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World premiere of Neil Young’s Greendale

Undermain Theatre stages the world premiere of Neil Young’s Greendale.
By Glenn Arbery |
COMES A TIME: Neil Young gave his approval to Undermain to put Greendale on the stage for the first time anywhere.
photography by Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer

In mid-October of 2001, a month after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the office of Sen. Tom Daschle received an envelope laced with anthrax spores. The return address was “4th Grade / Greendale School / Franklin Park, NJ.” Greendale School. Apparently invented for its disarming associations (there isn’t one in Franklin Park), Greendale has an air of small-town innocence about it. Consider it all in sequence—a fourth-grade class, a green dale that’s a school, a town that’s a park named after an iconic American founder—and the return address is a poem composed with deadly irony, the image of a fading American pastoral made poisonous.

Is it a coincidence that Neil Young used the word as the name of his 2003 CD and film? Lyrical, nostalgic, ironic, politically charged, and prophetic, Young’s Greendale is an alternative letter to Washington, laced with criticism of war, of corporate America, of government surveillance, of intrusive media, of environmental destruction. Not much has changed, it seems, since Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sang at Woodstock in 1969. Then it was Vietnam, Nixon, and the military-industrial complex. Today it’s Iraq, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Halliburton, and ExxonMobil (just to make the local connections). Young’s story, in songs, with no spoken dialogue, centers on the Green family in the coastal town of Greendale, California, and he finds in the name the same set of pastoral associations that the anthrax terrorist did.

This month, the Undermain Theatre’s Bruce DuBose and his wife Katherine Owens put Greendale on the stage in their distinctive space below street level, with Young’s approval, for the first time anywhere. DuBose wrote the libretto for this new version, Owens will direct the production, and Undermain has signed a number of Dallas rock veterans to play in the live band that will perform as The Imitators (including Kenny Withrow of The New Bohemians and Paul Semrad, formerly the bassist for Course of Empire). So is Undermain undertaking theater as counter-counter-terrorism? Partly, yes, but DuBose’s and Owens’ fascination with Greendale strikes me more as an attempt to recover a utopian strain of imagination made palpably real to a generation at Woodstock, and never wholly lost.

“Idealism” was never the word for it. It was more an experience of what Northrop Frye used to call the “green world” in Shakespeare—a space, as Frye puts it, of “life and love,” not so much an escape from the death-dealing everyday world of power, but a place where ritual renewal of the wasteland became possible. (The woods outside Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are an example, or Prospero’s island in The Tempest.) Or perhaps with Woodstock it was something more ecstatic and terrible like the idyllic scenes in Euripides’ The Bacchae, being one with the earth in a Dionysian reality that means losing the containment of the self. What Undermain wants to do with Greendale, I believe, is less political than visionary, more about the ache for Eden than the urgency of reforms. As Joni Mitchell’s song about Woodstock puts it, “We are stardust, we are golden, / Caught in the devil’s bargain, / And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

DuBose and Owens see in Young the shining example of an artist who did not sell out the original vision. Listening to them, I have the sense of tapping into a conversation they’ve had many times, with many people. “Neil Young is obviously a great, great, master musician,” Owens says, “and he’s also left little clues about how one could continue to pursue an artistic life and not be distracted or overwhelmed by addiction or commercialism. There was one time when his company sued him for not sounding enough like Neil Young.”

DuBose picks it up: “He was trying different experimental things, and I think it was David Geffen who sued him. He’s defied that kind of—he’s not really a dinosaur act. He’ll play the old hits, but he’s always trying to do something new.”

And Owens: “There are very important artistic lessons, lessons not that available culturally for artists—how you progress and refine.”

Greendale could be the latest incarnation of their own creative progression and refinement, a new, un-Tommy way of fusing theater with rock music—or it could defeat them. That’s the risk they take. DuBose and Owens talked it out on a long car trip to Marfa, Texas, and decided to go for it. This play, in particular, represents a daunting challenge, even for a theater as accomplished as Undermain at staging world premieres of plays by important American playwrights, including Mac Wellman and, last December, Lynne Alvarez.

Most of the difficulty lies in the material itself. In the film of Greendale, Young sings the entire soundtrack. The actors playing the various characters lip-sync the songs as if they were dialogue. Seriously, just picture that. If you happened upon this DVD without knowing anything about it, you’d be scrambling for the remote a couple of minutes in. On the other hand, it’s strangely haunting, oddly memorable. New characters keep emerging: Grandpa and Grandma Green, middle-aged Vietnam veteran and abstract artist Earl Green and his wife Edith (who live in the Double E), their daughter Sun Green, her cousin Jed, Officer Carmichael, and local art dealer Lenore (who can’t sell Earl’s paintings). Intricate relations develop among them.

“Somebody’s called them a collection of short stories,” DuBose says. “They’ve been compared to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Each of those stories involves some of the same characters in the town. They add up to something as a whole.”

This idyllic, small-town Greendale, like the one on the anthrax envelope, also has a Devil—literally a character who struts around dressed in a red jacket and red shoes like a finger-snapping wannabe member of the Rat Pack. Under his influence, Jed Green murders Officer Carmichael, who happens to stop him when Jed has a car full of cocaine and marijuana. In the wake of the killing, the media converge on the town, and Jed turns out to have been living a double life, apparently planning McVeigh-style homegrown terrorism. Grandpa Green dies confronting a reporter who comes onto his porch with her microphone and cameraman. Sun Green then becomes a radical and chains herself to the eagle in the lobby of PowerCo, the big corporate utility. She leads a protest and runs off to Alaska with an allegorically compatible fellow named Earth Brown. Album and film end with an anthem that has a full-bore ’60s feel: “Save the Planet for another day. / Be the rain. / Be the rain.”

So what do DuBose and Owens plan to do with this collection of vignettes and hints?

“Yeah, one of the challenges is to really bring out the narrative, because I think he wrote the songs the way a songwriter would,” DuBose says. “He says he works with the muse”—not a matter that DuBose and Owens take lightly, by the way. But finding a distinct, theatrical story line poses problems. Young thinks lyrically, in terms of each song, instead of composing with the plot more or less in mind as a playwright or novelist would. “He didn’t know that was going to happen,” DuBose says.

“We’re finding things in there that we can bring out,” Owens says. Describing the play, she mentions a number of parallels, especially Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. And she has been studying Aeschylus, thinking about the way the chorus comments between episodes of action, and how the chorus always has a distinct identity. Their adaptation will have characters who sing their own parts, a chorus, a live band, and a narrator-singer.

If it works, it will be a way of luring Dallas into the dream space, pulling the city’s imagination down under Main Street into the dangerous, ambiguous green world of Dionysian art. And if it doesn’t? The band should be good. They’ll be doing lots of Neil Young covers.

Greendale runs March 29 through May 3 at the Undermain Theatre, 3200 Main St., 214-747-5515. Glenn Arbery is senior editor for People Newspapers and the theater critic for D Magazine. Write to [email protected].