Times Theater Writer

William Mastrosimone admits it eagerly. He’s a playwright ruled by his unconscious, and his history of intense connection to his writing themes is there to prove it.

His first play, “The Woolgatherer,” was born of a personal encounter with a young woman lost in a world that had left her far behind. His most famous, “Extremities,” is about the effects of an unconsummated rape as told to him--unforgettably--by a fleeting stranger.

“Writing is working out through symbols and images things that I fear to keep in me,” he said over lunch recently. In “Nanawatai,” again the theme is rape, but of another kind: the rape of nations. It had its world premiere in Norway last year and will have its American premiere Thursday as part of the massive launch of the new Los Angeles Theatre Center.

“I saw a TV film clip in January, 1980, of a Russian convoy going through a village in Afghanistan,” Mastrosimone explained. “This young boy, 9 or 10 years old, stood in front of the lead tank. You could see something was going on inside. The driver had the impulse to brake and then it was as though an order had been given.

“The tank righted itself and speeded up. It was a game of chicken. The boy stood there. The tank kept coming and then I saw the most unbelievable thing: The boy went under the tank shouting, ‘Allah akbar!’ (God is great).”

This staggering image triggered the most intense connection in his experience yet. “I didn’t even know where Afghanistan was, " he said, but the dusky playwright, who looks more like a carpet dealer from Damascus behind his black mustache than the 38-year-old descendant of a 13th-Century Neapolitan court physician (which he is), became obsessed with it.


He had to go there, he decided, to try to understand what made that child behave the way he did. “The Woolgatherer” was being done at New York’s Circle Rep and Mastrosimone began haunting the West Village’s Afghan restaurants.

“I’d read that most of the refugees were in New York and Washington. I needed to talk to them.”

The obsession launched him on an odyssey worthy of John Le Carre that culminated in a clandestine foray into Afghanistan in January, 1981. Mastrosimone made contact with wary Afghan agents who would tell nothing of themselves, behaved like fugitives--and offered to steal him into the country in a series of covert steps that could work only on blind faith.

“It crossed my mind that these people were having a good joke on me,” the playwright said, “but they insisted: ‘Reason and knowledge will not get you through this. If you don’t believe, don’t go.’ What enabled me to write a check for the $1,500 air fare was more than wanting to give money away. It was a leap in the dark.”

It also was no joke, but the spy-novel aspects of the adventure escalated dramatically in Rawalpindi.

“They played with me mercilessly. They tested my ‘Western-ness’ constantly,” he said, describing appointments made and not kept, promises to pick him up at his hotel followed by long, empty days of waiting and wondering. When the men finally came, they dressed him as an Afghan (“I look like one”) and smuggled him across the border on an ammunition run.

“But that was not the hardest part of the trip. I feared the land mines that were all over the place. To be wounded was to die.”

It was in Afghanistan that Mastrosimone learned the concept of nanawatai, a part of pashtunwali, or code of honor of the Pashtuns, the prototypical Afghans.

“It comes in three parts,” he explained. “ Milmastia (open-handed hospitality), badal (blood revenge) and nanawatai (sanctuary or asylum). If someone wrongs you or your family, you’re obligated to take revenge. It’s not a matter of choice. The counter-balancing force to badal is nanawatai .

“There’s a folk tale about a woman whose son was murdered and the murderer came to her and asked for nanawatai and she took him in and protected him against others who wanted to kill him. Of course, it’s a folk tale. The reality happens rarely. It’s an ideal.”

Yet the journey to the heart of the play he was destined to write became crystallized through an incident within an event:

“We were going toward the village to take our breakfast after sleeping outside one night and an Afghan ran toward us. He told our translator that they had captured some Soviet soldiers and did the writer want to interview them before they were executed.

“I said no. I did want to, but I wasn’t going to take a man’s last moments. The Koran says you have to execute invaders. I was upset. The Afghans told me they had neither food nor the quarters to keep them even if they wanted to. They themselves were starving.

“But the look on the faces of those eight Soviet kids --boys playing war--was one of total, palpable, betrayal. It was: ‘How could this happen? We don’t belong here, we have no quarrel with these men.’ I couldn’t watch the execution, because (in those faces) I saw American kids in Vietnam.”

It profoundly altered Mastrosimone’s concept of his script from a play about good and evil to a play about victims--people caught in a struggle none of them wanted.

“The men who wanted to fight that war weren’t there. The senselessness of it started to pervade the play. It became about faith, not politics, about antagonists who believe--one in technology and one in God. Technology breaks down, while faith gets stronger.”

Mastrosimone claims that subsequent events in Lebanon, which have philosophical connections to this story, bear out his theme. Acknowledging that he’s an instinctual writer, he denies understanding how his plays are born.

“I must write, yet almost every day I question whether I should be a writer. I think it’s a big part of the process. Writing gets the demons out. If you try to deal honestly with yourself, you attain a certain universality. The more particular you get, the more universal you become.

“I also think it’s important to force a writer to write quickly because (creativity) comes from the unconscious which I think we all accept as the truth. The unconscious mind perceives truth without compromise and the more time you allow to go by, the more your conscious mind will censor, edit and distort. I pride myself on being able to write a play in 24 hours. Not that it’s producible. . . . “

But it’s the kernel. The panned gold. He tells of waking up one night when he was writing “Nanawatai” and drawing a stick figure of a man holding off a tank with a bow and arrow, then going back to sleep and not remembering the episode the next day except for the drawing that was there to prove it. His director, Lamont Johnson used a similar image in the production’s closing moments, “though I never told Lamont about the drawing.

“There’s a word Freud uses when there’s a reservoir of energy that projects onto something: cathect. I think I know how to use it.”

Clearly, Mastrosimone is a man riding a crest. His own screenplay of “Extremities” is to be filmed next month with Farrah Fawcett (“the play has not been compromised”) and two new plays are poised to open: “Tamer of Horses” at Crossroads, a black theater company in New Brunswick, N.J., and “Cat’s Paw” at the Seattle Rep.

“I like to write nights and sleep days, but it’s getting worse. My routine is no routine. My life is more chaos than ever because my unconscious has me now.”

Don’t take it as the statement of a man in pain. “I wouldn’t change anything in my life,” he concluded. “I’m very happy. I’m a storm inside, but I feel fulfilled.”