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Charles Deemer

Oregon Literary Review

MFA, Playwriting, University of Oregon

Writing faculty, Portland State University (part-time)

Retired playwright and screenwriter.
Active novelist, librettist and teacher.

Email: cdeemer(at)yahoo(dot)com

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The Writing Life...
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The Writing Life II

(Posts archived here are from 01/10/03 - 10/31/06)

Monday, September 11, 2006  
History, drama and documentaries
I watched the first installment of The Path to 9/11 but will wait till I see the rest before commenting on it. What concerns me here is the controversy it's generated, especially by Clinton folks, who even wanted it pulled from the air.

Surrounding this controversy are two important issues: a misunderstanding about the nature of historical drama; and a cultural propensity to mistrust imaginative works over "factual" ones. Let me begin with the first.

Historical drama has never accurately presented the "facts" of history. No one goes to Shakespeare to learn English history. One goes to Shakespeare to learn how humans with and without power behave in moments of historical crisis. The dramatist presents human stories, not historical "facts."

For example, there is a scene in the TV special that apparently did not happen, Sandy Berger's pulling the rug out from under a plan to capture bin Laden. But the scene, which played last night, does not focus on this but on a bigger issue, as stated on the ground where a plan is in place to capture bin Laden if given the green light, which no one in Washington D.C. will do: "Are there no men in Washington? Is everyone a coward?" The human truth of this historical moment is that everyone in power was covering their ass and not realizing the importance of the threat at hand. An important moment to capture bin Laden was missed. But not just Berger is to blame: everyone with authority is to blame. That is the clear dramatic point made. Now if you're Sandy Berger, you'd be understandably pissed but it's not as if one person is being hung out to dry.

All this is complicated because the players are still alive. Dramatists with good sense change names in such cases, as Arthur Miller did when writing a play about his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. This brings us to the second issue, our culture's propensity to believe narratives "based on a true story" more than creative narratives. This is a great cultural failure. We prefer "facts" to "truth." In seems to me -- and I'll say more after I've seen it all -- that the TV special tells the truth. This truth is heavily documented in the recent book of investigative journalism The Looming Tower, which I highly praised recently but which was published too late to be a source for The Path to 9/11. But the fictional TV drama (which is repeatedly identified as such) captures the spirit of what actually happened as documented in the book. Sure, some facts are wrong. But if the truth is everyone in authority is to blame, it hardly matters which individual is singled out in a small moment to serve the economy of drama.

I've written a lot of historical drama, most of it commissioned. When I was playwright-in-residence at the New Rose Theatre in the 80s, I was commissioned to write a play based on the life of Moliere. Moreover, I was to write the play for four, and only four, particular actors. What an extraordinary gig! I spent a year doing research, and what interested me most was the small possibility that Moliere had married his daughter by a previous lover. Only about ten percent of the historical material considered this a viable possibility. (Later, long after I had written the play, a Russian biographer also thought so.) Yet I considered this the most potent dramatic material in Moliere's history. I wasn't so much interested in whether it was true or not as in the effect the possibility had on Moliere's mental state, particularly in the religious climate in which he lived. And he was accused of this in his life time.

The artistic director who commissioned the play was not interested in this emphasis, so I had to bury it in the play I wrote for him. Later, however, I returned to the material and rewrote it my way, which became Sad Laughter. In the original, it is left ambiguous whether Moliere married his daughter or not. In the new version, it's still not certain but we do know that his ex-love is the mother of his young wife -- but there are several candidates for being the father. The emphasis, I repeat, is how this affects Moliere's mind, and my hypothesis is that his mental state from this affects his obsession in writing and finishing Tartuffe. I wrote a psychological study of Moliere, not an historical one, from the facts and possibilities at hand.

The process goes like this: the dramatist does his homework. S/he drafts the script with all the historical notes at hand. S/he throws away the notes and looks at the script as a play and rewrites to improve it as drama. Peter Schaeffer, author of Amadeus, has written eloquently on this process, focusing on the three different versions of his play, in order: the London stage play, the New York stage play, the movie. Each new version became "less historical."

Drama is messy from an historical point of view. Usually my commissioned historical work was funded by the Oregon Council for the Humanities, which required that an historian of the period at hand be present as an advisor. I was forever arguing with them. They wanted the facts; I wanted the dramatic truth. In my best experience in this context, a drama about the relationship between Abigail Scott Duniway and her brother Harvey Scott, we had two historians, the biographer of each. They couldn't agree on anything! I loved it! I was able to wiggle between them and more or less do what I wanted.

Historical drama is messy. The documentary traditionally is less messy, relying more on facts and less on creative moments. But this has changed, too, with filmmakers like Michael Moore turning the form into fiction, full of moments manufactured to make political points, which I call the sockumentary. Other recent filmmakers satirize the form, the mockumentary. But there still is a place for straight documentaries attempting to present the facts. However, this has never been the job of the dramatist.

It is unfortunate that we live in a culture that values literal facts at the expense of a more spiritual kind of truth, so that a few small trees get in the way of seeing the forest. Shakespeare was a terrible historian. But thank the gods that he was because what he gave us is far more important and lasting than the accuracy of dates. He gave us ourselves.

(Also see my essay, Writing the History Play.)

9/11/2006 08:46:00 AM | 0 comments

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