Love and Abuse Without Answers
Amy Herzog on the intentional mysteries in “The Great God Pan”
Full disclosure: I love Amy Herzog’s play The Great God Pan, which is now in previews at Playwrights Horizons. More than anything, I love how it refuses to tell a conventionally structured story.
In the first scene, a man named Jamie learns he may have been sexually abused when he was a small child, but as that revelation affects his adult life, the play veers in unexpected directions. Several times, we leave Jamie entirely to see his girlfriend Paige (Sarah Goldberg, pictured above) counsel a young woman who is struggling with anorexia. And Frank, the friend who drops the bomb about sexual abuse, reappears to take a strong, surprising action that changes everything.
For me, these turns make the play messier and more honest. They let me look for answers myself instead of guiding me from one point to another until I arrive at a simple conclusion.
Last week, I sat down with Herzog, also known for her plays After the Revolution and 4000 Miles, to ask why The Great God Pan is structured this way.
Mark Blankenship: Let’s start with Joelle, the teenage girl with anorexia. We see Paige counseling her in two scenes, but she never enters Jamie’s story at all. I think her scenes add something important to the play, but in the conventional wisdom of “good playwriting,” she’s a character who should be scrapped for being “irrelevant.” Can you talk about why she’s there?
Amy Herzog: I wrote the first draft of the play quickly, in a few days, and I wrote the Joelle scenes initially because I had written the first three scenes and wasn’t sure where I was going. I thought, “I need to define for myself what Paige’s work is. Paige needs a little light and air in this play, because it’s feeling like this tight Jamie trajectory, and I need to understand her better.”
But I wasn’t sure if I meant that for myself or for the audience. Mostly, I thought it was for myself. When I finished the first draft, I really did not know if those scenes would stick.
I gradually became convinced that they were totally necessary—for reasons that still feel more instinctual than intellectual. But I do feel like Paige needs her own story. She can’t just be an accent to Jamie. We need to understand how she arrives at a major decision that she arrives at by the end of the play.
MB: This might sound like an obvious question, but why is it important for Paige to have that trajectory?
AH: I don’t know if my reasons are partly “political,” to put that word in quotes. I don’t know if there was just something about having this young man at the center of the play that would make Paige feel like an accessory. There was probably something in me that felt ideologically uneasy about not giving her more.
But there’s also a major decision she has to make in the play, and I think it would be really troubling to hear the decision she has made without any more context than we get from her scenes with Jamie.
MB: For me, the Joelle scenes make the play feel “round” instead of “linear.”
AH: I keep using the word “lateral,” which isn’t necessarily in opposition to “linear,” but it seems like it to me. Instead of moving forward, there’s a lot of motion to the sides, and that’s really interesting to me right now.
AH: It feels more like my experience of life. And it’s like what you said about a play telling you how to feel. I’m trying to find ways of organizing a play that don’t feel so overtly manipulative.
MB: That makes me think about the ending, which is fairly sudden. It doesn’t have the clanging sound of a Great Resolution.
AH: With all four of my plays that have had professional productions, there has been a moment where we’ve all put our heads together in previews and said, “For some reason, the audience doesn’t know the play is over. What can we do technically to help them know the play is over?” I think maybe this is endemic to my writing, that I don’t button things.
This play is an extreme case, and that’s very intentional. With the subject matter [of sexual abuse]: There’s a way that when that subject matter is dealt with in the media, it’s dealt with in a way that is not open-ended. There are definitive questions like, “Did this happen or did it not? What definitive effect did it have on people’s lives? What’s the end of the story?” And there’s just no such thing. The answers to those questions may come, and they may still leave a lack of total resolution.
MB: Do you think audiences want total resolution?
AH: There’s something I’ve been learning in the audience talkbacks, which is interesting or a problem—I’m not sure. People are tracking the “clues” that are embedded in the play to such an extent that after it’s over, they’re still latching on to theories about what happened. They’re thinking very concretely about what the clues told them.
I’m excited that people are still engaging with the play after it’s over, but to me, the point is not to add the clues up to something particular in terms of what happened in 1983. But I think that’s such a common structure that people naturally fall into watching for that. But I hope this play is guiding people away from that.
MB: If you had your druthers, what would you be excited to hear I was thinking about as I left the show?
AH: I guess I would be excited to hear that you had been stirred up by the uncertainty and that you had found things really evocative without being taken to a particular destination. I feel it’s been more successful when someone has been unsettled and stirred up, and there’s no certainty or finality to that feeling.
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor
Photo of Sarah Goldberg (as Paige) by Joan Marcus