The play and its playwright

Caitlin Clarke dated a playwright during her three years at Yale. It did not end well — she went to England to film Dragonslayer and came back with a new fiancé — but out of that bad ending came a play.

"I'd been living with an actress," … "And she went over and did a major motion picture in England. We'd been together three years, and now we were in Skid Mode. So she goes over there [England], and I don't hear from her until she calls me up and tells me she's met the man she's going to marry. And I'm like, Are you out of your fucking mind? Because this is a girl without a mainstream romantic bone in her body. Less than a year later, she's marrying the guy. All my friends went to the wedding. And I didn't.

"I really loved her family. We got along really well, and I heard that all the family talked about at the wedding was me, and how they couldn't believe she was marrying this other guy. So all I did was go, Wow — what if I had shown up? And that was really what the play became about."

— "In Love, Pissed", Dave Shulman, LA Weekly, 27 February 2004.

The play was called Hitchin', and it premiered at the Kenyon Festival Theater in Ohio sometime in the early 1980's. The playwright later revised and staged it in Los Angeles in February/March 2004 under the name One Slight Hitch. The play is not published in any form (I already tried Samuel French), so I can't read it for myself.

The playwright, who now does mostly comedy, wrote a book about his early life which was published in April 2005. It is evident that he is the embodiment of disillusionment. He was born in a Washington suburb as perfectly necropolitan as the Parma, Ohio I visited as a kid. And his upbringing was such that his parents, his school and his synagogue unintentionally instilled in him a contempt for authority — or, more precisely, for the morons who are usually in authority. After high school the playwright bounced around colleges and government work. In time he made his way to the Yale School of Drama a year before Caitlin Clarke went there.

To those three years at Yale, and the two years he stayed after graduation, the playwright devotes several chapters of his book. They depict university administrators and professors at the Drama School as simian and sometimes cruel. Would you suggest getting someone's jaw busted to fix a lisp? Would you sit on a big pair of hooters as a breath-control exercise? These creatures crushed like a roach whatever idealism and tolerance of authority that remained in the playwright.

For Caitlin Clarke to have learned in an environment like that and escape with a master's degree and a year at Yale Repertory Theatre — a troubled last year for its founding director — is a testament of strength for her. This is especially true given that at that time her personal life was a mess.

Introducing Mr. Black

The playwright does not give Caitlin's name in his book, except in the acknowledgements, and I have avoided his until now. But it should become obvious that the playwright is Lewis Black, and his book is Nothing's Sacred (ISBN 0689876475). He writes a very short chapter that I found bedeviling. I will quote it in full.

Since my head was in a continual spin cycle at the [Yale] drama school, it made perfect sense that I would get married at this time. The wedding took place at the courthouse at Rockville, Maryland, with just my immediate family and hers. Directly following the ceremony my brother and I walked out the door just as two officers of the law were passing by with a prisoner shackled between them. I looked at my brother and said, "When God sends you a message he certainly makes it loud and clear."

The marriage was finished in less than a year.

Nothing's Sacred, p. 201

Black earlier said as much about the marriage and sa saison dans l'enfer:

After graduating from the University of North Carolina, Black went to Yale and concentrated on playwriting. He fondly remembers several salutary mentors there, but says some faculty members were abusive. "I got battered. But I didn't get so much battered as some of the other people."

And if that wasn't bad enough, he suffered through a yearlong bad marriage at the time — bad enough to ensure that he's avoided walking down the aisle again.

— "'Daily Show' commentator earns new HBO special", Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 27 February 2004.

At first I thought that Ms. Clarke was the spouse in question. However, after a long series of e-mails with other fans of Ms. Clarke, including a former colleague of both hers and Black's, I concluded otherwise.

It seems that before Black met Ms. Clarke he married a viper who quickly drove him out of the marriage (after eight months, according to Black in an appearance on the Howard Stern Show). That in turn seemed to make Black incapable of any kind of commitment, which in time drove Ms. Clarke to find someone who would commit. The marriage also made it very hard for Black to deal with women on any level. Mind you, it is possible that he made up with Ms. Clarke: He certainly knew about her passing, for he was in Pittsburgh for a gig during her memorial service on 30 September 2004.

As I said, Black names Caitlin Clarke in the book's acknowledgement section … somewhere in the middle, way after he thanks her family. He says of everyone who has contributed to his formative development: "They each deserve a chapter. So write your own book." (Nothing's Sacred, p. 218.)

Now I get personal

I am proud to say that this site is Katie's book, and one of which Katie herself was very happy.

It's regretable that Black made such a choice for a wife, and that Katie (and others) ended up getting some of the splashback. Looking over my correspondence, the book and the Web articles, I must conclude that the Lewis Black of the late 1970's was (re women) a fool: for marrying the viper; for taking his relationship with Katie for granted; and perhaps for not fighting to win Katie back, since he did have her family on his side.

But that's all hindsight.

Anyway, if the reader is interested in Lewis Black, here is his Web site. I should warn you that the site requires a Flash plugin and Javascript turned on, and that there's no alternative page for accessibility. What is this with the "artistic vision" thing? Looks like poor planning to me. Anyhoo, have fun.

All the world's a rage

Michael Cavna, writing for The Washington Post, interviewd Lewis Black for an article called Lewis Black: All the world's a rage that was published in 20 September 2012. Part of the article deals with Black's relationship with Ms. Clarke, and the resulting play.

Off and on for 30 years, he has nurtured a play he wrote after a breakup. At Yale Drama, he met talented student Caitlin Katie Clarke. After his 1977 graduation, they lived together for nearly three years. She did not want to get married, the comedian says, preferring to focus on her career. She headed to London to be the co-lead in the 1981 fantasy-action film Dragonslayer. She and Black broke up. Several months later, she was engaged to another man.

Black was stunned, as was Caitlin's family. We adored Lewie, says [Torie] Clarke, one of Caitlin's four sisters.

Black channeled his emotions into a romantic farce based on Caitlin and her family. In Hitchin', the dumped boyfriend shows up at the Cincinnati wedding attempting to derail it. The original production was staged at Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio. The entire family went, [Torie] Clarke says — except Caitlin.

(Caitlin would go on to appear on stage and screen — including Broadway's Titanic and brief roles on TV's Moonlighting and Sex and the City — before dying of cancer in 2004.)

Black's Hitchin', which became One Slight Hitch, had readings at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater and Baltimore's CenterStage; it has been performed from Tampa to Seattle, and at the Williamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival. I do stand-up and get treated nicely and get a certain amount of respect, Black says. But I write a play and put it out there, and some of the [this summer's reviews] I read in Seattle — it hurts that they don't get it.

One reason Black sticks with the play is a greatest generation speech by the bride's mother, about life in the wake of World War II:

Your father calls from six thousand miles away, wondering if I'm still ready to marry him or if he should just roam around the globe. Yes, yes, of course, I say, yes, I have no fingernails left. I need him. He arrives home to tickertape and bride-to-be. Everybody's doing it. The whole world is getting married and having babies. In the greatest celebration of life I've ever seen on my own block. We ache for life, hoping to flood the world with innocent children, replacing the smell of death with baby powder. …

We tried to share that dream with you, our children, but the smoke had cleared and you couldn't smell it.

Boomers, Black tells me, felt an urgency to marry and make money and have it all — but many didn't necessarily inherit their parents' deep sense of commitment.

To me, Black says of the mother's speech, it's the best thing I've ever written.

Copyright © 2007 by Andy West. Last updated 18 April 2013.