Representing someone biographically changes depending on the medium. While non-fiction demands accuracy and verification of facts, theatre seems to encourage storytelling and fantastical representations. This paper looks at the differing expectations audiences have of theatre compared to the expectations readers have of books. It also contrasts cases where writers have been punished for lying in their memoirs while playwrights have been able to invent huge parts of their historical and biographical plays.
The paper looks at the issues involved in writing plays about real people and discusses what happens when you find a hidden story and reinvent it; taking liberties with time and space to put characters together on stage who were never together in real life. What ethical dilemmas are involved in working this way and mixing truth and fiction? Should a hidden story remain hidden or does the truth deserve to be told?
Writing the biography of someone who is alive and can tell you their story in their own words is very different to researching the life of someone who has passed away. This is especially the case if their death is still fresh in the memories of the people who were close to them. The problems the biographer faces when trying to unearth hidden stories about the deceased change depending on the medium the writer is using.
My research indicates that writing for the stage gives the playwright far greater licence than writing a literary biography does. While non-fiction demands accuracy and verification of facts, theatrical biography seems to encourage storytelling and fantastical representations.
I use the term theatrical biography as a distinct form, separate from verbatim theatre, which is committed to faithfully representing facts in the actual words of those whose stories are being told. Theatrical biography is a much looser and freer form and I will argue that, in most cases, it is a form that is not constrained to pedantically follow facts or events.
The guide Creating Historical Drama states that:
Rather than being servant to the facts, playwrights can invent or discard as their purposes direct, for it is their privilege and indeed function as creative artists to intensify the truth about life as they perceive it.’ (Moe, Parker and McCalmon, 2005: 40)
Howard Barker (2005) takes this a step further when he says: ‘To ask for truth in theatre is contradictory, a repudiation of its essence’ (4). If it is true that playwrights are free to invent and discard facts in their representations of real lives, how and why did they get this special dispensation: a dispensation that is not granted to other writers of biography? Is it because they are writing for an audience instead of for a reader?
‘…[W]e usually draw a very sharp distinction between fact and fiction, and we usually think about “experience” falling on the factual side of this divide.’ (Lauritzen, 2004, 21) So why are playwrights allowed to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction in the way they do?
Playwright Charles Deemer in his article “Writing the Historical Play” talks about the conflicts that 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 [the] story.’
Unlike theatrical biographers or those dealing with biography in a theatrical format, literary biographers and memoirists can get into all sorts of trouble when they start veering from the perceived truth. The following are a few key examples.
Dutch – Edmund Morris – an authorised biography gone wrong.
When Edmund Morris published his authorised biography of Ronald Reagan, Dutch, in 1999, the condemnation was swift and severe (Masur, 1999, Craig, 1999). Reviewing it in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani said: ‘Mr. Morris has produced a book that is anything but scholarly or substantial. He has produced a bizarre, irresponsible and monstrously self-absorbed book…’ (The New York Times, 2 October 1999)
Before writing Dutch, Morris won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Roosevelt. He seemed a natural choice for the biography of Reagan who was President at the time. He had unparalleled access to the White House and to Reagan but, after more than a decade, he couldn’t get any closer to the book he wanted to write. And so he decided to invent things. He invented a character named Edmund Morris but born decades earlier, an autobiographical character who could befriend Reagan in his early years and see things first hand. He muddied his research with the fabrication and further infuriated readers by presenting his inventions with footnotes in the same way that he footnoted the real things that had happened. (Masur, 1999)
It’s interesting to note what his publisher Random House said about the copyright in the first edition:
This is an authorized biography and a work of extensive scholarship. All the words (written or spoken) of Ronald Reagan, all his recounted thoughts and acts, and indeed those of every historical character in the text, are matters of fact and of record. Full documentation is available in the Notes… (Morris1999)
After the condemnation, this paragraph was removed from the paperback edition and replaced instead with a 10-page Publisher’s Note:
All that Dutch asks of a first-time reader is that he or she be willing to accept, in its early pages, the presence of a fictional narrator. […] Only the means Edmund Morris employs […] go beyond those of orthodox nonfiction. Yet close analysis of the notes will show that even the most apparently imaginary episodes are nothing more than imaginative in execution. They merely tell the truth in ways altogether new. (Morris, 1999: xiii)
A Million Little Pieces – James Frey – the memoir that wasn’t
According to James Frey, he originally wrote A Million Little Pieces (2003) as a work of fiction. He was unable to find a publisher and his agent recommended he resubmit it as a memoir. Not only did it get published and become a best seller, the memoir angle grabbed Oprah Winfrey and she selected the book for her vastly influential book club. When the Smoking Gun website revealed that many of the facts in the book had been exaggerated, embellished or fabricated (A Million Little Lies, 2006), Frey was publicly humiliated on Oprah, his publisher was made to reimburse anyone who had bought the book wanting non-fiction and Frey’s future looked to be in tatters. In 2006, Frey wrote a note to preface the Anchor Books edition of A Million Little Pieces, which said: ‘My mistake […] is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience.’ (Frey, 2004)
Two years later I heard Frey talk at the 2008 Brisbane Writers Festival, where he was a guest. Frey was interviewed by Susan Wyndham and his tone had changed to one of bravado:
‘Mixing fact and fiction isn’t a new thing,’ Frey said. ‘It’s just become a big deal because of this marketing term “memoir”’ (Frey, 2008).
He went on to claim that readers find fiction in every newspaper. ‘Our lives are all about subjectivity and opinion,’ he said. ‘Truth isn’t necessarily fact. They’re completely different things. Truth feels right on the inside. Fact is verifiable. I couldn’t give a fuck about fact.’ (2008)
He admitted embellishing things to make the story better. ‘If I couldn’t find what I wanted I’d just make it up … As the creator of this book I am omnipotent.’ (2008)
Forbidden Love – Norma Khouri – the honour killing that never happened
Norma Khouri’s memoir (Forbidden Love, 2003) was written, apparently, as a tribute to her best friend, Dalia, who was the victim of an honour killing in Jordan. Khouri claimed to be in hiding, a refugee, who would have been killed as well for making the facts known. She sold hundreds of thousands of copies of her book before the truth came to light thanks to author and journalist Malcolm Knox. Khouri had lived her life in America, not Jordan. She had a husband and children and left them behind to play the part of the refugee fleeing persecution. It would appear that all the events in her memoir were fabricated (Knox, 2004, Caterson, 2005).
In her analysis in Soft Weapons, Gillian Whitlock (2007) says that: ‘the hoax leaves a legacy of suspicion and taint in its wake that diminishes trust for testimony more generally’ (119). She goes on to say that:
Faux testimony is an act of sacrilege: it tampers not just with property and truth (which are abused in all literary hoaxes) but also with faith and trust. It is an outrage to the reader, to the dead on whose behalf it seeks advocacy and remembrance, and the living who remain silenced victims of abuse (120).
Playwrights frequently invent characters or events to add to their biographical plays. They have been exaggerating and embellishing their biographical subjects since Shakespeare’s highly imagined historical plays, seemingly with impunity.
…whereas nonfiction prose writers felt constrained by the straitjacket of historical, antiquarian scholarship, the Bard felt licensed to speculate and interpret at will – looking into the ‘empty corners’ of history, where angels and scholars feared to tread… (Hamilton, 2007: 66)
Recent Australian plays like The Drowning Bride (Futcher and Howard, 2005), The Seed(Mulvany, 2008), A Beautiful Life (Futcher and Howard, 2000), and Oodgeroo (Watson, 2009) have heightened and exaggerated events to make for more dramatic theatre, without any evident backlash or criticism. The times where there has been criticism about a play that is based on real people or real events, the criticism has been more to do with ethics and permission rather than to do with how closely dramatised events follow historical accuracy. The backlash that literary memoirists and biographers receive is of a different order altogether to that experienced by playwrights.
In researching this paper, there have been two plays based on real events that stand out for receiving criticism in Australia. They are Tot Mom – Steven Soderbergh’s play produced by Sydney Theatre Company (STC) – and Blackrock by Nick Enright. Neither play has been criticised for inventing facts or for lack of truthfulness; instead, both are criticised for tackling sensitive subjects.
Tot Mom – Stephen Soderbergh
Tot Mom is about the 2008 murder of toddler Caylee Anthony in America. Even before it opened at STC on 23rd December 2009, the play had been lambasted by American websites, news services, and blogs for the sensitive nature of the content. While the production received mixed reviews, it did not receive the same ire from Australian reporters as it did from their American counterparts.
Curiously enough, Tot Mom is running contemporaneously with pre-trial hearings of the Casey Anthony case due in less than two weeks. Having witnessed the ‘pre-pre-trial’, which plays to an Australian audience like an extraordinary breach of judicial protocol, it is inevitable that issues such as privacy laws and the right to a fair trial come to mind. (Blain, 2010)
The reaction to the news of the play’s existence prompted STC to put a caveat at the bottom of the page on their website promoting the production:
Steven Soderbergh is donating his fees for Tot Mom to the US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and the Sydney Theatre Company will make no profit from this production. (Tot Mom, STC website, 2009)
Blackrock/A Property of the Clan– Nick Enright
In 1992 Nick Enright wrote the play A Property of the Clan, based on the real life murder of 14-year-old Leigh Leigh in Newcastle in 1989. Enright conducted many interviews in the community and went on to write ‘what was ostensibly a fictional play although he returned to Newcastle to conduct readings of the draft script and invite community response’ (Hunter, 2008, 83).
Enright wrote a play inspired by real events and real people but not based on them. His play was not verbatim theatre. It cannot be compare to The Laramie Project (Laufman, 2001) orAftershocks (Brown, 1993), both of which were written entirely from interviews. Perhaps the fact that Enright did interviews and then fictionalised events and characters was part of the problem.
When Enright rewrote A Property of the Clan (1994) and turned it into the screen and stage playBlackrock (1996), there were criticisms about the changes he made in the way he represented the victim and perpetrators.
…controversy has surrounded the transformation of Leigh Leigh’s experience into entertainment to this extent, with members of the Newcastle community expressing their sense of violation and exploitation at the filming of Blackrock at Stockton Beach near Newcastle. (Hunter, 2008: 89)
Although Enright had fictionalised the characters and his account of the events, the fact that the play and film were inspired by Leigh Leigh’s murder caused unease in some viewers and commentators. But this is very different to the consternation caused when a writer claims to be presenting fact and is then shown to have lied. The question I keep coming back to is why is this consternation so much more prevalent in non-fiction than it is in theatre? Clearly, it comes down to expectations.
What does the audience expect from biographical theatre? Audiences expect theatre to move and entertain them. Theatre is a communal act. Once inside the theatre, everyone in the audience is privy to something no one else will be privy to. Because theatre is a live medium, no two shows will be the same. This gives a sense of community and, when the experience is positive, a sense of privilege to the audience. Verbatim theatre and social realist theatre can be message heavy but, even then, there is an awareness that the actors are playing roles. They are not labouring ortoiling or working the roles, they are playing. And the audience comes to see a play, by its very name something playful and fanciful.
Some playwrights talk about being faithful to the emotional truth of their subjects, rather than adhering to the facts.
Historical truth gets complicated when it meets theatre and performance. I feel I have a responsibility to the truth, but not necessarily to the literal, surface details of the truth. (Verdecchia, 2006: 335)
It is interesting to note that plays may be marketed as being historical or based on real events, but they are not labelled as biographical or memoirs. Biographical theatre is a term I am using for this paper, but it is not a term that is in common use. This might also be a factor in the different expectations audiences have of theatre than they do of non-fiction.
What does the reader expect from a biography?
Readers expect accuracy and honesty in biographies, histories and memoirs. Fiction tells stories and biographies tell the truth. (Lauritzen, 2004) That is the pact made between writer and reader (Vanuska, 2008, quoting Sue William Silverman). It is what the publisher promises.
The problem is that readers expect the truth to be told in a way that is entertaining. Truth on its own is not enough when it comes to writing. For a book to be read or a play to be seen – and that is the purpose of both mediums – it must entertain its audience, cause them to turn the page, or stay in their seats.
Being entertaining means being selective in which bits of the truth you tell, how you tell them and in what order you put them. All of a sudden, the truth you are telling becomes a modified version of the truth – it becomes the writer’s version, rather than history’s version.
Uncovering the truth is never easy or clear cut. ‘No experience is pure; memory is all-corrupting … what happened in the past is never separable from what we think happened’ (Larson, 2007: 57). Speaking to an eyewitness just gives one person’s impressions and memories, slanted from their viewpoint. It does not automatically authenticate a story or a memory.
Thomas Larson has worked for many years with memoirists. He writes:
In my experience, nine out of ten memoirists will confess that they embellish their stories for dramatic effect. Nine out of ten will also admit that their memories of events have made their stories more dramatic than the original events themselves. (152-153)
Janet Malcolm (1990) talks about the expectations we have of fiction and non-fiction writers:
…the writer of fiction is entitled to more privileges. He is master of his own house and may do what he likes in it; he may even tear it down if he is so inclined […]. But the writer of nonfiction is only a renter, who must abide by the conditions of his lease, which stipulates that he leave the house – and its name is Actuality – as he found it. […] The writer of nonfiction is under contract to the reader to limit himself to events that actually occurred and to characters who have counterparts in real life, and he may not embellish the truth about these events or these characters. (153)
Writers versus playwrights
In the book Theatre and Autobiography Sharon Pollock (2006) states that a biographer stays true to the facts, never embellishing or changing details, whereas a playwright takes the juicy bits and discards anything that does not suit the play. The playwright in her definition is a parasite (297).
But biographers also have to be selective in which parts of a life they choose to reveal and which events they discard. Taking a person’s life and showing the parts of it that interest you, will always give a biased version of that life. Nigel Hamilton sums this up when he states that the eternal question that hangs over biographical portraiture is: ‘Where does fact end and interpretation begin?’ (2007: 15)
To help himself stay on track, playwright Paul Galloway affixes a quote from Henry James to the front of his drafts: ‘The historian, essentially, wants more documents than he can really use; the dramatist only wants more liberties than he can really take.’ (Galloway, 2009: ix-x)
The deceased subject
Writing about a real person, especially one who is no longer around to set the record straight, is fraught with dangers. It is all too easy to write only the positive things – the chances are they will be what relatives and friends willingly share. When it comes to exposing skeletons in cupboards and dark secrets, the biographer treads a narrow and ill-lit path. And one that is full of ethical dilemmas.
‘Writers have a right to write. But how far into the privacy of others does that right extend?’ (Freadman, 2004: 123)
In an era where personal information is shared publicly more and more often, via websites, blogs and chatrooms, privacy can seem like an antiquated notion (Eakin, 2004: 6-9). The point to remember is that most people are choosing to share their personal information – they are not having that information publicised by a third party.
Writers, digging for juicy information about the deceased, risk uncovering long buried secrets. If and when they find them, do they have the right to reveal the secret to the world, or should the subject be allowed to rest in peace, with their secrets kept close and private, the way they would probably have wanted them? Whose story is it once the subject is no longer living?
Ancient history is easier: there is no one left living to affront or to question the authenticity of the work. But, when writing about the recently deceased, there are many people who feel vested interest in the work and ownership of the subject. Things become more difficult when the writing is about family. Those who write memoir, autobiography or the biographies of their family members are in the privileged position of having access to information that other biographers would not have.
All families have secrets. Sometimes they are of the variety that a family keeps from outsiders; sometimes they are the sort that a family keeps from itself; sometimes they are the sort whose presence no one consciously admits. But they are almost always there. People have a deep need for secrets. The question is what to do with them and about them, and when to let them go. (Lanchester, 2007: 1)
The playwright biographer has much more freedom than the literary biographer: freedom to imagine and invent and freedom to be selective about which aspects of a character or what events are presented.
Part of this may well be because the playwright’s words go through so many levels of interpretation before being seen by an audience. Whereas the literary biographer’s writing is a contract between author and reader, the playwright biographer has his or her writing filtered by directors, designers and actors before being interpreted by the audience. This might make audiences more forgiving of any licence that has been taken.
Or perhaps plays are able to slip under the radar more easily. The theatre-going audience is small and most plays create barely a ripple on the public’s consciousness. Maybe this is why playwrights have, so far, remained largely unscathed by the current demand for authenticity and veracity.
Writing someone’s life story, whether it is for stage, screen or book format, requires that the writer filter information. Because all biographers have to be selective and actively choose what to include and what to omit, which hidden stories to reveal and which to leave buried, there will always be some colouring of the resultant work with the writer’s personal preferences. While literary biographers and memoirists have been scrutinised in recent years, playwrights have, so far, remained unscathed.
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