n 1975, Michael Cristofer read a newspaper article about an incident that had occurred in France: a man known to be a Nazi war criminal appeared in a French village, having been released from prison after serving 14 years of a life sentence for his involvement in the massacre of 247 French citizens. The man was harassed and pressured to leave the town. He refused, and a vigilante group with white hoods over their heads burned his house down, leaving behind a charred corpse.
“I had told myself I’d never write a play using the Nazi metaphor,” Cristofer recalled recently. “It had been done already and in a lot of cases not very well. But I held on to this clipping for a long time, and something about the story made me pursue it as a play. For one thing, the man had a strange kind of stature. He didn’t try to run or hide. And the behavior of the people trying to get rid of him was so hysterical and, I felt, unjust. A simple question presented itself: Why have we not yet finished with the fact of the Nazi regime and all that happened in World War II? What is it doing to us, this inability to be done with it?”
That “simple question” drove Cristofer to write Black Angel, which opens Saturday at the Circle Repertory Company. But instead of answering that question, the play poses a series of other provocative, complicated, perhaps unanswerable questions. What is it in human beings that permits them to kill? When does today’s heroism become tomorrow’s atrocity? Are there crimes for which there is no just punishment? Is forgiveness ever possible?
“I’ve been working on this for two or three years,” said the 37-year-old playwright and actor, whose 1977 drama
The Shadow Box won both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize. “I wanted to consider and reconsider the morality of the piece itself. I think it’s important it say clearly and exactly what I think it should say. It should never be construed as saying that you should never pursue Nazi war criminals or that what they did was all right or that we should forget.
“However, it is saying we should forgive. We have to forgive ourselves – humanity – for World War II. We have to recognize that we are capable of this, and we have to prevent it in ourselves.
“But to forgive is not to forget or to condone,” Cristofer continued. “People say you can’t forgive a Nazi. Well, I can! At the same time, I suppose if they put a man in front of me and recited his crimes and said he should be killed, I would probably agree. I would hold the gun!” He stopped and shook his head, baffled by the same contradictory feelings that course through the play.
Black Angel interweaves the basic details of the true incident in France with invented, dreamlike scenes from the man’s long, loving marriage. So it is partly a documentary and partly a memory play about a relationship. But it is also a morality play seeking the essences of good and evil. The tragedy of the story is that by achieving their revenge against the war criminal, the French villagers perpetuate his crime. At the end they have only killed the man, but what continues to exist is a hideous, charred, unidentifiable object: the black angel, the human potential for injustice.
“People are unwilling to accept the potential for evil in themselves,” Cristofer said. “They want to think that evil resides in these certain people, and we can get rid of evil just by getting rid of the evil people. I wish we could find a way to stop it without turning ourselves into self-appointed killers.”
An earlier version of Black Angel had its world premiere in 1976 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles under the direction of Gordon Davidson, who has also directed the Circle Rep production. “The thing that I always like about Michael’s plays is that he asks hard questions about life, about values, about relationships,” said Davidson. “I find that compelling. It makes me ask myself some hard questions, and it goes from the play to me to the actors to the audience. It’s very interesting doing this play again now, because times are different than they were five years ago. That means more had questions – like, when we can’t be finished with World War II, when we can’t accept the judgment at Nuremberg, how do we deal with Lebanon?”
“I didn’t let anybody do the play for a long time,” said Cristofer. “The reaction in Los Angeles was so vehement. I was called a Nazi; my life was threatened. It’s interesting that the Europeans who saw the play understood what it was talking about, while the Americans reacted violently against the play. The head of the California Board of Psychology, who had been in a concentration camp as a child, liked the play and asked to lead several of the
post- performance discussions we had. And he suggested that Americans felt a responsibility to react a certain way toward anything having to do with the Nazis or the Holocaust because of guilt for not suffering what Europeans did. It’s tougher to make Americans reconsider their thinking.”
Making people reconsider their basic assumptions is a pretty good description of a playwright’s art, and in making that attempt
Black Angel echoes The Shadow Box, which examines the newly intensified lives of three people facing terminal illness. But not all of Cristofer’s plays
zero in on the starkest issues of life and death, good and evil.
Ice is a somewhat cryptic play about three strange people isolated in a cabin in Alaska.
C.C. Pyle and the Bunion Derby has to do with a footrace from Los Angeles to New York that took place in 1928. In
The Lady and the Clarinet, a rather neurotic middle-aged woman summons through memory the three rather neurotic men she has loved in her life; this play is scheduled to be produced at the Long Wharf early next year with Stockard Channing in the leading role.
Most of these plays had their first productions at the Mark Taper Forum, usually directed by Davidson, who is the Taper’s artistic director. Cristofer and Davidson have had a long working relationship. “It is like a marriage, to use a cliché,” said the playwright. “He does things that annoy me, and I’m sure I do the same to him. But he takes care of the play. There’s a huge misconception that goes on these days about directors supposedly writing plays with playwrights. A lot of plays have been ruined because not enough time is spent figuring out what the play is, before directors start trying to transform it into something they think it should be. Gordon treats the material for what it is instead of what he wants it to be.”
When Cristofer migrated to Los Angeles from New York in 1972, he followed a familiar pattern of frustrated actors seeking work in television and movies. Ironically, the move launched a thriving career in theater. Cristofer grew up in
New Jersey and attended Catholic University in Washington, D.C., but he quit before graduating to tour Europe with an acting company sent by the State Department, he recalled “to missile sites in Germany where we did Chekhov one-acts on tabletops for 26 tired Americans.” After that, he was “a hippie for a while,” drifting from San Francisco to Mexico to Beirut before settling in New York to pursue acting in earnest. But work was scarce, and when the actress he was living with took a job in Hollywood, he decided to go along and to try to find more profitable work than stage acting. He even changed his last name from Procaccino to the more ethnically inscrutable Cristofer.
“I auditioned off the street for the Taper and was cast as Crow in Sam Shepard’s
The Tooth of Crime,” Cristofer said. “I thought, this is it, this’ll be the last show I do, it’ll be my swan song for the theater. Here I was in high heels and makeup and sequins – great way to make a debut in Los Angeles, right? Well, I got more acting jobs out of it.”
After acting in several plays at the Taper, he got up the nerve to submit a play he had written called
The Shadow Box. But when he slipped it into the mailbox of the theater’s literary department, he used a pseudonym, and he got the play back with a single comment: “too thin.” Undaunted, Cristofer organized a reading of the play for Davidson featuring a cast of top-notch Los Angeles actors such as Charles Durning and Sada Thompson. This did the trick. Davidson directed the play himself at the Taper, later at the Long Wharf, and eventually on Broadway. The ultimate success of the play surprised Cristofer somewhat, he said, but he wasn’t surprised that audiences liked it. “I was less surprised than the actors were and Gordon was. They didn’t believe an audience could laugh at a play about dying people.”
For several years after The Shadow Box, Cristofer divided his time between Los Angeles and New York, earning as much acclaim for his acting as for his writing, especially for his performance in Andrei Serban’s flamboyant production of
The Cherry Orchard at Lincoln Center. Now he has an apartment in the city and a house upstate, and he was last seen on stage as a political cartoonist in
No End of Blame at the Manhattan Theater Club. “I have instincts that make me act in plays that are totally unlike my writing,” he said. “It’s the only way I can learn how to do it. But it gets harder and harder to act.
No End of Blame took a lot out of me. Being on stage finally terrified me. I’m beginning to understand what it costs to be a really good actor, and I don’t know if I’m up to it. It’s scary and dangerous when you really do it right. You risk your sanity. I’m not dumb enough or strong enough to risk that much anymore.”
Despite the productions he has had and the recognition he has achieved, Cristofer still feels much of the same frustration with the theater that spurred him to leave New York ten years ago. Like many playwrights, he spends much of his time writing for the movies and being paid handsomely for it, even if none of his work gets produced. “The truth is that I wouldn’t do screenplays at all if I could make a living in the theater,” he said.
“Shadow Box did not make me rich. When it opened, tickets were only $13, and that was only five years ago. If you have a play done at a regional theater, you make $7,000 or $8,000. If it’s done Off Broadway, you make maybe $400. How can you live?”
Another thing that bothers Cristofer is the lack of community among writers in New York. “We’re so isolated,” he said. “We don’t know each other, and we’re pitted against each other constantly, always competing for the same little corner of the newspaper. I feel so outside of the New York theater. I can never figure out what it’s about, except when I’m doing a play. Then you intuit something. Your breathing changes. You say, oh, this is what the big deal is, this is what New York theater is about. But that’s rare. I mean, when’s the last time you heard an important idea in the New York theater? And how far from Broadway did you have to travel to hear it?”
More hard questions from Michael Cristofer.
New York Times, December 12, 1982