Interview with Daniel Keene by Stéphane Müh & Christine Bouvier 

Grenoble / Cambridge, July 2000

Stéphane Müh & Christine Bouvier : How do you create the emotive power or explosiveness contained in a text like two shanks? Some other texts (like the rain, to whom it may concern) produce some similar effects ? which are just as powerful.

Daniel Keene:  One way to create ‘explosive’ emotional resonances in a text is through what I would call ‘narrative compression’: that is, in part, to make the strongest possible utterance with the least amount of words. 

Texts such as the rain, to whom it may concern and two shanks have very simple plots; they don’t require the larger narrative strategies that can often dilute the central themes/concerns/meaning of texts whose plot lines are more complicated. As texts they are more closely related to the Brothers Grimm than to Shakespeare (although these are themselves closely related).

Freed from the complications of involved plots I can explore and expose the complications of a character’s attitude or response to the simple (if intense) dilemma in which they find themselves; this dilemma is usually and primarily an emotional one.

I believe that in this way I can come a little closer to what I consider to be the deep core of drama: the individual struggling to come to terms with (to recognise) his/her situation and having to make, finally, a choice as to how he/she responds to it.

Sounds quite simple, doesn’t it? But the choice that must be made is ultimately a moral choice. And that isn’t so simple.

The rest is a question of art.

Where do your characters come from? More precisely, where do these men and women come from, those "tormented souls" ? those people we meet constantly through your monologues and dialogues, all those deeply moving texts? Where do these deeply hurt, deeply bruised beings come from ?those people forsaken by the human community, I don't mean "marginals" ? that word isn't suitable here ? but people who are always out of themselves maybe… if that can mean anything ? and driven to despair, to the difficulty of uttering their experience of pain as well as of love, as though those two feelings were always bound to go together, as though the father?son or mother-daughter relationship couldn't be said ? or could only be said in or through pain? Why is that so difficult? Yet your characters are not social misfits, neither are they mere left-overs, mere rejects: it would be a mistake to leave it at that. Who are they?

Who are the characters in my plays? They are mostly people without privilege, who have no ‘position’, who have no power. Why do I choose to create characters like this? Because I want them to bring nothing with them, to have no biography, to be nothing to begin with. I want to create characters about whom there is little the audience can assume (of course the audience will always assume something about a character as soon as he/she appears on stage, but I can try to limit those assumptions and I can attempt to contradict them).

I want the characters in my plays to live moment by moment in front of our eyes (they can do nothing else) and to reveal what is within them (they have nothing else to reveal). In wanting this to be the case I am no different than any other playwright. I have simply chosen certain means by which to attempt to realise my desires. These means are determined by my own social, political, artistic and spiritual beliefs.

Who is not hurt? Who is not alone? Who can love without fear? Who can express their love with all the force they feel it contains? When are words alone sufficient?

I want my characters to bring their souls to the surface of their skin. I want their inner lives to be born/borne in every gesture, in every utterance. I want them to be painfully real (consider the light that spreads across a landscape just before the breaking of a storm: everything appearing as if it were soaked/suffused in light, but as though the light comes from within the things themselves): that’s the kind of painful reality I mean: painful because it seems too real, too intense, too alive, which only deepens our sense of mortality, our knowledge that we are not eternal. Yet the fact of our being temporal is where our only possibility of transcendence lies: we transcend our mortality by more fully accepting it. To live is to accept death (to speak is to accept the impossibility of expressing anything but a part of our meaning).

This is perhaps a tragic view of things. It is also perhaps old-fashioned. It requires a human being to live ‘in good faith’. It requires the acceptance of contradictions. It makes life a difficult pleasure (at best) or a meaningless difficulty (at worst). 

My characters are not philosophers or artists. They are not articulate in any normal sense of the word. What is common amongst most of them is their inability to express themselves: but they are not always unable to say what they mean, what they feel, what they know. Most of them, at some point, find a way to fashion from what language is at their disposal an utterance that comes close to expressing the reality of their lives.

They are all trying to carry light in a basket, they are all trying to fit an infinity of pain into a thimble.

Over the past few years, you have written an impressive number of short plays or monologues. Is that a ‘statement’? Why?

I write short works for both artistic and pragmatic reasons.

Pragmatic: I began writing short works because it was easier to stage short works: they were less expensive to produce, required less cast members, suited smaller venues. It was also to give myself a break from the efforts required to write longer works (I had just completed terminus).

Artistically, short works presented certain problems/challenges that I had wanted to address for some time. Central to these was the notion of a play as a kind of poem.

What is a poem?

It would take a poem to answer that question: which may explain a little of what a poem is.

Perhaps a poem is an imaginary answer to a non-existent question. Perhaps a poem is a compression of meaning to the point of a single, undeniable reality (however small). Perhaps a poem is music disguised as a sculpture hiding inside a painting. Perhaps a poem is something that insists on its presence to the point of becoming sheer presence. Perhaps a poem is simply the space between two silences (but the silence after the poem is different than the silence that precedes it: silence is altered by the poem).

Poetry existed before writing. It was an oral art/tradition. To exist at all poetry required the poet to speak or sing in the presence of another. The poem was born in the ear of the listener.

It was theatre.

Put more simply, I thought plays could be written that intensified experience by refusing to include anything that was inessential. I think this is something that poetry does (good poetry).

How do you write? Urgently, quickly or do you usually take your time?

I only write what insists itself, what I cannot refuse to write. I begin when it seems I have no other choice. I do very little planning. Often the initial draft of a text will come very quickly, then the work begins. What I am always seeking to combine is instinct and intelligence. What I try to do is hold on to the initial excitement, the first image or phrase that occurred to me. From this beginning, which I did not will, which I often do not understand, which has no context, I try to create a world. If at the heart of this world this initial spark still exists, then I feel I have succeeded. I fail more often than I succeed.

A work can take a week to write (two shanks) or three months (to whom it may concern). After the event I remember very little of the process of writing. When I sit down to write a play I always feel as if it is the first play I have ever written. I never know what I am doing and I know exactly what I am doing.

My responsibilities as a writer are towards my art. I need to feel completely confident and show utter humility in the face of what has been created by other theatre artists.

Which writers are your major influences?

There are many writers I admire, who for me are ‘touch stones’. The first writer to have a real impact on me was Ibsen, whom I still enjoy for his technical skill and unflinching gaze. Samuel Beckett has always been a very important writer for me, for many reasons, not least of which is the honesty of his endeavour. To me his work seems a relentless excavation of the human soul. I also find his work extremely funny and find it odd when I meet people who think he was ‘too dark, too bleak’. I think he was a very courageous writer. I would consider him perhaps the greatest writer of the 20th century.

There are many other writers important to me: von Horvath, Kroetz, Shakespeare, Pinter, Koltès, Brecht, Howard Barker, Maria-Irene Fornes, Heiner Müller, etc.

I don’t know what these writers have in common. Perhaps they simply understand the language of theatre, its limitless possibilities and its harshest requirements.

Do you think, in a general way, that theatre can be the place of a meeting or an exchange between an author and an audience? I mean an exchange other than a "commercial exchange"?

I’m not sure how to answer this question because in many ways I feel that the writer of a work should remain anonymous. The ‘meeting’ is between the audience and the work. The writer is a witness to this meeting. To create a work and to witness it are both acts of generosity carried out in good faith. Yet both are risks/gambles. To gamble might be defined as making an assumption in the face of peril. As a writer I assume that theatre matters to and has meaning for its audience. As an audience member I assume that a piece of theatre will have an emotional reality I can believe in.

To put it another way: I think of King Lear as if he were a real person, yet I know he is the creation of a writer. All three of us, Lear, Shakespeare and myself, share a common reality. This reality is neither fantastic nor quotidian: it is the reality of theatre.

What is reality?

Etc. etc. etc.

If I say ‘political process’ regarding your way of telling and transmitting experiences through writing ? and particularly through writing devised and meant for the theatre ? what is your answer to that?

Every public act is political.