Dramatizing History

Last night we had a staged reading of my play “The Reluctant Convert” about C.S. Lewis’ conversion from atheism to Christianity. It was a very productive, edifying experience, having given me a lot of food for thought about where to take my next draft of the script.
However, there is still one issue gnawing at me that came up in the talk back session after the show: the issue of historical accuracy versus dramatic structure. In the play, I tried to be very slavish to historical accuracy, as I tend to be with all of my historical shows. In a piece of fiction, I feel that I have the freedom to craft the piece however I darn well please, thus being able to milk dramatic structure for all its worth. In a historical piece I try to do the same, but within the context of the history of the piece.
But “Reluctant Convert” proved problematic, in the sense that Lewis’ conversion has nice build and rising action, but it is much more subtle, it is a very gradual (and in that way, more realistic) change that happens within him. And the climax– well, it’s not some splashy, Saul of Tarsus conversion. If you blink, you miss it, and are left confused and saying, “Wait, WHEN did he become a Christian?” And, historically speaking, not even C.S. Lewis knew when that happened. He said that he went on motor bike ride with his brother Warnie, went to zoo with Warnie and a couple of female friends, and then came home. Sometime in there, all of these things that had been building within himself, resolved themselves and he realized he was a Christian. So here at what is supposed to be the climax, instead of a bang, we have a whisper. Certainly not a pillar of light or an angel in the road. A barely audible still, small voice. Less dramatic, but certainly more in keeping with most people’s experiences, and especially C.S. Lewis’.
So here was my dillemma. Was I to “sweeten” the story a bit with some fictional details? Was I to take “artistic liscence” and some how crank it up a notch? There were many at the reading who thought that would have benefited the story. And at certain points, I had thought the same thing. Yet I had made a concious decision not to do so, because of my peculiar devotion to history. I had almost gone into history instead of theater, and so I have this strong desire not to go the route of Shakespeare and embellish too much on figures like Richard III. But is this my achilles heel as a playwright?
As a contrast to “The Reluctant Convert” is another play about C.S. Lewis (which won the pulitzer prize) called “Shadowlands.” It is one of my favorite plays. It is brilliantly written, searching in its questions and strong in its universality. Yet in this play, the playwright William Nicholson takes some strong liberties with history. Joy Gresham suddenly has one son instead of two, people like the J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings are replaced with fictional characters, and certain aspects of C.S. Lewis’ relationship with Joy are cranked up a notch. To those who haven’t a lot of C.S. Lewis background, they won’t even know that there has been any historical tampering. But many C.S. Lewis scholars have been upset by this. To paraphrase one, “It’s a great play, I just wish it had been about C.S. Lewis.”
When we write about any historical figure, whether Joseph Smith, Ghandi, Abraham Linoln or C.S. “Jack” Lewis, how much respect do we pay to the details of their lives? Obviously in a play or novel, some liberties have to be taken, things aren’t usually going to be word for word. But do we strive to fit as much as that history in that is possible? If somebody were going to write a play about our lives, would we want them to fudge on what we consider important details?
I don’t pretend to have a clear answer on this yet. But my personal feelings tend to bring me to the desire of a different title than just a playwright. I would prefer to be a playwright-historian (a playtorian? a historiplaywright?), when addressing historical work. Perhaps this is because I usually have a kind of deep rooted respect for my subjects. That’s usually why I’m writing about them. So I want to get it right. But, again, is this a flaw within my work?
The clearest answer to me, especially in this particular case, is to dig a little deeper in the history and see if I can’t find a way to justify historically a more heightened ending. But if I have to err, do I err on the side of history or dramatic structure?

10 thoughts on “Dramatizing History”

  1. I can’t say I’ve thought deeply about it, but I’d say tracking the history is most important in a book of history, but highlighting the drama takes on more weight in a dramatic production. Sometimes real life provides an adequate script, but sometimes some tinkering is needed to adequately convey and display, in a play, movie, or narrative, the drama implicit in the history.

    If Lewis himself didn’t know what changed him, the play needs to offer some possibility. Maybe there was a close call with a truck while on the bike which caused him to reflect. Maybe, at the zoo, he had a staring contest with a primate, then reflected, “There’s something behind my eyes that isn’t there behind his eyes.” But he crossed that bridge somewhere.

  2. I suppose it depends on what you’re trying to do with the piece. Are you trying to show people a history lesson very cleverly disguised as a play? Are you trying to convey specific thoughts and themes and using the play as a vehicle to carry those thoughts and feelings?

    When I go to a play, read a novel, watch a film…or read a history textbook or a biography, I know that it is not “true.” What I mean is that even the most judicious editor or compiler makes decisions of what material to include and what information to discard. It is impossible to have complete and total accuracy in such works. It is this very concept that makes historical and documentary drama so fascinating to me.

    I think it is wise to decide what your own purpose is in writing the play. I, personally, don’t have a preference one way or the other, but I can almost always tell when an author didn’t make a choice of what to emphasize, and both the drama and the history suffer for it. When there is trepidation in the author, it generally comes through in the work as well.

    I’m sure that this is all stuff that you’ve thought of before. Perhaps you can answer this question for me: why are you compelled to write plays about historical subjects? Why not become a historian? I am fascinated by the choice to write historical theatre, and am interested in your response.

    LAL

  3. First of all, for all those who are unaware of the fact, as I was, let me just say that Mahonri is an excellent playwright. I was thoroughly impressed by both pieces.

    I think this issue of historicity in fiction is an important one ““ especially in Mormon literature where our history is so important to us. And I’ve eventually come to decide that I think that that importance is what ought to hold the most weight. What I mean to say is, I think that in plays such as Mahonri’s “The Fading Flower,” which is based on the lives of Emma and her children, getting the history right is extremely important. It’s important because the history itself is important to the audience.

    In a play such as “The Reluctant Convert” however, it seemed to me that getting history right is somewhat less important for two reasons. One, the history itself is less known and less important to the general audience. We all like C. S. Lewis, but only real Lewis buffs are going to care about the specifics of his conversion. Secondly, and this is of course my interpretation, but it seemed to me that the play was as much about conversion itself as it was about the life of Lewis. (The Fading Flower, on the other hand, had some thematic lines, but seemed primarily about Emma and David.)

    I suppose the direction that “The Reluctant Convert” eventually went would depend on who you wanted the real main character to be ““ Lewis or Conversion. I would personally prefer the play where Conversion is the main character, because that has more application to me than the life of C.S. Lewis, but I think that’s just my preference in genre rather than anything to do with the play itself.

    I suppose, in summary, I see two things mitigating how history accurate fiction ought to be. 1. How important and well known that history is to the audience. 2. How significant that history is to the work itself. In other words, whether the history is just the setting for exploration of other stories or ideas, or whether the work is about the history itself.

  4. I remember reading somewhere about CS Lewis reaching a point of “surrender.” Just surrender. And he did. I think about that once in awhile. And wonder how he did it.

    I enjoyed Shadowlands, the movie, and another thing I saw on CS Lewis on public TV. I don’t know the title, I came in on the middle, but I enjoyed it.

    I usually don’t enjoy movies about books I’ve read, especially scripture. I guess I dont’ know enough about CS Lewis to know if the depictions are accurate or not.

    I like your title, though, the reluctant convert. I think he would be somewhat dismayed to know that so many people look up to him today. I have grown so much from his writing and lean on his wisdom. I bet he’s thinking, “are you crazy? I’m just as human as the next guy.”

  5. LAL Wrote:
    I’m sure that this is all stuff that you’ve thought of before. Perhaps you can answer this question for me: why are you compelled to write plays about historical subjects? Why not become a historian? I am fascinated by the choice to write historical theatre, and am interested in your response

    Mahonri:
    I’m compelled to write about certain historical subjects usually because I find some meaning within the event or the people involved. To slightly change the popular phrase, I often find that truth is more powerful than fiction. Thus historical truth often vibrates within me, finds a deeper place. Although I know that truth is distorted through the lens of a historian or author, I also know that at least we’re seeing the outline of it, the echo of a real voice.
    That doesn’t mean that I don’t find fiction just as meaningful. I love writing completely fictional work as well. But when I engage in a historical piece, I engage in it not because I want to recast it in my own image, but because the essentials of the real story awoke something within me.
    Why don’t I become a historian? For one thing, I prefer the art of theater than academics. A paper or essay doesn’t come alive the same way theater can. I’m utterly in love with the art form, and furthermore, utterly love historical pieces (for example, as much as I love Eric Samuelsen’s other plays, “The Seating of Senator Smoot” is still one of my favorites). Secondly, theater like film or any other art form reaches a different audience, an audience that wouldn’t necessarily read academic or historical journals.

  6. Eric wrote:
    I think this issue of historicity in fiction is an important one ““ especially in Mormon literature where our history is so important to us. And I’ve eventually come to decide that I think that that importance is what ought to hold the most weight. What I mean to say is, I think that in plays such as Mahonri’s “The Fading Flower,” which is based on the lives of Emma and her children, getting the history right is extremely important. It’s important because the history itself is important to the audience.

    In a play such as “The Reluctant Convert” however, it seemed to me that getting history right is somewhat less important for two reasons. One, the history itself is less known and less important to the general audience. We all like C. S. Lewis, but only real Lewis buffs are going to care about the specifics of his conversion. Secondly, and this is of course my interpretation, but it seemed to me that the play was as much about conversion itself as it was about the life of Lewis. (The Fading Flower, on the other hand, had some thematic lines, but seemed primarily about Emma and David.)

    Mahonri:
    Eric, I think you’ve nailed it on the head here with the difference between the historicity of the two pieces. With “The Fading Flower,” the history is of vital importance, especially since it deals with some hard hitting subjects about people who others have strong opinions on. I’m balancing the faith of two religions in my hands, and history is such an important part of LDS and RLDS (Community of Christ) identities. The more I fictionalize it, the less legitimate it becomes in the eyes of the audience. My points will be weakened, my purpose dilluted. The more I can back my points up with real history, the more impact the events will have on the audience.
    While with “The Reluctant Convert,” its just more important that I get right the Spirit of not only C.S. Lewis, but also of his works (thus the fictionalized “meeting Aslan” in the zoo). As much as I’ve strived to get it historically right, I think I have more room with him than with Emma Smith. And since the piece is less– uhm, challenging to preconceived ideas, there will be less scrutiny as to the details. I think you’re right its the idea of Christian conversion which is pivotal in the tale.
    By the way, thanks for coming for both shows and your flattering comments. Are you planning on writing some reviews for AML?

    Annegb, I, too love C.S. Lewis and treatments on him. Thus I wrote a play about him. :]
    The “surrender” he had in his conversion is exactly how he represents it. He talks as if he were at war, was outmatched, and gave up his arms. God won– which in the end was a victory for C.S. Lewis as well.

  7. Mahonri: “Although I know that truth is distorted through the lens of a historian or author, I also know that at least we’re seeing the outline of it, the echo of a real voice.”

    Me: I don’t know much about theater but did work on one “historical fiction” project. I didn’t think I would like it but once I got on the trail of the historical reasearch about this person and the country she lived in I became swept up in it, so I understand the allure. I also came to think of the responsibility an author takes on to narratize someone else’s experience as being serious business, especially since we have that tendency to project ourselves onto the subject or to otherwise “filter” it. Or in some cases, propagandize it. IMO a writer of historical anything ought to do his/her best to keep things in the context of what is known about the subject so far(except in the cases where people take historical figures, like Mark Twain, and drop them into fiction, like Star Trek episodes sometimes do).

    At the same time, during that project I sometimes “fudged” or extrapolated scenes from bare details to fill in gaps and to tell the larger story of the times. My subject: the life of a Canadian Mormon woman circa 1900-1920’s. The story of the times: that whole Canadian Mormon drama, a remarkable story that has yet to be told. So I had the “small” story, that of a Mormon woman living in Canada, and I had the “big” story, the Canadian Mormon experience in general. Mahonri, your “small” story is the story of C.S. Lewis, and then you have your “big” story, some idea or worldview you hold, that your small story supports. The territory that lies in between the two stories is perhaps where it’s most useful to fictionalize.

    Just IMO and I don’t know if it helps you with your question.

  8. Patricia, your insights very much help me with my question and very much align with my own feelings.
    –Mahonri

  9. I think that historical accuracy, especially in a piece like this, is very important. If what you want to do is use C. S. Lewis’ experience to explore the idea of conversion, you need to tell the true story (or as near as possible)of his conversion. If you don’t, the statement you make will be less true because of it. And I think the subtle, hard to pinpoint nature of his conversion is an important to remember about any conversion. Even Alma the younger, who was visited by an angel, didn’t talk about that when he was teaching the people how he had learned the truth. Instead, he spoke of prayer and fasting and testing out the principles of the gospel.

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