One night a few years back, Neo-Futurists Steve Mosqueda and Sean Benjamin were sitting in Simon's Tavern, plotting a new show with the working title Christmas With Charles Bukowski. But as they delved into the oeuvre of one of the mightiest of literary boozers, they found themselves free-associating into tales of other drunkard scribes. "We'd always talked about our favorite writers, and we always came back to Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac. And we talked about our favorite stories, and that was sort of the genesis of the whole thing. Some of the experiences--having no job, having no money, being without a car, living in a car. And great writers like Nelson Algren, who lived that and wrote about that and were chastised for it." Before long they realized that they were just as interested in the larger phenomenon as in its poster boy, and Drinking and Writing was born.
Two years later the show--a loose collage of stories about literature's greatest sots written and performed by Mosqueda, Benjamin, and Chloe Johnston--is still in itinerant run in bars throughout Chicago. It's spawned a radio show, The Drinking and Writing Brewery, taped in a different bar and featuring a different author every go-round, and now a second volume, focusing on Prohibition-era writers, is opening this week. In the fall both volumes are headed across the pond for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Early on Mosqueda and Benjamin enlisted Diana Slickman to round out the three-person cast. "Diana seemed like the obvious choice," says Mosqueda. "She's a fantastic writer and an incredible performer--though I did think that she drank more than she does." When Slickman had to drop out of the original show, they recruited fellow Neo-Futurist Johnston. Slickman and Johnston will both be on hand in Edinburgh.
Among other things, the first volume examined the train wrecks arty alcoholism can lead its practitioners to, using the case studies both as cautionary tales and a kind of lit-world porn. "Don't get me wrong," says Mosqueda. "I love the horror of a William Faulkner. I can't tell you how fascinating it was to read about his final days. And I love being a drinker. I don't want to give it up. But ultimately, if you continue on this road, you're gonna ruin yourself." Not all the doom is purely self-inflicted, however. Mosqueda tells the tale of Eugene O'Neill, who returned to drink only after he'd developed a neurological disorder that prevented him from writing.
The second volume sprang largely from audience reaction to volume one. "People come to the show and continually tell us about something we didn't know about this writer or that writer, so we knew we had to write something else. And it seemed like all these writers...were born within 20 years of each other and lived through Prohibition. There were so many great writers who intersected then--we cover H.L. Mencken, Hart Crane, Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, Fitzgerald, and most importantly Hemingway, who we didn't even touch in volume one because it was too obvious."
Mosqueda pooh-poohs any notion of alcohol as a gateway to artistic transcendence. And he dismisses the idea of Prohibition having sired the Lost Generation--though it may have fueled that crowd's sense of exile. Still, one must ask: would these writers have turned out more or less the same without its provocation? "That's a good question," says Mosqueda, "and I don't know if I want to answer it."
Drinking and Writing Volumes One and Two run in repertory at T's Bar and Restaurant, 5025 N. Clark, at 7 PM on Thursdays and Saturdays through July 31. Volume One plays Saturday, July 17 and 31, and Thursday, July 22. Volume Two plays Saturday, July 10 and 24, and Thursday, July 15 and 29. Tickets are $12; call 773-275-5255 or see the theater listings in Section Two for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Futran.