Playwrights in the Queue

Five Legends of British Theater at the Social Security Office; November 8

Playwrights Tom Stoppard and David Hare, theater critic Michael Billington, octogenarian actor and director Frith Banbury, and esteemed Shakespearean actress Janet Suzman present their passports to me like well-heeled tourists. Our lawmakers in their mission to reduce the national deficit have ruled that all non-citizens who are paid wages of any sort must have a social security number so that these wages may be counted and, if possible, taxed. The British have arrived the night before to fulfill their role as speakers at the Ransom Center's symposium on the last 40 years of British theater. It is mid-morning and they are perky, the jet lag working in my favor. Before we head downtown, however, we must say good-bye to the sixth member of our band, Timberlake Wertenbaker, a younger playwright who the next day will win hundreds of admirers for her exposure of the absence of women working in theater. Through some stroke of luck, she already has a social security card. She remains at the Four Seasons, sunning and buying from the gift shop a plush, stuffed longhorn toy for her daughter.

When the conference organizers first realized that the speakers would need to visit the Social Security Office en masse, we had discussed offering cocktails in the queue. However, in my folder of documents and directions there are no instructions on refreshments. Walking from the parking garage, my first worry is that Mr. Banbury will be run over by a speeding car and miss the conference entirely. A witty, foppish man carrying a cane, Banbury refuses my offer of assistance, adjusts the shoulder strap of his leather purse, and twirls his walking stick. When we finally locate our destination, I am endeared to discover that it is tucked in a corner of the old post office building, where, as a younger writer, I sent off dozens of manuscripts, kissing the envelopes before handing them to the mail clerk.

There are two thankfully short lines at the Social Security Office. My charges pick one and I pass out their forms. Just then, the clerk shuts the window like a sideways mouth snapping at a fly. They shuffle over into the other line. When the first of them, Tom Stoppard, reaches the clerk, he is instructed to step aside and wait for the other clerk to return. His colleagues follow. Time passes during which the playwrights and the old director describe for the theater critic and the actress how their manuscripts are lovingly arranged, cataloged, and boxed at the Ransom Center. Mr. Hare, whose eyes match perfectly his blue shirt, seems especially enchanted that somewhere in the world someone is being paid to look after his papers. Moving on to other self-amusements, Mr. Billington, clutching his form, confesses to his questioning peers that his middle name is "Keith." Ms. Suzman, glamorously cloaked in brown, remarks, "Darling, how sweet!"

Finally, our clerk returns from coffee break and the window snaps open. The first problem is that social security cards cannot be mailed overseas, so the address on each form must be changed. I feel like a schoolmarm correcting the papers of my happy but dull-witted students. Then the box marked something pleasant like "foreigner working for a pittance out of the kindness of his or her heart" must be marked out and the correct, more jingoistic, box "alien not allowed to work" must be checked.

Successfully processed, Mr. Stoppard, a man of Bob Dylan-like handsomeness who earlier in the car had perfectly described Cormac McCarthy's writing style as "Biblical," joins me to wait for the others. I confess that I had nearly brought a copy of his play Jumpers for him to sign, thinking it would make a nice gift for a friend who once directed the play. He offers that that would have been okay. I explain that the reason I didn't was that I had so marked up this copy, underlining my favorite passages, that I couldn't bear to give it up. I was 19 at the time, I continue, just beginning to think I might become a writer. Now my first novel is with an editor at a big New York publishing house. I admit that back then I couldn't have dreamed that I would meet Mr. Stoppard some 15 years later. He adds, "Especially not at the Social Security Office." Our party gathers, our cars come for us, the weekend unfurls with much laughter and a little controversy beneath a warm blue Texas sky. Our guests will be assigned numbers in five to seven working days, just like everyone else in line. -- Robin Bradford

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