Ambition Amok

By Olivia Haller, Gloria Production Dramaturg

Pictured: Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan (Photo by Cade Martin)

When Branden Jacobs-Jenkins began writing Gloria in 2010, he was unemployed and struggling with severe writer’s block.

As he revealed in an interview with The Vineyard Theatre, “I think I wanted to write a play about work because it was during a period in my life when I did not have a job, and I was missing the daily structure of having one. And the only office job I’ve ever had was working at the magazine, so obviously I drew heavily on that experience to build out the world of the play.” That magazine was The New Yorker, where Jacobs-Jenkins worked as an editorial assistant right out of college.

In an early draft, Gloria had a subtitle: “Or Ambition.” As Jacobs-Jenkins reflects, “New York is a city that basically runs on ambition. That’s why an assistant is willing to work for like, $26,000 a year, in a city in which that is definitely the poverty line. People make such sacrifices to work in fields that mostly fulfill some very strange emotional or psychological need that they may not even be fully aware of — needs which may not even be healthy at the end of the day. I’ve also met people who just seem to be ambitious for the sake of ambition — they’re just addicted to the feeling of moving up and ahead in life. In any case, I was interested in the ways that this kind of relationship to the idea of work affects the compromises you make with yourself and your morals.”

“People make such sacrifices to work in fields that mostly fulfill some very strange emotional or psychological need that they may not even be fully aware of — needs which may not even be healthy at the end of the day.”

The fast-paced environment of a publishing office naturally lends itself to feelings of competition. For writers, there is the ever-present desire to be the first to tell the story, and garner prestige and recognition. The first act of the play places these magazine employees under a microscope and examines their personal aspirations and social interactions. Then the play’s central event, an act of violence, disrupts their environment entirely. Jacobs-Jenkins structures Gloria like an hourglass: the behavior and culture established in the first act flows into the play’s brief central event, which in turn expands to consume the attention of the characters in act two, the aftermath. But does the violence at the center shift the focus of their lives and make them re-evaluate their old ambitions? Or does it merely change the tactics they use to fulfill them?

In questioning how the central event of the play has impacted them personally, the writers at the magazine attempt to create meaning out of chaos. But how they use the event to tell their own stories teaches us more about the ambitions of the writers than it does about their subject. Ironically, we learn the least of all about the title character, Gloria, who has only the briefest amount of stage time but the greatest impact on the world of the play. By letting Gloria remain a mysterious vessel for the other characters and the audience to ponder, Jacobs-Jenkins seems to be asking us not to focus on her specific problems or motivations but on the larger world of people and forces around her.

Above all, the playwright seems concerned with our media-saturated culture and the question of whose stories get told, who has the right to tell them, and who gets to benefit from the telling. As he notes, “I was also interested in what a writer’s ambition is, because I was writing about a group of people whose job is to basically transcribe life and experience and decide what’s newsworthy or not newsworthy, whose lives have value or not, determined by what happens in them.” As the competition intensifies from Act I to Act II, the writers squabble over questions of authenticity, point-of-view, and status. But while obsessing over whose career will be made and whose will be broken, they seem to miss the real factors that might have contributed to the violence in the first place, as well as how the event, and even their own actions, affect those around them. At what point might personal ambition lead us to sacrifice our integrity and humanity?

In the aftermath of a violent event, we find ourselves habitually engaging in debates about law and policy. But in Gloria, Jacobs-Jenkins deftly sidesteps these debates and focuses our attention on even deeper questions about our society and culture that lie outside our normal range of political discourse. He asks us to think about the things we aren’t talking about — things that might have an even bigger hold on our lives.