VILLAGE VOICE / PERSONALISMS
by Christopher Walken
New York Shakespeare Festival
425 Lafayette Street
Dear Christopher Walken:
Thanks for inviting me to Him, which I saw just before it closed. I enjoyed it, though I didn't like it. By which I mean I had a good time watching you and your colleagues hang out onstage, doing bits and acting out Elvis anecdotes, real and apocryphal. You write good strong sentences--not true of every actor who takes up playwriting--and your reflections on the strange state we call celebrity in America aren't foolish.
But you haven't written a play yet. Disjointed as modern art has been, loose remarks, anecdotes, and routines around a theme still don't add up to a dramatic form. Remarks, as Gertrude Stein told Hemingway, are not literature. Okay, Elvis was who he was, got famous, overindulged, and died young; all these myths and fantasies sprang up about him after his death. You talked us through the story, pretending to be Elvis looking back from limbo. For a straight man, you had Rob Campbell play Elvis's '"stillborn twin brother." Larry Block (who was very funny), Barton Heyman, and Peter Appel played various stooges; Ellen McElduff--the only cast member who actually seemed to become everyone she represented--played various female interviewers, bimbos, and fans.
But so what? Did your collection of tidbits add up to a picture of Elvis that deepens the one we already have? Not really. Did it "place" him for us in the larger culture? Not clearly, though there were glimmers here and there. Did it tie us in emotionally to the tragedy of Elvis, his rise and fucked-up fall, in a way that either purged us emotionally or enlightened us about this mythicized folk hero? Not at all, which is why your playing around onstage didn't constitute a play...which may be why you arranged an early closing, knowing that, in the long run, you wouldn't have a long run.
When I say that we didn't connect emotionally to your hero, I don't imply any criticism of your acting. You are a wonder onstage, and always were. Thinking back--Him offered me a lot of thinking time--I was startled to realize how many great roles I'd seen you in, and how riveting your performances always were, from the time of the golden young god who slithered his sensual way through The Lion in Winter and Lemon Sky to the scary, psychopathic fervor of your Iago and your Coriolanus. I've never seen you in a great play without learning something new about it from your work; it seems natural to me that you should write plays because your Trigorin was the only one, in numberless Sea Gulls, whom I ever believed was really a writer.
You fit naturally into the classics because the depth of your acting allows for moral complexity; you never project only one quality at a time. Even your maddening habit of letting your vocal support fade in and out, so that we lose ends of lines, makes an old text come alive, turning it from recitation into living speech. I suppose it's a mark of your integrity that you can do that even to your own script. For better or worse, the quality of your acting hasn't changed; age has only heightened your charisma, by turning your looks from pretty to handsome.
Even at the end of Him, where you imagine Elvis getting a partial sex change and becoming a waitress in a Southern diner, as a way to escape the celebrity rat race (and, apparently, as an excuse to show how goofy you can look in drag), you came off as a gorgeous, magnetic, complex, wildly confused man--a tragic hero with no tragedy to act in. (Isn't it time, by the way, that you played a Jacobean revenger? Vendice awaits you.)
It's ironic that your play offered you no role to act, only a succession of poses refracted from a myth of someone else's role in life. You must have been thinking of yourself when you wrote, but not of your art. Still, I have faith in you; I know that soon you'll either appear in a great play--or learn to write one. Till then, having written no play, please accept this fan letter in lieu of a review.
Your Friend, Michael