also faced the challenge of portraying an infamous historical person on stage. How did you approach that?

JL: Considering he’s such a major artist there’s not a whole lot of biographical information out there. There’s one major biography, by James E.B. Breslin. Rothko’s own writings about art are also useful. He was a very important essayist on art and a very challenging thinker. Because his thoughts are so complex, it took me an incredible amount of time to work through the logic to understand them.

Q: And what about Rothko’s young assistant in the play, Ken? Was he inspired by an actual person?

JL: No, he’s not based on an actual assistant. I just wanted him to be an emotionally agile person who begins the play in a really vulnerable position: wanting a hero. The point about writing a two-person play is that it’s a binary relationship. You have to let the characters respond to one another and segue back and forth. I knew that Rothko would have to be the prow of an ocean liner cutting through the ocean and Ken would have to be the wave that billows around it for most of the play.

Q: One of the major ideas in the play is that the son has to kill the father, metaphorically speaking. Does that come directly from Rothko?

JL: No, that was entirely me. To me the play is really not about art at all. … I wanted to write a play about teachers and students, mentors and protégés, fathers and sons. To me the piece has always been very domestic. Rothko had an awareness of young artists and an awareness of responsibility to young artists, but he wasn’t a teacher in any traditional sense. In fact, the relationship he has with Ken, his assistant, is not like the relationships he had with his actual assistants, which were very utilitarian.

Q: Why did you choose to tell this story on stage rather than on screen?

JL: I thought painting on stage would be really arresting and exciting. When two men prime a canvas on stage, you’re seeing a real thing happen; the paint is really splattering over the actors. And from the very beginning, I knew it was going to be a play about language. The characters talk, I hope, in an exciting, muscular, visceral way, but they’re talking. And one thing cinema doesn’t do, at least not for great stretches of time, is dialogue. It doesn’t deal with the nuances of language.

Q: You’re busy as a screenwriter. Do you plan to write more plays?

JL: Yes. I started out writing plays, and theatre has always been incredibly important to me. I always say, “Movies are my wife but theatre is my mistress.” With Red, I rediscovered what it’s like to be a playwright and that was very fulfilling. As soon as Red was up and running, I started working on a new play because it’s satisfying work. And I’m working on the book for a couple of musicals, so my plan is to keep stepping between both worlds. I’ve only ever wanted to be one thing: a dramatist. Whether I’m writing lines that are going to be spoken on film or on stage or book scenes for musicals that will then segue into songs, it’s still being a dramatist. People frequently ask me, “Is writing plays different from writing movies?” My answer is no, not at all. Every day I wake up to write lines for actors and I hope I will continue to be able to do that for many years, in many venues.

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