Eating the Heart of Richard Maxwell

A dubious, obsessive attempt to understand the work of the playwright/director behind Neutral Hero, Isolde, and Burger King.

April 25, 2014
Slightly squinting woman in a white shirt with black hair over left shoulder

Naomi Skwarna is Hazlitt’s interviews editor. She is a National Magazine Award-winning writer with bylines in the New York Times, Vulture, The Walrus...

In September of 2012, I quit my job at a restaurant that put wet duck shreds on pizza with the intention of “being the thing I knew myself to be.” Part of being that nebulous thing, I believed, would be to meet and absorb—like a vampire, or a tampon—all that was vital about an artist I was fixated on: New York-based playwright/director Richard Maxwell. At the time, Maxwell’s work was waking me up to unorthodox methods of making, participating in, watching, and digesting live performance. Understanding Richard Maxwell seemed like the way to that hall of wonder that would, at long last, let me be the artist that I desperately wanted to bring out of apparent latency.

Truly understanding Maxwell meant interviewing him, which I prepared for by close reading his published work, repeatedly watching performance clips on YouTube, and worrying about how to discuss plays that no amount of obsessive study seemed to make me any more fluent in. I thought it was because I hadn’t seen one live. And then I saw one in New York the day before I was to meet him. The show was Neutral Hero, about a young man who leaves home in search of his father, encountering various pains and beauty along the way. More than that, Neutral Hero was Maxwell’s homage to Joseph Campbell, American mythology, and to his own intractable way of making theatre.

Watching Neutral Hero, I felt mentally clumsy—too fixed in my conventional view of theatre to understand what was happening to me. I was engaged, at moments even mesmerized. But I never forgot that I was watching a play, because Maxwell goes out of his way to remind you.

Maxwell was raised in Fargo, North Dakota, trained as an actor in Illinois, and completed a fellowship at Chicago’s prestigious Steppenwolf Theater. Around the same time, 20 years ago or thereabouts, he co-founded an experimental theatre company with his friends called the Cook County Theater Department, moved to New York, and began a shift from performing to writing and directing his own weird, bracingly uncommon plays with his new company, the New York City Players. Before he became a bona fide “auteur,” Maxwell presented himself to the Wooster Group and the company’s de facto leader, Elizabeth LeCompte, with whom he still has a rich and symbiotic creative relationship.

You mentioned a period of soul-searching. Did that happen in between finishing at ISU and moving to New York?

I don't think the soul searching ever stopped. I don't remember soul-searching much before 18, but I think ever since then, I have.

What are the questions you ask yourself now?

Oh let's take it right to the present, that's good. Right now. I like that. That's a good jump cut. I ask myself if I have faith. I ask myself if I'm a good man. I ask myself if it matters what I'm doing. If it really resonates outside of the small theatre world that I find myself in.

The question of faith. Is it faith in work? Or faith—

In God.


I ask myself if it's legitimate. What I'm doing. It feels like you could make a persuasive argument for why it's legitimate. But you're never safe from being illegitimate. Maybe that's a good thing, necessary somehow.

But it's probably also hard to bear. Are these recent questions?

No. It started about ten years ago. That's when the routine started. You know? The routine of this is what I do, or this is what it means to be successful.


I got bored.

I suppose there’s no fully avoiding that routine.

You want to have freedom. To do whatever you want. It's like my sister Susan says: "Ask for the perfect solution." Why settle for anything less? The truth is, I'm prone to melancholy, and only because I'm nostalgic, hopelessly nostalgic. It drives a lot of what I create.

Nostalgic for something in your own life?

Yeah, for my own life. What else could you be nostalgic for? I guess you could be nostalgic for old diners or something. That's what nostalgia is, right? A yearning, you yearn.

Nostos, the homecoming. The desire to go home.

Look at Neutral Hero, that's what that story is. That's the hero's myth, that's the paradigm. To go somewhere else and return. To come home. (Brightly) The funny thing is, nostalgia and melancholy are also what keep me grounded.

You're also making something completely new out of the yearning for old things.

Yeah, that's true. It's the perfect solution. But there's no audience, you know? There's just no audience. Gotta develop that audience, gotta get these kids seeing theatre.

You seem to have a very—

Naaaah. What, you mean like 150 people a night? At best? It's not a huge audience. You want an audience, you've got to do music. Maybe I should just do music. People like music, right?

But you have music in your shows already.

Oh, yeah. You're not going to find my shows on Broadway. It's not like this is commercial stuff. I don't know, what do people like to see in theatre? They like to see relevant stuff, topical stuff. I don't give a shit about that, I don't give a shit about topical, relevant stuff.

You don't think your work is relevant?

It's all nostalgic, remember? It's all about the past.

But people are obsessed with nostalgia.

Yeah, but I'm not packaging it like that, “’50s Diner.”

Isn’t your work kind of about nostalgia—in the way that it's about feeling?

Yeah. I just refuse to sell. I sell, I know I engage in selling when I do work and after it's done, but the shows themselves are not selling anything. They're not selling sex, they're not selling virtuosity, and they're not selling eye candy. They're not selling hot button political issues.

Your work doesn’t sell anything?

Well let me think about that. When I was listing those off, I was thinking: do I sell independence? I don't think you can. It's antithetical.

But you can allow it. I think you invite people to see your work and you don't dictate emotion. Maybe you're not selling independence, but freedom. “Brief inner freedom.”

I'll buy that.

I successfully sold your theatre back to you?

Sounds better when someone else does the selling.



Near the end of that second interview, Maxwell’s baby wakes up from his nap and joins us at the kitchen table. Maxwell holds him up high in his little green overalls, pointing down to the city 30 stories below and naming the various vehicles. It’s the moment when I wanted to reprise a question I asked in 2012, one that he’d answered in such a precise and haunting way. What are the questions you ask yourself now. I felt uncomfortable bringing it up in front of the baby. Not that the baby couldn’t have handled it, I just didn’t want him to have to. So I wrote down the original question and Maxwell’s old answer in my notebook and slid it across the table to him, like a number he ought to consider.

Joggling the baby, he read it and quietly said heavy in the same serious/ironic tone he’d used to say we refuse at the diner nearly two years prior. It was a moment I’d contrived to be fraught and meaningful, and I felt guilty for contriving it, though still ravenously curious. Maxwell looked up and out, maybe fixating on the painting of JFK on his wall that looked a bit like it could’ve been done by George W. Bush. He said something akin to I feel I’m in limbo and shifted the baby against his chest. Purgatory, liminal, I wrote in my notebook. Sad to be between things. He didn’t say either of those phrases, but I must’ve meant something by writing them down.


Isolde continues at the Abrons Arts Center through April 26. Richard Maxwell’s book Theater for Beginners is to be released in June.

Slightly squinting woman in a white shirt with black hair over left shoulder

Naomi Skwarna is Hazlitt’s interviews editor. She is a National Magazine Award-winning writer with bylines in the New York Times, Vulture, The Walrus, the Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, the British Journal of Photography, and others. Since 2019, Naomi has been producing slow fashion and soft sculpture under the name Casual Clowne.