Interview: Jonathan Moscone on ‘Ghost Light’ and Dealing With Death of His Father, George Moscone
Back in July, I wrote this in a post about the world premiere of Ghost Light at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival:
When Some events are so much larger than life that one can really only apprehend them on a grand scale, as part of the sweep of history and not occurrences that turned the lives of actual individuals upside down.
Arguably, the assassination of Harvey Milk has become such an event. Over the years, as it’s become iconized in documentary, opera, and major motion picture, one begins to understand how the murder of his co-victim, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, became relegated to almost an after-thought.
But if Moscone lives on in the public’s consciousness as merely a subset of the Milk story, he plays a much bigger part in the mindset of Jonathan Moscone. He’s the Artistic Director of California Shakespeare Theater who shares a last name with the former mayor because he happens to be his son.
Moscone delves into the effect of his father’s death on the 14-year-old boy that he was and the man that he became in Ghost Light, which he conceived with Berkeley Rep’s Tony Taccone, who also wrote the script.
KQED’s Cy Musiker interviewed Moscone, who also directed the play, during its Ashland run in July. Moscone talked about his family and the emotions he has had to cope with around his father’s death. Parts of the conversation are below; an edited transcript follows each audio clip:
It seems that your father’s story has been eclipsed by his fellow victim and the way that the gay movement has enshrined him. Why should George Moscone’s story be told, and why is that only a small piece of this story?
It’s actually the subtext of the entire play, the fact that he has been suppressed in the national consciousness, but also in the consciousness of the boy, the man, the son in the play. A lot of the play is about the fact that he’s repressed the kind of mourning that would keep his father alive for him.
And I think we as a country, we don’t mourn past a certain point. Back in the 1970s when this all happened, it turned pretty quickly into the 80s and Reagan, and the city of San Francisco grew exponentially; developed so fast and it changed its look and face forever. I think what started to submerge is the need for progressive politics, the definition of progressive politics as a necessary response to a status quo that had been running the country. Now progressivism is an extremist term.
I went to therapy when I was a kid, before my dad died, actually, and not after. Because I thought he was going to be killed, and I used to freak out and not want him to leave the house. So I remember going to a therapist, and one time I brought my Etch A Sketch with me…no, it was a Spirograph, but that’s not an easy prop to get on and off stage and to act with.
The iconography of this child’s life in the ’70s was the Etch a Sketch, the OP shirt, the watching “Thunderbirds are Go: on TV. That was my childhood. If I were to do any story of a child, I would probably reference those things. The Etch a Sketch was also his way of connecting to a reality that existed before his father died.
…The character of Jon uses Dan White’s gun, the .38 Smith & Wesson, to motivate him into killing off a part of himself that he hates.
What is that part?
It’s a hundred things. One of them is his self-hatred as a gay man. His anger at losing his dad. The part of himself that’s protecting himself. There’s a line in the play where Jon admits he always thought it was his mother who was trying to protect herself from grieving so she could hold on to her husband. But he realizes he’s the one that’s been holding on. And the boy right from the beginning is not going to let go.
That seeps into the character, so that 33 years later, what the character has done is create a kind of a shell of a human being that has a lot of self- motivated anger and cynicism and bitterness and incapacity for intimacy, and all that is in the body of a self that needs to be killed.
And that is embodied theatrically by his grandfather, whom he doesn’t recognize as his grandfather, because — as in my story — he never met his grandfather. In fact none of us met my grandfather. He was excised from my parents life from when my father was very young. We never talked about him. All I know about him is that he was a prison guard at San Quentin.
I think it might be an apocryphal story about him — but bringing my dad to San Quentin was one of the instigating reasons for my dad’s very strong stand against capital punishment.
What Tony’s done in the play a lot is taken stories that I told him and almost like a psychiatrist translate them into a dramatic idea. Tony asked me what the name of my grandfather is. I answered it, and he called me and said “you’re wrong.” I said “really? I had no idea.”
And it’s about owning your own. It’s so private, so private, and someone gets inside of your own privacy, which is so insinuating. But what else are you going to do when you’re not accessing him. Jon refuses to meet (the character of) Basil, so what else is Basil going to do? He ‘s going to spend hours online researching him and his father.
There’s a site online called findagrave.com. For real. People can actually find a grave and read a grave site. It’s like people who slow down and watch accidents. Why are you watching other people’s pain? Why are you watching that happen? Why are you investigating it? It’s not yours.
And I finally admitted today, as I was looking at the grave site in the play, that I used to be much like Jon’s character, kind of angry at my mother, thinking it was inappropriate that it was a small, regular tombstone in Colma.
I finally admitted that my mother was onto something. It was kind of a classy move on her part to not erect a statue like Eva Peron or something. It was just about the family. He’s got a parking garage and a convention center and a couple of delicatessens and a park named after him. And the place where he died is just about us losing him.
There’s a certain jealousy of the character, toward others who perhaps know his father better. How does that work in the character’s mind, or how did you experience it?
There’s a documentary film that’s being made about my father, and there are people who have been talking about him, and I have been asked questions by the documentarian, and I’m like, “I have no idea.”
I ran into Phil Bronstein the other night, who covered my dad and knew him, and he was telling me stuff. And I’m like, Phil Bronstein knew this about George? I can barely remember him.
The play is kind of a memoir but its not. How do you avoid the pitfall that it’ll be an act of self-pity to put on this play?
The head of the stagehands here said to me, “I thought I was going to hate you, I thought this was going to be some self-indulgent pity party, that it was going to be all about you. And it’s not like that at all.”
I’m not the smartest fellow in the world, but I had a really good instinct, that right when (Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director) Bill Rauch and I first thought of working on this, I knew I needed a colleague, one that was not going to be a subservient chronicler of my story.
The only biopic I’ve ever liked was the movie I’m Not There. Because it admits it can’t ever begin to capture Bob Dylan. Because it’s a lie and a fantasy. And I felt at the end that I knew Bob Dylan more than I knew Ray Charles in Rayor Johnny Cash in Ring of Fire. In Milk, there’s as much fantasy in that movie as there is fact. And yet it’s called Milk. So why is that any truer?
Ghost Light runs at Berkeley Rep through Feb 19.