Whose stories we tell : what factors need to be taken into consideration in the creation of a theatrical play text based on a historical figure? : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Creative Writing at Massey University, New Zealand, School of English and Media Studies
Be it a biography or a work of fiction based on a historical figure, documented facts impose certain limitations on writers in all genres. And yet, historical records always contain gaps, and “onto that blank space writers (...) bring the remnants of the past they select in telling their stories” (Hampl & May, 2008, p. 3). Playwrights are not an exception where working with documented sources is concerned.
So-called “documented” history is often manipulated by historians into a certain shape and mould, depending on many factors such as current ideology, cultural norms and political agenda. Playwrights and fiction writers do the same thing – but they can afford the luxury of telling their stories through the stories of the characters, making their tales relevant to their own personal experiences and the experiences of their audiences and societies. Sometimes we have to break free from the hold of the documented events for the sake of clarity and the coherency of our narratives, giving the characters stronger, better defined and more consistent voices.
Working on plays based on a historical character(s), playwrights have to rely on their own interpretations of the events as well as drawing on their imagination, actively filling the gaps in historical and factual sources. In my creation of Dear Jane I, as a
playwright, had to learn about the existing biographical narratives and my heroine’s mainstream public image before making my own creative decisions as to how to use this information. I was relying not only on facts, but also on my own experience as an
immigrant and my creative thinking as a writer to build an original stage narrative.
When writing about historical figures, we often invite our audiences on a timetravelling journey, to investigate the characters’ choices and/or alleged crimes, either directly or in a more figurative sense. In such cases the opening scenes are often used to
show the end result or to pose a question; the narrative concentrates on the reasons for the protagonist’s choices and actions, and the outcome is already known. . . . Playwrights create fiction, not documentary biopics, and answers to those questions will vary depending on the playwright’s creative choices and interpretations. And while the distant events and the “once upon a time, in a land far away” framework provides much more creative freedom than the constraints imposed by the depiction of recent events, in either case the playwright can manipulate the biographical jigsaw-puzzle, painting a unique theatrical picture.
In the creation of a theatrical play, the considerations of theatricality, style and finding unique voices of the characters must override the strict adherence to documented facts. Whether based on historical material or not, a play should tell a story that provokes discussions, poses questions and engages the audiences’ emotions. . . .
What is this play about? It is about human frailty and resilience; wrong choices and lost opportunities; and it is about making the best from the worst. It does not judge the characters. Time can’t be reversed, and while lost opportunities remain lost, there is not much point in lamenting them: at the end of the play, Jane refuses to lament her fate. She asserts herself as the one responsible for her choices, no matter what they were. . . .
Jane Deans’ ghost may or may not be still walking the hallways of Riccarton House, but her story makes us pause and think about the woman who wrote about her loneliness and isolation 150 years ago. Did she lose or find her way in marrying John
Deans and coming to New Zealand? The playwright and the audiences can only guess the answer.