Roberto is a playwright (American Psycho, Say You Love Satan, The Muckle Man), screenwriter (Carrie, Glee, and the upcoming Riverdale), and comic book writer (Fantastic Four, Afterlife with Archie). He is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and the Chief Creative Officer of Archie Comics.
Did you always know you wanted to include supernatural elements in this story?
That element of the piece evolved as I was working on it. At first I was surprised when it started going that way, but I don’t know why, because often my plays start in a realistic world and then, at the fringes, supernatural or genre elements start creeping in—ghosts, aliens, sea monsters—so in a way, I shouldn’t have been so surprised when the devil walked in to Abigail/1702.
What made you say “I’ve got to write this play?”
Abigail/1702 came out of two impulses. The first is my deep, abiding love of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Years ago, I was doing a play at Steppenwolf, and I was watching their production of The Crucible, and I was reminded what a great play it is. In the lobby afterwards, they were selling copies of Miller’s script with his annotations, and there was a section in the back detailing the historical people the play is based on. At the end, there was a single sentence about Abigail that read something like: “Legend has it Abigail turned up years later in Boston as a harlot.” I read that sentence, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I thought, “That’s a play.”
The second impulse, which flowed from that revelation, was how drawn I was to the character of Abigail, who is an agent of chaos in The Crucible, but then leaves suddenly and you don’t know what happens to her. I wanted to take one of the most irredeemable characters in theatre, up there with Iago, and try to redeem her.
Did you take on any research while writing?
When I started writing Abigail/1702, I thought it was going to be a history play. I did a lot of research about the Salem Witch Trials, Puritan life and religion, and the way women functioned and lived in that society. I researched everything from the pirates of that time, to smallpox, to Samuel Sewall’s public apology to the young nation about his role in the Trials, which galvanized me. I read about Arthur Miller’s writing of The Crucible, and the real people he based his characters on. When I’m writing, I often like to expose myself to works of art that are of the same world, so I started reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories. He wrote two, “The Minister’s Black Veil” and “Young Goodman Brown,” that both featured the devil as a character. When I read them, something clicked, and I realized that I wasn’t writing a history play, but a ghost story. The play is a Gothic folk tale set in the New England woods.
Were there places you felt you wanted to fill in gaps in the history?
When I was younger I used to confuse The Crucible with historical fact. In high school, when I studied the Salem Witch Trials in history class and The Crucible in English class, I thought they were one and the same. It was only later I found out that Miller had taken huge liberties in writing that play. So for this piece, it was less about finding historical gaps than just giving myself permission to use artistic license, to allow myself to tweak events. Like Miller’s play, Abigail/1702 is not purported to be historical fact, because I changed things as well.
You’ve done a lot of horror writing – does that genre excite you? Do you see this as a horror story?
Of course horror excites me. Those are the movies I like to see, the stories I like to read. A lot of my plays flirt with horror. With Abigail/1702, there’s a way this play could have easily been a psychological horror story, a character study about the way this woman was tormented by metaphorical ghosts—her guilty conscience—but of course it becomes a real ghost story, and she is pursued by a physical embodiment of the devil.
When I first turned in this play, a lot of people commented about how happy they were to read a play of mine that didn’t have supernatural elements… and then they got to the scene with the devil. Ultimately, this is a much woollier play for all of its horror elements, and I love it that much more for them.
What’s it like to write a play, versus a comic book?
The mediums are totally different. Plays are alive, they happen with living, real human bodies that are constantly in motion. Even if the character is being still, they’re existing, right in front of your eyes. In comics, they’re frozen images and your imagination fills in the blanks. There are common elements in all of my writing: I like twists and surprises, with muscular, genre storytelling.
If someone were to sit down and read all of my work, from the stage, to comic books, to television and film, I think they’d see recurring themes and motifs. For instance, I’ve written Archie comic books, an Archie play, and now I’m working on an Archie TV show, and while I’ve been able to explore different sides of those characters through each medium, many of the core themes remain the same.
Why do you write for the stage?
Early on I was just drawn to it, especially to the people who work in theater. I felt like they were my tribe, as people like to say. When I do it, I do it just for me. Even now, when I spend much of my time working in television, with every new story that pops into my head, I always think of it as a play first.
Abigail/1702 runs October 12 – November 6 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.