An Interview with Nat Cassidy

Indie Theater Now asked Nat Cassidy a few questions about this upcoming event.

What real person/event is the subject of this play, and why did you select this?

While this play is ostensibly an (admittedly loose) adaptation of an H. P. Lovecraft horror story from 1920, the action has been moved forward 23 years to the middle of World War II, a war Lovecraft never got to witness but which would probably have blown his mind. Specifically, the play is set in May 1943, which is known as "Black May" because it was THE month when the Battle of the Atlantic (aka The U-Boat War) drastically veered out of Germany's favor. Like, on a dime. The most boats Germany had lost in a month during the war by that point (which was about 3.5 years strong) was 19. In May 1943, they lost 41. And they never recovered their advantage. They went from practically invincible to sitting ducks and it was due to several factors: the Allies started using aircraft carriers that allowed planes to fly further into the ocean and machine gun/depth charge U-Boats they weren't able to touch before; advances in radar allowed these planes to sneak up on U-Boats literally out of the blue without being detected; the Allies were building faster, smaller destroyer boats that would accompany merchant convoys at a pace that well exceeded the rate at which Germany was losing their boats; and the U-Boat war was disastrously mismanaged by Germany. I was drawn to this exact moment in time, and chose to "update" Lovecraft's story for a number of reasons: the main one is because Lovecraft deals with the horrors of the unknown unlike any other writer before or since and that seemed particularly appropriate given the faceless terrors these men were facing. Not only were they in the middle of the ocean (where Lovecraftian baddies tend to reside) and the enemy was able to appear out of nowhere, I was also fascinated by how, even though it's easy to think of all of Germany's armed forces at the time being Nazi Thugs(tm), the Kriegsmarine was actually pretty anti-Nazi the whole time (in fact, you couldn't even get assigned to a U-Boat if you were enrolled in the party). Fascism struck me as a particularly Lovecraftian concept, as well, and I wanted to explore how/why these men continued going to their pretty much certain, awful deaths for a cause they didn't believe in.

What’s the playwright’s obligation as a reporter of fact? How do you figure out what’s actually “true” (or can you even do that)? Can stretching/shaping the facts ever be justified?

I think it depends on what the playwright's goal is. Sometimes the actual story itself is found only in deviating from the facts--but even then, you should probably set up the context as accurately and clearly as possible, otherwise why are you writing about this historical thing? Fidelity to the facts also usually makes the piece better as a story, even if the audience doesn't ultimately realize it. The earliest drafts of THE TEMPLE were a scattered mess, because I didn't know enough about life in a submarine or the greater context of the war itself. But the more I learned and the more rules I had to obey, the more creative and effective I could be within that structure. Still, stretching/shaping can always be justified, and, I like to think, if you've done your due diligence as both researcher AND storytelling, every aberration is done in the name of making the audience have a more authentic-feeling experience. We take a few licenses in our dramaturgy and design, but all in the name of a more enriching experience (I mean, Sandy Yaklin, our genius set designer, is building us a submarine INSIDE THE THEATRE, but if we were being totally accurate, there'd be a giant tower in the center of the stage that you wouldn't be able to see around at all--stuff like that). And, also, you never know! In my play PIERCE (available here), I invented a romantic subplot for two characters completely out of whole cloth ... and then in subsequent research discovered new information that the two of them actually did spend a suspicious amount of time together.

What kinds of research did you do in the creation of this play? What sources did you consult – books, movies, memoirs, websites, etc.?

Oh, jeebus, so much. This play kicked off my obsession with World War II (and World War I, since you can't understand one without the other). It's become a joke with the cast and crew that I pretty much can't extrapolate on any moment in the show without going into a thirty minute monologue on its historical context ("Should I move stage left here?" "Well first, the thing you've gotta understand about World War I is ... "). But I needed to know as much as I could to really make the story gel, so I devoured all the logbooks and memoirs I could find from U-Boaters (and there aren't that many, because like 80% of them died in the war). One specifically was a book called IRON COFFINS, which is an incredibly detailed and fascinating account by Herbert Werner, one of the very few captains to survive the war. It gave me so much insight into the practical, political, and personal sides of U-Boat service (his account of Black May almost gave me a friggin' panic attack). Also, I needed to understand Germany at the time, which included reading (among many others): Shirer's RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH, Evans' THIRD RICH trilogy, and fiction like Jonathan Littel's THE KINDLY ONES. Not to also mention military historians like Anthony Beevor and John Keegan, who have great books on the tactics and trends throughout the world wars. Plus, I'm deeply indebted to Dan Carlin's podcast, Hardcore History, which is one the absolute best podcasts about history in general, war in specific, and I can't recommend it highly enough to anyone looking to learn more about pretty much everything (ohgoditssoooooogoood). And the website was an immensely valuable resource any time a technical question came to light. Which happened A LOT. It might also be fun to know that this play was originally designed as a kind of sister play (or, I guess, brother play, given the sausage homogeneity) with another play here on ITN: David Ian Lee's THE CURING ROOM. His is an incredibly tense and visceral account of a group of Russian soldiers locked, naked and with no food, in essentially a castle basement by fleeing German soldiers. We both started working on our respective plays at the same time (I was first inspired to write THE TEMPLE during my research for my Lovecraft solo show, I AM PROVIDENCE) and were both pretty tickled to be writing claustrophobic horror stories about trapped soldiers during WWII (his starving for food, mine for oxygen). I even peppered in a few allusions to his in my original drafts which have since been taken out for time (like, it was hinted that one of the soldiers that locked David's men away was actually the son of one of my soldiers trapped in the sub), and we envisioned the world's most upsetting and gruesome repertory series. It's yet to happen, but a boy can dream, right?

Did your feelings about this topic change as you created this play? If so, in what way? What did you learn about yourself in this process?

Big time! I'm Jewish, and a second-generation American Jew at that. My grandmother came to New York from Poland in, I believe, the late 1920s, and thus the Holocaust in particular was always a very big, very real topic in my family growing up. I always knew I had a WWII story in me. But I also knew I didn't want it to be a story I felt like I'd encountered already, which, at that point was mostly always about Nazi brutality and death camps. I was always so confused about how the Nazi Party rose to power, and how a people "allowed" itself to be taken over like that, but I also knew it couldn't be that simple. Working on this project has inestimably expanded my knowledge and consideration of the world wars and their effects (which we're still dealing with to this day!), and also allowed me to feel so much more sympathy for Germany as a country during that period. Really, it's experiences like this that are why I'm drawn to write about historical things in the first place.

Is there a particular playwriting school/style/genre that you particularly subscribe to? If you had to describe the style of this play in just a few words, what would you say?

Ha! I guess my school would be The Theatre of Horror. Not everything I write is strictly genre, but I'm too exhaustive a horror fan/consumer to ever be able to escape the genre's mechanics. And I'm proud of that fact. I think it's the most valuable of all the genres and that every single story worth hearing, no matter how it might be classified, ultimately deals with fear. I think that's why I'm drawn to so many historical stories, too (PIERCE, KIT & LITTLE BOOTS, OLD FAMILIAR FACES, GOLDSBORO) - I feel on some level if we can make the horrors of an earlier era palpable, maybe we'll be less inclined to repeat them.

posted February 2, 2015
Nat Cassidy

Nat Cassidy