Fort Worth — David Davalos’ A Lost Leonardo has its world premiere at Amphibian Stage Productions this weekend. Following a successful run of his play Wittenberg in 2011, Davalos established a relationship with Amphibian and brought A Lost Leonardo to their attention—it was originally called Daedalus when the Phibs gave it a successful staged reading in 2015. Davalos has been developing it for production with them since then, along with director Illana Stein, a Fort Worth native, and with New York-based dramaturg Kate Farrington (daughter of TJ contributor Jan Farrington).
Theater Jones caught up with Davalos to discuss his approach to writing about the past and his fascination with Leonardo DaVinci, Cesare Borgia, and Niccolo Machiavelli.
TheaterJones: I know you have a vast background in acting and directing, but how did you get into writing plays?
David Davalos: That all started when I was in New York, when I first moved there after grad school. There was sort of a core group of classmates of mine along with friends, and we started doing—as you do in New York—putting together little showcases so you have something to work on. You rent a space and get a showcase contract—something like six performances—without having to go through the whole professional route.
We found that we could extend our run of our showcase was if we mixed the show that we were paying for with original work. So, the call was put out to our little group that if anybody wanted to try writing something, this would be a good chance to do it. We could alternate a night of the paid show with a night of our original stuff and have a longer run to make the showcase more valuable.
The first thing I had written like this was at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. The two productions that year were Hamlet and Death of a Salesman. A friend of mine and I wrote for the revue a sequel of Death of a Salesman using the plot of Hamlet. It showed that Willie hadn’t committed suicide, but Charlie had cut the brake line of his car so he could marry Linda and get the insurance money. And now Happy had to avenge his father’s death; Happy, the lazy bum.
Once we started doing that, it was fun to see how the bones of the plays actually overlapped. We kind of repurposed and enlarged that script as one of the original things my grad school friends and I did in those showcases. I had so much fun working in that vein that for more original stuff I started doing these Shakespeare parodies inspired by whatever was going on at the time. So for Othello, it was all about O.J. Simpson and there was a version of Henry V about Bill Clinton. These were all written in blank verse as much as possible to match the music and rhythm of Shakespeare, because it’s actually funnier when you hear someone like Jay Leno or O.J. Simpson speaking in rhyming couplets. That was my apprenticeship. Then, I started writing original work and it started to take off.
The play that most people associate with you is Wittenberg. Did you ever expect that it would take off with multiple productions around the globe?
It’s one of those things where you write for yourself, for your sense of humor. I had hopes when I wrote it. I thought: “I really like this play, I would go see this play.” And I didn’t have any sense of how it was going to spark or how it was going to find its way into Shakespeare Festivals. That’s been the most gratifying aspect of it in a way. It’s been done at several Shakespeare festivals. I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t seen a “dog” production of the play yet, all of them I’ve seen were really good. It was a thrill to see it in London.
The American Shakespeare Center in Virginia programmed it with productions of Hamlet and Dr. Faustus. There was one day when they did all three plays, and you stand outside and look at the marquee and the playwrights seen are Shakespeare, Marlowe and Davalos. Did I hope it would be successful? Sure, but I had no idea that it would take off in the direction it did.
Many of your plays have connections to the classics. Why are you so drawn to those worlds or those subjects from centuries ago?
The fun thing about history for me is seeing the echoes and the repetitions, of history repeating itself. Frequently when I read about a period in history, I’ll see that the concerns they have, the things they’re arguing about, what they’re striving for really haven’t changed. We think about 500 years ago as a long time, but in terms of the history of the species, it’s a blink of an eye. Human nature hasn’t changed.
It’s not the poetry, but the condition of human nature that is so real and present. When playwrights I admire—Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Stoppard—tell their history story, they are being true to the period they are describing but you hear it as a commentary on what is happening now. There’s a timelessness in that I like.
If I write something about now, in five years it may not have the same kind of currency. But if I write about Martin Luther or Leonardo Da Vinci, they’re already timeless. So I get to swim in that stream.
Speaking of Leonardo Da Vinci, what inspired you to tackle him as a subject for a play?
What usually happens is I find a little factoid somewhere and it sticks. It sits on a back burner in my mind. With this play, I think it was a New Yorker article that mentioned in a parenthetical aside that Leonardo spent the winter of 1502 working as a military engineer for Cesare Borgia at the same time that Machiavelli was a representative of the Florentine Government in Borgia’s court. And that just bowled me over.
When I thought about those three guys—the greatest artist and inventor, the model for The Prince that Machiavelli wrote and Machiavelli himself who was the first modern political theorist—sitting around a fire. What were they talking about? What were the issues that came up among those three people with very different backgrounds and goals in life and priorities?
Leonardo himself, the tapestry of his life is so rich. But the thing that was interesting to me was that he was there because he had an artistic disappointment, that’s why he was working for Cesare Borgia. That got at a central question of identity. He was an artist and an engineer. The idea of the “Universal Man,” the term was coined to describe him as someone who can do all kinds of things. That question of identity really planted the seed.
From a political standpoint, Cesare is timeless—he’s any charismatic leader who uses questionable means to achieve power. Machiavelli is any political theorist who enables it. That never changes.