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Shining a Light on a Dark Mind

Photo of Joanna Murray-Smith by Grant Sparkes-Carroll

Photo of Joanna Murray-Smith by Grant Sparkes-Carroll

In playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s latest play, Switzerland, she imagines a psychological showdown in renowned murder mystery writer Patricia Highsmith’s house. To do so, however, Murray-Smith had to burrow deep into Highsmith’s mind — no small feat.

Highsmith, who wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train, was a popular writer, but decidedly less so as a person. Prickly and at times bizarre (one famous story concerns the time she brought a large purse containing a head of lettuce and 100 snails as her “companions” to a cocktail party), many were turned off by her.

Yet she is fascinating. Her childhood was dark and sad, she wrote comic books early in her career and she had romantic relationships with both men and women.

Before the opening of the Geffen’s production of Switzerland, which stars Laura Linney and Seth Numrich, we chatted with Murray-Smith about how she cracked the mystery of Patricia Highsmith.

I love that you said in a recent interview, “The act of writing is profoundly irritational” — it sounds like something Patricia Highsmith would say herself! Creating a play about a writer sounds easy — “write what you know” and all — but was it?
No. First of all, writing about a real person can feel very constricting. Even if it isn’t a documentary, you want to honor the truth of that person, so you are making the play jump through much bigger hoops than theatricality and intelligence and entertainment — as if those weren’t enough! Secondly, writing or even musing about writing can be deadly dull, especially to writers. Most writers don’t like talking about writing — explanation seems to dilute the act. So I had to summon a writer and the nature of a writing life without didactic exposition. The first draft was weighed down with philosophizing. I had to peel off the layers of literary naval-gazing and let Patricia “live” in the moment.

You also mentioned that “every play is about you.” How, specifically, isSwitzerland?
I identified with Patricia Highsmith in lots of ways — despite, or maybe because of her ego! I have always liked examining the dark interior lives of human beings, although I could never presume to her acute sense of cruelty. I love psychological thrillers. Like her, I often have the feeling of being consumed by creatures of my own making. Like her, I find my imaginative life at least as interesting as real life and often more. I am also (like many writers) wracked by self-doubt, a sense of injustice, a sense of racing the clock of mortality and an overwhelming belief that our childhoods either doom us or make us or both.

It seems like quite an undertaking, to make an audience empathize with this difficult character — was it? How did you manage it?
I don’t manage it. The actor does. If the actor brings his own humanity into the portrayal, we begin to understand that Highsmith, like all of us, suffered from demons not of her own making. She had endured a very difficult upbringing — no father, an over-controlling but emotionally distant mother, a disliked stepfather and proximity to great sadness and cruelty in her New York life near Rikers Island. For a sensitive and creative child — even for a tougher one — this early life would have a profound effect on destiny. My own feeling about Pat is that her cruelty was a defense mechanism to protect herself from the suffering and damage she was well acquainted with — and she managed to exploit that defense mechanism with her powerful imagination and create a potent and dark body of work, much of which is brilliant.

You’re incredibly prolific. What’s your process? Once you start writing, does the majority of the play develop in just a few sittings or over a longer period of time?
No process. Random collision of life and art! I think about ideas for quite a while and then write a first draft very quickly. Subsequent drafts are plentiful and take longer. But everything that is good in the finished play was born in that messy and spontaneous first draft.

How do you go about writing a commissioned play? Does it differ from your other writing?
It is very different writing a commissioned play that is built around an idea that is offered to you and a commissioned play that is someone else’s idea. I told the Geffen that this was the play I wanted to write, so it was wonderful to have their immediate support.

You and the Geffen have quite the history together with the prior productions of The Female of the Species and The Gift. How, if at all, does this history affect your writing?
Well, it makes me love the company and feel at home here. It makes me feel nurtured in a way that is rare these days. I know in a very real way that this company believes in me and my writing, through good times and bad. That is invaluable to a writer, because we spend such a large amount of time questioning our own abilities. It also makes me feel connected to the Geffen audience. I feel as if they have a relationship with my work now and I am grateful to them for their support of the other plays. All my plays get mixed reviews — they always have — so I have to pay strong attention to the audiences in order to keep writing. If your audience is there and they do not feel as if they want a refund, then that is strength enough to keep going despite the humiliation, depression and poverty!

Switzerland begins March 6 in the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse. To purchase tickets, please click here.

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