In the late 1980s I fell into writing my first play quite by accident. A distinguished Bay Area actress, upon hitting her 60th birthday, complained to me that there were few interesting roles for older women. I rashly offered to "excerpt a little dialogue" from the 13-year correspondence between George Sand and Gustave Flaubert.
What I expected to be a month's work stretched into eighteen months of research, writing, and rewriting. Another year of public readings helped me to revise and tighten what had become a play. The final result was a very successfully staged production.
I wrote five more bio-historical plays based on the lives of real people in dramatic situations. A theater audience can understand, enjoy, even identify with these
true-life dramas without having previous knowledge of the historic facts or the people involved.
My seventh play is based on a famous Greek myth—which is a kind of bio/history, if you accept the definition of one authority: "History tells us what happened then; myth is what goes on happening daily."
Dear Master • Tea with Mrs. Hardy • The Panel •
Posing for Gauguin • The Trial of Cornelia Connelly •
Sad But Glorious Days • Eros in Love
This dialogue follows the 13-year period of correspondence between George Sand and Gustave Flaubert. It is partly paraphrased from their letters, partly created from biographical/historical sources.
This friendship—beginning when she was 60 and he was 47—makes the most fiery love affair seem tame. During a period as violent and politically polarized as ours, these two people, who agreed on virtually nothing—artistic, political, religious, personal—were able to argue vehemently, dramatically, and yet able to sustain a deep, affectionate, supportive, and respectful relationship, brought to an end only by the death of George Sand. (1991) (One act, 90 minutes, a cast of 2)
"A splendid achievement"
—San Francisco Chronicle
Bay Area Critics Circle Award for Best Script, 1991
While researching the attacks on Thomas Hardy (described in Literary Lynching), I discovered an interesting drama in his private life.
Early 20th century biographers had cast Hardy as the victim in both of his famously unhappy marriages.
His first wife, Emma, ridiculed in letters among his friends, was seen as a snobbish, middlebrow hypochondriac and religious fanatic, whom he had outgrown intellectually, but endured stoically
until she died.
Second wife Florence, thirty years younger (his secretary and possibly his mistress during Emma's tenure), was also despised by his friends and by the younger World War I poets who came to worship Hardy, when, in his old age, he began writing blunt, crude, (read "modern") poetry.
Recent biographies of Hardy show more sympathy for both of his wives. The theme of Tea with Mrs. Hardy is the unglamorous and often thankless burden of day-to-day living with an all-too-human, if world-famous, genius. (1992) (Two acts, two hours, cast of 7)
"Admirable. Supple, subtle script makes considerable impact"
—San Francisco Chronicle
An academic friend mentioned Simone Weil, French mystic/activist/ philosopher who died during World War II, at age 34. I'd never heard of her. Off to the library.
Reading Weil, I found that, every time I thought I had grasped her point
of view, her next sentence contradicted it. Her writing was an unselfconscious, open record of her thought process; she never got stuck in defense of a position she had held five years, or five minutes ago.
Her life, public and private, was a life of ideas. A drama based on such a life would be like a panel discussion on contesting schools of philosophy and history. Was that a problem—or a solution? One challenge of writing for the stage is setting up a group structure (like a family or a military barracks) familiar enough to the audience to enable the playwright to cut short the exposition and get on with the drama. Who, in a theater audience, is not familiar with the panel of experts—in a lecture hall or on TV?
I created four academic panelists who represented contesting views of Simone by different biographers: a young feminist professor, who sees her as an intellectual woman in a sexist society; a nun
who claims Simone as a would-be Christian; a labor activist who claims her as a political organizer; a Jewish psychologist who "diagnoses" her a secularized, rootless, neurotic, Jew. The crucial
fifth character is the ghost of Simone Weil, who haunts the speakers, tripping up each "expert" opinion with an opposing view, in words paraphrased from the writings of Weil.
Eventually the panelists even come to blows (fulfilling my wishes during some of the panels I have served on!)
Too intellectual? Word-of-mouth sold out the whole run during the first week of its premiere production. (Never underestimate audiences!) (1994) (Two acts, two hours, cast of 5)
"Her pilgrimage is our own."
An artist/actor suggested that I should write a one-man show for him, in which he would speak lines from Gauguin's autobiography and letters while "painting" one of Gauguin's most famous mural-paintings.
I retorted that, while admiring Gauguin's art, I had no interest in dramatizing the life of this free-loading, lying, plagiarizing, family-deserting, self-aggrandizing pedophile (his Tahitian maidens were about age 14).
After venting my bad temper, I did look into a biography of Gauguin, where I learned how he had become trapped in his own lies. The truth was that Tahiti had never been the island paradise Gauguin painted. For centuries, the island had been a rigid, confined, demon-haunted, oppressive culture. When Europeans and Chinese traders landed, they added ruthless exploitation and disease. Gauguin longed to return to France, but he was trapped in his profitable myth, forced to ship paintings of his Tahitian Paradise back to Europe for his wife to sell, while he stayed in place, posing as the free, romantic, back-to-nature artist, a role so dear to the fantasies of bourgeois European men.
Well, if I did write a play, I thought, I'd cast a Tahitian girl to tell her side of the story. But would she really be strong enough show him up?
Then I ran across a fleeting reference to his grandmother, Flora Tristan. Flora who? Three books later I knew something about this renowned French beauty, traveler, writer, feminist, labor organizer—dead at forty, before Gauguin was born. Biographers wrote that Gauguin mentioned her occasionally with pride. But what, I asked myself, would she have had to say to her grandson? Enter the ghost of Flora, who would appear to haunt and taunt him with her/my opinions of his behavior.
I gave the last line—summing up Gauguin's great contribution—to Teha'amana, a 14-year-old Tahitian girl: "He is a very bad man who does one good thing. He paints one great truth. He paints my people beautiful—not like pale people of his country—beautiful."
(1997) (One act, 90 minutes, cast of 3)
"Bryant excavates meaty figures from the past"
—San Francisco Chronicle
While researching The Panel, I dipped into books that might give me a precise definition of a "saint," (a word used by some people to describe Simone Weil).
That was how I stumbled on a proposed canonization that is unlikely to move forward, and a bizarre trial based on an incredible 19th century English law requiring "restitution of conjugal rights" to husbands whose wives had left them.
In 1840, Cornelia Connelly, an American—married, a mother of four—was dumped by her husband into a convent in Rome so that he could become a Catholic priest. The archbishop moved her to England to found a teaching order and set up schools for the children of newly "legal" Catholics. A year later, her husband changed his mind and tried to yank her out again; she refused. The resulting decades of scandal, court trials, and unrelenting legal tangles reached all the way to the British House of Commons, as well as across the Atlantic to the front pages of American newspapers.
At her death in the 1870s, Cornelia Connelly was blacked out of British and American history, as well as Catholic Church history, for nearly 50 years. Why? The scandal surrounding her reflected badly on both government and religious institutions.
What attracted me to Cornelia's improbable story was this paradox: jerked around by her husband, disowned by her family (including her children), and persecuted under discriminatory laws,
Cornelia discovered her unsuspected talents. Furthermore, within an institution we would see as confining and limiting, she grasped the power to use these talents with freedom and scope denied to
most women in 1840.
(2003) (Two acts plus brief epilogue, about two hours, cast of 8)
"Guaranteed to offend everyone"
—Joanne Greenberg (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden)
This play is a spin-off from my novel Anita, Anita. As I researched the scenes set during the siege of Rome in 1849, I noted the presence in Rome of three very different women who were part of the first, failed struggle to unify Italy.
Margaret Fuller (top left) was a New England middle-class intellectual, the first USA foreign correspondent—sending war dispatches to a New York newspaper. Anita Garibaldi (center left) was the peasant-woman-warrior Garibaldi brought (with their four children) to Rome from Brazil. Cristina Belgiojoso (bottom left) was a Milanese artistocrat who established and ran military hospitals for the rebel government. All three were mothers of "bastard" children. Margaret and Anita had lovers active in the armed forces.
Perhaps the deepest understanding of the cost and effect of revolutionary struggle is found not in stories of bloody combat, but in the lives of people behind the battle lines. In any case,
I wanted to revive knowledge of these three extraordinary women, one (Margaret Fuller) known more through her contact with Emerson and Hawthorne than through her own writings, the other two
(Anita Garibaldi and Cristina Belgiojoso) forgotten.
A Roman friend translated it into Italian and arranged staged readings at a college of the arts in Rome. The English version was given a few readings in the USA, but no full production so far.
(2003) (One act plus epilogue, one hundred minutes, cast of 3)
"Every line evokes authentic history, restoring events that
illuminate our own passions"
—West County Bulletin
In 2003, the artistic director of a small theater was offered performance space at a local women's college. In exchange, he would direct a student performance of a play of his choice—perhaps a new play by a local woman playwright?
Here was my chance to dramatize my favorite Greek myth "Psyche and Eros" without worrying about keeping cast size small.
This myth contains every cliché of fairy tales and myths, from Cinderella's wicked sisters, to Pandora's disobedient curiosity, to heroic and dangerous tasks required to win a royal or divine lover. A crucial difference is that for the first time in eons of tales and myths, the god of love (invisible throughout the play) has fallen in love.
The Greek word "psyche" translates both as soul and as butterfly, a symbol for the human soul, which bursts "on brilliant wings from the tomb in which it has lain, after a dull groveling, caterpillar existence, to flutter in the blaze of day . . . Psyche, then, is the human soul, which is purified by sufferings and misfortunes. . . ." (Bullfinch, 1860).
The marriage of Psyche and Eros—grudgingly approved by the Olympian gods—hints at a much bigger change: the reverting of Eros (no more a greeting-card Cupid) to the original pre-Olympian cosmic power described by classical scholars, and joined to the human soul, now granted immortality.
I have written the Olympians broadly, sometimes comically, as they are often portrayed—capricious forces of nature and crude human psychology. Student actors (of either sex and any ethnicity) are encouraged to have fun improvising their costumes anachronistically, to express the attributes of these gods.
Sadly, by the time the play was written, budget cuts had lopped off the drama department at the college, putting an end to plans to mount a student production. I still hope that some college or high school drama department or community theater will come along, looking for a play based solidly on classical sources, but well within the scope of a large cast of students and/or amateurs. (2006) (Two acts, two hours, sixteen speaking roles, plus a few "extras" for procession or crowd scenes)