Do the Moose: My Life in the TheaterReturn to previous page.
I owe my life as an artist to Arthur Bicknell and Moose Murders.
I can’t remember when I first became interested in failure, but some time in 2004 I began to think about artistic failure. At first I had just a curiosity about failed works of art themselves: why were some celebrated and some vilified? How did you quantify either greatness or terribleness. It was then that I discovered Moose Murders. Although you would be hard-pressed to identify Verdi’s worst opera or Picasso’s worst painting, it seemed fairly simple to identify the worst play to ever appear on Broadway. Moose Murders by Arthur Bicknell had become legendary: it had everything you could ask for: Texas oil barons as producers, an aging film and TV star who indulged in erratic behavior, a young, promising playwright who wrote the play almost as it was being performed; a stage set so complicated that the production became the most expensive non-musical produced on Broadway. It also had the patina of time and an audience who remembered it as a landmark in their theater-going careers. And the title. Could anyone envision a more glorious title for a famous flop?
I recall walking into the Drama Book Shop in Manhattan and nervously wondering if I’d ever find a copy of the play. To my delight, it was in print and available from Samuel French. So it was notorious, but not forgotten.
I had lunch with my friend and muse Karen Winer and confessed my growing obsession with MM. She informed me in rapid succession: 1)that she had seen the play 2) that she believed she was a model for a number of the characters’ traits 3) that she went to Ithaca College with Arthur, and 4) that he was a wonderful person and 5) that she would contact him to talk about my desire to revive the play.
I then did my first bit of internet sleuthing and discovered that over the years Moose Murders had been produced in a variety of venues. There was a theater professor in Ohio who routinely assigned it to students because of its complicated stagecraft. He was oblivious to its provenance in the New York theater. He just liked the play as a representative farce. Lightning! Blindness! Pantomime! Death! Music! A Phantom Homicidal Moose!
Then of course there was the production in the Philippines that listed Frank Rich, the New York Times’ critic who originally eviscerated the play in one of the great destructive reviews in theater history, as the play’s author. I’ve always thought that there was something wonderfully vengeful about this switch: The critic is forever tied to a work of art he despises. He becomes, through memory and the internet, the author of a work of art rather than its critic. Straight out of Nabokov, kiddo. Or perhaps just Stephen King.
I believe that many of us find it difficult to identify ourselves as artists. We do other things and frequently we do other things that subsume or erode our commitment to our talents. There is a problem with living a creative life and we find, like most people, we live through others’ lives. Independence is disastrous; the isolation required for creation is increasingly distant.
Moose Murders was the first time my art subsumed my life. It was the first time I felt I had something to say. True, what I had to say was about failure, but I knew I had a clear path ahead of me. While others were pursuing success, I would pursue failure.