Interview: Richard Nelson on The Gabriels
Tony Award-winning playwright Richard Nelson spoke to Edwin Gilson, Entertainment Writer at Brighton’s Argus Guide about his highly-acclaimed trilogy of plays, The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family ahead of their UK premiere at Brighton Festival
When did the idea for The Gabriels first come about?
I wanted to write about an American family with three plays all around the same national event – the election. Unlike with The Apple Family Plays [the trilogy Nelson brought to Brighton in 2015], which were about people moving to the little village of Rhinebeck and finding a home, this is a family of people who feel pushed out. These people are feeling like they are losing a home.
The play was written in real time. Does the fact that you were reacting immediately to the unfolding election keep the script alive?
Yes, I think so. The goal of the play, in essence, was to try and see the world through these characters’ eyes. I was constantly reading the news and trying to figure out what they might be thinking. I wanted to make it as immediate to the time of the play as possible. The last play is set, and was performed, between five and seven at night which is why the characters never know the result of the election. Each play I would write up to the opening night. They act as three snapshots in a year.
Would it be fair to say the play is more about people and their relationships than the election per se?
It’s not about who is going to win or lose. There are little to no arguments in the play and as a writer I’m not trying to make a point in any way. I just want to show how the familial, the personal, the financial, the artistic and political are all intertwined. The ambition of the play is to present the complexity of people. In each of the plays the characters cook a meal. When you’re cooking, conversations happen in a certain way that is very different to any other time. Human beings are the only animals that cook, therefore cooking is one of the things that makes us human beings. The play is about the complexity of human beings who centre around this fundamentally human activity.
What kind of people are The Gabriels? Where would you place them in the American social scene?
They grew up in this very small village but they are very cultured and play musical instruments. These are educated people who feel the pressure of a world in which they are being forgotten – at least in terms of economics.
The blurb for Women of a Certain Age, the third play, includes the line “the game seems rigged”. Is there a sense of determinism at play?
There is a refrain in the play that is quite significant in that sense; “what about us.” That feeling goes all the way through the play and it suggests a certain futility.
In an interview you said your characters are marked by a certain sense of “exile”. Can you pinpoint where this theme comes from in your work?
I think that’s accurate. It’s that sense of home, whether that’s feeling at home, homeless or in the process of losing a home. That theme is related to that feeling of not quite fitting in or being forgotten or lost. I also think my characters are resilient and there is a strength to them in the face of some serious problems, though.
Why did you take the decision to stop the narrative before Donald Trump was announced as winner?
Well, the play is not about the election in a news-like way. I’m trying to write about how the politics relates to people in both human and complex terms. I think that’s what’s not conveyed often in the news or television. It’s much more about the horse race and who wins and loses. That’s something others do – it’s not what the play is about.
How did you go about merging the personal and the political in a subtle way, without overstating the election narrative?
I think if any of us look at our lives, politics is involved. If there’s any kind of political event it’s going to be talked about by you and your family. It might not come up as the number one thing you have to keep talking about, though – it’s more incidental than that.
What was the audience atmosphere like in the election night performance of Women of a Certain Age?
It was an extraordinary night because the audience had no idea what was happening in the voting while they were watching the play. Everybody lived in that moment, in the present. We left and there was a party with big television screens so we could see the results. Everyone in the audience and those involved with the show were very, very surprised.
This interview was originally published in the Argus Guide. Visit the website for the latest news, in-depth interviews, features and reviews on the best events in Brighton, Hove and Sussex