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Q&A: Pulitzer Prize Winner David Auburn on His New Play, ‘The Columnist’

In a city where influence and the perception of it remain some of the most important currency one can have, newspaperman and columnist Joseph Alsop wielded plenty of both in Washington, D.C., in his day.

A New Deal Democrat who had the ear of President John F. Kennedy, Alsop was also a fierce hawk on foreign affairs, especially when it came to ramping up the Vietnam War and warning of the dangers of a communist threat.

Alsop, whose column was carried in 300 daily papers, was a complicated man. He tangled very publicly with Sen. Joe McCarthy in his attack on civil liberties. He was married, yet also was secretly gay. (He was blackmailed about his sexuality, albeit to little avail.)

Alsop is the central figure of a new play by David Auburn called “The Columnist,” which opens Wednesday at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York. Auburn is the playwright who wrote “Proof,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award in 2001. That fictional story focused on a daughter, her mathematician father in Chicago and the challenges to his work. This time out, Auburn has built a story around the true-life events of Alsop and his brother, Stewart, with whom he originally co-wrote a column.

Art Beat spoke to Auburn about his latest play, his decision to write about Alsop and the state of his broader career. (The buzz surrounding the opening of the play has also generated several thoughtful pieces in recent days about Alsop’s influence over four decades as a columnist and how the world he operated in his changed. (Some sharp pieces about Alsop here by Peter Osnos, Eric Alterman and Joe Nocera

Here’s an edited version of our interview:

Art Beat: Why did you decide to write a play about Joseph Alsop?

David_Auburn_by_Marion_Ettlinger_video_small.jpgDavid Auburn: It’s sort of a long process. It partially began about eight or 10 years ago when I realized I didn’t know anything about the Vietnam War and set about the process of trying to learn about it. I read a number of histories. And the Alsop name kept popping up in footnotes. On the theory that sometimes the minor characters in the quarters of history are the most interesting characters. I read how influential and famous they (Joe and his brother, Stewart) were at the time to the world of journalism and foreign affairs – especially Joe. And it interested me how forgotten he was now. And I asked myself: How does someone go from being so central and so essential to the political dialogue to almost being forgotten? I wanted to get at what a magnetic and flamboyant and complicated person he was, how mercurial he was, how polarizing he was as an individual.

I imagine that one of the tough challenges about writing this play is that he often seems like a very tough man to like. He’s arrogant, he can be a bully, he comes off as a hawk on Vietnam who sticks his head in the sand.

David Auburn: It was one of the compelling things about him. One of the things that I read about Joe is that people had a great attachment to him despite all of the things you mentioned. I’m not really all that interested in writing about characters you like. I’m trying to put interesting characters on stage in a way that shows all their complexity. Writing about someone whose views are so different from your own and showing the complexity of that person can be difficult but it’s a challenge I like.

To what extent did modern events and times play into your thinking about this story?

David_Auburn_by_Marion_Ettlinger_video_small.jpgDavid Auburn:There were a couple of things on my mind as I was writing it. In the last couple of years I’ve become an obsessive political blog reader. It seemed to me it would be interesting to look back at a time when it was very different, when a few guys had the authority over the discourse and impact of policy. And that’s changed so much — largely for good, I would say. I found that aspect of his life and time very interesting. Also, the whole world of newspapers and the centrality of their influence is something I feel nostalgic for a bit and was compelled to write about.

Watching the country go through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan you can’t help but think how opinion makers shape historical events and how it is that certain people can cling so tenaciously to certain ideas even as those ideas become destructive and discredited. That seemed very intriguing to me about Joseph Alsop: When things are going badly [in Vietnam)], he actively doubles-down. How does that work? Why?

As the play nears its conclusion and the Vietnam War worsens with more casualties, he does indeed seem to double-down on pushing for more troops, etc. What did your insights into Alsop tell you about why he did so?

David_Auburn_by_Marion_Ettlinger_video_small.jpgDavid Auburn: I think — and I hope that this is reflected in the play that you see — that part of it had to do with authority, whose allowed to make pronouncements on great national issues. His sense of identity is so wrapped up in himself and his cohorts by virtue of their education, their place in society, their connections to powerful people. When the challenge came from younger people and younger reporters (including a then-young David Halberstam), he had this investment in protecting his own influence and reputation. He was genuinely and fervently anti-communist. My speculation in the play is that his being the victim of a vicious blackmail attempt at the hands of the Soviets must have fired his anti-communism up and helped persuade him.

How did you try to strike a balance between the portrayal of real-life figures with a true history…and the demands of creating your own character for a play?

David Auburn: Navigating the line between being true to broad historical facts and working on a character was one of the challenges. I think the story is historically compelling…other people can say how it feels to them when looking at the history. I think people can come away from this play with a pretty accurate portrayal of the situation at the time.

The relationship with the Russian man [who is part of a blackmail scheme] is speculative. That’s probably the biggest liberty I take. [Editor’s note: Alsop was blackmailed over his closeted homosexuality, but the Russian man in the play is a fictional character.] Alsop’s marriage did dissolve but that all did happen later in the `70s. I moved it back earlier to try to draw some contrasts His daughter in the play is a composite of a number of stepchildren he had.

Is there a recuurring theme that you increasingly see in your own work?

David Auburn: I think the thing that keeps on coming up is the relationships between and roles of parents and children. It keeps coming up whether I intend it or not. That happened in “Proof,” “The Girl in the Park” and this play.

Given all of the attention and acclaim for “Proof,” did that create a certain kind of pressure for the works you wrote afterwards?

David Auburn: I’ve started to think of this as the Burden of Proof Question. I guess the short answer is, Yes, there probably were some pressures. But I try to ignore that as much as I possibly can. I felt it a lot more in the year or two after “Proof” came out. I’ve got enough of a track record now that I can keep working in the theater, which you never take for granted.

Recent profiles about you have taken note of the fact that increasingly you seem to be writing in other fields, such as film.

David Auburn: I like working in as many modes as I can. I enjoy the variety. But I want the theater to be the main place I belong. That’s where I get the most pleasure.

Finally, John Lithgow is playing Joe Alsop. Having researched him for so long and now seeing the play, what’s your view on how well he pulls it off?

David Auburn: It’s a dream. John just understands this guy in his bones. He’s giving the guy a gigantic and ferocious performance. I’ve never had an experience where we’re sitting around the table, rehearsing the play, and at every level he’s giving it a 11 on a scale of one to 10.

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