PITTSFIELD — Playwright Mark St. Germain loves to write about real-life figures; men and women who have made an impact of one kind or another on the social, cultural, political, moral fabric of our lives. His subjects have included, among others, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Mary Mallon aka Typhoid Mary, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Warren G. Harding, Thomas Edison, and now, Eleanor Roosevelt.
His newest play, "Eleanor," starring Harriet Harris as the "First Lady of the World," is being given a virtual staged reading at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, under the auspices of Barrington Stage Company, where St. Germain, who has a home in South County, is a founding board member.
St. Germain talks about the play and its subject in the following Take Five.
The original plan was to perform "Eleanor " live. But due to changes in BSC's scheduling in response to state, city, federal and actors union protocols designed to guard against spread of COVID-19, Harris' performance will be filmed onstage in an empty Boyd-Quinson Mainstage and then streamed next weekend. Ticket holders will be sent a link to the show via email.
Complete information is available online at barringtonstageco.org.
1. So many of your plays are about real-life figures. What is your interest in casting historic figures in your plays and what are the particular challenges involved?
I'm fascinated with people who have impacted our world, whether it be Einstein, Freud or Dr. Ruth. Our present is shaped by our past, and I'd like to believe we can learn from history, despite too much evidence to the contrary.
2, What led you to write about Eleanor Roosevelt? How did this project come about?
"Eleanor" was commissioned by the Florida Studio Theater in Sarasota as part of their Suffragette Commemoration. The more I researched Eleanor Roosevelt, the more I fell in love with her. Her husband, Franklin, thought as a politician. Eleanor thought with her heart. As a child, she felt like an outsider. As an adult, she took the side of society's outsiders. She fought against racial injustice, she fought against Japanese internment camps, she fought for programs to benefit men and women returning from World War II, proposing education and home loans. She was a revolutionary First Lady, often called "First Lady of the World."
3. Talk a little about the collaboration among you, director Henry Stram, and Harriet Harris, who is playing Eleanor. What do they each bring to the table?
I worked with both of them as actors. Harriet, in a production of "Typhoid Mary" with Estelle Parsons, and Henry in a musical Randy Courts and I did, "Jack's Holiday," at Playwrights Horizons. I'm so happy to work with them again. Both are incredibly talented and will help the play grow.
4. What did you discover about Eleanor Roosevelt that perhaps you didn't expect to find?
I didn't realize the complexity of her partnership with Franklin. After he cheated on Eleanor with her own secretary, Eleanor stayed in the marriage but rewrote the rules. She had the freedom to live her life as she wanted to, and to find love on her terms. She was Franklin's eyes and ears and traveled extensively. So much so that a newspaper's headline once read, "ELEANOR ROOSEVELT STAYS THE NIGHT IN THE WHITE HOUSE."
5. What does Eleanor Roosevelt have to teach us? What does she have to say to us now?
I wish she was alive to say now what she said then. She saw a major difference between the Democratic and Republican parties, and was refreshingly blunt about it. "If you believe that a nation is really better off which achieves for a comparative few, those who are capable of attaining it, high culture, ease, opportunity, and that these few from their enlightenment should give what they consider best to those less favored, then you naturally belong to the Republican Party. But if you believe that people must struggle slowly to the light for themselves, then it seems to me that you are a Democrat."
Just as pertinent are her feelings about the word "liberal," now used as negative. "Long ago, there was a noble word, liberal, which derives from the word free. Now a strange thing happened to that word. A man named Hitler made it a term of abuse, a matter of suspicion, because those who were not with him were against him, and liberals had no use for Hitler. And then another man named McCarthy cast the same opprobrium on the word We must cherish and honor the word free or it will cease to apply to us."
Eleanor also strongly believed in character. She had no respect for Richard Nixon because of the disinformation he spread to achieve office. "In a great crisis," she said, a leader "needs deep rooted convictions." On second thought, maybe Eleanor wouldn't want to be alive today.