Thirty years ago, Scott Carter came close to dying after an asthma attack. And so it is that the three famous men featured in his play The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord meet in a surreal ante-room in heaven, alive to each other if dead to the world. They cannot leave the room until, it seems, they have collectively written a gospel.
Another influence for the play, presented by Primary Stages and playing at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre, is that Carter is executive producer of HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, where round-table argument and debate is the staple diet, just as it is in the play.
For his day job, Carter, 65, watches prospective guests for months, fielding questions and defending their opinions. He says he needs to make sure they will be able to handle the speed and occasional ferocity of the debate on Real Time.
Yiannopoulos said at the time, “I think women and girls should be protected from having men who are confused about their sexual identities from their bathrooms.” Maher responded, “That’s not unreasonable.”
Carter could not recall that exchange when we spoke, but said of Yiannopoulos: “When liberals talk, he listens politely. When he starts to talk, liberals yell. We wanted to have him on. If he doesn’t get to talk he’s a First Amendment martyr, if he does then he gets judged on the merits of what he’s saying.”
Having on-screen fires like that is essential to the show, I suggest.
“We never intend to have train-wrecks or fires,” said Carter. “What we intend is to get to something we consider important and then something like a fire occurs. It feels like there is a distinction there worth noting.”
All three men in Discord are linked by having written gospels. Carter found out about Jefferson’s in 1988, and Dickens’ when he moved to Los Angeles in 1996, and then Tolstoy’s in 1998. “My spirits both raised and fell when I found out about his. It was great, but it meant much more research, and it would take another three or four years before I’d get a draft done.”
Carter, originally influenced by Sir Alec McCowen reciting St. Mark’s Gospel, finished that first draft in 2005, “and put it away for three years because everyone hated it.” In 2008, he began hosting readings of the play, working on the text until he got it right. “I wanted it to be accessible but also wanted it to be appreciated by scholars, so have been delighted that numerous historians and theologians have seen this and completely embraced it.”
Dickens and Jefferson were easier to write than Tolstoy; the first two revealed themselves in their writing; Tolstoy revealed himself in characters like Pierre in War and Peace, and Levin in Anna Karenina, “much kinder, gentler versions of Tolstoy himself if you read his biographies,” said Carter.
Some critics have asked why they are all men, “why Virginia Woolf isn’t on stage.” Carter’s response: the participants had to have written their own gospel. He does, however, support actresses playing the roles.
Carter had the most fun writing Dickens, who was just as peacockish and self-congratulatory as Duane Boutté portrays him as on stage. Carter found himself agreeing at different points with all the characters, and in terms of phraseology particularly treasures Jefferson writing of resting his head “on a pillow of ignorance.”
Carter’s goal “is to provoke in audience members the same sense of urgency to be dealing with the big questions of life that I began to feel in 1987 after I had this near-death asthma attack. After I emerged from hospital after a week, I had a strong sense that maybe I had gotten life completely backwards. Maybe I needed to rethink everything.”
He had suffered from asthma since he was 2, and the pivotal attack occurred when he was 35. It was a Sunday morning, and he had just woken up at his then-girlfriend, now-wife’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. He recalls now not being able to breathe, and realizing his usual symptoms-busting pill wasn’t working. In fact, he was feeling worse and worse.
He ended up staying in hospital for a week, and today calls asthma a mysterious disease which “can be triggered by so many things. The analogy I use is black jack. If you hit 22, you’re out. That count for asthmatics is, like, three for stress, four for eating the wrong things, and six if there was a cat in the house.”
His near-death experience led Carter on a two-year quest where he would listen to people talk about religion.
“I had this sense of urgency because I had come so close to death. I thought, ‘What if I die 10 days from now? What if I get hit by a truck? I really haven’t clarified if I think there is a God and if there is what does God require from me, what does that God want from my life?’ In a way that the three protagonists of the play often do not, I was trying to live up to the best of my intentions for what I think life should be.”
Carter believes in God, and goes to church almost every Sunday, determined “to keep my heart and mind open to almost everything.” He also meditates, goes to therapy, eats sensibly, and exercises. “My urgency wasn’t just about my spiritual future but my physical present. The attack was the BC and AD of my existence. Before it I was a struggling stand-up. In the first year after it, I got my first job writing for TV. I got married. My health improved. So many things went from a negative plateau to something much more positive.”
In becoming more open with people, Carter became skilled at dealing with the nervousness and foibles of the guests at Real Time, who, he says, can come in “having a total panic attack. Others are too confident and haven’t done the necessary work, and then there are conservatives who say, ‘I don’t know why I’m here, I’m not going to change anyone’s minds.’”
Carter laughs. He says he tells them: “You’re here to sell books.”
He also tells them the show’s audience is around 5 million, many of whom are independent-minded, and willing to be swayed, or at least beguiled, by well and wittily-made argument.
Since its premiere in 2014, Discord has played in 17 different cities, the play’s interrogation of belief, culture, and democracy occurring in ever-more tumultuous political times. It had a pretty rough reception in New York. “There is little that’s revealed about their personal lives that couldn’t be extracted from Wikipedia entries,” Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times.
“I started acting when I was 13 and been getting reviews almost all of life for TV shows, plays. I’m not a stranger to criticism,” says Carter. While actors lock in their performances, he himself has sat in on performances in different cities and thought of cutting or amending certain lines. As far as reviews goes, he looks at them long after they have been published. “Valid comments leap off the page, the ones that don’t apply recede.”
Next, Carter is working on a companion play to Discord featuring the actors playing the three lead roles, with one accusing the other two of phoning their performances in. He is also planning a play about George Bernard Shaw, and another about Oscar Wilde’s incarceration in jail.
It is no small task and responsibility to inhabit such legendary minds, but Carter says Real Time has been invaluable in this regard too. He has overseen the production of 450 live shows in 15 years, and seen everything from an audience riot to Chris Rock wandering on to the set, to the show starting with guests still missing. He doesn’t panic, or feel easily fazed.
“Real Time has such a range of people on it, including Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, and Nobel Prize winners,” Carter says. “I can put words into the mouths of these three people without being intimidated because I deal with people at that level all the time.”
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord is at Cherry Lane Theatre, NYC, until Oct. 22. Book tickets here.