The Night Watchman dramatizes the story of the sinking of the whale ship Essex, and the fate of its crew through the device of an Inquiry after Captain Pollard loses a second ship and must answer for it. He is by then already a scarred man. It portrays life both at home on Nantucket, and at sea, and the terrible choices that harsh conditions sometimes forced upon our nineteenth century forbearers. But it also holds a mirror up to all who have responsibility for the lives of others. Captain Pollard is at the time a man young in years but old in tragedy, a hero in somewhat the same way that Oedipus of Thebes is, not so much for what he does but for what he endures.
2. Why should your play be performed around the world?
One cannot understand America without understanding these foundational stories from the early years of the American republic: the powerful religious influences, the terrible dangers in voyaging away from home, the racial prejudices, the desperate privations, and finally the ultimate isolation that a soul bears who must account for the failure to assure the life of others and answer for the choices he or she makes. This Play examines the moral hazards of command and the peril of souls. Any soldier coming home from war knows well about such agonizing choices.
3. How long have you been writing plays?
I became unhappy with the plays that were being produced in the theater in the early 1980s and stopped attending regularly. My soul was being suffocated by them. The endless domestic dramas, the realism, the cuteness, the irony, the clever dialogue, the cause of the day and the disease of the month wore on me and drained away a sense of life as truly a great adventure with an uncertain outcome and high stakes. I decided that the only way I would be able to survive was to try to write the plays I wanted to see myself, knowing that the odds were against any theater producing them because they were so different from what their funding boards would allow them to put on for fear of eroding their audience base. But I, at least, was able to breathe deeply once again in the world of the spirit.
4. What film have you seen the most in your life?
The film that had the greatest impact on me was On the Beach. I have seen re-runs of it a number of times and it still moves me. I don't know if I would have made the same choices that Gregory Peck's character did in the film, but it raised questions about duty, love, responsibility to others and how one wanted to face one's own mortality. Those are very powerful issues and I felt I could engage with them in my being and feel a sense of breathing fresh air as I have not often had the feeling of doing with film and drama.
5. What artists would you love to work with?
I have admired the work of Al Pacino who I feel has been a great screen actor and stage actor. I also have admired the work of Gregory Peck although he is not around any more. Among female actors, I greatly admire Meryl Streep's work.
6. How many stories have you written?
I have written between 15-20 plays and information about them is on my website at www.ethomalen.com. What is unusual, perhaps, is that some are written in prose but some are created in verse. Of the verse plays, some are in blank verse and some rhyming, some are metered and some free verse. Many of my children's plays have been written in verse because children seem to like that. But all of my plays, whether for children or adults, challenge the audience to think.
7. Ideally, where would you like to be in 5 years?
Preferably still alive. It would be wonderful if some of my work could find a wider audience and if the theater could open itself up again to works with larger casts and richer stories and trust more in the imagination and courage of audiences.
8. Describe your process; do you have a set routine, method for writing?
I steal time to write, usually at the end of the day. Walks home and in the evening are often a great source of ideas and often of specific language. There are times when I get stuck and it is usually because I have somehow followed a line of inquiry that stops in a dead end and I have to unravel it to find out how I can open it up again,
9. Apart from writing, what else are you passionate about?
I love classical music and opera. I am very fond of Verdi's operas and Beethoven's symphonies and concertos. In general, I prefer good stories in operas and place a lot of emphasis on the story, how well it is told, what themes the work addresses in the libretto and the music. I also enjoy ballet, but again it is the story that particularly intrigues me. Other than that I love walking and enjoy some art and photography.
10. What influenced you to enter the WILDsound Script Contest?
The opportunity to see one's work produced by real actors is very helpful. I have been fortunate to have had a number of my pieces produced and I always learn something. And the reason for that is that an actor interprets a role in a way unique to that performer's vision and talent, which may suggest an aspect to the writer he had not recognized before. Critics tend to think play writing is an intellectual exercise and not an experiential encounter, so they rarely get inside a piece or a character to provide the author with an insight. WILDsound, perhaps because they video tape a performance, are less afraid of large cast works, even ones with many scenes, than are most theaters where a blind focus on cost obscures everything else. That makes this opportunity extremely valuable for some of us who write symphonies, and not just chamber music.
11. Any advice or tips you'd like to pass on to other writers?
Probably the most important is don't give up! One needs to find one's voice and what it is that inspires one's passion in a story and then follow it. And if you understand what you are doing, don't listen to anyone else.