"THE GOLDEN AGE," like a lot of comedies, is about stealing. It has to do with a man who is so infatuated with a romantic view of the past that he literally attempts to swipe it. Fascinated with an elusive and beautiful old woman who embodies this lost world, slowly becoming aware of her granddaughter who is attempting to escape from it, he learns, in the end, to embrace the present, with all its uncertainties and ambiguities. No longer will he attempt to borrow someone else's vision, but rather he will try to form his own.
I myself stole the plot of this play from "The Aspern Papers," a novella by Henry James. And James took his story, in part, from Pushkin's "The Queen of Spades." The basic triangle of an enterprising young man, an old woman with a secret and a younger woman under her domination can be traced back through Chaucer and various folk tales, even to shadowy antecedents in Homer. Most stories and plots lean self-consciously or inadvertently on predecessors, though in this country, with our obsessive concern for uniqueness and originality, we're not always willing to admit it.
I am reminded of T.S. Eliot's remark that hacks borrow, while artists steal. I suppose he meant that if you're any good, you appropriate another work totally; you take it home, so to speak, and make it wholly your own. If you're a hack, on the other hand, you simply borrow someone else's idea, use it, and then return it, a little the worse for wear. James "stole" Pushkin's plot, and combined it with a contemporary anecdote about a woman who was supposed to have some love letters by Shelley, and the result was a great story, wholly Jamesian and richly memorable in its own right.
By the same token, I would hope that I have not simply borrowed or tampered with James' story but rather transmuted it into something else which, good or bad, is at least my own. Similarly, I would hope this theme of stealing versus borrowing is implicit in the play itself, so that the hero, who begins as a hack, hoping to lean on the insights and vision of a previous writer, at the end is on his way to becoming a valid artist, integrating a number of threads of his experience into something his own.
Just as James called on the echoes of Byron and Shelley, which still hovered in the air toward the end of the 19th century, to give his story romantic resonance, so did I find myself dealing with the F. Scott Fitzgerald mythology that permeates our own times. Fitzgerald has always had a particular import for me. He spent part of his youth in Buffalo, where I grew up, and was the same age as my father. We heard about him at our dinner table long before he became popular in college courses. According to my father, he and Fitzgerald danced with the same girls at dancing school, and hoisted a glass at the same Princeton-Yale get-togethers. My father harbored the same romantic view of the world that Fitzgerald had, the same hope that somewhere around the next corner was a perfect party, the same awe and reverence for women. Both were classy guys. I first read Fitzgerald because my father put me onto him, and I've stayed with him ever since. So I suppose one could say, since I started writing "The Golden Age" the summer after my father died, that the play is in some sense an attempt to bring back my father, just as the hero of my play attempts to possess Fitzgerald.
There's another "stolen" thread in this play, another element appropriated from the past. As the character Virginia says in the play, she has "this grandmother." So did I. She used to take me to matinees at the old Erlanger Theatre in Buffalo when I was quite young and she was quite old. Together we'd settle down expectantly in our plush seats in front of the old red curtain, and hold our breaths as the house lights dimmed and some magical set was revealed. Together we'd sit through various touring companies and Katherine Cornell vehicles and stock productions of Shakespeare, both of us thoroughly in love with the theater and neither of us really understanding very much of what was going on. I suspect that I wrote a play about a young man obsessed with a high-toned old lady partly because the theater and my grandmother were once so inextricably part of my life. Certainly some of the more theatrical elements in the play come, in part, from those juicy melodramas I used to see with her. But it's never easy to isolate these influences. My wife had a wonderful grandmother, too, who lived in an old brownstone in New York and knew famous people, and in some ways, the three of us played out the triangle proposed in the play.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more this play seems to be composed of "stolen" elements. The character of Virginia, the heroine, for example, is stolen from myself. Most of my plays seem to have been about people caught between a bankrupt and obsolete past and the incoherencies of contemporary life. "The Dining Room" is certainly about this conflict, and so are "Scenes From American Life," and "The Middle Ages," and "Children," and "Richard Cory." Virginia is certainly the latest in my long line of distraught individuals, striking out or retreating, formed and shaped by affluence, confidence and good manners, desperately attempting to adjust to and accept the discontinuities of the late 20th century.
The theater is a collaborative art, and recently in rehearsal, I've been able to steal like crazy from John Tillinger, the director, and from three fine actors, Irene Worth, Stockard Channing and Jeff Daniels. As the play has moved from page to stage, we've cut, transposed, rewritten and adjusted in the effort to give it theatrical life. This process of giving and taking, my taking the insights of the director, actors, and ultimately the audience, even as the actors and audience take the play from me, is what is most exciting about the theater. We're all stealing like mad.
In the end, I hope, after this orgy of pilfering, all these elements come together and make some sort of coherent sense. Just as the characters in the play learn to reconcile the various strands of their lives, so do I hope that I, as the playwright, have been able to give the play a unified and personal stamp. In other words, I hope I've become more than simply a borrower, but a true thief.