Kenneth Lonergan at the 2019 PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony
Kenneth Lonergan was awarded the PEN/Mike Nichols Award for Performance Writing at the 2019 PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony. Watch his speech and read the transcript below.
I started out this evening feeling quite overwhelmed, and now I feel much more overwhelmed. I just want to thank PEN America very much for bestowing this somewhat intimidating honor on me, and thank Lorne and Brian and Meryl for thinking of me for it. One thing that struck me thinking about what to say when I came here was how this room and this organization is really about the writer as a bold, important voice, and this organization as a kind of a vanguard in the world that takes not just the creative work of the writer but the aspect of writing which is attached to human rights and freedom of thought and political action and advocacy and human rights all over the world, and really does something about it.
The world where I do most of my work, in the theater and in show business, the writer doesn’t really have that; in the movie business, the writer doesn’t have that role. The actors are in the front, and the writer’s kind of a contemplative, craven figure sitting in the back complaining into the computer or onto the page, and then having other more dynamic, more courageous, more front-footed people taking the words and turning them into action. So, it’s a particular honor to be honored by an organization like this and be in a room like this.
There’s a couple of interesting differences about screenwriting and playwriting, if you’ll just indulge me for a moment, that I was thinking about on my way here and over the last few weeks. One is that the novelist and the journalist and the poet and the essayist—famously there’s no gap, there’s no intermediary between the reader and the writer and the audience. With a playwright and a screenwriter or director, you have a couple of levels. You only write for the characters, and the characters are only embodied by the actors, so you’re able to hide behind kind of a veil, or the outlet of what you’re writing about is transformed by the imaginations of your imagination going into a character and the actor’s imagination taking that over. If you haven’t directed your own work, that’s the director’s imagination, as well. It can be somewhat humbling being a screenwriter or a playwright, and the fun of it is that all these other people contribute to the fantasy which you created originally, but it becomes theirs as much as it ever was yours, and that’s kind of the fun of being a play writer or a screenwriter or a film director.
Another interesting thing about it is that you can’t directly solve your expositional problems. If you’re a novelist you can say at any point you want—I imagine, I’m not a novelist—but you can say the South was coming down around their ears. You can’t have a character walk into the room and say, Gee, Bill, the South is coming down around our ears. What will we do? You have to kind of think of a way around it, and I’m aware that those challenges exist in the novel, as well. But it’s one of the fun things about playwriting and screenwriting is to play around with how you convey information when you have no narration, you have no direct address.
Of course there is “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” which is actually quite a good line. So maybe I’m wrong. Which just brings me to my last point and then I’ll wrap up, but you can be wrong as a playwright. You can continue to be wrong as a playwright and a screenwriter because your characters never have to agree about anything. You can hide your doubts and your views between two people who argue with each other, and the argument is never settled. And that’s why, in a way, the pattern that you make of the world is one you make around the corners. Again, I know that’s true of all the other art forms that I’ve mentioned and the craft that goes into that, but there’s a way of hiding in the back that a playwright has that I’m not sure is at the disposal of a novelist, a poet, a journalist, or an essayist.
And then finally, I’d just like to say that to receive the Mike Nichols award is just stunning to me. One of the great honors of my life was having the great Elaine May in my play The Waverly Gallery this year, and anyone who saw that production knows that that’s one of the great performances of all time, and it’s just kind of a dream come true. Mike Nichols was an innovator who, with the wedge of innovation, became part of the mainstream, which is something that the mainstream really needs and something that everyone in this room has provided them with and that PEN takes and spreads all over the world in even more concrete ways, and I’m just very, very honored and privileged to be here. Thank you very much.