Naomi Iizuka finished writing 36 Views in the fall of 1999. It was published in book form in 2003 by The Overlook Press in Woodstock, NY. The complete text of the play was also published in the February 2002 issue of American Theatre. Originally, the play was commissioned and developed by A.S.K. Theater Projects in 1998. Upon completion, it was read as part of the A.S.K. Reading Series in the fall of 1999. Later, in June of 2000, the A.S.K. Common Ground Festival presented 36 Views as a workshop. The play gained recognition from this workshop and was subsequently developed at both The Sundance Theatre Laboratory in July 2000 and Breadloaf Writer's Conference in August 2000. Following this development, 36 Views had its world premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in September 2001, under the direction of Mark Wing-Davey. The play had its New York premiere in March 2002 at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival.
Iizuka is known for her artistic blending of the ancient and the contemporary. In her plays, she has mixed Ovid's Metamorphoses with the darkly intriguing and deeply upsetting subculture of homeless youth. She has transported Virgil's tragic characters Dido and Aeneas to the tough, uncompromising realism of modern Los Angeles. In 36 Views, she has successfully and creatively melded elements of traditional Kabuki theater with a modern vision of Western forms.
The play raises questions about authenticity. The play, which garners its name from a series of woodblock prints called 36 Views of Mount Fuji by nineteenth-century artist Hokusai, constantly presents the question of what is true and what is real. The characters struggle with the authenticity of precious, ancient art objects and artifacts. They question the truthfulness of their relationships with one another. Last, and most important, the characters question the authenticity of their own decisions, their lives, and themselves.
Naomi Iizuka, a contemporary Japanese American playwright, is one of the freshest voices in modern theater. A prolific writer, Iizuka has written a host of controversial plays in her young career that have won her acclaim and recognition.
Given that Iizuka is such a new voice, very little has been written about her life. Most everything that has been printed about Iizuka has focused on her plays and their performances. However, it is known that she was born in 1965 in Japan to an American mother of Spanish descent and a Japanese banker father. She lived in Holland as a child, and later in Chevy Chase, Maryland. In Maryland, Iizuka attended the National Cathedral School, a private Catholic institution catering to the children of diplomats.
Iizuka grew up with an incredible love of literature. However, she did not discover theater until she began studying classics and literature at Yale University. After graduating from Yale, Iizuka spent a year at Yale Law School. Iizuka worked for several years and then enrolled in the master's of fine arts program in playwriting at the University of California-San Diego, where she studied closely with playwright Adele Edling Shank. Iizuka finished her master's of fine arts in 1992.
In the ten years following the completion of her master's of fine arts, Iizuka has written many plays, including 36 Views, Polaroid Stories, Language of the Angels, and Skin. She is a member of the New Dramatists. She is also a recipient of the Whiting Award, the Gerbode Foundation Fellowship, the NEA/TCG Theatre Artist Residency Program for Playwrights, the McKnight Fellowship, the PEN Center USA West Award for Drama, Princeton University's Hodder Fellowship, and the Jerome Playwriting Fellowship. She and her works have been mentioned several times on National Public Radio, and she has taught masters classes at the Kennedy Center. Needless to say, Iizuka is both a prolific and widely celebrated American playwright.
Act 1, Scenes 1–10
The play opens with a crisp image that exemplifies an important theme of the play: orientalism, i.e., the style or manner associated with or characteristics of Asia or Asians. It opens with complete darkness, all except for an ancient, hanging scroll painted with a Japanese woman in a formal pose. Darius Wheeler, an Asian art and antiquities dealer, utters the first words of the play, and his story is one of danger, luck, and intrigue.
With the tone set, Iizuka begins to construct the plot of her story. A party is being held in Wheeler's loft space. This is the first place our main characters, Wheeler and Setsuko Hearn, meet. Hearn is an assistant professor of East Asian literature. The characters have an outwardly innocent conversation revolving around Wheeler's collection of art and artifacts. During the discussion, Wheeler cuts his hand on a glass and starts bleeding. Through word choice and subtle action, it is apparent that both characters find each other stimulating and intriguing.
Also at the party is Wheeler's assistant, John Bell. Although there are festivities occurring outside of the office, Bell is working. The party is being held for a famous artist, Utagawa, who has not yet arrived. Bell is frantically looking for a piece of paper when Claire Tsong, a restorer of Asian artifacts, approaches him. After a short exchange about a transcript on the desk, Bell returns to the party. Elizabeth Newman-Orr, a free agent, then enters the office. Tsong and Newman-Orr have a lofty exchange about what is an authentic artifact and what is a fake.
Outside the office, the party continues. Owen Matthiassen, the chairman of the East Asian Studies Department, approaches Wheeler and Hearn. Matthiassen informs Wheeler of Hearn's expertise and brilliance in "writing from the eleventh century, diaries, memoirs, pillow books written by women of the Heian era." The two scholars, Hearn and Matthiassen, and the dealer, Wheeler, have an intellectual exchange about the relationship of art and beauty to ideas and abstractions.
It is clear from this series of conversations, that the crowd at the party is highbrow, well-educated and cosmopolitan. Although not explicitly stated, the party must be located in a city that is a mecca for art, culture and capitalism. Bell interrupts the discussion to inform Mr. Wheeler that the long-awaited guest of honor will, in fact, not be arriving. With that news, the party begins to dissolve. As the guests exit, Bell introduces Newman-Orr to Wheeler. Newman-Orr is extremely interested in Wheeler; her persistence lands her a meeting with him the following night. Although she intrigues him, her intentions are unknown.
Later in the evening, after most of the partygoers have left, Wheeler approaches Matthiassen with the hopes of finding Hearn. To Wheeler's disappointment, Hearn has already left. Wheeler presents Matthiassen with a Hokusai print of Mount Fuji (the namesake of Iizuka's play). Matthiassen is insurmountably impressed. To Matthiassen's dismay, Wheeler reveals that the print, although beautiful, is fake. The party thus ends.
The transition from the party to the next day is precipitated by Tsong reading the fine print disclaimer associated with the sale of an artifact: The vendor is not responsible for its authenticity, defects, and correctness of description. As though alluding to future troubles, Tsong declares, "Always read the fine print. There is always fine print." After Tsong's interlude, Hearn follows with a reading from the transcript Bell had on his desk during the party. These lulls in the dialogue are essential for developing tension between the characters and arousing interest in the transcript, which has yet to be explained.
Act 2, Scenes 11–20
The day after the party, Bell and Tsong are in Wheeler's loft space having a conversation about art and artifacts. Tsong has dropped off an Edo period screen she recently restored for Wheeler. Tsong claims that all the pieces are "bric-a-brac for the leisure class" and that "it's all just capital." Bell not only disagrees, he also claims that Tsong does not truly believe what she is saying. To prove her point, Tsong is willing to spray paint the screen she has just restored. As she starts to spray, Bell darts in front of the screen, blocking the paint with his body. After ruining Bell's shirt, their conversation strays from art to Bell, who is described as an under-appreciated intellectual with low self-esteem.
As the scene ends, Wheeler and Newman-Orr enter the loft space. Bell and Tsong have left. Newman-Orr wants to know if Wheeler is capable of smuggling a recently purchased painting out of Hong Kong into the United States. The reason it must be smuggled is that the painting is considered a national treasure and, if it is discovered leaving the country, it will be seized and returned to the country of origin as an invaluable cultural artifact. The two agree that Wheeler, if successful in smuggling it out, will receive twenty percent of the purchase price, which will be placed in an offshore account, half up-front and half upon the object's delivery. Newman-Orr leaves the loft.
Wheeler is again at his desk examining the earlier transcript. Hearn's voice is heard reading the transcript as Wheeler looks at it. Bell enters and Wheeler questions him about the transcript. Bell answers with a sizeable monologue about the translation from what he believes may be an eleventh-century Heian era memoir or "pillow book." Bell also gives a lengthy and surprisingly precise account of who has owned the piece through the centuries. Wheeler exits the scene with the transcript.
Later that afternoon, Tsong and Bell are again alone in Wheeler's loft. Bell is confessing to Tsong that he completely fabricated the story about the eleventh-century pillow book. He is distraught because he is dumbfounded as to why he lied and, even more astonishing, that Wheeler believed every word. Tsong is ecstatic and decides that she must create the artifact out of thin air. She plans to construct Bell's fictitious ancient pillow book so that no one knows it is a fraud.
In a corridor of the university, Wheeler presents Hearn with a copy of Bell's transcript. Hearn is mystified by the quality of the voice, even through the translation. She is enthralled and is desperate to examine the original. Also, in this exchange, Hearn accepts Wheeler's invitation to dinner.
The scene switches to Newman-Orr. She is removing a hidden recording device that was taped to her body. She rewinds the device, and her exchange with Wheeler, about the transportation of the artifact, is played back through her recorder.
Act 2, Scenes 21–36
The second act opens with Tsong working with archaic paper—burning edges, fabricating wear and age—to create a piece of "ancient" art.
It is apparent that the dean and other professors at the university are very interested in the forthcoming artifact. Matthiassen and Hearn are both eager to get their hands on the original pillow book. In a conversation that takes place in a park, Wheeler and Hearn discuss the pillow book while looking at Tsong's Polaroid photographs. They are discussing the beauty of the book and the inner feelings that are expressed through the author's writings. As the conversation turns to the subject of desire and love, Hearn and Wheeler kiss. Hearn is apprehensive about continuing, but Wheeler is smitten.
In Tsong's workspace, Bell is examining her creation. He is astonished. Her work is flawless. She tells Bell that if he creates an airtight paper trail, their creation will be finished and "authentic." Bell and Tsong's argument delves into the crux of Iizuka's question about authenticity. Tsong tells Bell to present the "original" to Wheeler and also to give him an asking price. She reminds him that the price must be exorbitant because a pillow book of this quality and age is extremely rare. They both leave Tsong's workspace.
Hearn and Wheeler are presented getting dressed together, discussing what they know about the author of the pillow book. Wheeler is tremendously drawn to Hearn and begs her to accept his invitation to drinks and a nightcap later. She is still apprehensive, but Wheeler's determination persuades her.
Later in the day, at Wheeler's loft space, Newman-Orr and Wheeler are discussing the successful, but illegal, transportation of her artifact. Bell pries open the crate containing Newman-Orr's artifact. The painting is revealed, and it is clear that it is an exact match to a painting hanging in Wheeler's loft. Newman-Orr is confused as to why there are twins. By some sort of instinct, Wheeler discovered that Newman-Orr was trying to frame him, to catch him in the throws of the illegal activity of transporting a national treasure out of the country of origin. Wheeler explains that he knew her piece was a fake and that any real dealer would know the same thing. Thus, he suspected she was working for someone else in an attempt to frame him. Wheeler asks her to leave his loft, and she complies. After she leaves, Bell tells Wheeler that the owner of the pillow book is asking one million pounds sterling for the piece. Wheeler thinks the asking price is low. He tells Bell that he will have a check ready for the purchase by the end of the business day.
An hour later, Tsong is in Wheeler's loft space with her creation, the "original" pillow book manuscript. Newman-Orr arrives looking for Bell. Since he is unavailable, Tsong invites Newman-Orr out for a drink. Newman-Orr tells Tsong that she is a journalist. The two leave Wheeler's loft together.
In Matthiassen's office, Hearn and Matthiassen are discussing the fake pillow book. Matthiassen tells Hearn that it would have never occurred to him, except that he had received a call from the journalist who had interviewed the forger and seen the forgery. Matthiassen explains that after a close inspection, the anomalies of the writing, although originally overlooked, were quite dramatic. It became apparent that the piece was not an original eleventh-century Heian era pillow book.
In the early evening of the same day, Hearn and Wheeler are in his loft discussing their past, their first loves, and their families. Hearn informs Wheeler that she has resigned from her position at the university. She believes that Wheeler was using her to authenticate the fake pillow book so it could be resold for a fortune. Wheeler, however, claims he was not taking advantage of her and their relationship. He purports that his feelings for her were genuine, that they were authentic. Crushed by sadness, Hearn leaves Wheeler's loft.
In a gallery, Tsong and Newman-Orr are having a drink amidst the thirty-six Utagawa paintings hanging on the walls. They discuss how Wheeler got started in the art dealing business. It is revealed, through a kiss, that Tsong and Newman-Orr have become lovers. In the same gallery, Bell and Matthiassen discuss Bell's recent book. His book is written from the point of view of an eleventh-century, Heian-era Japanese woman—a point of view that matches that of the fabricated author of Tsong's forged pillow book.
In the final scene, Wheeler and Hearn stand apart from each other on a stage that contains only the thirty-six paintings. Through their words, it is revealed that although the fabricated pillow book was indeed a fake, it was created by a contemporary and very popular artist: Utagawa. It is exposed that Utagawa is, in fact, Claire Tsong, Wheeler's favorite art restorer and, apparently, a reclusive painter. Lastly and tragically, it is also divulged that Wheeler and Hearn never resolved their misunderstanding and never rekindled their love or their friendship. The thirty-six paintings shift their alignment, creating one large mosaic of a woman, part contemporary and part ancient. The play ends.
John Bell is Darius Wheeler's assistant. Bell is an intellectual who proclaims to love his job and his boss. He is driven and intelligent. Bell speaks most Asian languages and is very capable of identifying and working with ancient works of priceless art. His boss, a dealer of Asian arts and antiquities, relies heavily on Bell's expertise. Despite this, Bell is driven by a story he has fabricated about an eleventh-century woman from Heian era Japan. He concocts an ancient pillow book, supposedly written by her. For a reason he cannot pinpoint, Bell is compelled to tell Wheeler that he has stumbled upon this ancient manuscript that is both beautiful and invaluable. As if coerced by an outside force, Bell enters into cahoots with Claire Tsong, a restorer of Asian artifacts, to create the "original" pillow book. Bell is ravaged with guilt, but cannot stop himself from playing out the scenario. He is assisted greatly by Tsong's constant prodding. Eventually, after the forgery is discovered, Bell writes a piece of fiction from the point of view of an eleventh-century Heian era Japanese woman. His book is a smash success, but he still cannot seem to understand where the muse came from to motivate him to create such an elaborate tale. He even considers the possibility of a past life.
Setsuko Hearn is an assistant professor of Asian arts and antiquities. Hearn is well-educated and intelligent. She is highly regarded by her colleagues, including Owen Matthiassen. Hearn is an attractive woman of Asian descent. It is apparent from the earliest scenes of the play that Darius Wheeler is romantically interested in her. Hearn is also a skeptical woman, thus she is apprehensive of Wheeler's advances. Eventually, the two begin a relationship. Oddly enough, Hearn's skepticism gets the best of her in the end as she is convinced that Wheeler planned to seduce her only to get her to authenticate a fabricated pillow book created by Claire Tsong and John Bell. Unfortunately for their budding romance, the rift caused by Hearn's conclusion that Wheeler has used her for his own gain, renders a permanent end to their relationship. The couple parts ways. Although she is drawn to ancient Japanese culture (her expertise is in writing from the eleventh century Heian era), Hearn is actually a Chinese orphan. Her parents adopted her from an orphanage in Hangzhou. Her mother is Japanese and her father is of mixed European descent. Hearn was raised in Fairfield, Iowa, as an only child. She was married once when she was young, but it did not last because she was more interested in her work than her spouse.
• AsiaSource, a resource of the Asia Society, maintains a web page at http://www.asiasource.org/arts/36views.cfm containing an interview with Naomi Iizuka.
Owen Matthiassen is the chairman of the East Asian Studies Department. He is well-educated, respected, and intelligent. Although Darius Wheeler and Setsuko Hearn are already acquainted, Matthiassen boasts to Wheeler about Hearn's talents and expertise. Matthiassen relishes the fact that his school is incredibly lucky to have Hearn, as they almost lost her to Stanford. Matthiassen is an inquisitive man who enjoys rousing conversations, especially with Wheeler. Matthiassen is well aware that Wheeler often calls himself a materialist and a philistine, but Matthiassen believes Wheeler is lying to himself or, at the very least, discrediting his self-made qualifications. Matthiassen is full of compliments and optimism; he seems to have a true lust for life, art and conversation. Even in the end, when Hearn feels compelled to resign after authenticating a forgery, Matthiassen is inclined to tell her that the fake was very convincing. Even in moments of great shame, Matthiassen struggles to make light of uncomfortable situations.
Elizabeth Newman-Orr is a free agent. She is a journalist attempting to pin Darius Wheeler in a sticky situation by having him transport a piece of art that is considered a national treasure. Transporting objects that are deemed national treasures is against international law. However, as Wheeler is well aware, when there is money at stake, there is always a way around the law. Armed with a concealed recording device, Newman-Orr records Wheeler accepting her proposition to transport a national treasure. Unbeknownst to Newman-Orr, Wheeler somehow sniffs her out and confronts her in a situation that is incredibly uncomfortable. Feeling devastated and without a story, Newman-Orr meets Claire Tsong. Hearn reveals that Newman-Orr is a journalist and a failing one at that. Tsong, who becomes instantly smitten with Newman-Orr upon their first encounter, decides to tell Newman-Orr about her fabricated "ancient" pillow-book forgery, giving Newman-Orr the inside scoop on an incredible story.
Claire Tsong is a restorer of Asian artifacts that frequently works with Darius Wheeler. Of all the characters, Tsong is the most mysterious and confrontational. She constantly questions the authenticity of her work and how it applies to art and artifacts. Tsong's analysis of what is true is the most insightful and disturbing. It comes into being with her decision to force John Bell forward in their creation of the forged ancient pillow book. If they can create an artifact with a clear paper trail, perfect replication of style, and use the correct archaic resources, then, Tsong believes, the pillow book is as good as if it were actually created in the eleventh century. If they are successful in their creation, then, in Tsong's mind, the piece becomes authentic. For Tsong, reality is nothing but perception. Psychologically and philosophically, Tsong is an abundantly interesting character. By the end of the play, even more mysteries are uncovered, as it is revealed that Tsong lives a dual life, as a restorer of Asian artifacts and also as a reclusive painter who goes by the name of Utagawa.
Darius Wheeler is a dealer of Asian arts and antiquities. He is an adventurous soul dedicated to finding art and artifacts that will turn a hefty profit. He has turned his own business from a fledging entrepreneurship into a respected enterprise. Wheeler's name precedes him. He is often viewed as insensitive and manipulative, yet Wheeler has little remorse about these descriptions because he believes that his actions are necessary to be successful in his business. Wheeler is also often seen as a womanizer. He enjoys beautiful things but believes that all beauty is impermanent. Hence, Wheeler rarely becomes attached to art or women, no matter how attracted he is to them. His aloof demeanor does not win him many friends, but his keen business sense and his remarkable eye for artistic gems makes him the envy of colleagues. Wheeler was raised in Bellingham, Washington. He has one sister who lives on Mercer Island in Washington State.
Authenticity is the most prominent underlying theme of the play. It appears in relation to things, such as artwork and artifacts. Claire Tsong questions the authenticity of an ancient pillow book by creating a keen replica of a non-existent artifact. She believes that perception is reality—i.e., if the book is perceived as an artifact, then it is an artifact. Interestingly, this theme continues into the characters' relationships to one another. Setsuko Hearn and Darius Wheeler's relationship was rooted and disrupted by its authenticity. Wheeler truly loved Hearn. However, Hearn did not see his love as authentic. She believed that his feelings were untrue and he was manipulating her feelings to use her credibility to authenticate Tsong's fake "ancient" pillow book. Lastly, the fabric of authenticity is at the individual crux of nearly every main character. Each character has multiple appearances or identities. From this standpoint, it is difficult to identify which of their characteristics are truly authentic to them. For example, Darius Wheeler is an art dealer, a wheeler-dealer of Asian arts and antiquities. Outwardly, Wheeler seems to only appreciate Asian culture and art as a form of capital to be bought and sold. The bulk of his comments make it seem as though he has no love for the culture itself. Yet, Wheeler's very being is created by his quests to retrieve these artifacts. Without Asian arts and antiquities, Wheeler is devoid of identity. This duality carries itself through the other characters as well: Tsong, the art restorer, doubles as the recluse painter, Utagawa; John Bell, Wheeler's assistant, through his writing is an eleventh-century Heian-era Japanese woman; and Setsuko Hearn, assistant professor of East Asian literature, is not a worldly, metropolitan, Japanese American. Instead, she has lived a sheltered, studious young life. She is Chinese by birth, adopted from an orphanage in Hangzhou and raised by a Japanese American woman and a European American missionary in Iowa. The question of authenticity is even found in the title of the play: 36 Views comes from a series of woodblock prints by Hokusai entitled 36 Views of Mount Fuji; however, despite its name, this series actually consists of forty-six images.
Art and Value
In the play there are two divergent understandings of art—aesthetic value and monetary value. From the perspective of Hearn and Bell, pieces of art are things of mystery and beauty. Hearn and Bell have a strong philosophic understanding of the creation and the existence of the pieces as true art. The art and artifacts possess a moral and social value. Art, for Hearn and Bell, can carry meaning, intention, representation and illusion; art is meant to be contemplated and analyzed for all the richness it contains. The other understanding of art is one of monetary value. For Wheeler and Tsong, art and artifacts are simply physical things that, given time and others' perceptions, have earned a dollar value. Oddly enough, Tsong herself is, in fact, a creator of fine art as well as a restorer of artifacts. Yet, she is skeptical of the worth of art beyond its cash value. Speaking of art and artifacts, Tsong tells John Bell, "it's all just capital." Throughout the play, art is constantly valued, both fiscally and philosophically.
- The blending of Western and non-Western styles is important in 36 Views. One example of this blend is the use of wooden clappers throughout the play. Research non-Western styles of drama, such as Kabuki, a traditional Japanese popular drama performed with highly stylized singing and dancing, and try to find and explain other examples of non-Western elements in 36 Views.
- Darius Wheeler believes that art should be about beauty, not ideas. Wheeler's understanding of art shares much with David Hume's philosophy in The Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Read "Section II—Of the Origin of Ideas" and use Hume's definitions of ideas and impressions to determine whether Wheeler's understanding of art makes sense, or if his dependence on beauty leaves him devoid of something crucial to human understanding.
- The question of authenticity is rampant in 36 Views. Whether it is from degradation and restoration or simply from pure fabrication, the truth of objects is constantly under question in the play. What other things change with time? Think of how things age and break down, whether wine or carbon molecules, for example, and try to examine the concept of aging and how it correlates to value.
- The play's namesake, 36 Views of Mount Fuji by the artist Hokusai, actually consists of forty-six different prints of Mount Fuji. Research Hokusai and try to discover his motivations and influences. Is there any reason for titling the forty-six prints the 36 Views of Mount Fuji ?
Beauty as Impermanence
Beauty is an important theme throughout the course of the play. In particular, how beauty relates to Darius Wheeler and Claire Tsong. Almost everyone agrees Wheeler has a keen eye for beautiful things and, as a result, a wildly successful company. Wheeler is also known for having relationships with beautiful women. Yet, like his art collecting and his changing relationships, none of the beauty is for Wheeler to keep. It is impermanent in that it moves into and out of his grasp. Also, from Tsong's perspective, the beauty in an object is in constant flux; it is never truly permanent. As she restores a piece of art, Tsong makes it beautiful. It has no permanent beauty without being tended to, which requires a level of creation. Thus Tsong concludes that beauty is impermanent.
Melding Styles for the Audience
Iizuka's 36 Views is written in such a way that the people who come to see the production will have an experience which melds Western and non-Western forms. She has successfully created a contemporary play set in a modern, metropolitan city that has strong elements of traditional Japanese Kabuki theatre.
Monologues as Interludes and as
Repeatedly, Iizuka enlists her characters to do the voice-over as another character reads from the transcript of the fabricated pillow book. Throughout the play, the monologues break up the characters' dialogue. The discussions frequently revolve around arguments of authenticity and how it relates to art and the state of being. The monologues are delicately written, beautiful and poetic. The dialogue is frequently intellectual, focused, and sometimes derisive. The interplay between monologue from the pillow book and the dialogue of the characters creates a cadence that ensnares and makes the audience wonder about the significance of the pillow book. In a play heavy with questions about what is real, Iizuka effectively builds tension and highlights the importance of the pillow book by interrupting the dialogue with the readings from it.
The Manipulation of Verisimilitude
Verisimilitude, in literature and drama, refers to aspects of a work that are perceived as true to a reader or audience. In 36 Views, Iizuka creates a wealth of characters that are constantly questioning the truth and authenticity in physical things, in relationships to one another, and in themselves. Characters are committed to absolutes, such as Wheeler's claim that "Beautiful means beautiful." Abstractions and emotions are overlooked as petty and meaningless. Yet, in reality, absolutes are ineffective. Concrete absolutes, unshaken by actions or perceptions, are incredibly rare, if not non-existent. Iizuka's characters are rooted in absolutes, which helps her manipulate what is true. It appears that an absolute may be the keenest, truest sense of perception; however, this idea disintegrates upon inspection. Essentially, Wheeler backs himself into a corner when he says, "Beautiful means beautiful" because his statement holds no weight. There is no meaning in his absolute statement because it has no relation to anything. If nothing but the beautiful is beautiful, then there are no beautiful things in the world because not every beautiful thing can be Wheeler's absolute "beautiful." From the perspectives of distorted perceptions of her characters, Iizuka constantly manipulates the truth in her characters. Whether it is the discovery that Claire Tsong is Utagawa or that Setsuko Hearn is an adopted Chinese orphan from Iowa, Iizuka's characters are never quite what they seem. Even the very title of the play, 36 Views, comes from a series of forty-six, not thirty-six, woodblock prints of Mount Fuji by nineteenth-century Japanese artist Hokusai—but then again, does it? Iizuka weaves a web of fact and fiction that perpetuates a constant questioning of truth, reality and authenticity.
Although not explicitly stated, it is easy to deduce that 36 Views is set in the modern era and, most likely, in a large, culturally rich area. The last half of the twentieth century up to the present has been a tumultuous time in art. Art movements, as they were typically understood, began to recess. It was as though the artists who created movements were being replaced by the decisions of dealers and critics. In response to the current conundrum of modern art, Robert Hughes states in his book The Shock of the New, "The year 1900 seemed to promise a renewed world, but there can be few who watch the approach of the year 2000 with anything but scepticism and dread. Our ancestors saw expanding cultural horizons, we see shrinking ones." Iizuka must share a similar reproach. The play 36 Views constantly and diligently questions the fabric of the contemporary art world.
From the early 1900s up to the 1970s, art was hinged to the aesthetic. Artists believed in progress and the future. They worked to deny the past in order to create new movements and a renewal of a world rich with art. Art, as it progressed, was seen to convey spirituality and transcendence. It was rich with response to social and political events. Modern artists worked to separate art from craft. Art, as history, was presented as a single narrative. The modernists saw art as a progressive change that could be viewed historically. The modernists promoted a pure appreciation of art and saw art as a great asset to society. It was reasonable and justifiable to be trained in the universals of art, in terms of a pure sense of style and technique, just as a doctor is trained in the universals of medicine. The appreciation and understanding of contemporary art soared during these years.
However, modern art began to change, both in its definition and understanding. The modern construct of art was replaced with a postmodern understanding of art during the 1970s. The change that occurred has lead many artists and historians to believe that art is dying or in recess. Postmodernism has abandoned many of the mantras that made modern art so enduring and progressive. Postmodernism has its foundations in the loss of faith in progress, thus it is seemingly damned from its inception to do nothing but appropriate the past and stew over the social constructs already created. Art is no longer dissected with philosophical rumination; it is viewed purely as a commodity. Pure appreciation of art and its essential nature is replaced with a lack of artistic hierarchy and contextual justification; the line between art and craft is virtually removed in postmodernism. Postmodernism has brought us to the precipice of the bleak disintegration of the modern concept of art. The current vision of art has, as Hughes states, left us with only shrinking horizons.
With this brief understanding of the world of modern and postmodern art, it is easy to see Iizuka's play as a means for presenting and discussing the changing elements of art. Her play is a response to art as a commodity and to the authenticity of all contemporary understandings of art. Darius Wheeler is disinterested in Utagawa's paintings because they are "just a series of abstractions tarted up to look like art." For Wheeler, art is beautiful, and he believes that the contemporary concept of art—i.e., postmodernism—is more about craft and ideas than it is about beauty and transcendence. However, Iizuka does not let Wheeler be a martyr for disappearing art. Wheeler is himself a postmodernist because all the things he covets as beautiful, such as art and artifacts, are also pure commodity. They are dollars in his pocket.
It makes sense that Iizuka would try to undermine the contemporary understanding of art. As a playwright, Iizuka faces an uphill battle against the throws of postmodernism. This current, popular school of thought moves into virtually every facet of creativity—whether it is art, literature or drama. If anything is at stake, it is theater. Live drama is the oldest form of entertainment, but with the acceptance of creative works as commodity, pluralism is taking root and people are more willing to be entertained by drivel. Television and Hollywood blockbuster films threaten the very soul of contemporary theater. As a young, modern dramatist, Iizuka owes it to her art to help keep it afloat in the contemporary vision of postmodernism.
Iizuka's recent play, 36 Views, was first performed in 2001. Although there is not a great deal written about the play (it was first published in book form in 2003), the performances of it have received some divided reviews. Bruce Weber states in the New York Times that "The play itself is far more crafty than moving, but a sound, probing intelligence and a niftily conceived and well-paced plot make the narrative irresistible." There are moments when the language feels like two symbols are conversing, as opposed to two human beings. Yet, Weber concludes in his the New York Times article that "Ms. Iizuka's real achievement here is in fulfilling the demands of her ambitious premise. Revelations that conflict with or flat-out contradict our previous assumptions continue right through the final scene. Not even the context of the plot is what it seems to be."
Iizuka is well known for crafting spectacular plots. Another of her plays, Polaroid Stories, is also renowned for its plot which melds Ovid's ancient work Metamorphoses with a grim, sad portrait of homeless youths. This play also received divided reviews from national critics, but was well received by audience members.
Iizuka's playwriting holds great potential. Although she is not a veteran playwright in years, her style holds such promise that it is hard to imagine that through her years she won't become anything but a timeless playwright. It is especially refreshing, given the contemporary state of entertainment and creativity, to see young, intellectual women writing powerful social and political plays that address current issues in a startling, interesting fashion.
Martinelli is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor. In this essay, Martinelli examines the perception of authenticity in the context of art and the individual.
Naomi Iizuka's play 36 Views takes its name from a series of woodblock prints by nineteenth-century Japanese artist Hokusai. The series is entitled 36 Views of Mount Fuji. Despite its title, the series consists of forty-six prints. Even before a character casts a single word, Iizuka, with her creative title, has foreshadowed that her play will be rich with questions concerning what is real and authentic.
The first half of act 1 is set at a party for a renowned, reclusive contemporary artist named Utagawa. The party is being held at Darius Wheeler's loft space. Although the artist has yet to arrive, many people are mingling in Wheeler's loft. Wheeler approaches Setsuko Hearn and their conversation quickly becomes philosophical. They are discussing beauty when Wheeler presents Hearn with a nine-hundred-year-old jade figure. Wheeler holds the jade figure and states, "human touch, it alters the stone, there's a kind of chemical reaction, it actually changes the color of the stone. With each touch it changes over time, almost imperceptible, impossible to replicate. Very old jade like this, it comes in these translucent colors I can't describe, beautiful, unimaginably beautiful." With subtlety, Wheeler has revealed that he views beauty as something in flux, something changing and, thus, impermanent. The jade is beautiful, and yet it is dynamic. Even though it is different with each touch, it is always beautiful. Wheeler is enamored and repulsed by this because he wants to be perceived as a philistine. Outwardly, he projects the image that he sees nothing but monetary value in the art that he deals. However, deep inside his soul, as shown in his love of his jade figure, Wheeler is truly drawn to the philosophical aesthetic in a thing.
Iizuka raises interesting questions as the characters in the play have conversations about the authenticity of art at Wheeler's party. For example, Claire Tsong and Elizabeth Newman-Orr are having a conversation over several pieces in Wheeler's loft space. As the two characters view an art object, Iizuka writes:
ELIZABETH NEWMAN-ORR:.… Real? CLAIRE TSONG: Iffy. ELIZABETH NEWMAN-ORR: It looks real. CLAIRE TSONG: Lots of things look real.… ELIZABETH NEWMAN-ORR: You sound like an expert. CLAIRE TSONG: It's not about expertise. It's all about the eye. ELIZABETH NEWMAN-ORR: The eye? That sounds so hoodoo. CLAIRE TSONG: It's like it's physical, you know. I'm talking about a physical sensation, an instinct. It is like there's an invisible thread between you and this thing.
In this exchange, Iizuka builds into the fabric of the play a philosophical concept of human understanding: the relation between objects and perception as a construct of reality. Tsong's "invisible thread" is an example of eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume's theory of ideas and impressions. For Hume, impressions are "all our more lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will." Ideas, on the other hand, derive from impressions that occur in the mind. Hume states, "All ideas, especially abstract ones, are naturally faint and obscure: the mind has but a slender hold of them." The "invisible thread" is the relation between an impression and an idea. Even though Newman-Orr thinks that Tsong's "eye" sounds like hoodoo, it is actually quite reasonable. Tsong is able, through training and through paying special attention to her impressions, to organize her ideas to create a keen knowledge of authentic art objects.
DO I READ
- Out of the Fringe (1999) is a collection of eclectic plays that contains Iizuka's play Skin. Iizuka, as a Japanese American of Spanish descent, is included in this collection of contemporary Latina/Latino Theatre and Performance.
- Iizuka's Polaroid Stories (1999) is a play that melds Ovid's Metamorphoses with the subculture of homeless youth.
- The Laramie Project (2001), by Moises Kaufman, is a play documenting the aftermath of the savage murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man. It is an innovative theatrical composition in that the play has no scenes, only "moments."
- How I Learned to Drive (1999), a play by Paula Vogel, examines the destructive and incestuous relationship between Li'l Bit and her uncle. It is written with frank language and straightforward honesty that create a remarkably candid view of a dysfunctional family.
- The Waverly Gallery (2000), written by Kenneth Lonergan, is an impressive and frequently hilarious story about the last years of a fiery, talkative grandmother's battle with Alzheimer's disease.
- History of Modern Art (2003, 5th ed.), by H. H. Arnason, is an authoritative and brilliant examination of art from the mid-nineteenth century to today's diverse artistic movements.
- Art in Theory 1900–2000 (2002, 2d ed.), by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, provides an insightful overview of all the major art movements of the past century.
- Kabuki Theater (1974), by E. Ernst, gives an excellent yet basic history of Kabuki, the traditional Japanese theater style. It is an authoritative guide explaining the background, facts, and nuances of this ancient performance art.
What is more interesting, though, is what Tsong does with her understanding of authentic art. In the last half of the act 1, David Bell, compelled by some unseen force, lies to his boss, Wheeler, and fabricates a story about an ancient but recently discovered, eleventh-century pillow book. Amazingly, Wheeler believes Bell's story. Suddenly, Bell is thrust into a conspiracy with Tsong. The two, with Tsong's constant prodding, decide to construct the fake pillow book. For Bell, the fake artifact is a vessel for a story he has welling up inside his very being. As Bell tells Owen Matthiassen at the end of the play, "I don't remember writing what I wrote. It's like it was written by another person.… Maybe in a past life." However for Tsong, the fake artifact is a way to actualize her feelings of contempt for the authentic.
Tsong is repeatedly frustrated by her work as a restorer. She struggles with her role in the restoration of artifacts because she sees them as "bric-a-brac for the leisure class" and "just capital." She cannot find true meaning in her craft as a restorer. She knows that she is changing an art object by restoring it and, thus, increasing its value. Yet she contemplates where this manipulation should end. While holding a can of spray paint up to a recently restored screen, Tsong states, "Would I be destroying it.… Or restoring it? How would I be affecting its market value? But now here's the thing: what if I happened to make it a better painting? Or better yet, what if you couldn't tell the difference?" Tsong is at the forefront of the main question of Iizuka's play. Tsong has the keenest insight into what constitutes truth and authenticity. Although it is abhorrent to think of fabricating a piece of ancient art, Tsong's actions are at the very heart of Iizuka's questions: What is real? What is authentic?
After Tsong completes the pillow book, Bell is amazed at the craftsmanship of the piece. It looks remarkable. Iizuka writes:
JOHN BELL: But it's not real. CLAIRE TSONG: Isn't it? It looks pretty real to me. JOHN BELL: It's not about what it looks like. It's about what it is. Eventually somebody's going to figure out the difference. CLAIRE TSONG: And what if they don't?
(The sound of wooden clappers) CLAIRE TSONG: Provenance.
This is the final and most direct affirmation of Tsong's understanding of authenticity. In her mind, the fake artifact becomes a real artifact if others perceive it as authentic. However, David Hume would not agree with her argument. For Hume, the idea of an object as a real artifact, as it is perceived by the mind, does not change the impression of the object as a fake artifact. Essentially, Hume would argue that if the connection of ideas that occurs in the mind of an observer leads the observer to believe that a fake artifact is real, then that observer has simply made errors in their understanding. So Tsong's attempt to create a "real" fake artifact is impossible; the fake artifact, no matter how it is perceived by an observer's mind, will never become a real, ancient artifact. Tsong has done nothing but confuse the observer. Her attempt to undermine authenticity is nothing more than an elaborate trick of smoke and mirrors.
Iizuka continues her barrage on authenticity through Wheeler and Setsuko Hearn's relationship. Although Wheeler does not want to be seen as an intellectual, it is apparent that he, like Tsong, is interested in the "invisible thread" that connects him to Hearn. He is truly smitten with her. His feelings of love for her are authentic. Of course, this is contradictory to the image that he desperately tries to project. At the party for Utagawa he says to Matthiassen, "Sad, but true. I'm a philistine," and he calls himself a "lazy bum." Wheeler defines himself as a womanizer and a hollow man only concerned with money. Yet his actions refute his self-definition. In the scene when Hearn and Wheeler first kiss, Wheeler reveals his true self to her. Iizuka writes:
SETSUKO HEARN: It's that I look at you and I don't know what I'm seeing. What am I seeing? DARIUS WHEELER: A deeply [f——]ed-up individual. SETSUKO HEARN: Is that right? DARIUS WHEELER: The worst. And the funny thing is—this is the funny thing—he's fallen for this woman who happens to see through all his [b——sh——t], this beautiful, brilliant woman, and he can barely talk when he's around her, which I know is kinda hard to believe, but it's true, and I know, I know right now he sounds like an idiot and a jerk, probably because he is an idiot and a jerk, and she should probably tell him to just get lost, but I really—I hope she doesn't, I really hope she doesn't.
Although a lengthy passage, it carries Wheeler's true feeling. He is making an honest attempt to express to Hearn the "invisible thread" that he recognizes between them. Wheeler loves her. Unfortunately, in a tragic moment of misunderstanding, Hearn does not see Wheeler's words and actions as authentic. By the end of the play, she concludes that Wheeler seduced her simply to use her and her expertise to prove the authenticity of Tsong and Bell's "ancient" pillow book. From her own impressions of Wheeler, Hearn concludes that his feelings for her were fabricated, tragically tricking herself and laying ruin to their budding relationship. With this, Iizuka continues to question authenticity, not only in relation to objects but also in the arena of human relationships.
The riveting plot, full of twists and turns about what is real and what is not, reaches a crescendo in the final moments of the play. Through her writing, Iizuka presents several questions about authenticity to her audience. Yet, each one occurs before the audiences' eyes. Nothing is hidden from view; namely, it is apparent to the audience that the pillow book is a fake, that Wheeler knew nothing of its fabrication, and, in turn, that his love for Hearn is real. As the play comes to a close, Iizuka plays the final trick on her audience. It is revealed, as it was foreshadowed by the play's title, that none of the main characters are what they seem. Claire Tsong, a restorer of Asian artifacts, is actually the renowned, reclusive painter Utagawa. John Bell, Darius Wheeler's assistant, is transformed, through the publication of his book, into a female, eleventh-century Japanese pillow book author. Darius Wheeler, a dealer of Asian arts and antiquities, is not an insensitive philistine and womanizer concerned with nothing but capital gains and temporary beauty but is a true admirer of Asian culture and a man capable of expressing true, endless love to another. And, lastly, Setsuko Hearn, an assistant professor of East Asian literature, is not a worldly, driven, metropolitan Japanese American as she is perceived but a lonely, brilliant skeptic; she is a Chinese orphan, adopted as a baby from Hangzhou, raised as a sheltered only child by a Japanese mother and a mixed-European father in Fairfield, Iowa. With this, at the close of the play, the audience is left with a whole new set of impressions and ideas of the characters.
Iizuka's conclusion is a perfect end to a play dedicated to questioning authenticity. It is important, both to Hume and Iizuka, that individuals realize they are in a constant struggle with their ideas and impressions. Individuals cannot rely completely on the absolutism of impressions to create understanding. Constructing a reality through the connection of ideas is the only way to achieve an understanding of the world. Yet, as Iizuka makes clear in her play, these connections do not always lead us to what is authentic.
Anthony Martinelli, Critical Essay on 36 Views, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Naomi Iizuka and Celia Wren
In the following interview, Iizuka comments on her inspiration for 36 Views, including Kabuki theatre, and discusses the origin of the idea for the pillow book in the play.
[American Theatre]: What inspired 36 Views ?
[Iizuka]: I became transfixed by the series of woodblock prints "36 Views of Mount Fuji" by [the 19th-century artist] Hokusai. It's an intriguing work. Each print is a representation of the mountain from a different perspective, in different seasons. You see the mountain and the world around it, but in some of the prints the mountain is actually very difficult to make out. As I was writing the play, the question of authenticity—What is authentic? What is true or real?—became as mysterious and somehow omnipresent as the mountain in Hokusai's study. That question, in some sense, became the mountain.
Why the wooden clappers?
The play has a lot of conventions from Kabuki theatre—like the wooden clappers. When I saw Kabuki for the first time, I thought it was one of the most exciting theatre-going experiences I'd ever had. It was so completely theatrical. When I began to do research, one of the things I found is that, unlike Noh, Kabuki—which is a newer and more secular tradition—has changed over time and has even seemed to welcome innovation. There was a kind of pliability and playfulness in Kabuki that seemed appropriate to the world of this play. I was really interested in figuring out how to take these structures that were non-Western and finding ways to synthesize them with Western forms.
The Kabuki allusions seem parallel to your use of literary sources in past plays, like Polaroid Stories, which drew on Ovid.
I think that with both Ovid and Kabuki theatre, I'm working with cultures that are, in different ways, foreign to me. Even though I am part Japanese, Kabuki is still remote to me, in the same way that, even though I grew up for the most part in a Western culture, Ovid is foreign to me. It's ancient. It's in a different language. It's an alien life-form, in a way. I think the question becomes: How do you take these artifacts and find a connection to them. How do you create a new life for them?
How did the pillow book become part of the plot?
I came across Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book a few years ago. I was struck by it because it was ancient, and at the same time it seemed so contemporary. I was familiar with The Tale of Genji, but the genre of the pillow book is very different. It includes lists and poetry, musings and opinions, anecdotes and recollections—a lot of different elements all in one work. It was many things all at once, and that appealed to me. Also, the consciousness of the writer came through in a way that was tantalizing. I try to convey in the play that excitement you feel when you've found a kindred consciousness across centuries.
There've been a number of recent plays about art forgery and the economic value of art: Jon Robin Baitz's Ten Unknowns, for example. Any insights on this trend?
I didn't set out to write a play about art forgery. For me, 36 Views is more about how we navigate a different culture. All the characters in the play are experts in a field, and yet despite their expertise, they're struggling with something that's foreign to them. Having to make sense of alien worlds interests me a great deal, as does the related question: How do you make sense of another human being, of a consciousness very different from your own?
The idea of orientalism, and its dangers, is another important theme.
Absolutely. I wanted very much to write a play that in some way confronted questions about orientalism—questions about rendering objects, as well as cultures and human beings, exotic. The play looks at how impressions and assumptions get made and how far away those assumptions and impressions are from the truth. But it's complicated. I hope it's clear, for example, that Owen's love for Asian culture is a very real thing, that it's not easy to dismiss and pigeonhole. He's adopted this other culture that speaks to him in a very deep way. And the two Asian characters—Setsuko and Claire—also struggle to navigate their relationship with their cultural heritage. It's not a seamless, effortless relationship. And it's not fixed. It changes.
In the play, Darius Wheeler criticizes one artist for being too much "about ideas." But 36 Views is itself packed with ideas, about culture, the nature of beauty, the value of art.
The play is in conversation with certain ideas. I think of Darius and Claire, in particular—although they're very different, and antagonists in some ways—both as essentialists. They believe a thing is what it is, that there's this essential, definitive, unchanging truth. And the play really challenges that notion. Whether it's your relationship to a cultural tradition or to an art object, or to another person, I don't know that you can speak in absolutes. And that may be difficult or confusing or painful. I think ultimately it's a more truthful way of moving through the world.
Naomi Iizuka and Celia Wren, "Navigating Alien Worlds: An Interview with the Playwright," in American Theatre, Vol. 19, No. 2, February 2002, p. 32.
In the following essay, Berson traces Iizuka's background and career.
There aren't many young playwrights who name the Roman poet Catullus as one of their literary inspirations, along with Maria Irene Fornes and Adele Edling Shank. But for rising dramatist Naomi Iizuka, who avidly studied classical literature at Yale University, some ancient authors retain a bristling contemporary immediacy. And without any musty pretensions, she has enmeshed their archetypal visions into her own very singular, very up-to-date aesthetic.
Iizuka's Polaroid Stories, a combustible portrait of homeless youth that premiered at the 1997 Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville, draws deeply on Ovid's Metamorphoses. An earlier work, Carthage, presented by San Diego's Theatre E in 1993, relocates Virgil's tragic romance of Dido and Aeneas to the gritty modern underbelly of Los Angeles. In the often-produced Skin, Iizuka grafts Georg Büchner's expressionist fable Woyzeck onto the lives of aimless Californians. And even though there are no direct literary antecedents to spot in 1994's Tattoo Girl, this magical quest by a trumpet-playing seeker named Perpetua fashions its own brand of playfully hip mythos.
"I like theatre that startles me, and that makes me reappraise my relationship to the real," explains Iizuka, who is spending the current academic year in residence at Princeton University on a Hodder literary fellowship. "I think that's probably more readily accessed by going towards myth, or going toward something that's not, strictly speaking, realistic."
Since finishing her master's of fine arts in playwriting at the University of California-San Diego in 1992, Iizuka's thickly textured, impossible-to-pigeonhole aesthetic has been translated to the stage by such well-known directors as Robert Woodruff, Jon Jory and Moisés Kaufman. And while the 33-year-old writer has happily seen her plays developed and staged at such smaller, edgier spaces as Sledgehammer Theatre in San Diego, the Annex Theatre in Seattle and Tampa's Hillsborough Moving Company, her work is also provoking strong reaction in larger venues.
When Actors Theatre premiered Polaroid Stories at the 1997 Humana Festival, national critics were sharply divided in their response to the play's bleak and boisterous, profane and myth-inflected portraits of street kids tagged with the lofty names (and legendary fates) of Narcissus, Euridyce, Zeus and Persephone. Though the ATL production often felt like a relentless frontal assault of words and attitude, embedded in the monologic text and slamming physicality were shards of gleaming poetry, and a uniquely unsentimental empathy for a largely ignored, desperately inventive and frighteningly self-destructive subculture. Louisville audiences responded enthusiastically, notes ATL literary manager Michael Dixon.
"I thought in Polaroid Stories Naomi had the zapline to the Greeks through a kind of passion and obsession and desire that also applies to today's fringe culture of outcasts, runaways and drug addicts," reflects Dixon. "Their sense of need and fear seemed a perfect match for the emotions of the Greek myths, but the contemporary settings and characters gave you a new understanding of those myths that was emotional and visceral, not academic."
Iizuka describes her writing projects as "synchronistic," and Polaroid Stories is a case in point. She researched the play during 18 months spent in Minneapolis on a Jerome Foundation fellowship and a McKnight advancement grant, but came to its subject matter unexpectedly. "In Minneapolis I lived near an area where a lot of street kids congregated, kids who hopped freight trains and traveled a lot," Iizuka recalls. "I fell in with some of them and got to know them, and at about the same time En Garde Arts [of New York City] commissioned me to write a piece."
Some of her new young friends "were very generous and told me a lot of things—it was like opening up this floodgate. Later they would actually sit with me while I was writing and look at my stuff and even correct me. I found them to be very smart—a lot of them write and draw and lead rich, creative inner lives. It would be a mistake just to call them victims. They don't think of themselves that way, and neither did I."
Using Metamorphoses as a framing device to dramatize their stories "was sort of an intuitive connection. There's something about it that really fits, because the world of Ovid's piece is so mythic, and so terrifying, and also at times really beautiful. There's something about the way these kids talk about stuff that's happened to them that seemed larger than life."
Fascinated by the subterranean worlds of renegades (the homeless kids in Polaroid Stories), outcasts (Jones, the lostsoul Woyzeck surrogate in Skin) and vagabonds (the runaway wife and mother in Tattoo Girl), Iizuka herself has led a more orderly existence—albeit one that has crossed many geographic and cultural borders. Born in Japan to an American mother of Spanish descent and a Japanese banker father, she lived in Holland as a child and later in Chevy Chase, Md. There she attended the National Cathedral School, a tony private Catholic institution catering "to the children of diplomats."
Iizuka loved literature but didn't discover theatre until she began studying the classics in earnest at Yale. About the same time she was reading Catullus and the Roman philosopher Lucretious in the original Latin, she was also seeing her drama-major friends perform freewheeling new plays and experimental versions of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams dramas.
A desultory year of law school at Yale led Iizuka to throw caution to the winds and enter the U.C.S.D. playwriting program, where she studied closely with dramatist Adele Edling Shank. "Her work is hyperrealism, and I think what I took from that is a sense of creating an event that happens in real time, a theatre event that sort of washes over and hits the audience as it struggles for a certain kind of honesty."
As Iizuka's own creative floodgates opened, a stream of freeform plays flowed out. Working at U.C.S.D. with teacher-directors Anne Bogart and Robert Woodruff also helped to shape her writing style, which matches a furious emotional intensity with a floating lyricism, vivid grunginess and acerbic humor.
Certainly Iizuka's ambitious, often dark oeuvre (which some critics have castigated for its avant-grimness) resonates with her peers in alternative spaces. But like many pragmatic artists of her generation, she tries to seize opportunity wherever it pops up instead of dividing the theatre world into Radical Us vs. Staid Them. "I do feel very much at home in the experimental places, where doing theatre isn't at all about careerism or money," she confirms. "I think playwrights need to find people of like mind to work with. But I'm finding that they're everywhere—at larger theatres and smaller ones. Ultimately, it's about finding people who'll take risks with you."
If artists take those risks, will audiences? Living in movie-mad Southern California, Iizuka confronted head on the cultural marginalization of live theatre, and the seductions of the faster-paced, more popular gratifications of film and video. "But theatre's interesting in part because it's not the main course in American entertainment. That can be frustrating, but also very liberating. There's this pocket where something can happen—live—and it can take much greater risks than Godzilla can. And in a city like San Diego or Seattle, a lot of young people will come see it. You just have to make a theatre that speaks to them."
Misha Berson, "Naomi Iizuka: Raising the Stakes: A Young Playwright Mixes the Lofty with the Lowly," in American Theatre, Vol. 15, No. 7, September 1998, pp. 56–57.
Hughes, Robert, The Shock of the New, Alfred A. Knopf, 1991, p. 425.
Hume, David, "Selections from Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding," in Eighteenth-Century Philosophy, edited by Lewis White Beck, Free Press, 1966, pp. 94–96.
Iizuka, Naomi, 36 Views, Overlook Press, 2003.
Weber, Bruce, "When Things Aren't What They Seem (Are They?)," in the New York Times, March 29, 2002, p. E3.
Japan Playwrights Association Staff, Half a Century of Japanese Theater, Kinokuniya Shoten Shuppanbu, 2000.
This book contains a series of contemporary Japanese plays that have been translated into English. It is an excellent collection representing the skills and achievements of modern Japanese playwrights.
Ortolani, Benito, and Leiter, Samuel, Japanese Theater in the World, Japanese Foundation, 1997.
This book traces the history of Japanese theater with over 700 objects, covering a vast range of theater traditions, ranging from the ancient to the avant-garde.
Shikibu, Murasaki, The Tale of Genji, translated by Royall Tyler, Penguin, 2002.
Widely recognized as the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji is the eleventh-century tale of Genji, the son of an emperor, The book follows Genji's political fortunes and adventures.
Shonagon, Sei, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, edited and translated by Ivan Morris, Columbia University Press, 1991.
From the pen of Ivan Morris, one of the most gifted and accomplished translators of Japanese, comes Sei Shonagon, a contemporary and rival of Lady Murasaki. Shonagon spins tales fictionalizing court life during the Heian period.