Donald Margulies on Time Stands Still

September 6th, 2012

As part of our preparation for Time Stands Still opening September 14, we have been reading interviews with playwright Donald Margulies. Learn more about the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright in excerpts from these interviews.


Like many of your previous plays, your latest work Time Stands Still delves into the complexities of a relationship—and in this case, the couple is a photojournalist and print journalist, in the aftermath of covering the war in Iraq. What was the spark for their story? How did the political backdrop shape the personal story?

I’m leery of plays with political agendas. My plays always start with the personal. As Time Stands Still took shape, the backdrop of the current world of foreign correspondence provided a rich, high-stakes context for what is essentially a love story. I set out to dramatize the effects of time and circumstances on partnerships built on shared passions. What happens when people who love each other no longer want the same things? I suppose Time Stands Still  is as much about marriage as Dinner with Friends.

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The Economist

How did the idea for Time Stands Still  first originate?

I’ve been writing plays for over 30 years, yet I can never say with certainty where they come from. They usually arise out of disquiet, a sense of unease. Sometimes that unease is with myself, sometimes it’s with the world. In the case of Time Stands Still I became stymied while writing a very different play, when I decided to start from scratch. I was riding Metro-North into New York from my home in New Haven and wrote “A new play” in my notebook. Then I wrote “A loft.” Then I began to ask myself a series of questions: “Who lives in this loft?” “What if it’s a photographer?” “What if it’s a woman photographer?” “What if she’s a photojournalist?” “What if she covers conflict?” “What if she’s been injured covering a war?” and so on. By the time I got to Grand Central, I had the seed for a new play.

You’re writing about a conflict that continues, and the play considers questions we don’t have answers to. Is it harder to write about contemporary events than the more distant past?

It’s tricky to take on current, ongoing events in plays. I don’t feel that I’ve done that in Time Stands Still . There are references to things associated with the war in Iraq but it is not “an Iraq play”. War is the backdrop for what is essentially a domestic love story—a relationship drama—in which the characters happen to have high stakes professions. As a dramatist I’m always looking for ways to raise the stakes for my characters; in the case of Time Stands Still  those stakes are particularly high. I’m more interested in exploring behavior than in answering questions about contemporary foreign policy.

Your play considers two ethical struggles: how to make a relationship work in the face of betrayals, and how to understand the job of a journalist when met with atrocities. How do you see them interlocking?

Time Stands Still is very much about the choices and compromises we all make—in love, in work, and, particular to this play, in war. Ethical struggles touch on all aspects of life.

Sarah propels the play, and her relationship with James forms the wobbly emotional centre. How did you go about shading the character of Sarah?

I love smart, funny, complicated women in life and in art. When I create a character like Sarah, I get inside her head (as I do with all of my characters) and improvise. I had ready access to her caustic sense of humour. There’s a lot of humour in Time Stands Still that leavens its intensity. Audiences laugh in recognition of truths large and small.

Likewise, does a playwright have responsibility to bring awareness to suffering? Do you identify with Sarah, who seems to feel this compulsion?

A playwright’s responsibility is to move people, to show them truths about their world and about themselves that they may not have considered in quite that way before, to amuse them, to make them think and, most important, to never, ever bore them. Being bored at the theatre is unforgivable. I identify with Sarah’s passion for work. I don’t really have hobbies, and I’m not very good at vacations.

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Yale Daily News

Dan Sullivan, director of four of your productions including Time Stands Still , was quoted in the LA Times as saying you have a “very serious heart” as a writer. How do you reconcile writing comedy with a “serious heart”? It seems like a bit of a paradox.

When people ask me to describe my plays they ask, “Is it a comedy, or is it a drama?” and I respond, “It’s a play.” My plays are often very funny, but the humor in it comes out of the behavior of the characters. I write funny, clever people, but I am not imposing my sense of humor. It’s stuff that the characters come up with — and I don’t mean to sound mystical about that. You present something as character A, and think, well, how would character B respond to this? You just get into the rhythm of it.

In many of your plays, including Time Stands Still , you address what you refer to as ‘the problem of being an artist’ — is there something unique about artists that lend themselves well to getting at the essential truths of humanity?

That does seem to be a progression in my work. I think because I am an artist it is a way for me to channel my perceptions through my characters, who are not autobiographical but who may share certain attitudes and questions that I have. I think maybe that’s what’s happened. I tend to write articulate and witty characters, and sometimes they’re artists.

In the LA Times interview you mentioned that you are not advancing an ideological agenda but rather just about the relationship between the characters. Why?

Ultimately, what people are responding to in Time Stands Still  is the love story. But the setting and the stakes are very high. And very timely, very much on people’s minds: how do we live a moral life? The themes that have wended their way into my work tend to be largely accidental. It’s not as if I had an agenda and a formula.

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One of the things I love about the play is that it tells the story of violence in the context of what it means to return home from it, what it does to relationships and to people’s appetites.

I do think the play is ultimately a love story. The domestic, relationship drama is in the foreground—the backdrop is the very specific, high-stakes world of journalists who cover conflict. The stakes are enormous for these people, and good drama comes from high stakes.

You take us very far inside this world.

The women and men who put themselves in unimaginable situations to capture images and stories, as Sarah says, “to show the world,” aren’t simply doing it for the public good. Their courage is immense, to be sure, but there is an unmistakable kind of thirst for it as well. I think people in those situations would be the first to admit that. It is incredibly difficult to reintegrate oneself into the mundane, relative safety of domestic society after a steady diet of adrenalized, life or death experiences.

As much as soldiers, your play suggests to me.

Yes. Compared to war, domestic life pales. Life at home lacks drama and denies them a vital sense of purpose. Paradoxically, some people in this line of work find contentment only when they’re living on the edge. Incidentally, I think I should point out that Time Stands Still , like the people it portrays, is often very funny!

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