November 19, 2007

Timeline Theatre
Chicago, IL
Dear Audience:

Thank you so much for coming to see my play Tesla's Letters.  I'm fortunate that Nick Bowling and the gang are doing such an outstanding job and that so many of you are coming out in the cold to see their incredible production.  While I was a graduate student in 1996 I wrote a screenplay about Tesla; it wasn't political at all, just a period drama set in late 19th century New York City and focusing on Tesla's rivlary with Edison.  The screenplay won a science award from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and I used the funds to fulfill a longtime dream I'd had of flying to Tesla's homeland to experience his Slavic culture in the flesh, visiting the Tesla Museum in Belgrade and his birthplace in Smiljan, Croatia.  The Dayton Peace Accord had been signed and the fighting was presumably over, so it seemed, and all was well. The time seemed opportune  to visit the region. There were indeed travel advisories from the US State Department, the Serbian-Croatian border was still controlled by UNPROFOR and there was no commercial bus travel between the two countries yet reestablished, but still it seemed a navigable journey.  In short I was young and naive, and became embroiled in a real life bungling-American-abroad story during my travels there through war-torn, land-mined regions that had barely felt relevant to me prior the trip.  Everywhere I went people wanted to talk to me and show me about the conflict. They didn't care much about Tesla at that particular time and wondered why I was wasting my time writing about him.  I soon abandoned Tesla and began filling my notebook with the much larger issues staring me in the face wherever I looked.  Soon I had abandoned my Tesla bio-pic screenplay completely and instead wrote the play Tesla's Letters within a few weeks of my return to the States.  One grim message seemed clear to me: the fighting there was not over like everyone in the States seemed to believe.  I couldn't psychically predict the Kosovo flareup itself of course, but I knew that more fighting was on the horizon, hence the play's sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and dark inevitability.

The play is didactic at times, I know this; still it is heartfelt, honest, angry and raw, and hopefully transcends just the Balkans conflict and becomes a more universal anti-war play for the ages.  My agent at the time and most theatres I tried showing it to had pretty much the same reactions - it's too political, it's about Tesla whom no one in the US has heard of and no one cares about,  Edison is portrayed as a villain, it's about Serbia and Crotia, who cares about that or even understands it.  I gave up and figured at best I'd have a reading of it in my living room with a few friends. Enter the brilliant director Curt Dempster and The  Ensemble Studio Theatre who boldly produced the play in 1999 just as the Kosovo crisis was flaring up and NATO was rattling its saber. No one believed the US would get involved and start dropping bombs on Europe for the first time since WW II, but that's what happened.  During rehearsals we discussed postponing the opening for fear the play might be seen as incendiary, but the show went on, and it opened in spring of 1999 to rave reviews.

Regarding the letter from Tesla that Biljana gives Daisy at the end of the play, I do get asked about it from time to time.  Here's the explanation. The  letter at the end does not exist per se, it's my own concoction (otherwise how could Daisy and Biljana choose to fictionally destroy it if it's indeed still out there?).  However. the information in the letter is pulled from actual quotes and ideas expressed by Tesla during his lifetime, so I do not consider it to be out of character or a red herring.  The letter stands as an accurate reflection of Tesla's interest, work, and stated ideas about weapons of mass destruction at various times in his life.  I urge you to do your own fact checking, there are many wonderful books about Tesla.

I take comfort in the fact that I have rarely been accused of misrepresenting Tesla, especially knowing the number of Tesla fans out there who have gone over this play with a fine-toothed comb over the past eight years.   When I have on rare occasions been criticized for the letter, it's that Tesla was "senile" or "had gone crazy" when he made such statements and that therefore they should be ignored.  Well, Tesla made some pretty wild statements even in his 30's, and for anyone to disregard a distasteful remark from Tesla as "crazy talk" is to disparage him in exactly the same way as Edison with his smear campaigns.  We must be willing to see the whole man, not pick and choose.  He was not a holy visitor from the future or another planet as some have believed.  He was a man.

The sad lesson of the somewhat fictional letter is that Tesla, like Edison and many scientists, dreamed up and sometimes created weapons intended to harm not only soldiers but to inflict widespread death.  And like Tesla they found ways to rationalize it.  During rehearsals for the world premiere of the play in '99 after the director and cast had fallen as in love with Tesla as I had, they kept getting increasingly bothered by the phrase "death ray."  They wanted me to change it to something friendlier like "light beam" or "laser," and I had to finally bring in quotes from Tesla himself calling his invention a death ray.  They are his words, not mine.  Every so often I've been harangued by an audience member who insists up and down that this simply isn't true, that Tesla never used that term.  I always direct them to his January, 1943 New York Times obituary as one quick reference.

A related issue that came up during the original production while the script was still in development was Daisy's reaction after reading the letter, and Biljana's response:

     Daisy:  Tesla was sick.

     Biljana: Indeed. He was human.

The director strongly wanted Biljana's line not to be a cynical "indeed" or "yes," but a hopeful "No, no, no!"  I was adamant that it remain a dark affirmation. It's the angry, distraught, helpless point of the entire play.  The director was afraid it made the ending too dark and disturbing for audiences.  I told him they should be disturbed, and quoted Zoran's comment to Daisy when they gaze upon the destroyed neighborhood in Tesla's hometown:  "It is good to be sick.  Thank God it makes you sick."   I had this issue again with the next director and cast when the play premiered regionally in '01 and had to make the same points again.  Thank God the play is now in print and the text cannot be changed. The play is a reaction to ongoing war and mass death, and an end that seems nowhere in sight.  It's not intended to reassure the audience with false optimism.  We have Hollywood and reality TV for that.

In the end, the point of the letter is not to destroy or defame my hero Nikola Tesla but to speak of him as he was, a man capable of dreaming great deeds and also great savagery.  It's in all of us.  His all too common folly is what makes Daisy's dark conclusion about humans crystal clear:  Tesla didn't need to make a death ray, people do a fine job all by themselves.  A weapon of mass destruction only helps speed things along.  I hope this dark conclusion encourages you to get out there and prove me wrong. 

Sorry to end on such a hopeless note. Don't forget the play's moments of humor as well.  We humans, including the great wit Nikola Tesla and his friend Mark Twain, have also learned throughout history that sometimes the best way to survive hard times is to laugh our way through them. 

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.


Jeffrey Stanley