Eleanor by Mark St.Germain
Discussing a Work in Progress
By: Charles Giuliano - Sep 19, 2020
A work in progress, Eleanor, by Mark St. Germain was commissioned by Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota. It was given a reading there. Recently it had a reading with another actress, Harriet Harris, for Barrington Stage Company. With two performances in an empty theatre it was viewed by subscription. By phone we discussed the new work and its intriguing character who was superly portrayed by a remarkable actress.
Charles Giuliano How did Eleanor come about?
Mark St. Germain It was commissioned by Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota. They commissioned three women playwrights and for some reason that included me, to do something for the year of the Suffragette.
Previously, I had done a lot of research on the Roosevelts and had tried to do a play about them so I had a lot of material. I decided to do Eleanor as a solo piece after I had sworn that I would never do it again. Putting an actress through it with Dr. Ruth.
In these days I feel there will be a need for a lot of solo pieces.
When Dr. Ruth was first done it was two hours with an intermission. We tried to get it down, which we did, so it was less than 90 minutes. But it was tough for an actress, and I thought at the time, how many people can play Dr. Ruth. I was surprised as it’s gotten a lot of productions. People don’t look like her but they project as Dr. Ruth. It seems to have worked and then I decided to do it with Eleanor.
They did one reading in Sarasota and this is the second reading of it. (Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield.) Here with Harriet Harris.
CG There were twenty minutes of cuts.
MSG Yes, over two days of rehearsal. It still can be cut and fine-tuned. It should be a ninety-minute, one act play.
CG How did you connect with Harriet Harris?
MSG I knew her from years ago. She was in my Typhoid Mary play. She recently did Sister Mary Ignatius for Berkshire Theatre Group and may well have been at Williamstown as well.
CG Why do you do historical portraits? You are a theatre artist but I regard you as a portrait artist.
MSG That’s a nice title. I do it because of the times we live in and I want to make some political statements. I could put those words in the mouth of a contemporary character but I feel that’s what everyone who is anti-Trump is saying. It’s more impactful if those statements come from an historical character. Eleanor was a true democrat and didn’t think that liberal was a dirty word. She believed in public service and was inspirational to me. In time, you only want to work on things that are inspirational.
CG How do you take such a volume of research and archival material and craft that into drama? It has to work as theatre and engage an audience.
MSG I had already done the majority of the research but had never used it from years back. It was a matter of going through her life and finding what was most interesting. Finding the things that I wanted to say expressed by her. It was easy because she was so brutally direct. Today, things like that just aren’t said. Then it become a matter of spinning plates.
At the very beginning, be it Freud or Dr. Ruth, you have to have something that lets the audience laugh and realize that they are not there for a lecture. That’s been true for a lot of the plays I’ve done. You have to be careful about attention span. This one goes back and forth in time, from the present to the past. I put a little story in about her being visited by a teacher. I imagine myself as being in the audience. How much do I want to hear and what is the most interesting? Sometimes you get lucky and the piece really does start to write itself. I felt very comfortable with her voice.
CG You’ve been through a rough patch. There have been times of despair when we talked.
MSG I never could have done this without already having done the heavy lifting. I’m not writing like I used to. It’s become a painful thing where it used to be totally pleasurable. I used to work eight hours a day now I get a headache after an hour or two. Things have definitely changed.
CG Having followed you over a joyous number of years, and many wonderful exchanges, you may be surprised to hear me say that this is among your best work. Are you going to argue about that?
MSG I don’t think it’s finished yet but I’m glad you feel that way. I feel it speaks to our time. Usually it’s not easy to watch whatever I do. I can watch rehearsals, that’s fine. But when it comes to performances I usually pace in the back. I don’t watch a lot but I listen. With this one, with the filming, I was riveted listening to Harriet. The same thing when it was on video. I never watched anything I wrote for TV (The Cosby Show). One movie I wrote, I was so captivated by the director and what he wrote, that I forgot I wrote it and sat down and watched it. This was a situation as I was watching Eleanor that I forgot that I had anything to do with it.
CG Regarding the success of Eleanor I would say that it is 60% Ms. Harris and 40% Mr. St. Germain.
MSG I don’t disagree.
CG Whatever you wrote in the script she brought it out times ten.
MSG I agree and would be despairing if I thought that nobody else can do it like she can. The actress in Florida also held my attention.
CG When and if we emerge from Covid, and theatre returns to some semblance of its former self, do you see potential that this will be widely produced?
MSG I sure hope so. The fact that there is one person makes it easier to do economically. Now in Covid days it’s easier to have one person than a dance piece or multiple characters on stage. I’m hoping but I really don’t know.
With Covid, this year my income was totally devastated. I don’t know when it will pick up and people will start doing things.
CG Do you know of any attempts for relief in the arts, particularly the theatre community which has been flattened?
MSG There is Mass Covid Unemployment Assistance. That goes to people who have their own businesses. It’s been very difficult and I still haven’t gotten it. The challenge has been showing people that you really had an income. I don’t think people understand the nature of royalties and performances. They don’t get it. There’s no one theater that pays me a salary. There are X number of theatres and they all go through the agent who takes money. So that was totally confusing. I’m trying to prove that I have income and I don’t know why they can’t look at last year’s tax return. It’s jumping through a lot of hoops and I’ve been turned down again. It’s under review so we’ll see what happens.
CG Focusing on Eleanor there are many ways to skin that cat. The list of conundrums seems endless. For example, what was their relationship? Were they cousins?
MSG Yes, fifth cousins.
CG That makes them kissing cousins. Then the question is how much did they kiss?
MSG Enough to produce five children.
CG Eleanor was not a great beauty.
MSG No, she was widely parodied for her looks. As a younger woman she was not unattractive. Franklin sensed something about her that she was a solid person. Maybe he was looking for a piece of himself that wasn’t there. In all things he thought in a very political manner. It didn’t matter if something was technically right. If he couldn’t sell it as a politician, he wouldn’t do it. Her first thought was you do what’s right, period. She got very frustrated with the politics.
The veterans would never have gotten what they did in appreciation of their service were it not for her: The VA loans, GI Bill for education, health care for veterans, that’s all her. I think she saw herself as a partner but she was certainly betrayed by him.
CG She was not successful lobbying for emigration of European Jews.
MSG No, she was not. That and the Japanese Internment Camps and she was furious about it. I just came upon some information that in fact FDR allowed in a select group of Jews. How they were selected I don’t know. This is not widely known. Everyone has the same facts that you do, that he never helped. He certainly didn’t help in any large way. She was the conscience.
CG We think of FDR in a heroic way as the savior that got us through the Depression and for most of the war. He put through The New Deal and yet there are these glaring blind spots and his personal pecadillos.
MSG Absolutely. Part of it is that we just can’t understand the man. Eleanor never did. Most people didn’t, even though some spent a lot of time with him. He was an unbreedable politician. He could take an agenda and accomplish it. But what he would have chosen, without her input, I don’t know. He would have been a different man and it would have been a different presidency. She was always the voice of the people.
CG Can you equate them to the Clintons?
MSG Yes and know. After Bill betrayed her, they had to work it out personally and professionally. Eleanor never had Franklin’s aspirations. She didn’t want to be in that world. She made it very clear under what conditions she would remain married. She was able to carve out the life she wanted.
CG In an odd manner the betrayal proved to be liberating.
CG Isn’t that an irony. I liked the line when the newspapers reported that “Eleanor Roosevelt spent the night in the White House.”
MSG She became her own person. She fought for causes she believed in and pursued the romantic life she wanted to have. You can prove that there were numerous romantic letters between her and Hick. I don’t see any reason why they were not lovers. Lorena Hickock was originally a reporter assigned to cover Eleanor. At some point she stopped covering her and they had an incredibly close relationship. Everybody knows about that but I was surprised to read about Earl Miller and their relationship.
When FDR was governor of New York he hired Miller, a state trooper, to be her body guard. He was clearly besotted with her and I believe it was mutual. They remained close their entire lives. She was cited as a cause for his second or third divorce. She wasn’t named other than as a very prominent public woman. Miller never spoke about her and destroyed their correspondence. The Lorena Hickock letters survived. She didn’t burn anything. There were a thousand or so letters.
CG Did you read them?
MSG I read a book with different selections from them. I skimmed them. I wasn’t writing anything primarily about their relationship. There was a break and after that they were friendly but not terribly close.
When Lorena Hickock died her ashes remained unclaimed for years so I was wondering who else was in her life.
CG Was their relationship sexual?
MSG Sure, I don’t see why not. Eleanor believed that your private life was your private life, period. I don’t know the history of gay rights but there wasn’t a lot going on in the 1940s so it was not really something that would be brought up. It was more complicated as she did have a relationship with Earl Miller. He was smart, never said a word, and burned the letters.
CG I saw her a number of times. When I was at Brandeis on Sunday afternoons, she taped programs for WGBH in the Spingold Theatre. It was a recital hall so somewhat intimate. I used to do a good impersonation of her which entertained my family. During gatherings my younger sister Pip would beg me “Do Eleanor.” I also did a superb Julia Childs. In Cambridge I saw her with Paul when she shopped at Savenor’s. They were my landlords and I lived next to the market.
There was a story that on a Sunday morning, before one of her broadcasts, Eleanor had breakfast in the cafeteria with Adlai Stevenson and Marc Chagall. The artist was there to discuss a mural for the library that never happened. Some amazing people came to the campus like communist Gus Hall, author James Baldwin, and Zen scholar Alan Watts. Herbert Marcuse was on the faculty and Angela Davis was his student. Eleanor was a good fit at Brandeis and I enjoyed what she had to say. A familiar line was “As my late husband used to say…” She was the den mother of the left and true north of the moral compass.
MSG I could not imagine her dismay were she alive today.
CG In the play she announces to him that she is off to tour the South Pacific and raise troops morale. She certainly played that role.
MSG What I learned when doing this is that he asked her to again live with him as his wife. She just couldn’t do it. And she was right not to do it.
CG Talk about his lovers.
MSG He had several. The women that worked with him like Missy LeHan, who was his right-hand person. She was in love with him. When she had a stroke and could no longer work, she wanted to commit suicide.
The woman he always loved was Lucy Mercer who was Eleanor’s secretary. That almost ended the marriage and she continued to see him.
CG Eleanor demanded that he never see her but the daughter arranged their secret meetings.
MSG The daughter spent a lot of time with him. I’m sure that she thought that Eleanor was not doing her job of being with her husband. He always needed a hostess for the White House and the daughter did it. At some point I’m sure she said ‘I can’t continue doing this.’ Instead she facilitated visits by Lucy Mercer. There couldn’t have been a bigger slap to the face than having Lucy at his bedside when he died. (Eleanor was not present.)
CG The play also includes Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice.
MSG She was fascinating.
CG She was also a surrogate first lady.
MSG She was hard to control so I doubt he would have used her as a social organizer. He had a wife when in the White House. (Alice was the only child of a first marriage.) She is mainly known for her wit and I know he had troubles with her.
CG Do you like FDR?
MSG Yes. I like him for what he did. But as to him personally, honestly, I would doubt that I would get to know him. If I spent time with him and nobody ever did. Nobody ever claimed to know what he was really thinking. They couldn’t predict what he would do or say. You can spend all this time with a person and yet feel that you don’t truly know him or her. That was the case with him. He was a huge personality and played that our publicly. She said that she never knew him. The children never felt they knew him. The vice president felt that way. His closest confidante was his political advisor.
CG Ultimately, he was flummoxed by Churchill and Stalin. For America the Yalta Conference was a disaster.
MSG Yes, but speaking in his defense, he was so far gone by that time. (February 1 through 11, 1945, he died not long after on April 12.) He was depleted. Medically he never should have run for a fourth term. Everyone knew he would not survive. He did it because he felt that he was still needed to bring the war to a close. He may have seen the end in sight and figured he could do it. I don’t know if there was a public figure at that time that could have filled that role. Truman was a surprise. Nobody thought he would win a second term. It had to be Roosevelt.
CG I realize that you feel that Eleanor is not yet finished. But how do you feel about it in the context of your work?
MSG It proves that my brain is still working. Some of the things I’m proudest of have rarely ever been seen. So, I don’t look at it in that way. I get a sense that people really like Eleanor. Ticket sales (for Barrington Stage) doubled by the second night so there must have been word of mouth. Barrington got a lot of e mails and positive responses. There were two performances with nobody in the audience. (Viewers paid for a video link which is how we saw the production.) That’s the only way that Equity let it be done in a theater. Harriet wanted it done in a theater and not outside with social distancing in a tent. She was right to do it that way.
We rehearsed for two days than basically just shot it. Not so much two performances it was two broadcasts. Audiences bought the night they wanted to see it.
CG In art history there is the term alterstijl which is applied to the late work of artists. It is often created under great physical and mental adversity. Beethoven was deaf when he composed the Ninth Symphony. The impressionists Monet, Degas and Cassatt had cataracts and numerous surgeries. Renoir had severe arthritis and brushes were taped to his hands. Goya had survived illness and was tormented when he created the horrific Black Paintings in the Prado. The late work of artists may represent loss and gain represented by insight, passion and intensity. Now just days from turning 80, I view this as the legacy phase of my life and work. On many levels I have never felt more in command. You have described how writing has become more difficult. Can you identify with these ideas?
MSG Absolutely. I used to be a kind of writing machine. That machine is now broken. I really haven’t done anything totally original so I can’t say. I just finished a book. It’s stuff I wrote years ago and have now cobbled together.
CG The dog stories?
MSG Yes, the dog book. It’s going out next week.
CG What is the difference between the former machine-like eight-hour writing days and the now painful one, and two hour days?
MSG In the past there was a sense of unlimited energy so it didn’t phase me to be working on three things at once. Writing takes a lot of time and concentration. As I said I haven’t really done anything major. I have been trying unsuccessfully to do an autobiographical work based on myself, father, brother and sister-in-law. That’s incredibly tough going. So, I don’t know if it will ever happen.
CG Is there gas left in the tank?
MSG I think there is. There are times when it is possible to do. I wrote a little skit for the Berkshire Film Festival. They are developing a series of ten-minute films which they plan to broadcast this winter. It’s basically a one joke idea. I have made my film acting debut.
CG Are you depressed?
MSG I’m always depressed. It takes a half hour for my pills in the morning between one thing and another.
CG I always enjoy the miseries of others. They make mine feel not so bad. Particularly when it results in art that I can enjoy and critique. But I think that empathy creates an ability and sensitivity to write about people like yourself. There is a sense of shared challenges and insights.
CG Our first interview was in 2009 when your premiered Freud’s Last Session at Barrington Stage. We have met a number of times since then and discussed the work as it has emerged. It’s been unique as a relationship between critic and playwright. I have identified with the aches and pains that go into the work.
MSG All I ask is don’t review my acting in the BFF short film.
CG We recognized your voice off camera in Eleanor.
MSG Yeah, but in this movie it’s me. My son plays me at an early age. It was fun for about an hour.
CG We will look forward to that.