Amy Freed's 'You, Nero' Tells the Story of Telling the Story of the Reviled Emperor
Scribbling While We All Burn
Amy Freed’s You, Nero tells the story of telling the story of the reviled emperor—and tells us about ourselves in the process
No self-respecting Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright would ever stoop so low, but it’s tempting to think that in her younger, more wayward days, Bay Area writer Amy Freed got her fast-food jones on by super-sizing her McDonald’s orders.
Freed’s four plays at South Coast Repertory have all been about Big People and Big Subjects. In 2001, The Beard of Avon probed the Big Question of the authenticity of works attributed to some hack named William Shakespeare. In 2004, her Safe In Hell examined a seminal event in Colonial America: the Salem Witch Trials, laying their foundation at the wickedly tense relationship between fire-and-brimstone Puritan Cotton Mather and his son, Increase.
Even her 1999 Pulitzer Prize-nominated Freedomland, while ostensibly about an über-dysfnctional American family, leaned closer to King Lear than Happy Days.
But Freed’s newest play, the SCR-commissioned You, Nero, which opens Saturday, may be her most super-sized to date. It centers on one of history’s most fascinating debauchers, the Roman emperor Nero, while also drawing trenchant parallels between the decline of two of history’s most decadent empires: Rome, circa 65 A.D., and the United States of America, circa 2009.
Not that Freed ever intended to steer her play in that direction.
Originally, she just wanted to write a showcase for an actor she greatly admires, Danny Scheie, who starred in her satire of 17th-century English theater, Restoration Comedy, produced last year at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre.
“I really, really love his work, and he seemed to have a special affinity for my sense of humor,” Freed says of Scheie, who stars as Nero. “But I also knew I wanted to write some kind of huge, monstrous drama.”
In thinking of monsters and families, Freed was initially drawn to the character of the decadent Roman emperor Caligula. But, understanding the constraints of contemporary American theater and its economically driven pursuit of small-cast plays, she refocused.
“I knew it had to be a smaller piece, and I thought of doing some smaller, chamber piece with two characters that somehow [integrated] Roman spectacle,” she says. “ So I went through my emperor Rolodex and started thinking of Nero and his mother, Agrippina, because that seemed to be the most monstrous family drama of all.”
Though known in popular parlance for fiddling while Rome burned, Nero’s historical resonance is far tawdrier. He ascended to the throne at the age of 16, after his mother poisoned his predecessor, Claudius. Allegations of incest, matricide and a tyrannically infused sense of narcissism have stuck to Nero through the centuries.
“After literally sleeping on it, I had this huge, vivid dream about Nero and this dramatist, Scribonius, which kind of became the beginning of the play,” Freed recalls. “Although it wasn’t conscious and it merged out of the dream, I just went with it.”
On the surface, the play is about a (fictitious) frustrated Roman playwright, Scribonius, commissioned to write an aggrandizing play by Emperor Nero. But as badly as Nero wants the play to be about him, his overbearing, incestuous mother and oversexed mistress, Poppea, want their stories told as well.
The three exert their respective charms on Scribonious, a playwright who yearns to return Roman drama to the truth and moral focus of the Greeks. He cajoles, conflates and takes risks in order to appease the various forces who want their stories told; the central question of You, Nero is whether Scribonius winds up as morally compromised as the narcissistic freaks attempting to edit his work.
Now, even though You, Nero is heavy in thematic, metaphor and other high-falutin’ literary stuff, it’s also Freed’s silliest, most time-bending and chortle-inducting play to date. Case in point: One of the spectacles commissioned by Nero in the play involves a Jehovah’s Witness chased around the Circus by an alligator.
Such wackiness aside, Freed is concerned with a task far more urgent than tickling the audience’s collective funny bone.
“After I started working on it, the parallels (between Rome and America) were obvious,” she says. “Two civilizations in decline and crumbling under the weight of their own decadence. But I was also pleased to find a (theatrical) connection.”
In Nero’s time, the noble tragedy the Romans had inherited from the Greeks had been debased, with plays more about entertainment and spectacle and less about truth and moral questioning. “The Romans were the first gamers, except their blood wasn’t virtual—it was for real,” Freed says. “ And the emotions and functions of the corrective and redemptive drama of the Greeks, the whole nature of how tragedy functions, were gone. It was all about children baked into pies.”
While Freed thinks there’s a place for all things in contemporary entertainment, she decries the lack of work “that impacts the soul . . . the button in me that got pushed by writing this was a great sadness and rage that so much is falling apart. Everything needs to be revisited: poetry, tragedy, even morality on a personal or social level. I think we’re in enormous pain, socially and politically. All the bonds of fellowship and society are weakening, and I really don’t know if human beings can survive with nothing but On Demand entertainment.”
You, Nero at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Opens Sat. Runs Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through Jan. 25. $23-$64.
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