Maureen Megibow has been teaching script interpretation at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York City for fifteen years. One of the texts she returns to again and again is John Patrick Shanley’s 1983 play, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. The 70-minute play, executed in three scenes, tells the story of Danny and Roberta, two young adults struggling with their personal pain. Danny is an angry man, and is known to get into fights for any reason. Roberta considers herself a bad person. She has a secret: she has been physically intimate with her father. Over the course of a twenty-four hour period the two characters meet in a Bronx bar, spend the night together, and discuss their respective pasts and their potential future together.
The play, according to the theater critic Ben Brantley, writing in The New York Times, “brought [Shanley] to theatergoers’ attention in 1984.” It premiered at Actors Theatre of Louisville in February of that year. In June it was performed at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York City. We talked to Megibow about her decision to teach this play.
CRITICAL READ: Why do you turn to this play year after year?
MAUREEN MEGIBOW: The script interpretation class has the goal of helping the young actors who are here make choices for plays. Stella Adler made this big, unique contribution to acting, which was to try to really understand what the playwright saw socially, what he or she was trying to reflect and expose. She had this idea that if the actor really penetrated the depth of the social experience, he would understand the human being. If the actor understood that, it could be translated into active, viable choices that would make acting good.
I’m always looking for perfect models for my class to do that. I’ve always been a lover of Shanley’s work. I started teaching this play about ten years ago because I had an idea about it that had very much to do with the time it was written, the early 1980s.
The first question I ask the students is, “Why couldn’t this play have been written before it was written?” In other words, what about the play perfectly reflects its social and cultural moment? The only other questions I ask my students when we start the play are, “What is Danny’s problem?” and “What is Roberta’s problem?” How is it that we can understand these two problems, and what is it that they are working out with each other? If you read the play a couple of times, it seems very clear, and it gives an actor a way to proceed.
CR: So what is the answer?
MM: What I like to discuss with the students is how the play reflects the pop-cultural explosion of the self-help movement. That in the 1980s modern psychotherapy got popularized for the lay person, and that we started to think in a way that we never had before about our problems, our psychological turmoils, and how they bear down on us. With this popularizing of modern psychotherapy into self-help we got the idea that if you have suffering, you yourself can change the bad tape that plays in your head with a better tape.
The play is a long stretch of psychotherapy done between two lay people and condensed into one magical day. Before this time psychoanalysis was done in a doctor’s office, and it was not for the working class, not for the likes of Danny and Roberta. In teaching this play, I keep highlighting for the students how Danny and Roberta are served by this cultural explosion of the self-help movement.
CR: But the self-help movement is never explicitly mentioned in the text.
MM: No, the characters don’t mention it. It shows up in their words, the lingo. It’s the mantras of the self-help movement. “We didn’t do this.” “It happened to us.” Self-help changed our language. Before 1980 there was no such thing as an “anger problem.” Nobody talked about it that way. There are examples [of this language] on every page.
The movement has been with us for so long now that for the 20-year-old students it just seems like it has always been, I think. The play is a work of modern realism, and if there’s a villain in modern realism, it’s something to do with society, some unsolvable social problem that the characters grapple with. And in this case the job is to identify what is that thing, socially, that is the conflict, and how is the play reflecting that.
CR: How do you discuss the characters’ individual conflicts?
MM: In Danny’s case, after much discussion and much hearing what the students have in mind after they read the play, I urge them to think about the long-term problem for men: thou shalt not cry; thou shalt not be sensitive. If you look at the play hard enough it seems that Danny is not just suffering from this cultural burden, but we find out that–too bad for him–he happens to have come into the world a deeply sensitive person.
For Roberta, when I ask, “What is Roberta’s problem?” the obvious answer is the sexual contact with her father. But we don’t really hear much about her turmoil, her pain, until the end of the play. It’s in those last pages that we hear something of her story. And the question is always, how is it that we can identify what is at the heart of her problem? She says that she has a lot of self-loathing, that she needs a punishment, that she has done some horrible thing because she’s bad somehow on the inside. So those things are obvious in the words, but the question remains, what led Roberta to initiate sex with her father?
how can you separate yourself from something that was done to you? i credit this play for opening that discussion.
We discuss how this is a result of the age-old problem: the heartbreak that is born of lack of love and affection. Modern psychology has helped us understand in the past 150 years, that–put generally or simplistically–all we need as children to go on to live the good life is loving care from mother and father. Without it, we suffer. Culturally, the self-help movement of the ’80s, with its explosion of public talk shows and books, openly addressed this problem of lack of love and all of its many manifestations as never before. When there is a sexual relationship between child and parent, we started to understand in the past 40 years, that it is more complex–and more heartbreaking–than a physical attack or forced physical violation on the part of the parent. It is often twisted-up, deeply psychological, the child reaching out for love and affection, a desperate yearning for a special relationship, for a closeness that is lacking, returned in sexual terms from an immoral parent.
This is the counterpart to Danny’s “men should not be sensitive or you are not a man, but a horrible disappointment to your parents and your society” mentality, which was addressed in the culture of the ’80s that brought these things out into the open. We see both characters are very, very ill, suffering terribly from things that went wrong from parent to child
The acting part happens when we translate these ideas to active needs that each has with the other. In active terms, they have to make their way through the play getting each other well. If we don’t have this step of translation, all the rest is useless for acting.
How can you separate yourself from something that was done to you? I credit this play for opening that discussion.
CR: So in a way, the students in your class are doing the same kind of work that Danny and Roberta do in the play.
MM: Right. We could say that they are operating as patient and therapist, switching those roles throughout. Psychotherapy and the work of acting have that in common: actors try to answer the question, “Why do I say what I say? Why do I behave as I behave? What drives me?”
And one of the reasons it’s difficult, very difficult, is because in life your psychology always precedes the words. You always have what in acting terms you call a “need to speak” or you always have something first that would make your words. In acting, it’s all backwards and you have the words first. And so the process of the actor, no matter how they talk about it or what the school of thought, the fundamental kind of accepted premise–at least in the modern days since Stanislavski–is that the problem is the words. You have these words first, and it’s exactly the opposite of how it goes in life.
CR: What advice do you have for actors coming to a new play?
MM: When you read a play, if you don’t immediately see something in it that you feel is true, that reflects the human experience in a real way, sometimes you want to turn away from it. But if you trust the playwright, and you trust that other people have said that there’s something there, you think, “Let me see if I can find what that is.”
May 17, 2017
Photos: Natalie Axton