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Brief Encounter With ... Lee Blessing

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Lee Blessing is an American playwright whose 1988 Pulitzer Prize-nominated play A Walk in the Woods, centring on two arms negotiators during the Cold War, is currently being revived at the Tricycle Theatre by Nicolas Kent.

What are your memories of the play's first production?

I was involved with the play for a year and a half, from its first public reading at the O'Neill National Playwrights Conference through its regional and West-Coast premieres (at the Yale Repertory Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse respectively) to its Broadway opening. Des McAnuff directed all three productions, with a different cast for each, with Sam Waterston and Robert Prosky in the Broadway production.

Nine months later it opened at the Comedy in the West End, with Sir Alec Guinness and Edward Herrmann. I loved both the New York and London productions. Once Sir Alec finally had command of his lines (about a week after opening), the British production sailed on quite smoothly. I was struck by how consistently strong the play proved with four different casts and in two very different interpretations

Did its success surprise you?

Not at all. It's a terrific play. It had a theme that mattered to every human on earth and which was on most people's minds at the time: how to work ourselves out of the box of an arms race between the U.S. and the Soviets.

How does it feel returning to it over 20 years on?

It always feel highly relevant, this play. The weapons, after all, can be reduced but never uninvented. And there always seem to be countries ready to rattle their nukes as an extension of diplomacy. Indians, Pakistanis, North Koreans, Iranians and others currently face, and force others to face, the same issues that Botvinnik and Honeyman face in this play. I doubt we'll ever get past the problem of finding a way to trust each other enough truly to make nuclear weapons a thing of the past.

What do you think of having a woman cast as the American negotiator?

I'm all for it. In Chicago currently there's a production in which a woman is playing the Soviet role. While it's true that in the 1980's neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union had women at this sort of negotiating level, that's a reality that's slowly changing. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister then, and she felt a bit more like the exception that proved the rule. I don't think we see Angela Merkel, for example, in quite the same way. Clearly the future promises more and more women will rise to these positions, and to cast one of the negotiators as a woman simply helps us look forward at the same time we look back in experiencing the play.

In the 80s, this play was very relevant to the times and resonated well with audiences—how do you think audiences are responding to now?

My impression is that the play feels very relevant to contemporary audiences, who are after all bombarded daily with stories about smaller countries cynically using this technology to gain stature on the world stage, as diplomatic bargaining chips to bolster their foreign policies and to maintain control over their own populations. No one knows when one of the smaller nuclear powers will have an accident with their stockpile of nuclear weapons or simply make a disastrous calculation. I think that scenario runs in nearly everyone's mind whether it's conscious or unconscious. One also worries about one of the major nuclear powers overreacting.

Could diplomats today take advice from your characters in terms of negotiation strategies?

I think the strategies employed in this play by Botvinnik and Honeyman are rather universal in most negotiations that last any amount of time. People tend to walk into negotiations identifying themselves with the institutional interests they represent. But the longer they negotiate together, the more the underlying truth of their own individual humanity comes to weigh on them. Institutions are created by humans, after all, and humans, fundamentally, still must learn how to agree.

What are you working on at the moment?

Apropos of this subject, I've written a one-act for Tricycle's upcoming cycle on The Bomb. It's called Seven Joys, and it'll premiere there in February, I believe. I've also recently written a sort of sequel to A Walk in the Woods which brings John Honeyman into (and a little ahead of) our own time and confronts him with a nuclear crises that feels quite different, albeit frighteningly contemporary. That play's entitled A View of the Mountains.

A Walk in the Woods continues at the Tricycle until 12 November.


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