I spoke with Ariel Dorfman about his play, Picasso’s Closet, for about 45 minutes in his office at the John Hope Franklin Institute at Duke, at midday on Oct. 13, 2009. Nasher Museum of Art will present a staged reading of the play in conjunction with its Picasso and the Allure of Language exhibit, Oct. 29-31, at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at the Duke Box Office website.
Independent: This must be a difficult script to produce.
Ariel Dorfman: This is an experimental play. Let’s say I’ve tried to do, modestly, in theater with time what Picasso does with space—which is to create many perspectives and break down the barriers of identity. Therefore it verges between the popular and the experimental.
As different characters place their viewpoints one after another, there are these interstitial planes of reality coming at each other…
Most biopics, say, tend to be rather linear. Or at least they go back and forth—childhood to adulthood to childhood to adulthood—
—the narrative of ping pong—
—and they’re very predictable in that sense.
I said to myself, “How can I possibly write a play about Picasso as if Picasso’s art had never existed?” It had to be influenced by Picasso; the greatest homage to him is really not the character on stage, but the art with which he’s being portrayed. It’s a post-Picasso play, whereas most plays about Picasso I’ve seen—most plays about artists I’ve seen—tend to act as if the artist had not influenced them at all.
It’s not quite a cubist play, exactly (laughter)…
…but it is an attempt, an attempt to do what he did in “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon”: to bring together all these figures, and they’re all disfigured, and you don’t know who…
In other words, reality is jagged. It’s like a mirror that’s been broken and recomposed, and some pieces will always be missing. To give the audience that experience should be eminently pleasurable in a time such as ours.
If it isn’t, it’s their fault, not mine (laughter), to put it provocatively.
In your view, why did Picasso stay in Paris?
There’s a line I took out of this play, which really comes from what he spoke about.
He said, “I saw an old woman the other day, and she smiled at me toothlessly and offered me a piece of bread. I can’t take that old woman with me.”
I look at it from the perspective of the expatriate or an exile. He had left Spain; in fact, he hardly ever went back there at all. The idea that he would have to again leave this place that he had made his own, would have been the worst punishment for him. So I think he decided to sweat it out.
Also, around that time I was contemplating, with Bush’s [immigration] laws, if I might not, as a Chilean, be deported.
I know this sounds very strange now in the Obama age, but there was a certain terror in the air—not that U.S. citizen might be more protected. At the time I thought to myself, “I’ll do anything not to have to leave again. This is my home now.” So I may have imbued him with a similar sense of not becoming a refugee again.
Also, you know, it’s easier to get rid of your woman if you’re in the same place. If you go somewhere else with her, you’re sort of depending on her. So I think Picasso, who changed women with each one of his artistic periods, didn’t want to get stuck with Dora Marr in Mexico or Buenos Aires.
I think it was Paris, basically. Frankly, if I were in Paris, I wouldn’t want to leave either.
Artists do impose limitations on themselves; they say, “this work will be a villanelle, that one in terza rima.” Are you making the point that exile in Paris was a self-imposed, artistic limitation Picasso placed on himself?
Absolutely. I think he only understood it later. Which means the second question would be, “What does it end up being for him?” I have a feeling he wasn’t aware it was: Dora says to him, at the beginning of the play, you can only work work work; there will be no more exhibitions; there will be nobody interrupting you.
At that point Picasso was already the most famous artist in the world. Fame can be a terrific burden for you. It can not only be burden for you, it can also be the wrong mirror for you. You can end up doing things for the same reason, fueling that fame instead of fueling the art.
Or you can be so cowed by fame, that the voice evaporates…
Or you just repeat the voice. When you go into an existential terror, a void that is there, that happens, I think, to all of us who are dedicated to art, you can either fall back on what is known and repeat it, or you can go forward and do something different.
At least in the play, Picasso eventually realizes this. This phantom called Balzac asks him, “Don’t you want to be who you were at the beginning? With nobody between you and the terror?” For what is art except a wager against death? You put your art between yourself and death. Put that in that perspective, in a sense he was going back into that terror. It was a limitation, but it also could be very creative and fertile. Though at the beginning he did nothing.
It was an opportunity, you know. (Dorfman pauses for a moment, then speaks.) In that sense, I suspect, unfortunately, that my art has been nourished by the terrors I’ve been through. I would not be a person I am today as an artist, as a writer if I had not been through the years of exile, the years of Pinochet, my war years, let’s say. Which makes me a person who can at least approach Picasso with some sympathy for his dilemmas.
You become a collaborateur with your terror, then.
Oh, yes, absolutely. The play was going to be called Collaborators to begin with. I preferred Picasso’s Closet because it was more provocative.
There are no closets there at all. So, some might say, “Oh, he’s suggesting Picasso’s gay,” when I’m not suggesting that at all. But I am suggesting that he’s got something to hide; something’s hidden there, that’s not coming out, but needs to be revealed. Everybody’s a collaborator of his. So am I: I’m also there to kill him and resurrect him one more time.
Do you feel that in some way Picasso's experiences during WWII killed him?
In one sense, yes. I follow John Berger in this, really: I don’t think he ever did anything as good after the war as he did up until the end of the war. He never he did anything like Guernica. If you compare Guernica to the work he did on the Korean War or against crimes against humanity, what he did after the war is really quite pedestrian in relation to his political art, compared to other things.
Some of his greatest work I think is what he did in Paris. The Weeping Woman series. There’s one particularly beautiful one; his little girl, Maia, is there. You can see there’s a tension that is missing afterwards; a suspense. There’s a sense of dancing on the abyss, which he always had, he had it until the very end. And I love his variations. But he himself said there will be no more masterpieces; better that I should die now; that the last work of art should be my death.
Lucht [a German captain, his nemesis in the play] says to him, at the end: “All the work you’ll never do, your variations,” and it doesn’t matter to him. Picasso tells Lucht that, if he dies, “I’ll be greater than Velázquez, greater than Greco, greater than Goya”—
—yes. Daring Lucht to kill him, Picasso says, “Make me a god, Albert.”
A god is the one who decides upon his own death. Like Christ in that sense, who chooses his own death and therefore becomes the greatest work of art. One of the great works of art in all humanity. The whole play is a constant exploration of the relation between life and art and the very blurred limits between one and the other.
Let’s talk for a minute about rescue. It’s a theme that keeps showing up in the writing as I read it. Salve: Dora is intent on saving Picasso. Charlene—our fabulist in the play, a novelist who writes the lives that artists like Lorca would have had, had they not died—her intent is a form of saving. Picasso himself—his non-response to Max Jacob is revealed as his attempt to divert attention from him, to save him.
In what way are you trying to save Picasso? What does he need to be saved from? In what way is this play an act of rescue?
That’s a very good question. Because it may be what moves me to ultimately write the play, and I haven’t quite ever formulated it like that. But you’re right, because I want to save Picasso from the simplification and the merchandising of his art. In other words, I want to bring him back to the glory and the terror of being that great artist.
We live in an age of slogans and jingles and soundbites. If you sit down at MoMA or the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, you will see the people stream through. They’ll spend, perhaps, if were lucky, 30 seconds on each one of these works of art.
The bus tour.
I’ve often gone to a museum and spent an hour in front of just one painting, and then just leave. There’s that sense of, if I’m saving Picasso, I’m returning him to the place that I think that he deserves, which is also a place of enormous complexity. In other words, I’m trying not to lie about him.
I presume that after seeing the play, people will look at Picasso in a different way; they’ll be able to reinterpret him in a different way. So in that sense I’m a collaborator, right? I’m in love with him like everyone else in the play is. But as an artist, I claim the possibility of doing to him what he does his women, his subjects: He turns them into whatever is necessary for his own art.
But I do have a rescue complex, in the sense that it’s part of my human rights work. A great part of my literature is full of figures trying to save somebody, mostly unable to do so. It has to do with the life I’ve led.
Is this work an apology—
—for being alive, for surviving, maybe?
—an apologia on Picasso’s behalf?
I’m not sure. He might not have liked what I’m doing on his behalf.
Odds are he wouldn’t. But does his behavior in Paris require an apologia?
I don’t think so. He says at the end, “I worked. I did what I had to do.” In other words, put in an impossible situation, he survived.
I have tended, for a great part of my own life, to apologize for having survived. I’m saying this personally, because you feel guilty for all those who died instead.
Like Max [Jacob] died and Picasso lived. Cocteau is put on trial. Then Picasso himself—and the judges exempt him from any blame.
What I mean is, Picasso comes out unscathed from this. And I feel, no, he doesn’t need an apology. He has to live with all his faults. What I think is intolerable that we should not recognize his faults while we celebrate his wonders.
He has faults, and yet is in need of no apology.
No he doesn’t, because without the faults we would not have his art.
I found myself asking, on what moral ground does one stand in a world like that place. My understanding of such a world is clearly finite—
I’m glad for you. Better it is you not to know that terror, that repression, that loss.
So this is an absentee judgment—the judgment of the absentee, and I acknowledge that. I do want to be careful, here. But what interests me is the degree to which a person judges themselves in a world like that, or exempts themselves from judgment. In such a world, a person considers: a change in my actions, my intervention or non-intervening, could that have made lives better, worse?
There’s no easy answer to that.
Picasso largely does not intervene.
He does not intervene. But he doesn’t leave either. He doesn’t collaborate. When you are in that situation—tyrannical regimes create bad choices no matter what you do.
No stance is morally non-problematic.
Yes. The most ethically pure end up dead, as in Auschwitz, right? It’s an impossible situation to be in, to say, “Do I help out or do I get killed?” Most people say, “You know what? I’d rather not get involved.” They take a step back.
I think Picasso feels a certain guilt, at least as I have construed him, in relation to this. The trap that his Nazi capturer creates for him is to make him resist so he can be killed. [In the play Lucht’s superior tells him Picasso is not to be harmed—unless he breaks the laws of the occupation.]
So Picasso really is confronted with a dilemma that I think almost everybody in this world is, even if they’re not under a tyrannical regime: “Do I do more? Can I do more?” In a world where we are not saints—as the immense majority of us are not saints—this creates a moral quandary.
That’s an interesting place to be, because that’s what it is to be human. To make believe that isn’t so is to shut your eyes. Instead of shying away from those dilemmas, my work goes straight into them.
I note the force with which he responds to the journalists’ questions [about what he did during the war] at the end of the play.
In one sense, Picasso is telling the truth there about what he feels. In another sense, he’s already becoming the public Picasso, who is speaking for history. In the play, he’s doing what Lucht told Dora Marr that Picasso would do.
He’s presenting a myth of himself; he’s becoming a legend in front of our eyes. Which is an interesting situation because I think that’s his evolution. Picasso is enigmatic; we see he is cunning, cruel; he is generous, frank, and he is hiding. And then at the very end, we see Picasso becoming the artist as commodity, as merchandise—selling himself.
But what he’s saying is also true.
In another sense I don’t think so. I am struck with the force with which he responds to the journalists. It’s clear that what he’s saying he wishes to be true, to represent the moment and time. But I’m not sure how much he believes what he’s saying.
We never know. How do we know the difference between what we believe to be true and what is true?
I do know that is a different Picasso we see at the end. That’s very specifically desired by me: I’ve created that. There’s a Picasso that’s got to decide whether he’s willing to risk everything to save one life—even an anonymous life—and there’s a Picasso who now lives only for his art and the glory, and that’s Picasso at the end.
Which is a form of dying itself.
But he says, “Others did more than I did.” He recognizes that; he knows it. On the other hand, many, many others collaborated or left. It really comes out of my experience of being exiled myself for so long, having gone back to Chile and living under Pinochet, and then re-exiled—and the arrests and all these things that happened to me in my own life. They obviously effect the way in which I look at anybody. Because I’m not quick to judge. Again, one should be wary of being a judge if you’re absent, not having been there. It’s their blood and not ours.
The play itself is trying to put those who haven’t been there in that war zone. That’s what it’s supposed to do. If I have managed to take you from being an absentee to someone who is current and present, that’s what it’s supposed to do.
The moment of that shift, that transformation at the end, reminds me of Camus’ "The Artist at Work." The painter’s canvas in that work has a word on it—but the viewers cannot determine if the word is “solitare” or “solidare.”
We feel to some degree the central character is pulled back and forth between conflicting claims in the worlds of art and ethics—
—I agree, but could I say something about that? I don’t think the central character is Picasso. It’s Dora Marr.
I think hers is the greatest tragedy there. She is one who really moves from one thing to another; she’s the one who goes through a real transformation. Picasso’s transformation doesn’t really come from inside, it comes from events that happen outside him.
He’s being sculpted—
—and he’s sculpting himself. But she is really trapped by her love for him, and by the fact that she could have been a much greater artist if she had not met him. His death could have liberated her to become this great artist. The fact that she chooses to resurrect him, to save him, to give him a life, to mother him into the world, to birth him is, I think, the most interesting transformation in the play.
I’ve been known as someone who creates very strong women characters, and here’s another one. My heart doesn’t break for Picasso. It breaks for her.
I’ve always thought, if you want to know who the protagonist is, ask yourself who your heart breaks for.