jakub | November 10, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | The Body Politic in Josep Maria Miró’s Plays

Josep Maria Miró. (Photo by Federico Metral)

Josep Maria Miró, one of Catalonia’s most esteemed dramatists, is in the midst of a three-week playwriting residency in New York City with The Play Company (PlayCo), in partnership with Institut Ramon Llull and Sala Beckett in Barcelona. As part of his residency, he will have a Nov. 16 reading of his play The Nicest Body Ever Seen Around These Parts, translated by Sharon G. Feldman and directed by Jay Stull, at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at CUNY Graduate Center. The play received the prestigious 2022 National Prize for Dramatic Literature from the Spanish Ministry of Culture, the XXV Critics’ Prize for Best Playwright, and was selected by the association of European translators EURODRAM as one of the three best texts to have premiered in Catalonia during the 2021-22 season.

To read Miró’s work is to be immersed in profoundly disorienting worlds where characters find themselves at odds with their landscapes and at the mercy of the brutality, anonymity, and alienation enforced by neoliberal political and economic “ideologies.” Characters in his plays wrestle with their own desires and those imposed upon them by oppressive social structures. 

In his most famous play, Archimedes’ Principle (translated into English by Dustin Langan), an adult male swimming coach is accused of inappropriately touching a 6-year-old boy who is his student. Did the event happen? Who was the witness? How will members of the community come to terms with this coach and whether he has or not abused his authority? A slippery, elliptical, engaging play, Archimedes’ Principle is tightly constructed whodunit that examines the way a community can cast aspersions on an individual without factual basis, simply based on misreadings of a person’s behavior.

In The Nicest Body Ever Seen Around These Parts, the first in a triptych of monologue plays, the murder of a young man becomes the inciting incident to examine the prejudices and emotional dislocations bred within a seemingly tight-knit community. Other works—Nerium Park, Smoke and The Passage—center on the way characters face, or fail to face, their fears or others. Writing in taut, concise, poetic language, Miró is a dramatist with a uniquely wide-ranging, distinctive vision.

This interview was conducted via Zoom in New York City on Nov. 6, and has been edited for length and clarity.

CARIDAD SVICH: Are you writing a new play while you are here in New York?

JOSEP MARIA MIRÓ: Usually when I begin a play, I need to have a very clear idea of what it will be. I came to New York to dream a new play. I don’t know the title of it yet, but I do know it will be about a family—the history of a fictional Catalan family that is close to and with political power in the region. The family in this play has a long history of corruption. The play begins when the youngest member of the family goes abroad to study in the United States, and specifically the history of democracy. When this person returns to Catalunya, they bring with them the power of potential regeneration for the family and, metaphorically, for the country. Is it possible to change the DNA of a country? To “clean” history? This return to homeland is the beginning of the play.

For me, the concept of the body politic is central to theatre, and examining the body politic is crucial, because theatre needs to be both honest and free to explore both the dark and light of society. To me, theatre is always political. Of course, there is theatre that is just show business, too, but I am not interested in that kind of theatre—or should I say, it has its place, but it’s not the heartbeat of theatre. I am interested in a theatre that asks questions of the audience but does not offer answers. The theatre is a space and place for reflection.

How did The Nicest Body Ever Seen Around These Parts come to be?

I wrote it in 2020 in the moment of confinement at the height of the pandemic. It was my first monologue, and it’s the first of a triptych. I started writing the monologue when one of my closest friends, the playwright Josep M. Benet i Jornet, died from COVID-19. This was devastating for me, and I felt I had to write. He was a very important person in my life, a friend and mentor, and someone that carried the history of Catalan theatre in his bones. So this play holds a special place for me personally. It came out of a very pure desire to create art during an exceptionally difficult time, and the image of my small town came to me as I wrote. 

But the piece is not auto-fiction. I make geo-fiction. The place is real—the village, the river, etc.—but the story is invented. It is important to me that the writing be free, even when it is rooted in a specific geography. What is curious to me is that this is my most “local” play geographically, and yet the one that is travelling the most—being staged in other countries. People often say to me, “You are writing about my town in Greece or Peru!”

The Nicest Body is written for an actor of any gender to play. The most important thing is that they are a very good actor, because the actor must inhabit the different bodies of different characters throughout the play: the protagonist, the mother of the protagonist, a character that is transitioning from one gender to another and so forth. They embody the entire town! And this small town, which is based on the town where I grew up, is one where everyone knows each other, and where everyone thinks they are nice. They are all “nice” people. So when something awful happens, when the protagonist is murdered, the town must reckon with itself. In this town, beauty is killed. Someone decides to kill the nicest person that lives there. The play examines what happens because of this, and what happens when a community is suspicious of the desires of others. When a community begins to police desire, everyone is affected. In this town, everyone wants to possess the story of the body of the protagonist.

But for me the play is also about theatre. In a play, it’s not about being an actor or an actress. The gendered body is a convention. That’s why it is important that the performer’s gender in the play is immaterial. The performer is channeling all the stories. Their body is a vessel for language. This is the key. In theatre, language is all you have—an actor and language. The audience imagines the world. But ultimately the beauty of theatre is that you can travel between and among realities, sometimes in a dream, sometimes in reality, sometimes in some other space. I don’t write for the audience. I write for actors. They are the vessels for the creation of the theatrical experience.

Matt Bradley-Robinson in “Archimedes’ Principle” at London’s Park Theatre in 2014.

Sharon G. Feldman has translated this play into the English language, as well as two other plays of yours, Nerium Park and The Passage. Dustin Langan has translated one of your most famous plays, Archimedes’ Principle, as well as Smoke. What is your relationship with translators?

The translators are my voice in another language. I have a very close relationship with translators. They know things about my play that not even my mother knows! It’s a very intimate relationship, the one that an author and translator have with one another. I met Sharon Feldman via a friend whose work she had also translated. Sharon is very connected to Catalan culture. She is not Catalan, but it is as if she were! She has been with my work now for a long time, and it is a friendship I cherish to the point that sometimes I am thinking about writing a play and I am already thinking about Sharon translating it!

With Dustin, the relationship was a bit different. He is a very good translator, but we didn’t have the same kind of spiritual connection. That said, I am very faithful with all my translators, whether they are translating my work into English, French, Greek, or another language. I maintain those relationships because the translators that work with me are part of my work. There is a unified vision, if you will, that is important to keep.

What are the central inspirations and influences upon your art-making? 

This question of influence is interesting, because many years ago perhaps a dramatist would only mention theatrical influences. But we are in a different world. Influences can come from anywhere: the internet, visual art, cinema, etc. But nonetheless I remain interested in and inspired by theatre. For me there is one writer above all, and his name is Harold Pinter. He is one of the most interesting voices of the last century and the beginning of this century. He was someone that was always speculating about language, with the power of words. For me this is key. Because theatre is language. And in theatre, language is a mask. It is a strategy. Pinter understood this more than anyone. In painting, the equivalent is Edward Hopper. When I see a Hopper painting, I think of Pinter. This ability to present something but also conceal it, and to make a viewer think at the same time. I also love Martin Crimp’s plays. He, to my mind, is working in the Pinter tradition.

I would like to say that there are contemporaneous authors that are friends that have been important to me, like Josep Maria Benet i Jornet (whom I mentioned before), Lluïsa Cunillé and Jordi Oriol from Catalonia, Sergio Blanco from Uruguay-France, Gabriel Calderón from Uruguay, Abel González Melo from Cuba-Spain, and the director Xavier Albertí. Moreover, the translator Laurent Gallardo is someone whom I first entrust to read my plays, and his opinion is very important to me. As for U.S. dramatists, I admire Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Williams, especially, is someone that understood that theatre is about desire. Among European dramatists, I admire Ibsen, of course, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernard-Henri Koltes, and Sarah Kane. All these artists understand that theatre is not only about desire but about ethics. This ethical space that theatre carves out for itself in the world is unique.

Your play The Passage, for instance, is an intensely ethical play. It is haunting and beautiful. 

Oh, I love that play. Yes, it is very much about ethics. And it is about difficult things to witness and live with. The central character is a nun. She is out of her element. I place her in a setting where she does not belong, and in that setting she experiences the worst of the world. I am interested in displacing characters, because when you do this, the characters can see themselves and their position in the world better than when they are in their natural habitat, as it were. In The Passage, the entire play pivots on the last sentence. So, when you hear that sentence at the end, you need to reevaluate the whole experience, and what you think about the central character!

A scene from “La travessia (The Passage).”

You also direct your own work sometimes.

Yes, but I don’t consider myself a director. My identity is that of a writer. In fact, one of the things I love about being a playwright is allowing the work to take on a new life. I am not hovering over my plays. I want directors to surprise me, to be free with their understanding of my work. In rehearsals, the director will end up knowing more about the play than I! 

Your play Archimedes’ Principle has been adapted to film twice in recent years. First by Catalan filmmaker Ventura Pons, as Virus of Fear, and later by Brazilian filmmaker Carolina Jabor as Liquid Truth. It’s rare that one play gets two film adaptations.

Cinema is always complicated, because it is an entirely different medium. I love cinema. I love David Lynch’s work, for example. To me, he is like Pinter. Another supreme artist! I admire Pablo Larrain (from Chile), especially his film The Club. But the syntax of cinematography is entirely different to a play, and when my work is adapted to film, I don’t intervene. I let the director do their work.

Has your writing changed at all since the advent of COVID-19 in the world? 

The meeting with the community that theatre fosters is a necessary one. Losing that has been very difficult. The space of reflection that theatre allows is distinct from other mediums. In a play, one or three actors can be the world. The audience travels with them in mind. This is a different kind of spectacle than what film gives you. This ability of theatre is radical. That’s why I always emphasize structure when I write. I love working on the conventions of structure and seeing what is possible. A play can begin a process of reparation for a community. When someone dies in a play, it must be for something. When Romeo and Juliet die, Verona must deal with this. The city must respond to the tragedy. A play can awaken the process of healing and transformation.

Caridad Svich is a playwright, recipient of 2023 Flora Roberts Award, the Dramatists Guild, and artistic director of new-play development at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York City.

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