From Textbook to Stage Text: The Tricks of Dramatizing History

How does a playwright best convey a historical event or the perspective of a given group of people without losing either dramatic impact or authenticity? And just what is authenticity, anyway? Is this country indeed what Gore Vidal called "The United States of Amnesia?"

These were among the intriguing topics under discussion by top playwrights and professors at a panel entitled "Amnesia, Nostalgia, Authenticity: Rewriting History for the Stage"--part of a conference, "Thinking and Doing: Performance and Text," sponsored by the Oscar Hammerstein II Center for Theatre Studies of Columbia University's School of the Arts. The conference brought together theatre professors with "practitioners" to explore the role of the text in theatrical productions.

The panelists had stellar histories of their own to draw upon in contributing to the discussion. Among David Henry Hwang's many plays are "M. Butterfly" and "Golden Child." Emily Mann wrote and directed "Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters' First 100 Years"; she also directed "Twilight: Los Angeles 1992," Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman show at the Mark Taper Forum. University of Calgary professor Susan Bennett is the author of several books, and will become co-editor of Theatre Journal this fall.

Columbia Associate Professor Anne Bogart is artistic director of the Saratoga International Theatre Institute. The panel's moderator was Brown University professor David Savran, author of books about leading American playwrights and on masculinity in contemporary American culture.

Letting Many Voices Speak

Savran threw out the question, "What does history mean to you?" The general consensus was that it means passing along the stories of what other people have done, how they lived, so that we can learn from them. The old saw that, in art, the specific becomes universal emerged repeatedly, as panelists described internal voyages leading to their dealing with subjects that affect society as a whole.

"I'm looking for who I am as an American," said Anne Bogart. While all agreed on the lack of historical consciousness in this country (Savran expressed shock at his students' ignorance of history, and Bogart put forth Vidal's quote), there was also agreement that what Bogart called the "redescribing" of events makes them real. "Speaking and redescribing are radical acts," she

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said. "As artists, we choose what will be attended to."

Emily Mann noted, "It has often been said that history is the story of the victors. I try to preserve the unheard voices in our society." Susan Bennett said that she had been told her concerns were too narrow because she focuses on women's stories--an example of the difficulties facing those hoping to air the "unheard voices."

Mann--who is artistic director of Princeton's McCarter Theatre--said that, as the daughter of a history professor, she feels a responsibility not to distort facts. "The Holocaust happened. Slavery happened. No matter how deeply you go into the creative process, certain things are simply true, even if people do not want to face them."

She became interested in historically-based works after reading Holocaust survivors' recounting of their experiences. These had been recorded as part of the American Jewish Committee's oral history project, which Mann's father worked on. Inspired, she went on to explore this genre--using, for instance, the words of a Vietnam veteran she interviewed as he painfully recalled his role in the massacre at My Lai. "In 1978, many people on the left didn't want to hear about the veterans as human beings," she recalled. Last season, she wrote "Greensboro: A Requiem," after she spoke with many people living in and around Greensboro, N.C. at the time of a Klu Klux Klan attack which occurred there in 1978. "I do a great deal of preparatory research," she said.

Bogart pointed out that a theatrical "moment" can convey the sense of what happened at a given time in a more powerful way than can straightforward facts. She cited as an example the song "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" from "Cabaret," wherein a good-looking, young blond boy sings "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" with an expression full of an ardor so infectious that everyone around him in an outdoor cafe rises to join him. This communicates a feeling of inspiration to the audience--a feeling which turns to horror as the boy slowly raises his arm, decorated with a swastika, in a Nazi salute. The mob spirit that overcame Germany and the bloodcurdling realization of what this was to mean are conveyed through a purely theatrical moment, Bogart said.

Mann and Hwang strongly agreed with this observation. Mann noted that in "Greensboro: A Requiem," she portrays David Duke as he first seemed when she met him--a well-spoken, clean-cut man. He then sets forth his view of what America should be, and the dangers in that view leap out.

Consciousness and Clairvoyance

David Henry Hwang said that, while he is writing, the script "just comes pouring out" of his subconscious. "I may be writing about a place I've never been, like the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, but I've got to take it from my own consciousness. It's the only consciousness I've got."

He indicated that he, too, is searching for his own identity as an American. "I don't want people to feel that somehow there's one Asian-American voice," he emphasized. "Asian-Americans are not monolithic." He later noted that he has seen works, written by Asian- Americans as Asian-American plays, which he does not feel have an Asian sensibility or ring true to his experience. Other works do.

"Much of what gets passed down as history is society's mythology," Hwang also observed. Bogart agreed, noting: "Many of us imagined the French Revolution to be 'Les Miz' before we'd ever seen 'Les Miz.' "

Hwang gave an example of how the particular can magically becomes the universal. He described a phenomenon that came from what Bogart called the creative "leap" you must take to write about other people's experience--a leap that somehow leads to the truth. "Sometimes I'll take something from my imagination and learn later that it happened." It was only after he wrote the imprisoned French ambassador's suicide attempt in "M. Butterfly" that Hwang learned the man actually had made an in-prison attempt to kill himself in real life.

Bogart and Mann had had the same experience. The Delaney sisters' nieces and nephews asked Mann how she knew that their aunts had had certain mannerisms, which Mann had simply written in to flesh out the characters. Bogart's play "The Medium"--based on the theories of Marshall McLuhan--had been on tour for some time, when McLuhan's daughter asked the director how she knew that her father's favorite piece of music was "Ave Maria," played at one point in the production. Bogart hadn't known. The playwrights said this kind of visceral insight sprang from a creative connection to the material.

There was much discussion of audience response. "Having Our Say" attracted racially mixed audiences, while "Twilight: Los Angeles 1992" drew mostly white patrons. While "Having Our Say" was seen as inspirational, a victory over adverse circumstances, many middle-aged, middle-class black people were uncomfortable with the strong language and sometimes negative characterizations in "Twilight."

But Mann found that racially mixed groups of high school students could talk about "Twilight" in a down-to-earth fashion, making straightforward insights about race relations that were "miles ahead of older people."

There was discussion of the differences between history and "nostalgia" in our society, which is so affected by mass culture. One audience member felt that nostalgia amounts to conservatives wishing things were the way they'd been when their perspective was the only one being conveyed. But, Susan Bennett noted, people on the left also often wished to see history portrayed their way. Savran noted the danger of glorifying "nostalgia," leading to "viewing 'The Brady Bunch Movie' as history."

Hwang noted that "M. Butterfly" was viewed very differently in various places. In Moscow, after Perestroika, the joy of seeing shows that would previously have been forbidden "made it seem like a combination of 'Cabaret' and 'Hair.' But that's OK. The audience doesn't have to see it my way."

The general consensus seemed to be that, as Anne Bogart put it, "the job of the artist is to drop everything and attend to what matters to you personally," and to convey to the world why that matters. Passing human experience along "in an anecdotal form," noted Mann, guides us to how to shape