In its current revival at Bay Street Theater, 20 years after it first played to sold out audiences, Joe Pintauro’s Men’s Lives, based upon Peter Matthiessen’s 1986 history of the Baymen on the East End of Long Island seems as weather beaten and vital as ever. Drew Boyce’s set features something of a shipwreck moored on a sandy beach. Around the hull, a fine ensemble: Victor Slezak, Rob Disario, Brian Hutchison, Scott Thomas Hinson, Peter McRobbie, Deborah Hedwall, Myles Stokowski, and Mark Coffin, under the expert direction of Harris Yulin, limns the plight of one family, telling an epic story: man battles nature, learning to survive with its harsh imperatives, and then must face a greater challenge, the onset of the new. Anyone who has lived in these parts witnessing potato fields morph into mini-plantations sees this change with a rueful eye. The real estate is worth more for developing properties than farming. Take that drama to the seas: Men’s Lives is a searing poetic vision of this region’s fishing industry’s demise, and its cost to men’s lives.
In 1993, a year after its successful opening at Bay Street, Men’s Lives was revived. At that time, I had a chance to speak to Sag Harbor playwright Joe Pintauro about his work. We met midpoint, at Amagansett’s (now gone) Honest Diner. Originally published in Hamptons Magazine, here is some of our talk:
How did you come to translate Peter Matthiessen’s book into a play, and what were the challenges?
People who have seen my poetry and fiction believed that I would be able to carry them through this complex delicate existential swim in which a work changes its form. Peter’s writing is discreet and intentionally thought out. Mine is gaudy and a little reckless. Peter is able to capture speech patterns of far away people with great exactitude. When I started this work, I felt the poetic values would be foremost. Actors found it difficult to pronounce some of the beautiful prose arias. So I kept changing the play in favor of action.
How does the theme of betrayal pertain to Men’s Lives?
We betray each other in this society. We live lifetimes under the influence of rivalrous instincts, people disclaiming responsibility for one another. In the case of Men’s Lives, sportsmen have a problem with the Baymen fishing. The Baymen—only a few are left—still speak with the accents of Dorset and Kentish England. They live in East Hampton and Amagansett, not far from the Honest Diner. They came to this country before any of us, and learned to fish from the Indians. They fish the way Christ fished—with nets. Haul seining. A sein is a net like a sieve. Haul is to pull it in. They used to do this with horses before the pickup trucks. They’d go out into the ocean, lay a net, stretch it out and bring it around like a big horseshoe, come back onto the beach. What was in it was your dinner. The sports fishermen think they are entering into a kind of elegant male contest with the fish, and they are fighting with lies and realizing, the lies work.
I don’t get it. Why can’t the sports fishermen simply coexist with the Baymen?
Ask them. I don’t have an answer.
How are politics germane to this discussion?
The Baymen are simple men, but they had to become activists. These steamrollers coming at your culture are so much bigger than you are, but what are you going to do? You get up and fight.
Why are you and others like Billy Joel getting behind this cause?
People love this place, love nature, love the spiritual; those who comprehend the delicate balances that make up this piece of geography and know the Baymen, who they are, how they fish, and their roots in the early history get behind this cause. Let’s not destroy the essential elements that continue to bring character to this place.
Is it too late?
It would be wonderful to drive out to Gosman’s Dock, to sit in the screened porch with little holes in it, where for $2.25 you got about 500 soft shell clams on a huge oval shaped metal tray. Then suddenly it became a Disney theme park. Still we drive out there. What the hell!