"It feels like I'm coming home to this theatre because in many ways my career began here back in 2009,” said playwright Rajiv Joseph of returning to Center Theatre Group with the World premiere of Archduke. "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was my first significant production,” he recalled. “We spent two consecutive spring times in Los Angeles putting on that show"—first the World premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2009, then a 2010 run at the Mark Taper Forum—"culminating in both the Pulitzer Prize finalist honor as well as its continued success on Broadway. I always look back on this place as where everything started for me."
Center Theatre Group is proud to have provided a creative home for Joseph as his much lauded playwriting career was launching. Since then, he’s racked up honors including the Horton Foote Playwriting Award, Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards last year for Guards at the Taj, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Whiting Foundation, United States Artists, and the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust.
"To come back with the commission from Center Theatre Group that has become Archduke is a real gift for me because I love this theatre, I love the space of the Taper, and I’m really excited to see this new work on that stage," said Joseph. But being back in our rehearsal rooms also reminded him of how far he’s come. "I remember when I was doing Bengal Tiger I was rewriting it so much, kind of radical rewrites every day, including even in the second staging of it at the Taper," he said. "It made the play better. I approach writing in a different way now, and Archduke has come into the rehearsal process a little more fully formed than Bengal Tiger did at the time, and I think that speaks to what I’ve learned over the last eight years."
To come back with the commission from Center Theatre Group that has become Archduke is a real gift for me
That doesn’t mean that Joseph had a straightforward path to forming Archduke into the play currently onstage at the Taper. He originally pitched Center Theatre Group’s artistic staff on a play about classical music. "I was interested in writing about two men, two composers, one an older and one a younger composer," said Joseph. He decided to place the composers in Serbia in 1914, at the onset of World War I. "I thought maybe the younger composer’s brother is the young man who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand—I had just known him from history class. And the more I started researching Gavrilo Princip, that story sort of took over, and the story of the composers no longer seemed quite so urgent and interesting."
Joseph thinks these twists and turns are key to the creative process. "I think when you start a play you’re writing about one thing, and that thing invariably changes, metamorphoses into something else," he said. "I start out by writing a pretty conventional play, and it’s my hope that through those rewrites and through those circuitous routes that I take, the play becomes less conventional and becomes more interesting and unique and compelling." Archduke also evolved as Joseph immersed himself in the history of the beginning of World War I. "This play is not a history lesson. It can’t be used as a means of saying, 'This is what happened,'" said Joseph. "But a lot is rooted in what I’ve learned in my research. There was a time in the process where I was drifting away from fact, to an extent, and I had to pull back suddenly. Because even though it’s an imaginative retelling of the story and there are some invented characters and there’s certainly invented intentions and dialogue and desires in the play, there was a point where I realized, I needed to at least honor some of the realities of these historical characters’ situation. And once I did that it actually liberated me."
Joseph's research took him and director Giovanna Sardelli to Belgrade and Sarajevo last fall. "I felt like it was kind of crucial to get a firsthand look at the place and feel it in my bones," said Joseph. "It helped me understand the place I was writing about and the people and the nationalistic attitude of that time and place a little bit better. There’s no way of ever really knowing it because it was a hundred years ago, and so it’s an imaginative process from beginning to end. But taking myself out of my comfort zone, putting me there, feeling that place, smelling it, experiencing it—that was a huge part in that process of making Archduke unique." A highlight of their trip was an assassination tour of Sarajevo that they thought would simply be a walkthrough of Archduke Franz Ferdinand's final motorcade trip. "Instead this young man took us to this bridge on a different side of Sarajevo, and then talked about the Ottoman Empire for about 40 minutes. He set the scene for us with the 200 years building up to 1914." The tour "enmeshed us in the deep history of this incredible city," said Joseph.
There's a real sense of uncertainty and dread that is part of our national conversation now, which plays into the relevance of this play
As the play was taking its final shape in the fall, the global order was undergoing yet another shift that was in some ways reminiscent of the time Joseph had been exploring in Archduke. "What was always interesting to me was this idea of World War I being the sort of gateway between the 19th and 20th centuries, and that led to a sort of meditation for me on whether or not every century takes about 18 years, much like a person, to discover who and what it is," said Joseph. "If that is the case, then we are in that exact moment right now. So I was wondering, well before the U.S. election, what is going to be the event that is going to usher us into the 21st century?" It may or may not have happened already, added Joseph, but regardless, "there's a real sense of uncertainty and dread that is part of our national conversation now, which plays into the relevance of this play," he said.
Joseph is hoping that audiences will walk away from Archduke feeling like World War I is relevant. "Growing up, whenever I read about World War I, it felt like this ancient, different idea. The people involved and the nations involved and the conflicts involved were not contemporary in any way, shape, or form," said Joseph. "But I think it’s useful to look at how politics, power, individuals, humanity—these things change a lot less than we give them credit for. I hope people leaving the theatre will be talking about how similar our situation might be to a few 19-year-old Serbian guys in 1914."