America In Play

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With Les Hunter, who wrote Lion of the East, as inspired by James K. Paulding’s Lion of the West (1830s), interviewed by Elizabeth Coen, dramaturg.

Q: Why were you interested in joining America-in-Play (AIP)?

A: AIP sounded like a great way to learn about American theater. Plus, I’m always looking for ways to get my work up, and it seemed like a good group was organizing the whole thing. The artistic director, Lynn Thomson has created a writing collective that focuses on the exploration of America’s theatrical past. Presentations about American history and theater by Lynn, Dominic Taylor (the associate artistic director), guest scholars, and dramaturgs are generally followed by writing exercises that inspire new ideas, plays, monologues, etc.

Q: What was the most surprising or illuminating thing that you learned in an AIP meeting?

A: I thought the workshop on minstrelsy was fascinating. It was really freeing to see the eclecticism of theater in our own past. I want to incorporate things from so many traditions in my work.

Q: This past spring, AIP commissioned you to write a ten-minute play. Can you tell me a little bit about Lion of the East and the source material from which it came?

A: Lion of the East is a response to James K. Paulding’s Lion of the West which is a play written in the 1830s. It was basically the first play to satirize an American folk icon named Nimrod Wildfire, who is a straight-talking American. When writing the piece I thought: Who is the inheritor of this tradition in the present-the simple American politician who shoots from the hip and (supposedly) tells it like it is? Well, I thought it was clearly George W. Bush, who really has profited from his carefully constructed personae. But in my version, this tradition has been perverted and subverted. The supposed hero, the man who talks like Nimrod, is a character named William Bramble. He is the villain in my play. However, the real inheritor of the mantle of Nimrod in Lion of the East-the folk hero-is a poor Middle Eastern man, an Arab who outsmarts Bramble at the end of the play.

In Lion of the West, Nimrod Wildfire describes himself in this way: “I’m half horse, half alligator, a touch of the airth-quake, with a sprinkling of the steamboat!” What makes Nimrod quintessentially American? Is there a little Nimrod in you?

Wildfire is a true westerner who doesn’t seem very bright. Even though he speaks in malapropisms, he manages to point out the hypocrisy of others around him through his simple but lovable outlook and American idealism. This is the way we like our heroes; men of action. I’m not a man of action, but I do tend to say the wrong thing at the wrong time a lot.