An Interview with Steve Tesich by Dejan Stojanovic

Steve Tesich and Dejan Stojanovic, Chicago, 1991

A Few Moments with Steve Tesich

Steve Tesich (1942-1996) was a Serbian-American Oscar-winning screenwriter, playwright and novelist. He won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1979 for Breaking Away. For the same movie, Tesich won: The National Society of Film Critics Award, Best Screenplay; New York Film Critics Circle Award, Best Screenplay; Writers Guild of America Award, Best-Written Comedy Written Directly for the Screen; Screenwriter of the Year, ALFS Award from the London Critics Circle Film Awards, 1981. He was also nominated in 1980 for a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay-Motion Picture. The movie Breaking Away won the 1980 Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture-Musical/Comedy.

In 1973, Tesich won the Drama Desk Award for Most Promising Playwright for the play, Baba Goya.

In 2005, the Serbian Ministry for “diaspora” established the annual Stojan – Steve Tesich Award, to be given to writers of Serbian origin who write in other languages.

Tesich’s screenplays include: Breaking Away (1979), Eyewitness (1981), Four Friends (1981), The World According to Garp (1982), American Flyers (1985), and Eleni (1985).

Tesich’s plays include: The Carpenters (1970), Lake of the Woods (1971), Nourish the Beast (1973), Passing Game (1977), Touching Bottom (1978), Division Street (1987), The Speed of Darkness (1989), Square One (1990), The Road (1990), On the Open Road (1992), and Arts & Leisure (1996).

The Sun Watches Itself, Dejan Stojanovic
Steve Tesich during the interview with Dejan Stojanovic
Chicago, 1991

Stojanovic: You have accomplished nearly everything. You are an important playwright, and your plays are performed in the most prestigious theaters. You are the winner of an Oscar for the best screenplay, and remain a sharp critic of social and political movements.

Tesich: When one achieves success, one’s outlook becomes even sharper. I have gotten much more than I ever hoped for, and that is why I now feel I should observe problems that affect the whole world. I don’t think I have achieved anything extraordinary; others have helped me a lot, and perhaps there are greater writers than I am whom no one has helped. I never forget that. I have talent, but there are others who also have talent. Now that I have accomplished more than I expected, I look at how life flows for those who are held down. I write about those things—what holds man down.

Stojanovic: What factors influence an artist’s ability to express himself in the most optimal way?

Tesich: If you want to be a writer, then you must be one your whole life. This is primary. If you consider changing professions, your writing won’t be as good as if you decided to devote your life to it. If you expect rewards, you are a goner. It is better to start looking for a new profession right away then.

I was a doctoral candidate in Russian literature. Life was beautiful, secure, but I left all that. I jumped without knowing where I would land. If one is to be an artist, it’s for one’s whole life, whether you become amazingly successful or are a failure.

Steve Tesich and Dejan Stojanovic, Chicago, 1991

Stojanovic: Your newest play, “On the Open Road,” currently is being produced by the Goodman Theater, which is where we are having this conversation today. What can you tell us about this particular work?

Tesich: The play is about the world civil war. The two characters in the play are looking for the land of Freedom. The entire play is about that freedom. What happens in America, the Land of the Free, when freedom comes. What happens to freedom, when there is no dictator.

Stojanovic: The theme of your play mirrors the political chaos in the world. In this regard, can it be said that reality imitates your play?

Tesich: Sadly, that seems to be exactly so. I started to write this play three years ago; I felt then, and obviously I wasn’t alone, that everything that people thought was secure all at once was changing and the whole world was searching for freedom and democracy. These words are now like an item one can purchase in a store. And hence, one can say that in this country one has freedom and in that country there is none.

The word “freedom” has become a word used without responsibility. Freedom and morality have become two completely different ideas that are no longer related. No longer is morality sought after; rather we seek freedom, which could mean freedom from morality or from everything. An animal is free from everything, but how is a human different? There hasn’t been as yet several thousand years of civilization, so we can say we have freed ourselves from everything. We should instead have carried with us everything that has happened to us as humans and proceed to a higher and higher ground from where we can see farther into the future instead of freeing ourselves completely from history, religion, morality, and memory.

Stojanovic: A young Serbian poet, Branko Miljkovic, who committed suicide at the age of 27, wrote: “Will freedom know how to sing / as the slaves sang about her.”

Tesich: In my play, “On the Open Road,” a character says, “Only the slave knows what freedom is. As soon as he is free, he forgets his dream about freedom and becomes something else.” One is either a slave who knows what freedom is or a free man who has forgotten what it is.

There is a scene in the play where Jesus Christ returns, but he is just killed again, because it is too hard for one man to love another man like a brother.

Everything that was stable has gone into nonexistence. The people are looking for something new, but they don’t know what it is.

Steve Tesich during the interview with Dejan Stojanovic
Chicago, 1991

Stojanovic: Where do you see the new perspective for society established on different grounds and in a different way proceeding?

Tesich: Communism and capitalism helped one another and got used to the idea that the other system exists. So there would be an excuse available for capitalism: “We cannot be better because we have to fight against the Communism and vice versa.

Stojanovic: And that was an alibi for everything else?

Tesich: O! O! For everything. Now, everybody knows that that there is no such alibi anymore. There is no big religion, no big ideals. Communism is gone. There is nothing that is the answer or an alternative to capitalism, which only preaches: “If you have more, you will be better.” I realized that the truth is not in that, in America.” The new time has arrived, when people are looking for something, but they don’t yet know what that “something” is.

Stojanovic: You speak about a time where there is a weakening of religion and ideologies but, on the other hand, the idea of the New World Order is still being imposed on the world.

Tesich: Everything that happens in the world happens here first. Even discontent with materialism and all the rest first comes about here, while other countries are still in love with the same existence. Man sees it as a disease, which starts in one area, while at the same time life appears to be healthy in other areas.

When the Berlin Wall came down, everyone thought we would have one world, and all of a sudden, we now have 200 worlds. It is as if the world is splitting into villages, and that’s strange.

Stojanovic: I would like you to speak a little more about the idea of the New World Order.

Tesich: What Bush says is nonsense because that New World Order had a great chance to prove that it really exists. As soon as the bombs fell on Iraq, that was proof that there was only an Old World Order. If you can’t wait for a year, then you don’t have an idea that is powerful enough. What is new about resolving problems with bombs is that from the prehistoric times they fought with rocks. There is no solid idea for a New World Order. America is not compassionate. Big countries abandoned militarism. There is now an economic war for which America is not ready. Everything has changed, and it will be even worse. We will have dictators without any soldiers. Somebody will be occupying us using phone and banks, and you will not be able to see anybody, to be able to say—”I will kill him.” It is not like when you are attacked by an enemy with soldiers. Rather you have an enemy, but you don’t know who that enemy is. He is on the telephone, but you don’t know if he is calling from Japan or Germany. In general, he takes tubes and takes your blood, but you don’t see where he is coming from or where he will go after he has hurt you.

America suddenly became an old country. It was new, the newest, once. Everything has changed, and there will be ugly times, because they left us going backward. There are no new ideas like there were 20, 30 years ago about what America was like. That was a country, which was born from an idea, exactly like the Soviet Union, but the Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore. Both countries had revolutions and are somehow connected. It’s not that the idea in America is not good, but that it was somehow lost. People lost faith, and a person doesn’t feel in America the same as before.

Stojanovic: Current events in the world, especially in Eastern Europe, then do not calm you down in a sense or let you look at America as an idyllic society?

Tesich: No, no. Because we were never an ideal society; there was always a dream that we would become one; as in Russia. The last ten years show that we lack the strength and spirit to accomplish that goal. That dream exists only for those that are in a position not to worry about anything; for the rest, it will be worse.

When a person believes that he (she) lives and works not just for himself, amazing things can be accomplished. One will have faith that it will be better for somebody after all. That faith doesn’t exist here anymore.

Stojanovic: You speak about the lack of humanism in today’s world. What do you mean?

Tesich: This new era is a time of post-truth and post-art. Truth and art don’t exist anymore because man has been diminished. The artist today is a clown, an entertainer. I fight against this image, and I would rather die than become the same. Art is the only religion for me, because at least while I write I can believe in a truth. This is a hard time. It is when neither Tolstoy nor Dostoevsky are read. All the conditions exist, except the most important ones, for man to become a human being. However, man has been turned into something else.

Steve Tesich and Dejan Stojanovic
Steve Tesich and Dejan Stojanovic, Chicago, 1991

Stojanovic: In the name of freedom?

Tesich: For me, there are only two types of freedom—freedom from something and why one is free. Once man can no longer find a reason for why he is free, he immediately finds a dictator to organize his life, so he can acquire things and not have to reflect as to why he is free or not free.

To love without motive is, according to the Bible, true freedom. The world knows freedom only when it lacks it. Once it gets freedom, what is understood is like a slave who escapes; but when one was a slave, he had a wonderful idea about it. All over the world people are looking for new dictators, so they can speak about and argue for freedom again. All our history is composed of our struggle to free ourselves from someone. This struggle occurs because we can’t see why we are free. We can’t love another man just because he is a man. If you have a reason to love someone else, you are a slave to that someone or something else.

Stojanovic: Is the appearance of Jesus Christ in your play based on the idea of love without needing a reason to love?

Tesich: Yes. He doesn’t utter a word in my play, but he plays the cello. He is always playing the same music. That is love without a motive. It is very hard to be like that, and we would like to give up the memory that a man like that ever existed, because he has become a dictator in our subconscious. We would like to be free of the historical and religious Jesus Christ, or men like him. We would like to be freed from the responsibility of being humans.

Stojanovic: In the flight from duty, man uses much guile . . .

Tesich: In my view, man can only be defined as being the only creature that can love without motive. We all know this and would like to be free of it. A man who can love without motive is tied to the past, to tradition. It doesn’t come hard for him because it is his ideal and his identity.

In my play, when people are crucified, they have become free, freer than they ever were. When man doesn’t have anything to grab onto, that is no longer freedom. It is anarchy. Man must hold on to something, and as soon as he is holding on to something, someone may say he is not free. Humankind, however, cannot be free from everything.

Stojanovic: You speak of love without motive, but it seems as if man cannot love as simply as he exists . . .

Tesich: Sometimes I could go crazy by the simple fact that I exist . . . It is so strange to me. This gift is so great that a man could become crazy from happiness if he thinks about it. How did it happen that I live, that I can think, that I have words, a subjective outlook on life? This idea is so extraordinary that I can’t help but find it strange. Not even a day passes where I could accustom myself to life as an ordinary thing. All I write, I write because of the enormous forces that want to convince us how life is just a little thing; that it is nothing; that man is nothing.

Stojanovic: The West with its criticism of the former Communist Eastern European countries in a way has accepted the obligation to help them reorganize.

Tesich: Western countries would have to have a morally clean house to be able to do that. Money can be given, of course, but the houses in the West are not clean either and there is no moral strength. If we point our finger toward Russia and say, “This is what happened in Russia,” in the same way, that finger can be pointed toward the streets of New York and Chicago. What is happening here, how do we behave toward our own people? How do we treat those that work, work, and work and suddenly there is no work and they fall and don’t exist anymore? How can we say then that in other countries life is not respected? Where is it respected here? What is respected is power and money. The West can hardly be an example to be followed. The only hope, in my view, is a tradition that existed in Russia. There was an idea in literature, in music. Dostoevsky wrote about it; Tolstoy too. And that idea really exists in the Russian people, regardless of the fact that terrible things have happened there.

The only hope for the world is in cooperation and mutual help, which we equally need here in America, the way they need ours in Eastern Europe. It would be exceptionally good if that brotherly help would come into existence. Countries like Serbia, Romania, or Russia have something huge to offer to America, and if America doesn’t see that, it’s bad for America. There must be something better, perhaps the East to offer gifts to the West and the West to the East. Then, something really good could happen. If the countries in the East only imitate the West, then everything will collapse. All people will become ants without a dictator; then the economy will become the biggest dictator.

In my view, the worst is that the extreme version of capitalism becomes the universal model.

Steve Tesich during the interview with Dejan Stojanovic
Chicago, 1991

Stojanovic: At the current moment, what is a priority for Serbia?

Tesich: To do something that has never been done before, for the Serbs to unite around some big idea, that is, to be visible to all. Serbs are like the Democrats here. They like to fight against others but also among themselves. The worst enemies of the Serbs are the Serbs themselves.

It is very difficult to sit here and answer that question because I know more about America, and I think I would insult the people that I love, because if this interview appears in a paper, someone may only say, “He found five minutes in New York or Colorado to talk about what is most important for Serbia.” I wouldn’t like to talk about it for the simple reason that I think I would insult the people.

Stojanovic: You proved with your life and work to be a complete intellectual and moral integrity, and in that sense you have the right to answer this question. But as a person in American public life, it would be interesting if you could say something about what is needed to change the picture of Serbia in the American media?

Tesich: That can happen only when this war is over. There was a time here ten, fifteen years ago when Yugoslavia was popular. That was because it was sensed here, rightly or not, that the country had its own identity and that view began with the changes before Gorbachev. Of course, that change was not enough, but it was huge in comparison to other eastern European countries. And suddenly, Yugoslavia, instead of becoming a new model of society became an old model. I don’t know if Yugoslavia exists anymore.

Stojanovic: We can talk about Yugoslavia only in the past tense now.

Tesich: I am a Serb from Uzice, but I loved Yugoslavia tremendously; I loved the idea that many different people lived together. What is happening now is a tragedy. When it was sensed that some new connections could be established, in Slovenia and Croatia, greed was awakened to get connected with the West. That was terrible. Only money is important. They are ruining something good for something worse.

If I had lived there, it would’ve been easier for me to think only of Serbia, but I still cherish the idea of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was like a small Slavic America, or it could have been at least. That it doesn’t exist anymore is a huge tragedy. I cannot think about it in any other way.

Stojanovic: How do you interpret the loneliness of Serbia in today’s world?

Tesich: These are economic issues. Neither France nor England wanted to recognize Croatia, but when Germany put on a little economic pressure, they yielded. There are no ideals anymore; there is only the economy. Germany is the main reason why everybody turned their backs on Serbia. Germany is in a position to create an empire without soldiers. Germany lost the war but is winning the economic war.

We live in a time of the economy, and wherever something happens, like the Gulf War for instance, it can easily be seen that economy is everything. Serbia is not an economic power. There is no unity. There is only a Western European market and everybody is looking now for who will establish alliances with to their benefit. It would be good if Serbia would not be tied either to the West or the East. Why would it have to be tied? Why wouldn’t it be possible to receive something from these amazing people and why is it not possible to be only a Serb instead of being in some strange relationships?

Steve Tesich and Dejan Stojanovic, Chicago, 1991

Stojanovic: A wider union perhaps?

Tesich: Wider union is that I am a human being. We don’t need to make any other union. That is an idea, but of course not an economic one. And now, economy is prevailing. In my opinion, nobody will need an army anymore.

Stojanovic: We live in times of subtle manipulations. Is that true?

Tesich: There is really an “Ubermensch.” But that is an international idea now, not a German or Japanese idea. The rules are simple. If you want to be in our club, that’s all right, and if you don’t understand what is happening, then you are done. You will never understand, nor will your children understand. Countries that are not ready to enter that game will become resorts. These resorts can be visited, so we could talk how nice the “savages” are.

Stojanovic: How do you view the growing extremist tendencies in the American society?

Tesich: Fascism is a planetary phenomenon. America did not have a problem with fascists in Central and South America. We worked with them. In America, nobody is afraid of fascists because they simply don’t understand them. People in America were taught only to be afraid of Communists, and now when there are no Communists, or when those same communists changed their hat and became something else, many people in America believe there is nothing to be afraid of anymore.

What is happening now in Germany, Austria, and Croatia, had to happen when Communism disappeared. Something had to be established as an opposition to democracy. Fascism appears everywhere but nobody talks about it here. Even Hitler was considered a silly man by Americans at first. Nobody thinks about it. That is terrible. Fascism can easily appear in Russia.

Stojanovic: Do you think these fascist tendencies are widespread?

Tesich: In Austria, Germany, America, and Russia, yes. I cannot talk about Japan, but even there, in my opinion, there is a kind of fascism. There is racism and much of it, but nobody thinks about it. There is no Communism, so “everything is all right.” That view is so stupid.

Stojanovic: What is the role of an artist in the American society?

Tesich: The majority are like clowns who take care of the king when the king is bored. Then you might ask: “why do I write?” I don’t think about that, because there is a tremendous value in leaving a trace of oneself and society and after 500 years something can be found to say that not all of us were fools. I feel that is my obligation. I have to write about individual human being and what is happening to him in our times.

Stojanovic: Is there a balance in America between spiritual and materialistic values?

Tesich: There is no balance. Materialistic is 90% of life here. That is already a done thing. There are a very small number of people who see value in something else, and that is true not only in America. There was maybe never a balance. I don’t see if there is life anywhere that holds any deep feeling of moral ideas. Nevertheless, I can imagine the balance, and if that would be accomplished, then life would be beautiful, but I don’t know if that kind of a state or country ever has existed.

Stojanovic: Do all those who make the model of a society, and push the values of the spirit to the side, have enough reasons for euphoria, or are they moving toward a goal that is not good even for themselves?

Tesich: Of course it is not. I don’t know who said that, but it goes something like this: “If a person cannot be happy in an empty room, that is a symptom that he will never be happy.” If you don’t have that main thing you want, then you need a million others, and even that is not enough, but you want more and more, and you will still not be happy. The main thing is to be able to say to yourself—”I am not a bad person. I am not a saint, but, really—I am not a bad person.” If you cannot do that, then you need to have a thousand things. People work like crazy in this short life that we’re given, and life passes like stupidity. So then, why do we have life?

Stojanovic: So, taking care to maximally use his time, man, in fact, loses it?

Tesich: He loses everything—time and life.

My life is like some kind of a river that flows, and I have to feel every day that everything flows without ruptures. I want to know how I arrive from one point to another, and I don’t give the right to anybody to take my life. There are no “things” they can give me. I have clear water in my head, and I know that everything would be lost if that was gone. There is nothing they could give me in exchange for that clear water, because that is the only thing I have.

Steve Tesich and Dejan Stojanovic, Chicago, 1991

Stojanovic: You are a playwright, not just a screenwriter. Which of these two activities preoccupies you more?

Tesich: I am much more interested in theater now. Also, bigger things can be done in the theater.

Stojanovic: As a writer and humanist, what do you hope for?

Tesich: Everyone is afraid of pollution, bombs . . . They are afraid that man will disappear. I don’t fear, in the least, man’s demise, but I am afraid he will change. If he has to turn into a bug, he will transform himself and go on, but the humane creature will disappear. My hope is that he does survive.

-Dejan Stojanović

This interview was performed in the Goodman Theater in the winter of 1992 and published in the Serbian Magazine, Views, in April 1992.


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