At 28, Des McAnuff is well on his way to becoming one of the most important theater artists of his generation. A playwright and director on his own – his production of Witkiewicz’s The Crazy Locomotive at the Chelsea Theater Center won several design Obies in 1977, and his Leave it to Beaver Is Dead, produced at the Public won the Soho Arts Award for best play in 1978 – he is also one of the four enterprising young men who make up the Dodger Theater Company, former Chelsea Theater associates who spent two seasons at the Brooklyn Academy of Music before taking up residence at the Public with their current production of Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s Mary Stuart.

“The first thing I saw of Des’s was Gimme Shelter in Brooklyn, which I thought was impeccably done,” says Joseph Papp. “I talked to him right after the show and said, ‘If you ever leave BAM for any reason, I’d like you to do some directing at the Public Theater.’ I think he’s an excellent director and hasn’t really gotten the proper recognition yet.”
Ironically, McAnuff (rhymes with “jackin’ off”) first encountered Hildesheimer’s play in Scripts, a short-lived periodical published by Papp, while serving as literary manager at Chelsea in 1976. “I went berserk,” said McAnuff the day after Mary Stuart’s first preview over lunch at Phebe’s, where he ordered (what else?) a Bloody Mary. “It was the play I wanted to do, and it’s been that ever since. Not because it’s a really challenging director’s piece, which it is, but because it’s so rare to get 14 fully realized human beings on the stage over a long period of time so you can really explore behavior. It’s like watching a show being prepared, with the makeup girls and the director coming in late, the executioner being the leading man – all these parallels fit into the rehearsal process in a really interesting way. And the audience changes from being voyeurs to being participants without ever having to do anything.” Originally scheduled to be done at Chelsea and then slated for each of the Dodgers’ two seasons in Brooklyn, the play has finally been produced only through creative dollar-stretching and a heavy subsidy from Papp.

For those familiar with McAnuff only by his reputation as theater’s rock ‘n’ roll maverick – Gimme Shelter and Beaver were both fueled by rock, as was Sleak, the British “snuff-rock musical” he directed at the rock club Privates – Mary Stuart may come as a surprise. Though the play has a contemporary anti-romantic feel and includes chaotically overlapping conversations, it has been staged with scrupulous efficiency and maximum clarity. The play levels classes, withholds moral judgments, and dismantles history’s hero-making machinery by presenting its subject’s monarchy and martyrdom as accidents of birth, questions of faith, or chemically induced conditions. McAnuff’s production, in which Roberta Maxwell in the title role leads a fine cast, has the look and feel of Tony Richardson’s film Tom Jones – elegantly composed on the surface, turbulently satirical underneath.

“What interests me in the play,” McAnuff said, “is the demystification of the whole Mary Stuart legend. The best parallel for me is that Lenny Bruce bit. Remember after Jacqueline Kennedy had tried to get out of the back of the car, and there was all that talk about how she was trying to get help for the President? Lenny Bruce said, ‘Look, I don’t want my daughter growing up believing that in that kind of situation she has to be superman. All she was trying to do was get her ass out of there, and what the hell is wrong with that?’ In other words, why create titans? I think Hildesheimer, having watched Nazi Germany happen, was only too aware of how, if you start to believe them, these myths about Our Great Ancestors can become extremely dangerous propaganda.” McAnuff pointed out the subtle references to Nazi Germany in the play: Symmons the Jew is murdered and his jewels stolen, Gervais the homosexual is murdered and thrown into the fire. “What’s frightening about Hilter is that he was a human being; he took a dump in the morning when he got up like everybody else. That’s what Hildesheimer is saying – maybe Mary Stuart was very brave and perhaps she did have a vision of the next 500 years, but probably she didn’t. So to some extent history is as much fiction as drama is.”

History is a central concern for McAnuff. His own has brought him to New York from his native Illinois by way of Canada, where he grew up and went to school. Several of his plays were produced in Toronto, including early versions of Leave it to Beaver Is Dead. He also wrote two teleplays for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., directed productions of The Bacchae and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and composed music for a staging of Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, as well as other musical projects. In New York, besides his associations with Chelsea and the Dodgers, he has been a member of the theater faculty at Juilliard, teaching (“I use the term very loosely”) third-year students. This year he wrote a play for them called New Romance; last year’s class collectively created a piece about terrorism called How It All Began, based on a book by Michael Baumann, an Abbie Hoffman-like character formerly associated with the Baader-Meinhof gang. The full version of How It All Began may be the Dodgers’ next project; another major undertaking in the works is McAnuff’s The Death of von Richtofen as Witnessed from Earth, “a play with flying and music” which had a workshop production last fall at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival in San Francisco.

There seems to be a strong attachment to Germany, but McAnuff insisted that Mary Stuart, the Baumann project, and Von Richtofen “came to me from completely different directions. The Richtofen idea started in ’75, maybe even ’74. I wanted to do something about fliers; my father, who was killed six months before I was born, was a Spitfire pilot, and I was always fascinated with that. Then as I got more into Richtofen I realized he was the Mick Jagger of his time. I think the events of the century would have been very different in Germany had he lived; he was definitely the heir apparent on a lot of levels, and he was incredibly famous at the time. I was also interested in the connection between the warrior and the politician and how we immediately transform people into heroes by media hype.”

A number of producers, including Papp, are dying to get their hands on that play; McAnuff is being very careful with it, he said. “I would love, though, to have David Bowie play Richtofen.” Meanwhile, Papp would love to have him direct Zastrozzi, a new play by Canadian George Walker. “I don’t know what I’m doing next,” McAnuff sighed, partly from fatigue, partly from depression at the thought of diminishing arts funding. “I don’t even know what the future of the whole non-profit world is. That’s one of the preposterous things about doing theater: there wouldn’t have to be that much more funding to see an awful lot more theater. There was a time when you could produce on the sort of scale Chelsea Theater Center did, and therefore there was a kind of play you could see in New York that would never ever get done on Broadway and would be preposterous to do in a showcase theater. But in this climate its becoming extinct. During rehearsals for Mary Stuart, it often crossed my mind that this is the last hurrah.”

McAnuff grinned. “Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’ve had such a good time.”

Soho News, February 18, 1981