Ed Schmidt lied to me.
At least, I think he did. To be perfectly honest, I can’t really say what was fact and what was fiction in his subversive little performance, My Last Play, which I saw last Friday.
A little background, for those who may not have heard of the show: Ed Schmidt is a playwright who has enjoyed a solidly mediocre career, and, at age 48 (the same year, he points out, that Shakespeare put away his pen), he’s reached a personal crisis; he questions what, exactly, a life dedicated to the theater has left him with. After the loss of his father, Schmidt turned to theater for comfort: he read Our Town, his favorite play. But in his sorrow, he found he was uncomforted by Thornton Wilder’s words. And if, as he put it, in his hour of greatest need the greatest play he had ever read meant nothing to him, then what was the point of the rest of it?
So now Schmidt has decided to give up playwriting for good. He’s also getting rid of his 2,000-plus collection of plays and books about the theater. But not without one last stab at it: he’s written a play, aptly entitled, My Last Play, which he performs in his living room. During the play, he invites each member of the audience to choose a book from his library, which he or she may leave with. When the books are gone, so will be Ed Schmidt’s playwriting career.
The question on everybody’s mind (including my own) is, is this really his last play? A girl in the audience on the night that I saw it asked him point blank; he replied, “Yes, unfortunately it is.” That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.
But… is it really?
The answer, if you ask me, is: maybe.
Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but that’s hardly the point.
Funnily, ironically enough, this was my attitude going into the play, although for entirely different reasons than it was coming out. I went in with guns blazing, ready to defend the show’s integrity, even it does turn out to be an elaborate put-on. I even had a quote picked out from the book I’m currently reading: “There are truths and there are lies, these are the transcendent categories… The useful division is between the fiction and non-fiction that speaks the truth and the fiction and nonfiction that utters lies.” I had a whole speech prepared about how sometimes stories truer than facts, and even if it Ed Schmidt wrote another play, My Last Play might still be the truth, because sometimes just because something’s not true doesn’t mean it’s not the Truth.
As it turns out, this was exactly the attitude that Ed Schmidt intended to beat out of me – and himself – with his play. Fact is fact, he stressed repeatedly throughout the night. And fiction is just made-up.
I’m going to pause right now, and strongly encourage those of you who live in New York and have any intention of seeing this play to stop reading now. I won’t say this is a spoiler alert, because there aren’t spoilers per se – it’s not that kind of play. But there are things I want to talk about – things without which I find I cannot discuss this play – that are better experienced first-hand, genuinely, without preconceptions. So if you’re planning to see Ed Schmidt’s play, stop. Trust me. You don’t want to read any farther.
Now, for those still with me: from the beginning, Schmidt’s focus on truth-telling is clear. He fixates on facts and disparages the idea of fiction. When he tells the story of reading Our Town after his father’s death, he insists that he was unmoved by Emily Gibbs’ story, because she was “made-up.” And very early on he relates having received a phone call, and cannot remember if it was from his brother or his sister-in-law. He makes a point of the fact that he can’t remember; it seems trivial, he says, but he wants to make sure that everything in his play is the truth, even the trivial details.
At first I didn’t understand it. I came to see the “poignant meditation on failure” the New York Times had promised me. But many of the stories he told were only tangentially related to the subject of his last play, and even the ones that did deal directly with his departure from playwriting didn’t really seem to go anywhere. The anecdotes veered off-topic, had no clear over-arching story running through them, and didn’t make much of a point about anything at all. I saw the show with a couple of close friends, one of whom remarked afterward, “He told us he had given everything to theater and it hadn’t given him enough in return, but he didn’t really expound on it. For my time and money, I need more than that.”
She has a point. Structurally speaking, it was a disaster, although, to be fair, in his relentless pursuit of honesty, Schmidt confesses almost immediately that “this isn’t a play, really.” In any case, though, it was certainly a disappointment of my expectations.
But it’s not really about Schmidt’s last play. In fact, it’s not about any of the stories he told. It’s about the telling of them. It’s an exercise in manipulation – an exploration of the tension between believing truths and buying lies.
I should have known something was up during the second half of the evening, after he had us move our chairs into a circle and individually discussed each of the books we had chosen to take home. He corrected something he had said earlier in the night: “I misspoke before,” he said. “My first thought was not to donate the books, it was to sell them,” and then went on to tell a story of getting the books appraised. Why leave out such a huge piece of the story after making such a blatant point of telling the truth down to the very last detail?
But, uncynical listener that I am, I didn’t really know Mr. Schmidt was lying to me until he told me he was lying to me. At the end of the show, Schmidt methodically list all the little white lies he’s told – Shakespeare was 47, not 48 when he stopped writing, those weren’t really Moliere’s last words – and as the lies mount up they get bigger, so big that they’re no longer white at all and the veracity of the entire play is called into question. A play that, not 5 minutes ago, he insisted was the God’s truth.
A story that anchors itself in the notion of its own truthfulness, and then reveals itself as a lie – what does that mean? What do you do with that?
At one point Schmidt quotes Albee, saying “Fiction is fact distilled into truth,” to which his father replies, “That’s bullshit.” This exchange, I think, could almost serve as Schmidt’s thesis. As artists I think we must believe in the inherent truthfulness of stories, that they impart to us a deeper kind of understanding, one too complex to be encompassed in simple facts and plain truth. Well, maybe. But couldn’t it also be argued that the storyteller’s duty – by the very DEFINITION of fiction – is to lie to you? To manipulate, falsify, to make you believe things that are patently untrue? Maybe Albee’s quote is bullshit, maybe the truth is the truth and fiction is simply a lie.
And all of us – yes, artists, but any of us who have taken part in the hearing and telling of stories – we all labor under the unspoken and sometimes even subconscious understanding that stories uncover deeper truths. They bring a sense of order and understanding to an otherwise chaotic and confusing existence. That is the very point of storytelling – to give meaning and structure to the act of living. But it’s possible that there is no order, no meaning. There are no deeper truths to be learned. Life is just a big, messy, pointless accident and stories are simply lies we tell ourselves to make us feel like it’s not so.
Yes, so Emily Gibbs revisits her life and discovers that each and every moment is so deep and so delicate that when she fully understands this, knowing how she lived her life with so little understanding or acknowledgment becomes intensely painful. Yes. So Emily Webb realizes that every moment of life, even the most seemingly insignificant, is precious and fleeting. But does that mean that every insignificant moment actually is imbued with hidden depth and meaning? Or is that just a very beautiful and well-constructed lie by Thornton Wilder?
In the second act of the play, as we all sat in a circle and he talked to us about the books we had chosen, he told me that he had taken a master class with one of the playwrights in the book of plays I had selected. He told me this playwright had taught that the success of the playwright depends on how well he is able to lie to his audience. “And I thought, wow, I don’t want that to be me,” Schmidt said to me. “I don’t think it’s my job to manipulate my audience, I don’t want to be constantly in the act of trying to fool them. I don’t want to have that kind of antagonistic relationship with the audience.”
All right, I thought in the moment. It seems like a silly question of semantics to me, but if you say so. But ten minutes later, when Mr. Schmidt told me he’d lied (and he did tell me: he looked me in the eye and told me he had never taken such a master class), I did feel manipulated. I understood what he meant. I felt antagonized by Mr. Schmidt, at odds with him in a way I’ve never felt at a performance before. The act of storytelling was no longer a shared moment of truth between teller and listener, not a gift given and received with appreciation. It was revealed for what it perhaps really is – a clear and deliberate manipulation. We only mistake our stories for truth because we’ve been manipulated well.
I’ll admit, I was ruffled. Schmidt made his point by making it personal. He invited me into his living room. He told stories to me. He lied to me.
And while it doesn’t make me any less ruffled, I have to respect the idea. I was made deeply uncomfortable, and forced to think about things I had never thought about before, things I had hitherto accepted as unquestionable truth. A lot of plays have aspired to less.
It’s also worth mentioning learned the difference between an disengaged audience and an alienated audience. I can’t count many strange, experimental works I’ve seen that left me bored, confused, and frustrated and, when I’ve expressed my boredom, confusion and frustration have been met with the supremely pretentious argument that maybe that’s what the artist wanted. Maybe he wanted to alienate you, did you consider that?
It never occurred to me that one could feel alienated and have enjoyed the performance at the same time. My Last Play, I was certainly engaged from beginning to end. Schmidt’s stories, wandering as they were, were certainly entertaining. But when the curtain fell – or rather, in this case, when Mr. Schmidt informed us that he would dim is apartment lights and then bring them up for his curtain call – I felt apart from the performance, somehow, and a nagging sense of unpleasant discomfort.
So is this Ed Schmidt’s last play? Maybe. Someone who has such a jaded view of storytelling certainly strikes me as a person ready to cash it all in. But maybe not; if he freely admits to lying about so much, how can we believe any of it? Maybe his entire attitude, the point he’s trying to drive home – that fiction is meaningless – is a lie he doesn’t believe. Maybe he’s already at work on his next play. Or maybe he lied about the lies, and every word really is the sad truth.
Is the entire conceit – that this is Schmidt’s last play – an honest truth, or just another layer to the manipulation?
Oh, wouldn’t we all love to know.