Life, Death, and Language in The Realistic Joneses

An Interview with Playwright Will Eno

By Shannon Stockwell

Playwright Will Eno has always been writing, “at least in some shy way,” he says. But it wasn’t until he was in his late twenties that he sat down to write a play in earnest. His plays have since won several honors, and one—Thom Pain (based on nothing)—was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.

As for why he writes? He has some theories. “In some plain way, in the early days, I was probably trying to get my dad’s attention,” he says. “Or, maybe I had already sublimated him into some general idea of a large, unlistening Universe, so I was just trying to get some attention, and I don’t mean in just a needy little-kid way, but just some feeling or response from the Universe to prove that I existed or could be seen or heard.”

Eno spoke with us about the world of The Realistic Joneses, now running at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater until April 3.

Playwright Will Eno. Photo by Gordon Lish.

What was the inspiration for The Realistic Joneses?

I can’t say there was one single point of inspiration. Certainly, the play concerns things that I have been thinking about—intimacy and fear of death. The fact that we all die and our fears or anxieties about it are potentially things that we could share and that could make us feel less alone, but I think sometimes we lug that anxiety around and keep it like a dirty secret, and that probably ends up making us feel a little estranged from other people. Almost like we’re ashamed of the fact that we’re going to die. People talk about the meaning of life; it seems like if you can get some kind of a handle on the meaning of death, then the life part might be a lot clearer. The point of all these considerations should be, in the end, to have the happiest, fullest life you can imagine.

Why “realistic,” above all other possible adjectives? What’s realistic about these characters? Is there anything that isn’t realistic?

My thought was that, in terms of trying to face death, which is an unreal or at the very least surreal proposition, any human response might be called realistic. Also, I like the idea of that word “jones,” as in craving or need. It’s usually used in relation to drug addiction, but I think of it here in a more innocent way: the real needs and cravings we all have. What we might be able to reasonably expect from life and the world. But it has to do more with these two couples, the Joneses. Though we all might live in the middle of some serious illusions and delusions, from the inside, it probably always feels like reality. I think all the Joneses are doing their best, are living with the maximum amount of reality that each can manage.

How does your relationship with language manifest itself in The Realistic Joneses?

I think people are generally sort of brilliant. I think language is an amazing human invention. And I think people in an audience can follow things and flesh things out with incredible speed. So with all that in mind, I just try not to make too many mistakes or use words lazily. I try to use language in a way that is specific enough to satisfy the logical part of the brain, but jagged enough or gentle enough that the heart and the stomach can also get involved.

To read more of Will Eno's interview, click here to purchase a printed or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

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