I have been trying to pretend that The Merchant of Venice didn’t exist for as long as I’ve known it existed. I knew just enough about the play—the moneylenders, the pound of flesh—to know that something about it felt wrong to me and I stayed away until my second year in graduate school when I sat on the padded floor of a Yale rehearsal room and encountered the play for the first time in the mouths of people I loved. It was new to me, and as it hit my ears, I was suddenly very sad, angry, and very alone.
I wrote in scraps and pieces—bits of ideas and scenes—trying to take these characters back from Shakespeare. To make them people I recognized rather than the stereotypes I saw. I wrestled until I came away with something that wasn’t his but was mine. The play living just underneath what he wrote. A play about everything he left out.
That play, Everything That Never Happened, was supposed to open at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in July, one of the five plays in the rep season cancelled when the pandemic hit. It would have been a moment of coming full-circle from the vision of OSF’s founding artistic director who played Shylock seven times in full prosthetic nose and everything else you would expect to come with that. It would also have been my second professional production. I imagined that it would finally dawn on me—the bigness of that—as it was happening.
It is strange to mourn a play when all around me people are losing bigger things. When people are losing people. When so much of what I feared politically is coming true. It feels strange to mourn a play.
But it was mine. And I do.
What would have lived between us in that room doesn’t exist. So I keep remembering earlier rooms—trying to imagine myself into that one:
The first time we got to see the water drop from the ceiling. Rewriting the hardest scene on a bench in the lobby with the actors’ voices in my head. My first Shylock, who wasn’t Jewish, who taped the Shema to his dressing room mirror so he would see it before he went on. The audience member who told me, “My wife went outside because she was still crying and she was embarrassed,” and I said, “Please tell her not to be embarrassed. That's what I wanted it to do.” The way I could hear people's breath stop in the theater at the end of the play. The way I could hear my cast breathing in the last row of the theater while I was onstage for the talkback—how I could feel our respect for each other stretch across the seats like the strongest cord. Every person who has crawled into the catwalks for this play. Every voice imprinted on the text.
My director tells me I'm missing a layer of skin. And she's not wrong. But when the play goes right? Everyone walks out of that theater unskinned. It's the moment in the world where I feel most at peace. The one where I have company.
In California I was sitting on the floor, on the scratchy carpet up in front of the booth, when it happened. I was looking down at the stage when the play—no longer inside of me trying to get out—was held in its entirety in the space between the actors. And it was not mine anymore. It was theirs. And I just got to be there in the room with them and watch.
When I’m mourning this play, I’m mourning the place where I am most myself. Where the things that make it hardest for me to be alive in the world are useful. Where I am not alone in my sadness or my anger or my joy.
So much of what we thought was ours is disappearing. So much of what we thought was solid. So many of the things we have found and made and loved. Maybe nothing, not even this play that I wrestled for and crafted over so many hours and years, was ever mine. Maybe it was something that just passed through me on its way to the people in that room.
I am trying to let go of solid ground. To imagine a world on the other side of this moment where the mine-ness of land and money and ownership—the destructiveness of those concepts—now so glaringly visible, is changeable. That maybe we can create something richer in this pandemic’s catastrophic wake.
I am trying to write the next play knowing that it doesn’t really belong to me. To know that, at its best, it will belong to people I don’t know yet. In a room I haven’t seen.
I hope that that is true.