Cristin Kelly

Interview with Glen Berger: Underneath the Lintel

Playwright Glen Berger recently spoke to Florida Studio Theatre’s Literary Manager, Cristin Kelly, about writing Underneath the Lintel, the worldwide journey of his Librarian, Spiderman, and the ‘undeniably psychedelic’ qualities of the universe.
Cristin Kelly: Will you tell me a little bit about the history of Underneath the Lintel? How did you start writing it? What was its development history?
Glen Berger: Two things really inspired the writing of it: One was listening to old recordings of klezmer songs, some of them recorded in the 1920s. And most of my plays come out of music, so the more I listened to it, the more I was attracted to this melancholy, spirited, yet minor key sort of mood.
Also, more and more in my writing I’ve been trying to figure out how to encompass a large amount of time, how to get the proper scale of history and the universe. It’s been clearer and clearer to me that we can’t really get an understanding of the state of things until we’ve heard the perspective of how big the universe is, how old the earth is, and how long life has been around. Trying to figure out how to get a lot of human history into the show and those two strands sort of came together in this play. I began to figure it out.
I had a friend who is curating the Yale summer cabaret. He said there was a spot open for me if I had anything written – I didn’t have anything written yet, but I figured I could probably get something together pretty soon. I did it for two performances at the summer cabaret, and then put it back in my drawer. But, a director named Randy White, who I’ve worked with a lot since then, convinced me that I shouldn’t put it back in my drawer. And it’s had about eighty productions since then.
CK: Did you have any models for the Librarian character?
GB: I was listening, at the time, to the old music hall performer recordings that were done at the turn of the century. I have a recording in particular from 1902, I think, of this man named Dan Leno. Dan Leno was actually very funny, and a very popular music hall performer in England at the turn of the century. In particular, he had a bit called “The Beefeater,” where he shows these little old ladies around the Tower of London, but kept getting distracted by the refreshment room. And his mantra was, “Still, we’ll proceed,” after he’d get off track. There was a particular way in his manner, in the way that he was speaking, that was an inspiration. I’m interested in the idiolect of a character, more than dialect: the individual’s way of speaking. There was something attractive to me about the patter that he kept going. He was clearly in over his head, but he kept going anyway. There’s something to that – the idea of a man who’s going to be the only man that we’re going to watch this evening, and he wasn’t very comfortable about being onstage. He was excited about being onstage, but he wasn’t very comfortable about it.
CK: Since you brought up the language, I wanted to ask you about your use of language. It seems like you love very unusual words. Do you have a particular affinity for language?
GB: When you’re writing you try to figure out an individual’s way of speaking. I am attracted to characters who are sort of fish-out-of-water, and who also might have picked up words here and there that aren’t necessarily in general usage.
There are a lot of words out there and I like art that uses them.
Every project I do is different. The one I’m writing now actually takes place in 1962, but the one before that took place in the 19th century. That’s part of the fun of writing is figuring out the rhythms and the particular pattern of each play.
CK: It sounds like your writing takes on musical qualities. I’m interested in that, since you said most of your plays start out from some kind of music. Do you have a musical background? How does music inform your writing?
GB: I don’t have a musical background, but I’ve always been attracted to the musicality of language. In fact, I’m writing more and more musicals these days, for a lot of reasons. Also, because it’s easier to get the pattern of what you’re going for across in a musical.
I’m writing the Spiderman musical. I’m also writing several others, including one which is actually about the evolution of language, about really a neo-linguist belief that before we could speak, we could sing. There’s a whole ancient communication that hominids employed that had more to do with music than with linguistics. It really had to do with them communicating and bonding on a more emotional level and relying more on cadence and inflection, and music, basically. There’s something about reaching people on a deeper, emotional level when you really dip into music and musical forms.
CK: I’m fascinated to know how you researched Underneath the Lintel. How did you build all the connections between the events in the play? Did you have a journey in mind, or were you unraveling the mystery as you went along?
GB: I think I kept a little list, in the back of my head or on scraps of paper, of various things that interested me or that seemed to fit with this general topic, but I also remember making a lot of things up. When you write a play, you don’t really think, “This might be seen all over the world, and people will actually scrutinize it.” I had to go back later on and make things a little more accurate. It’s a lot easier just to make it up and pretend you’ve done a lot of research. It’s really easy to get lost in research, and it’s a bad habit of mine. It turns out that you really don’t have to know that much detail to write a play because it’s ultimately never very theatrical in the end. It’s much better to come up with something on your own – to make up the footnote. It’s funny, with Undereath the Lintel it came together in a way that none of my other plays seemed to come together so easily. This one didn’t take half as long as some of my other ones take.

CK: That’s interesting to know because it’s such an intricate play.

GB: You never know when that’s going to happen. It’s a little bit like with every play, you have a crossword puzzle that isn’t filled in There’s no telling whether this one’s going to be an easy one or not.
CK: In terms of the production history of Underneath the Lintel, it’s noteworthy that it premiered at SoHo Playhouse in Lower Manhattan just a few days after 9/11. Did that change your experience of this play?
GB: Right after 9/11, there were definitely some playwrights who were questioning some of their plays. They seemed a little lightweight in light of 9/11. Strangely, Underneath the Lintel still seemed to resonate. The theme throughout of “I was here” resonated with the audience in New York. People were putting up fliers of people who were still missing after 9/11, and they wouldn’t take them down. They became more and more testaments to a life that was lived.
In New York we relied on word of mouth a lot to keep the show going. We wound up running 450 times.
Then it became interesting because the play has this librarian bringing his suitcase and traveling all over the world to deliver this lecture. Since then it’s been a self-fulfilling prophecy. He’s been in cities all over the place delivering this thing, including Holland, actually.
CK: He’s actually been to Holland?
GB: Yes – Hoopdorf, the town where the Librarian is from, had its 150th anniversary. Underneath the Lintel ran in maybe seven different places – in Hoopdorf and other places in Holland.
CK: Did you get to see it in Hoopdorf?
GB: No, I didn’t get to see it. I did get an email forwarded to me from the Hoopdorf Library from the librarian asking, “What’s going on? American couples keep coming over and asking to see the library!”
The fact that it’s been translated into Greek and Icelandic and French, and it’s been seen in Hong Kong and elsewhere, it’s really gratifying.
CK: One of the things that I love the most about your writing is the way that your characters always, not just survive, but persevere through the obstacles of their lives. I see a lot of hope in your work, and I feel like that’s not very trendy right now in playwriting. Many writers today are more nihilistic. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the use of hope and why it’s so prevalent in your work.
GB: Maybe it will get trendier. It’s turning around a little bit. I think it goes in cycles. In Great Men of Science, another play of mine, one of the characters talks about the concept of “naïve cynicism.” Generally one thinks of the cynic as the one who has seen it all and who has reached a cynical view of the world and the universe. But something in that that, to me, seems naïve. They actually haven’t seen enough to truly know the way of things. Which isn’t to say that the world is just terrific, but I think in the end, the best we can say is that it’s so bewildering. It’s just beyond our ability to grasp. That’s at least cause for awe. And awe, at least, isn’t boring. There’s no need to be filled with boredom and ennui and a lack of interest and engagement. Every seemingly mundane item, or an atom in the world, when you stop to think about it, it can blow your mind by its very existence. The hope comes out of the fact that the universe is a pretty undeniably psychedelic place.
CK: You write for PBS’s children’s television (Berger is currently the Head Writer for PBS’s Fetch). Do you have, as a writer, a different toolbox that you go to, to write for children, or is it the same set of skills or ideas?
GB: It’s definitely the same set of skills. There’s always going to be narrative and character. Kids don’t let you get away with half of what adults will let you get away with in the name of art. So, it’s challenging and rewarding when you get it right. The other thing about working for PBS is that with children’s television is that there’s always an educational objective. Your mandate isn’t just to be funny and engaging, but to be teaching science or social skills at the same time. There’s a different, if not set of tools, at least a different scale of wrench and screwdriver. When you’re working with animation, there are certain things that you can do that would be far too expensive in a play. You can set it anywhere in the world, you can change scenes, and you can have robotic arms come out of the pillow – whatever you need to make it work.
CK: Can you also tell me more about the Spiderman musical that you’re working on?
GB: I think it will be good. (U2’s) Bono and The Edge have come up with some really great, theatrical music. It sounds like U2 and yet it also sounds like nothing they’ve ever done before. It’s been a really rewarding experience for me because Bono and The Edge and Julie Taymor are pretty amazing collaborators. They’re incredibly open, and they’re very tireless in their pursuit of good art. Our meetings will go without a break and will last hours and hours and hours, which is something I’ve been looking for for years – that relentless, hyper-focused struggle of trying to figure out this thing.
CK: How did you get involved with Spiderman?
GB: I know Julie saw Underneath the Lintel in New York, and that put me on her radar. She was looking for a book writer, and she had seen samples of my work. I wrote something that sort of gave her my take on, knowing her work, what sort of collaborator she would be looking for.
It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s very theatrical, and it’s going to be very different, not only from the movies of Spiderman, but different from really anything you’ve ever seen onstage before either.
**Warning: Show Spoiler Follows**

CK: It sounds fascinating. I want to end on more question about Underneath the Lintel, with a warning to our audience who is reading that this will be a little bit of a ‘spoiler’ if they haven’t seen the play, yet. The myth of the Wandering Jew is an important element in the play. Can you talk a little bit about the character and how he is used in the play?

GB: Historically, The Wandering Jew was an Anti-Semitic folk tale. The perception of it as an anti-Semitic tale is changed by the Romantic era. And then in the early 30s there was a show in Yiddish that was used by Jews in Germany who actually used the myth to their own ends, to warn people about the Nazi menace to come. They put a positive spin on the Wandering Jew story as being a story of a people who refused to give in and to die. To me, that’s something that you can do with folk tales and myths – you can use it to your own ends. Ultimately, for me, the whole play isn’t about Judaism or Christianity, it isn’t about specific religions at all. I was raised Jewish, but I’m not really a practicing Jew as much as a sort of science-inspired Buddhist. It really has more to do with getting at that root of religion and spirituality, which is trying to engage with the eternal questions of, “Why are we here? What are we doing here? How did we get here? To what end?”
CK: Thank you for your time, Glen.

GB: Thank you so much.


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