Melvin Konner

Melvin Konner Before declaring himself a playwright, Mel Konner was an anthropologist and father of three who published nonfiction books and wrote often for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other general media. He has always done and occasionally published imaginative writing, but in recent years he has fulfilled a lifelong dream by giving it a central role in his life. His play, Sixteen Springs, a romance about the missing years of The Winter’s Tale, had a professional reading in 2018 by Out of Hand Theater and Theater Emory in Atlanta. His play ’Erb: An Ethical Romance, a dark comedy about the love lives of people involved in the little dramas of an Institutional Review Board (IRB; ’Erb) at an up-and-coming university, received a professional staged (online) reading in September 2020 at Pumphouse Players, one of the oldest community theaters in the Southeast. He has written five other plays, including Jessica, a romantic-comic sequel to The Merchant of Venice,a semifinalist in the O’Neill Center’s 2019 Playwriting Competition. His early short fiction was published in MSS (edited by novelist John Gardner) andMassachusetts Medicine. He won the Oberon Poetry Prize for 2018.  

The professional reading of Sixteen Springs (after five hours of rehearsal) was in Atlanta. It was transformative for him to work with a highly experienced dramaturg (Michael Evenden), director (Ariel Fristoe), and ten actors (including Tess Kincaid, William Murphey, Kyle Brumley, Elisa Carlson, and Doyle Reynolds). When Vincent Murphy, retiring Theater Emory Artistic Director, first read the play he sent Konner an email with the subject line, “Wow.” When the director first read it she said she spent the first half wondering if it could work and the second half dabbing her eyes.

When Jessica was named an O’Neill semifinalist in 2019, Konner decided to devote himself as much as possible to play writing.

In September, 2019, director Richard Garner, head of the Georgia Shakespeare Festival for 30 years, read Sixteen Springs and agreed to collaborate with Konner on a new play submitted to the Alliance Theater’s Reiser Lab for a grant, for collaborative play development by at least three individuals representing different theater arts. The proposed play, Catalysis, attracted the collaboration of two of Atlanta’s most experienced actors, Tess Malis Kincaid and Chris Keyser, as well as the directorial contribution of Garner. Keyser and Konner presented an excerpt/summary at the live competition event at the Alliance. While we were not winners (3 out of 91 were chosen), with the permission of collaborators Konner finished the play (below). 

David’s Arrow (see below) is his most recent play, about the life and (especially) loves of the Israelite king.

Over years Konner has written eight plays. Four are Shakespeare-related:

Sixteen Springs, or Four Loves, about the missing years of The Winter’s Tale, gives the gravely wronged wife (then widow) of Leontes her due as eventual Queen of Sicilia after a long exile. We see the abandoned babe grow up brilliant and beautiful in her peasant family, eventually to fall in love with the prince of Bohemia, son of the (also gravely wronged) friend of Leontes, King of Bohemia. The Queen and King, after much grief, get together—although she has to keep him in line—and are also reunited with the Queen’s long-lost daughter, disdained by the King for her “peasant” origins but already secretly married to his son. All is revealed, all are reconciled, and all live happily ever after. 

Jessica: A Sequel to The Merchant of Venice, was a semifinalist in the O’Neill Center’s competition for the 2019 conference. Jessica’s marriage to Lorenzo is crumbling and, as “Jonathan,” she explores her Jewish roots, even finding and studying with her traumatized and psychiatrically disturbed father. In a subplot, Doña Gracia, the doyenne of Jewish Italy, vets ridiculous suitors and is pleaded with by “Jonathan” to save Shylock from the baptismal font. (Not possible.) Gracia’s daughter falls in love with “Jonathan” and follows him until they have a tryst. Jessica is arrested by the Inquisition and refuses to renounce the Jewish God; she is on the verge of torture when Gracia’s money and power save her. She and her now stroke-stricken father escape to Brazil where there is a Jewish community and a Jewish doctor, destined for Jessica. But the Inquisition and other threats are not done with the Jews yet, even in the New World.

Fatsoff: Being the Very Tragical Comical History of the Life of the Real Falstaff As Told by the Fake One, is a dark comedy in which Shakespeare’s character derisively narrates the life of Sir John Fastolf, one of the warrior-knights Falstaff was based on. Fastolf, serious and heroic, is the complete foil of Falstaff. Joan of Arc, who beat Fastolf on the battlefield, is the third major character; she humiliates and punishes both of them in heaven. Tony Brown, an actor who has played Falstaff many times at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern, likes the play a lot and was in conversation with the Tavern’s director about possible development when the pandemic hit.

Odile is a semifinalist in the 2022 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. A modern-day Ophelia (gifted lawyer with sex appeal and psychological troubles) is oppressed and abused by her lame boyfriend-since-childhood and his spectacularly rich family, especially his mother, the evil genius behind the company's success. After much conflict and trouble (her father's "accidental" fatal shooting by her boyfriend, a breakdown and near-suicide, her much-loved, top-flight surgeon-brother's "accidental" death at the family's hands, a suffocating conservatorship, and a forced almost-marriage), she recovers and, through subterfuge and brilliance, triumphs over them all.

The other four are:

The Incident at Flossenbürg, about a Holocaust survivor who in 1970 returns to a camp in Germany where he was once interned, with the intention of committing suicide there. He is redeemed by the love of a German woman, against the background of a local battle between a German terrorist group, which includes her brother and ex-husband, and her father, the police chief. 

‘Erb, a romantic comedy set in a university today, with the main theme of research ethics as handled by the Institutional Review Board (IRB; ‘Erb), headed by 40-year-old geneticist/psychologist Christiane Cook. Christiane is married to a closeted gay man who is having a mid-life crisis, and she is involved with a younger researcher who specializes in homophobia and takes risks by getting men drunk and trying to bring out the worst in them. An incident occurs, not tragic, but scary enough to change all their lives.

Catalysis, a tragedy in a modern setting based on a true story about a psychoanalyst who had a secret life as a cat burglar for many years before being caught. We hear about his exciting second career in direct address, and we become well acquainted with three of his patients: Jodi, a 17-year-old with bipolar disorder; Deirdre, a 60ish rich lady with designs on the doctor (both these patients supply him with clues for his other life); and Dr. Parker Langley, a 40-something obstetrician he falls for, and who (besides being a match for him in many ways) happens to be unhappily married to the detective who is on the doctor-burglar’s tail.

David’s Arrow, which telescopes the life of biblical King David into less than two hours. It follows him from a heroic, fiercely believing young man through life events in which he increasingly exploits friends, women, comrades in arms, political allies, and supporters to get and keep power and satisfy his desires, even whims. He is astoundingly brutal on the battlefield and (despite plausible deniability) in fighting for the crown. He is punished for his sins according to prophecy through his tragically dysfunctional children, and even loses power temporarily, but as the key women in his life—Michal, Abigail, Batsheva, and Avishag—tell him and us, he is too dark to be a good man, and he is certainly not a good husband or father. Yet he never loses his connection to God, and in the closing memorial ritual around his body, the women and his personal androgynous angel of death leave us uncertain as to his fate beyond the grave, although there is no uncertainty about the ultimate dire fate of the people he saved and sinned against.

Why theater? why now? I have accomplished my goals in nonfiction writing, and I have always wanted to write for the stage, where I could try to create—in collaboration with other artists—meaningful, imaginary worlds; to bring live audiences into something potentially transcendent, and to go away, at a minimum, in a dreamy mood having identified with the characters, to have laughed, perhaps cried; and at best to be a little bit changed—as I have been so many times as a theater-goer. Also, I have found that theater artists are a unique group: loving, open-hearted, brilliant risk-takers who collaborate by nature and give their all for small rewards again and again. I would love to spend the rest of my life working with them.