Please read the following article and take notes on the index card about important advice you learn from the author.
WRITING THE HISTORY PLAY: Why dramatists lie in the pursuit of truth by Charles Deemer
(originally published in Oregon Magazine)
"The recent Hollywood blockbuster "Pearl Harbor," for all the disappointment of its plodding love and buddy stories, generated the usual amount of controversy that arises whenever Hollywood brings history to the screen. In Letters to the Editor and Op-Ed pieces across the country, historians were quick to point out the inaccuracies and historical short-comings of the film. Typically, many of these comments reflected a basic misunderstanding of the task of the historical dramatist, whether writing for film or stage.
I want to defend the task of the historical dramatist by giving you a case history of my most
recent history play, a short reworking of material I first put together for a Bicentennial Play. This
material focuses on a dramatic character in our early history, a forgotten "Founding Father."
Among our most cherished Fourth of July rituals is extraordinary admiration of our Founding Fathers. What brave and brilliant men, rising to the needs of the times against great odds! The names of our first patriots are embedded in the national memory: Thomas Paine and Paul Revere and Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, Samuel and John Adams and George Washington. However, none of these are the man whom John Adams called "the First Patriot." Ask people on the street for this name and you are unlikely to hear it. Today the Boston lawyer who earned the admiration and respect of the generation of our Founding Fathers by leading the cause of liberty in the American colonies, the man who first argued that taxation without representation is tyranny and thereby coined the slogan of a revolution, "no taxation without representation!" -- today this man is forgotten. His name was James Otis.
There are two reasons why Otis has been neglected by history. The first is that he ended up on history's wrong side, the losing one, and history gets written by the winners. Otis never wanted American independence. What he meant by "no taxation without representation!" was that American colonies should have representation in the British Parliament. To his dying day, Otis believed that the British Constitution was the best document ever written and that if England only would have behaved constitutionally, then all colonial troubles would have disappeared. The second reason we have forgotten Otis is that he believed so strongly that change should be made peacefully within the system of government that when colonial action began to move in the direction of street rebellion for independence, he couldn't handle it. Defending the British Constitution against growing dissention led to a nervous breakdown, near madness, and eventually he had to be bound hand-and-foot and forcibly removed from Boston for the protection of himself and others. Otis' mental imbalance led to
other self-destructive acts that would assure his disappearance from all but the back pages of history.
I first became interested in the ordeal of James Otis in the early 1970s while researching material for a Bicentennial play. Originally I was attracted to Otis' sister, Mercy Otis Warren, who is credited with being America's first playwright. But the more I read about the period, the more I saw in the story of James Otis the perfect dramatic question for the times: do we have to rebel against the government, indeed over-throw it, in order to change it in fundamental ways? It's a question that gets repeated every generation. The play that resulted is called "Mercy to the Patriot." Returning to this material 25 years after my full-length Bicentennial Play, I find myself moved once again by Otis' extraordinary personal story, challenged by the questions it raises about politics, and amazed that so few people are familiar with it. I also again faced the conflicts that naturally arise when a playwright brings the craft of dramatic storytelling to the panorama of historical events. I found myself manipulating certain "facts" of history in order to emphasize what I consider to be the emotional truths of Otis' story.
Facts versus truth: perhaps only a dramatist would conceive of such a struggle. From my point of view, the trouble with a "literal" rendering of the Otis story is that it is inefficient and dramatically unfocused. Drama is about conflict and focus and pacing.
Playwrights like to order their story events in ways that build tension and keep focus on the central dramatic issue of the story. History almost never plays out with such order, and therefore dramatists frequently rearrange events and change emphases in order to tell a more compelling story.
However, as they do this, conscientious dramatists strive to retain the essence of
the emotional truth
that lies at the foundation of the historical events and period.
Here is what we know about his story:
-- In 1761, Otis resigned his position as King's Advocate because it would require that he defend the
Writs of Assistance in court (these were powerful search warrants). Instead he led the legal fight
against them, representing the citizens of Boston.
-- Otis became a leader against unpopular new taxes levied against the colonies.
-- Otis' wife Ruth, a High Tory (Otis was a Whig), became embarrassed by her husband's political
activities. Some considered his activity treasonous.
-- Otis met with Governor Bernard of Massachusetts, defending his loyalty to the Crown. He agreed to write a Vindication arguing that citizens should comply with the law and pay taxes, not refuse to pay them as the Virginia Legislature had urged its citizens to do (Samuel Adams had published this decision in the Boston paper).
-- As protest over taxes moved into the streets, sometimes turning violent, Otis became more erratic in his behavior. He broke windows, picked fights in the House of Representatives, and had fits during which he burned his writings.
-- He spent the Revolutionary War in exile.
--Otis burns his life's work.
-- Otis died while watching a thunderstorm, struck down by lightning.
I manipulate these events in several ways in my play. Let me focus on two moments: Otis' burning of his life's work and the poem written after his death. Watching my play, the audience is led to believe that Otis burned all his life's work in one moment just before his death because this is the only time I
mention it. This is not what happened. I changed the "facts" of history in order to emphasize the
overwhelming emotional content and importance of the act -- destroying a life's work and thereby writing oneself out of history! This was such an extraordinary act that I chose to emphasize it, which meant relating it in a way more dramatically powerful than the erratic, unfocused action of the historical Otis. So I save this event until the end of the play.
If I had revealed earlier that Otis was periodically destroying his work, then I would have lost the edge of this scene, its powerful and shocking surprise at play's end. I deliberately sacrificed the literal facts for what I believe is a deeper emotional truth, conveying to the audience the emotional meaning of Otis' act. In my play, the short poem about Otis' death is recited by his sister, Mercy. Although I never say she wrote it, the implication is clear. The audience already knows she's a poet. Most will assume she wrote it. Why do I let this historical inaccuracy slip by?
For reasons of focus and emphasis.
Mercy is the narrator of the play, the story is cast as her recollections of her brother and her sense of
tragedy that history has forgotten him -- so it makes perfect dramatic sense that the last moment, the poem, belongs to her as well. In writing drama, what is left out is at least as important as what is written. Drama is about focus and efficiency, so that conflict isn't dissipated by relatively unimportant information. Historians favor informational complexity, while dramatists favor emotional complexity, which is best communicated by simple, not complex, exposition. We want our audiences to feel our material first and understand it second.
Often, the historical dramatist has to create scenes out of insufficient information. Consider Otis' visit with the Governor, in which he agrees to write a Vindication urging citizens to obey the law, an act that is the turning point in his story, the moment when his own vision of the future (colonial representation in Parliament) and the vision of his followers (moving toward independence) begin to move apart. This is a critical scene in the play, a clash between two strong personalities.
Not all historical drama is written conscientiously, of course. Sometimes a writer has a particular
interpretation of history to pitch, such as Oliver Stone in "JFK." More often a writer will let the
dynamics of a story find their own way: thus Peter Shaffer has three different versions of "Amadeus," the London stage play, the New York stage play, and the movie. Each version becomes less historical but at the same time more powerful because more focused and more dramatically efficient. Shaffer has written about this process in the introduction to the published script.
Occasionally the conflict between dramatists and historians becomes comic. Given such a free environment, I [might take] the risk of telling the story backwards, on a timeline that went
from the end of their relationship to its beginning. I [might do] this in order to conclude the play with the most dramatic moment. Historical dramatists always will emphasize a good story over a literal treatment of events, and historians always will complain about the results."
IN THE LAB:
Last class I asked you to complete the basic scene starter and setting exercise. Take this assignment and use it to complete your own history play. What are the rules/expectations?
1. Length is up to you, but it should be at least a 10-minute play (about 7-10 pages in script format)--you may, of course, write more than a 10-minute play script. Overall your play should have a beginning, middle, and compelling end. Say something insightful about what it's like to be a human being!
2. You will write this play at home or during your advisement periods. Not in the lab. Our lab may be open when you have an advisement period. Please ask.
3. A draft of this script is due Dec. 12. I suggest you start working on it today. Write the draft relatively quickly, then use the time between now and Dec. 12 to fine tune, add historical data, and flesh out your characters and plot. Don't get bogged down too much in research!
4. If you're writing a short play (7-10 pages) you should start very close to the end of the historical conflict. Get in there and write. The plays Amadeus and The Lion in Winter will be valuable models for your own work. So to, are the plays Henry V and most of Charles Busch's plays. Use them as models.
5. Your play may be a comedy or parody, if you'd like.
6. While you may start off with some research, it is often better to write about humans and human motivations, rather than worry too much about historical accuracy. Use the advice from the article above as some helpful advice.
7. You may NOT write a contemporary play. I don't want anything written after your parents were born. That means you should not write about the early 21st century or even the 1980's. Challenge yourself by choosing a historical period that intrigues or interests you. Use your knowledge of social studies and history classes as a way to examine parallel ideas--ideas that happened in the past but are still relevant today.
8. Consider a suggested set--like Shakespeare uses--where only props and costumes are used to suggest the time period--this is NOT a film. It is also NOT realistic. It is theater! Your play should use the creative conventions of the stage.
9. Don't forget that it is DIALOGUE that drives a play and reveals character. Get those characters talking and debating and arguing. They'll do the rest if you have them talk about important subjects. Remember your poetic techniques and literary devices. Imagery, people. Use it. Remember to give your protagonist at least one good monologue (or more).
10. Have fun. Change the details in history as you need to in order to make the play dramatic and interesting. Challenge yourself by thinking outside the box and be creative!
HOMEWORK: Work on your play projects. You will need to accomplish this task on your own time. Mark off a day or two at home or in the evenings before bedtime to write the play. If you write the draft NOW (this week, for example), you will NOT have to procrastinate. I know most of you complete your work at the very last minute. Set your deadline ahead so that you trick yourself into completing this assignment.
Please read Amadeus by Peter Shaffer as inspiration and a model of the kind of play we're dealing with here. You might even like the play. It's just that good. There will be a test and discussion on this play on Dec. 3. Feel free to use the graphic organizer notes to help you remember main plots, themes, and characters.