I’m Back, And I’m Not Even Sure Where I Went
It’s been a while since I’v posted on here – well over a month. A confluence of factors, some good, some less than ideal, conspired to keep me away. Like most of us this year, I’ve sort of lost a real sense of time, so my last post, published on July 25th, feels both like just a few days and a lifetime ago.
Mostly, I’ve been busily writing the first draft of a new play, which is certainly a nice thing to be preoccupied with. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been writing more or less continually this year, which is part dumb luck and part, I’m sure, my brain feverishly trying to find a place into which I could escape from my thoughts and the world in general. This most recent play is based on historical figures, which is even better in terms of sucking up time and attention, as it requires a requisite amount of research.
Ignorance: It’s Gotten Me This Far
The two characters at the heart of the play are quite famous, but lived in the 17th and 18th centuries. As a result, although there’s no shortage of biographies on them, there are sections that are either merely speculative or lost to history altogether. For me, this is sort of a sweet spot as a writer. It gives me lots of room to play around. I was vaguely aware of their biographies. And I delved and learned a fait amount more. And as both men are famous classical composers, and my knowledge of that genre is scant, I needed to study up on that. Specifically, each man’s contributions.
Eventually, if this play ever sees the light of day, I’ll need to bring aboard a Musical Director, who will have to help guide me where I’ve gone egregiously astray. But the thing is, I feel that while you owe a degree of fidelity to the essence of who these people were, it should only be in the service of advancing the story that you want to tell. And, as the events I depict in my play are lost entirely to history, I don’t even have to worry about warping a narrative just to fit my story.
If You’re Looking For A Good Documentary, May I Recommend Netflix?
Amadeaus is among my favorite plays. Peter Shaffer is a genius, I think. It’s brilliant. Yet, anyone coming away from the play or film believing they now know the real story of Mozart and Salieri is woefully mistaken. There’s no real evidence to suggest Salieri was outraged by Mozart, let alone that he plotted his death. And while Mozart was indeed, shall we say, eccentric in some of the ways he’s portrayed in the script, these quirks are heightened for dramatic effect. I think a dramatist has a responsibility to get at what they feel is the emotional truth and circumstances of the characters (as they see them), but a rigid adherence to facts not only doesn’t ensure this, it often hinders this task.
Historians would be appalled if your thoughts on King Richard III were shaped solely by Shakespeare’s portrayal of him. Dramatists are not, nor should try to be, documentarians. Of course the closer you get to present day figures, the more carefully you need to tread. Legal reasons compel this more exacting approach as much as moral ones.
I once spent an hour and half talking to a lawyer from the Shubert Organization about my play Fellow Travelers, which concerned the lives of, among others, Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller, and Marilyn Monroe. As it happens, I stuck fairly closely to the facts of the story as it unfolded in real life, but some compressions and embellishments were necessary. and of course, the vast bulk of the dialogue was entirely invented. As it turned out, my script passed legal muster.
“History Is A Nightmare From Which I’m Trying To Awake” – James Joyce
I hear you, James. I feel the same way about current events. At any rate, history is a slippery, and, counterintuitively, very much living and present thing. At least our understanding of it is constantly evolving. Most of my plays are entirely fiction. But a handful are based loosely on real people and events.
This has pros and cons. Personally, I always struggle with plot – writing about history greatly alleviates, although not entirely obviates, this problem. However, and I’ve had this happen, you’re guaranteed to have people approach you in the lobby or bad after a performance, indignantly demanding why I place a certain event in 1952, when in fact it happened in October of 1950. My strategy of nodding politely while slowly but surely walking backwards away from such people has generally served me well.
After All, In The End, Aren’t We All Simply Figments Of Each Other’s Imaginations?
No. Ugh. God, shut up. That’s stupid, despite the fact people like David Hume could never really disprove it. In the end, I believe, as a writer, I have a responsibility to approach historical characters with the respect, fairness, and as close an understanding of their actions and beliefs as I can get at. I feel the same way about my fictional characters. And, come to think of it, people in general. I think my main job is to engage an audience and earn their ticket price. For me, that entails telling a story as honestly as I can. This is not to be confused with a recitation of facts.
Art Has An Obligation To Truth, Not Facts
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m very much pro-fact. One of the key issues afflicting us today is the great epistemological divide in our culture. Everyone, Right and Left, takes most things on faith (e.g., do I know the world is round? Yes, absolutely. Can I, personally, prove it? Ummm…not so much. But I can point you to sources who can). Whom we choose to place our trust in, and the sharp fissure between the Right in Left in its options, is killing us. That’s our problem – our chief one, I’d argue – as citizens. But that’s another blog post, I s’pose.