Lucky intern that I am, I got to interview witty Brit Moby Pomerance, playwright of The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder, about the inspiration behind the play, his rich characterizations, and so much more! Read on for the inside scoop!
TC: Where did you get the idea for this play?
MP: The subject matter came to me through four different people, each of whom had come across the wonderful book by Simon Winchester, and said (almost identically): “I’ve just read this completely insane story and it made me think of you.” So I sat with it for a year or so before I realised I wouldn’t be able to represent the history of the piece without it becoming about something else entirely. But there was a landscape in Murray’s character that I was interested in exploring. It’s like Xeno’s race between Achilles and the tortoise; Achilles’ ambition collapsing under the ever increasing number of half-distances he has to cross. I connected that with Murray – for every distance he had to travel, each letter, he first had to cross an impossible number of fractions of that distance. So it was really stepping outside of the whole and exploring a tiny part somewhere in the middle that interested me. It was a picture of hell, stuck in a damp shed with eternity stretching off in either direction. I thought it was both horrifying and very, very funny. And then of course the play became as much about the two children as it did about Murray himself, and so further away from the history of it all.
TC: James Murray has been described in a variety of ways that are sometimes contradictory. Your characterization of him is very strong, so how did you decide what his character would be like?
MP: Murray seemed to me to characterise the ultimate urge of the Victorian age. It was not just the demiurge, it was one that substituted for everything that had been taken for granted for two thousand years: for faith, God, for political or social deference. It was an urge to define the universe, to be transgressive, meritocratic, to write and rewrite physical laws, explore new possibilities in the sciences, engineering, the means of production, the potential of industry, of capital, the meaning and morality of labour. The 19th Century in Great Britain (and Europe) showed a newly and massively (though by no means completely) emancipated population that in rare circumstance, through a superhuman amount of effort, they could achieve on a level never before considered. It was a time where suddenly the great list of things never-before-done could be democratised. You could explore a jungle or traverse an ice-flow or build a ship or posit theories on the substance of the universe, without requiring an endorsement from a society, church or King.
Murray was a man who essentially sat down for thirty-some years in a shed at the bottom of his garden and tried to define an entire (albeit linguistic) universe. He was a new class of amateur – not the well-heeled aristocrat with means and time, but the monomaniac who could find just enough space in the social fabric to be allowed to pursue his mania without starving to death, close though it may have been.
Murray’s urge was both divine and completely unfathomable. That oppressive sense of order seemed to indicate what he feared the most, which was its opposite. That is what interested me.
TC: How much of the characterisation of the Murray children and other supporting characters was your invention? Since Murray had eleven children in reality, what made you decide to pare it down to two? Where did the storylines and personalities of the other staff members come from?
MP: It was all invention (the children), in so far as anything a writer does is invention. I didn’t base it on a knowledge of a particular incident or figure, although Jane is based loosely on a couple of friends of mine. I would have loved to have written for eleven children, but I haven’t met the theater that could afford to pay that many actors. As for the other characters, Smythic came along fully formed on the first day of writing, even before Murray. The others introduced themselves along the way.
TC: Did you write this expecting it would be performed in the US? How do you think an American audience differs from a British audience, and did you make any concessions because of this?
MP: I wrote the first draft of the play to entertain myself – I had no expectations of a production at all. At that point no one had produced anything of mine and it looked as though it would stay that way. Of course this had the added benefit (or disadvantage) of fooling me into thinking my obligations to history were on par with those to my next turkey sandwich.
Then two things happened: first, I had a production in the New York Fringe Festival that won a couple of awards and generated some interest. Then I had a call from Catherine Kimmel of the theater group at Ojai who asked to see
something new; so with that deadline in mind I finished it off. I’m not sure how US audiences differ – or rather, there are so many different audiences here, I only hope a few people will find some of this as I do.
TC: Is the storyline between Paul and Owen your own creation, or is it historically-based? Can you talk a bit about the relationship between the forward-thinking themes in the characters’ personal lives and the more archaic aspects of their intellectual lives, and how those fit together in the play?
MP: See above about turkey sandwiches.
TC: The play is incredibly funny, and I’m sure there is much more humor in your scenes than there really was in that shed where Murray and his staff worked. Was it difficult working humor into this very intellectual subject matter?
MP: No. The situation in the play is so desperate that humour was a natural by-product. I couldn’t separate the two if I tried. It’s a way of making sense of misery. It may also be a particularly British trait that they are never funnier than when the world is going to hell. You know, it’s gallows humour (“nice weather for it”). Which is why we end up offending so many people, so much of the time.
For more Pomerance, come to:
The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder
by Moby Pomerance
directed by John Langs
A deliciously witty exploration of the very special misery only the smartest family members can inflict upon one another. In 1880s England, James Murray pursues the Sisyphean task of creating the Oxford English Dictionary, alongside his brilliantly caustic daughter who is now responsible for Murray, his seemingly prodigal son, and a garden shed full of thousands of slips of paper bearing definitions. When does a lifework end and your own life begin?
Performances July 22- August 29, 2010.
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