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Poet of the Fallen World 

How an S.F. theater troupe helped turn a reclusive novelist into a full-fledged playwright

Wednesday, Feb 19 2003
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"It works!" says San José.

"That's right. I should tell 'em that."

"You could advertise! Jesus!" San José laughs.

"Yeah," says Johnson. "So anyway, the process was like writing a poem, rather than writing prose."

Soul of a Whore doesn't sound like a poem onstage: The metrical structure stays in the background, a bit like Johnson's religion. Versifying simply compresses the language, forcing the actors to think hard about the rhythm of each line. A Greyhound clerk in the play says, "All I know/ Is what the TV wants for me to know,/ Like all Americans everywhere. That girl/ Was sort of innocent, too -- I mean, the years/ Of booze and dope had bleached her brain to white." When Johnson reads this passage aloud, none of the line breaks is noticeable, but the language rolls with a dangerous cadence. He says the trick to writing a play in verse is never to fall for the idea that you're writing poetry: "Because you're not. You're writing dialogue."

His artistic career may seem to have come full circle -- from verse to novels to short stories to plays, and then back to verse -- but the truth is that Johnson still works in every form. He's just finished a story, and he's at work on a novel, too. But he likes playwriting because, he says, "It's easier." Novels ask a writer to be set designer, prop master, playwright, actor, and director all in one. Plays aren't as complicated.

"To write," I suggest. "Not to produce."

Johnson smiles. Then he compares the process of producing a play to driving via armed jeep through the countryside of Liberia, something he's experienced. After that first thwarted Esquire assignment to the Philippines in 1988, he managed to start a career in adventure journalism, and for about 10 years explored some of the most violent places on Earth, including Liberia during its early civil war and Iraq during Desert Storm. He figured writing plays would be a sort of vacation from all that. He was wrong.

"There was a production of Shoppers in New York [last year]," says Johnson, discussing his 2002 play Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames, "and one of the actors was reading this thing that I wrote about Liberia. He said, 'This is unbelievable, what you went through.' And I honestly told him, 'You know what? It was not quite as bad as what we went through here. A little less than this. Some of the most hellacious stuff that I've gone through has been around theater productions. It's like jumpin' off into a waterfall."

But he likes that, right?

"Well, I wouldn't go back to Iraq now. Somebody'd chop my head off, I'm sure," he says. "I'm just too old -- and yeah, I like what I'm doing."

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