Marvin Cheiten, a poet, author, playwright and producer, believes he was born to be a writer.
“There’s never been a time when I haven’t been teasing out plots, dreaming up characters, or creating mythical kingdoms,” Cheiten said during an interview with the Echo as he was preparing for his latest production, Queen Jane, which will be performed at the Hamilton Murray Theater this month. The play opens on Friday, Aug. 16, and runs through Sunday, Aug. 25.
“Someone asked me a long time ago when I decided to be a writer,” the Princeton resident said. “The answer is that I didn’t decide. It’s always been there. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.”
Cheiten said that characters and fantastic places lived in his imagination as young as four years old, and the ability to breathe life into them came when was taught to write at six years old.
“I could finally begin putting these things down on paper, because they antedated the time when I was able to read and write.”
Once he started writing, he didn’t stop, and in recent years, Cheiten has become one of Princeton’s most prolific authors.
Since 2005, Cheiten has written and produced a summer play every year, except for 2012, at the Hamilton Murray Theater, including Zenobia in 2005 and 2011, Miss Connections in 2006, Whizzer’s Island in 2007, The Star in 2008, Touching a Goddess in 2009, Oh Deer!! in 2010, and Queen Jane this year.
Cheiten said that although there was no summer play last year — and perhaps to compensate for that fact — he presented “Five Movies and a Play” at Hamilton Murray Theatre last December.
The new works by Cheiten included “Emily’s Gift,” a one act play; and the short films, “At Le Coq d’Or Restaurant,” “A Visit from Ms. Prancer,” “Trial by Fire,” “A Medicine Commercial,” and “A Little English Girl.”
Returning once again this year to direct Queen Jane is Los Angeles-based Dan Berkowitz, who has flown in from the West Coast on an almost annual basis to direct most of Cheiten’s summer plays.
Cheiten and Berkowitz, both Princeton University graduates, became friends when they were young artists. At the time, Cheiten was working as an intern in the box office at the McCarter Theater. Another intern was sharing a house with friends, who included recent graduate, Berkowitz. The two met at a New Year’s party.
Berkowitz said he remembers seeing “this huge car drive up to the house. I think it was a Cadillac. And I wondered who in the world it could be. It was Marvin.”
The first play of Cheiten’s that Berkowitz directed was in 1996, a comedy called “Chowder, She Wrote,” the title of which references the then-popular TV series “Murder, She Wrote.”
Aside from his work directing Cheiten’s plays, Berkowitz is probably most famous locally as the host and impresario of the Nassau Inn Cabaret back in the 1970s. It is his fondness for both Cheiten and the Princeton audience that brings him back almost every year.
“The nice thing about directing in Princeton is that you know you have a smart, literate audience,” Berkowitz said. “I remember particularly when we were doing the cabaret, you could do very pointed satire and know that the audience would get it.”
Cheiten, meanwhile, sees himself as an artist, using words as paint and the paper as his canvas.
“I have a vision of what literature is,” Cheiten said. “I think that anybody who creates a painting or a symphony, for example, understands that he’s not just putting pigment on a canvas or notes on a piece of paper. Fundamentally, what he’s doing is creating a work of art.”
“I believe the same thing is true of literature,” he added. “Sometimes I wonder about some authors. It’s not that they don’t have something to say. Many authors are making a point, whatever that point is, but it seems as if they’re not concerned enough about the beauty of the language they are using.”
Cheiten said that he is, and always has been.
He contends that if someone were to look at a story that he wrote in ninth grade it wouldn’t tonally or stylistically be very different from his more recent works.
“I’m at least as interested in how the work is expressed as I am in what I’m saying,” Cheiten said. “I’d like to think that what I’m saying is important, but I also would like to think that it can be seen as a work of art.
“I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gone through each line, thinking about whether the lines say exactly what I want them to say in a way that would be both beautiful and meaningful to an audience.”
Queen Jane is interesting for its form — the play is written in iambic pentameter, or blank verse, which consists of five “feet,” each of which contains a short, unstressed syllable followed by a long, stressed, syllable. Cheiten has written two other plays in this verse form: Zenobia and The Vault, produced in 1980 at the Theater Center in Philadelphia.
Cheiten said Queen Jane is written in as close to an “Elizabethan style, as I can muster,” in an effort to match the setting, which is England’s Tudor period.
The play tells the story of Grey, the 15-year-old great-granddaughter of Henry VII, who was the queen of England for a less than two weeks — from July 10 through July 19, 1553. She succeeded Edward VI, son of Henry VIII. Through a series of political machinations Grey was dethroned and succeeded by Mary Tudor, oldest daughter of Henry VIII, and was executed a short time later.
“I think Lady Jane Grey is a fascinating woman,” Cheiten said, explaining that Grey was put on the throne by her father-in-law, who thought that since she was only a teenage girl he could manipulate her and in the process become the virtual king of England.
“But Jane had other ideas,” Cheiten said. “Even though she was 15, she was a very solid, serious person. She was very defiant, she was very resistant, and ultimately, as a very devoted protestant, she died for her faith. That’s pretty much what it comes down to.”
Cheiten said he sees Grey as a great hero. “Here’s this cute little girl. She doesn’t want to be queen. She’s very well educated, and in fact, she would have been happy to read Latin and Greek forever. Nonetheless, she said, ‘Now I’m queen and I’m going to do some stuff,’ thereby alienating all of the nobles around her.”
To play the part of Jane Grey, Cheiten found his muse in Phoenix Gonzalez, a Princeton University graduate who also starred in his plays Oh Deer!! and Touching a Goddess.
“There was not a question in my mind about who I wanted to play this part,” Cheiten said. “The thing that makes her most similar to Jane is that she’s this petite, rather reserved, and very well educated young woman who really has a mind of her own, even though she doesn’t spend her time orating about anything. I felt that she was born to play this part. It’s as if she’s channeling this character.”
Born in New Brunswick and raised in Highland Park, Cheiten attended Rutgers Prep before going to Princeton University, where he earned a doctorate in French Literature in 1971. His father was the founder and president of the Water Master Company, a hardware manufacturing company.
Early on, his teachers realized his intense interest in literature and writing and were very supportive. He read Racine in French when he was 12 or 13, and considers this poet and playwright as the writer who has influenced him the most.
Regarding both parents, Cheiten said: “If somebody were to ask me the greatest career move I ever made, I would say that it was being born to those two people.
“They were extraordinarily good people. Children always fight with their parents, but there was never a time that I felt my parents didn’t have my best interests at heart. Even if I disagreed with them, even if I thought they were crazy, I never thought they had an ulterior motive. I miss them a lot. I really admired the way in which they lived their lives and the kindness that they showed to me and to others.”
Water Master has always been a part of Cheiten’s professional life, and he did try working there for awhile, but he said that through all these years, “my love has been the writing that I have done.”
“I remember we would go into a hardware or plumbing store and see some of the products that we made,” Cheiten said. “I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be lovely to go into a theater and see a play that I had created.’ It was the same basic thought; it’s just that it was a very different kind of creation.”
Cheiten’s first play to be produced, Trial by Fire, happened in the early 1970s, shortly after he graduated from Princeton. He said he won a contest that was held by a Princeton-West Windsor-Plainsboro drama group, and the play was performed in all three communities.
“That’s the first time that I had a an audience of people who didn’t know me at all, to see my play. It was a comedy, and I just sat there and I was listening to these people, who had no idea what they were going to see, just laughing. If I ever had any doubt about what I was going to do, that was it.”
Aside from his parents, Cheiten pointed to one of his professors at Princeton, E.B.O. Borgerhoff, as a great influence in his life.
“He was the definitive teacher of literature,” he said. “During class, some of the other students would say. ‘I read this wonderful analysis of this play, or novel, and “Borge” would say, ‘okay that’s fine, but I’m not interested in what this critic had to say. I’m interested in what you have to say.
“He would draw things out of people. He said, ‘I don’t care if you never read a single piece of criticism. I want to know why you think this work works or does not work. Why it succeeds or doesn’t succeed.’ He was a marvelous man. I was the last student he worked with before he died.”
Cheiten said that towards the end of the professor’s life, he would go to Borgerhoff’s home and work with him there because he was too sick to come to campus. “He was dying of cancer. I said to him, knowing that he was very fragile at that point, ‘Dr. Borgerhoff, if you’d like me to start working with somebody else, that would be fine.’ He said, ‘No. I have given my life to education and as long as I am physically able, I will work with you,’ which he did until about two weeks before he died. I wonder if many teachers today would say what Dr. Borgerhoff said?”
A resident of Princeton since he graduated from the university, Cheiten said that he is happy to have lived in this area his entire life. “To my mind, if I lived my entire life in Princeton and died here, I don’t know that I would consider that a tragedy. A part of me is fascinated by the rest of the human race, but I am very, very sedentary. I’ve lived in a very small radius of this town.”
As a long-time area resident, Cheiten has been a supporter of Princeton Summer Theater and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra for many years. He said that because he is not married and has no children, he focuses on “adopting” organizations that he finds “artistically meritorious.”
Cheiten is philosophical when looking at his career and works, and pointed to an Emily Dickinson quote. “She said, ‘If my work is really worthwhile, then even if it is after I’m gone, sooner or later the world will catch up with it and realize how important it is,’ which is, in fact, what happened. And then she said, ‘If my work isn’t worthwhile, then what does it matter?’”
“I sort of have that same attitude,” Cheiten said. “I think that if the work is meaningful bit by bit and piece by piece, even if its posthumously, it will come to be known. If it’s worthless, then, as Emily Dicknson would say, what does it matter? In that case, it’s just been a great pleasure watching it performed.”