As you drive north out of Boston on I-93, the changes begin. Skyscrapers fall away; motels and multiplex theatres thin out and are replaced by trees and windswept sky. By the time you reach the two-lane macadam of Route 128 and turn southeast, you might be anywhere in New England. Only when 128 spills into the humble seacoast thoroughfare of East Main Street do you realize that you’ve arrived in a place that can’t be mistaken for anywhere else.
The immense, poncho-clad, wheel-twisting statue of the Gloucester Fisherman that greets every visitor to the waterfront of Gloucester, Mass. is more than a municipal emblem: it is a tribute to more than five generations of fishing families who have defined the town and sustained its principal industry through good times and bad. Even on a first encounter, the figure, despite its imposing dimensions, seems as familiar and apropos as the hale, trustworthy tar on a box of frozen fish sticks. It’s a feeling, one imagines without belaboring the comparison, that Gloucester citizens have extended to a flesh-and-blood figure who has exemplified and celebrated their town in his own way: playwright Israel Horovitz.
Over the past 14 years, Horovitz has fashioned himself as the voice and heart and conscience of this picturesque seaside community. As founder, artistic director and resident playwright of the Gloucester Stage Company, he has sought to capture the spirit, vitality and complexity of the local people in his series of Gloucester plays. Written and produced for GSC, many of the plays – from Sunday Runners in the Rain to Park Your Car in Harvard Yard to Henry Lumper – have been translated into 20-odd languages and played not only in New York but around the world.
“It just goes to show,” Horovitz says during a conversation at a harborfront cafe, “you throw a pebble into the water in Gloucester and the ripples go a long way.”
While success in the larger world seems to delight the 53-year-old playwright, one gets the impression that it is at present more a means to an end, allowing him the freedom to stay in his adopted town and run his theatre.
A native of nearby Wakefield (a landscape explored in his seven-play Wakefield cycle of the 1970s), Horovitz remembers Gloucester as “a place I was taken to on special days when I was a kid. Years later, when the New York Playwright’ logo was safely emblazoned on my chest, I came up here and bought a little house.”
He pauses, taking in the tall ships and the sailboats bobbing gently in the harbor. On the other side of this protected cove lies the Rocky Neck Art Colony. “Gloucester isn’t my discovery. There’s a long tradition of high art here. T.S. Eliot wrote here. Edward Hopper, John Sloane, Winslow Homer, they all painted here.”
When Horovitz brought his family out from their Greenwich Village home to a Victorian house it East Gloucester, “It was supposed to be a summer move,” he says with a sideways grin. “Somehow I got terribly caught up in the life here. I started to write the Gloucester plays. They grabbed hold of me.”
Describing the process of researching and writing the plays, he recalls an incident which helped shape his work and its relationship to the community. “Thornton Wilder was my mentor. In his later years, I used to visit him at his home in Hamden, Conn., whenever I could. One day I brought him my Wakefield plays. He read them and smiled, and pronounced one sentence that changed the course of my writing. He said, There’s not much Wakefield in there.’ And he was right. I had set out to write about my hometown, but the plays had very little to do with it.” Wilder’s judgment was in his mind when Horovitz began his Gloucester cycle, and 14 years later he can rest easy in the knowledge that there is plenty of Gloucester in these works.
The first of them, The Former One-on-One Basketball Champion, ran on a double bill with Jason Miller’s That Championship Season to launch GSC’S first season in 1980, conducted in the small back room of the Blackburn Tavern. Word got out that there was a theatre in town, and soon the room was crammed with seats and risers capable of seating 120. The company’s financial state remained tenuous despite simple production values until 1985, when Horovitz produced Henry Lumper, his grim but tumultuous epic that parallels Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Set it the fictitious town of Glossor,” it brought to light the very real drug problem in Gloucester.
“There was a statistic in the Boston Globe that Gloucester at that time had the worst per-capita heroin use in the country. They were smuggling it into port inside of the fish, and the dogs couldn’t smell the stuff. If you’re a writer, you can’t just cluck at statistics like that. You have to ask why. Why were the local people doing drugs?” He waves a hand across the expanse of the harbor as if to accentuate the dichotomy between serenity and turbulence. “There was such a feeling of hopelessness. The real Gloucester people were lost. The economy was awful. The fishing industry had become a joke.”
With inspiration and inside information from a Gloucester woman (who, ironically, died of a drug overdose within a year), Horovitz painted a scathing and riveting portrait of the community in Henry Lumper. Publicity about the play forced public officials to deal with the drug issue; recognition of the human dimension of the problem gave locals a renewed sense of value.
When the Blackburn Tavern was sold in 1986, GSC found a new home in a warehouse owned by Gorton’s fish company and used primarily for storage of industrial equipment. North Shore Fish, which christened the new space, has since opened again as the final show of the 1992 season. Set in a fish-stick plant on the eve of financial ruin, the play powerfully renders the almost Shakespearean rages and fears, dreams and passions that consume the lives of the “fish people” who work there. These are people whose world is circumscribed by gills, fins, entrails and hooks, who see the ocean every day but will probably never cross it. They are the people of Gloucester. “Open, unpretentious and wise” is the way Horovitz describes them.
As the real and imaginary became enmeshed in his plays, Horovitz felt compelled to cast townspeople alongside union actors. Mick Verga was a bouncer at the Blackburn in 1980, adorned with tattoos and inclined to sneer at the “theatrical people” when they arrived on the scene. Twelve years later, he is in rehearsal for A Streetcar Named Desire, understudying the role of Porker in North Shore Fish, and fresh from an audition for Horovitz’s upcoming film Strong Men, later, he is in rehearsal for A Streetcar Named Desire, understudying the role of Porker in North Shore Fish, and fresh from an audition for Horovitz’s upcoming film Strong Men, based on another Gloucester play, Strong Man’s Weak Child. This is my eighth play in five years – and now I’m getting called for commercials,” Verga says. He calls the playwright a mentor. He advised me very well. He gives me the right feed, back, so I don’t get cocky.”
Verga is one one of many Gloucester residents whose lives have been affected by Horovitz and his theatre. “Nobody passes through Gloucester on their way to anyplace else, unless they’re going to England the hard way,’ the playwright says, looking out to sea with a smile. “This place defines the theatre, and, of course, the theatre defines the place, because it’s art.”
He stands, brushes sand off his trousers and strolls back up East Main Street toward the theatre, acknowledging people who wave as we pass. “I felt that if I could create a body of work that showed what life was like on our little dot of the planet earth, that would be an accomplishment.” AT