In Cahoots with History: Writing a Civil War Drama, a Playwright Learns, Calls for More Than Diligent Scholarship

By Wilder, Elyzabeth Gregory | American Theatre, February 2011 | Go to article overview

In Cahoots with History: Writing a Civil War Drama, a Playwright Learns, Calls for More Than Diligent Scholarship


Wilder, Elyzabeth Gregory, American Theatre


AS I SURVEYED THE STACKS AT MY LOCAL library, it seemed as if there'd been a million books written about the Civil War. Not a million, maybe, but a lot. The Alabama Shakespeare Festival had commissioned me to write a Civil War play. The parameters were well defined: The play had to take place on the eve of the war's beginning and it had to be set in Montgomery. Even with such specific instructions, I was left with the daunting task of deciding which story, out of a myriad of options, to tell.

With the help of state historians, who helped me sort through shelves of possibilities and spent hours schooling me on the complexities of the Civil War, I discovered the story of George Cowles, a northern merchant living in Montgomery, who was commissioned to make the first Confederate flag. What no one knew about Cowles at the time was that at night he was running secret Unionist meetings out of the backroom of his shop. This was the kind of story that writers revel in--a man in moral conflict, caught between two worlds, with both his life and his livelihood at stake. From that story, The Flag Maker of Market Street was born.

Storytellers have always used history as fodder. Drawing from historical events and historical characters, plays like Inherit the Wind, Frost/Nixon, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Crucible, Copenhagen and The Invention of Love--to name just a few celebrated examples--strive to bring history to life. These days, history is even hummable, as artists set annals of the past to music, a trend demonstrated by such recent Broadway shows like The Scottsboro Boys and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

Historical drama gives us writers a unique opportunity to not only relive the past, but also a chance to reinvent it. I shared my writing experiences with three fellow playwrights who've undertaken the history-play challenge--Doug Wright, Dan O'Brien and Anna Ziegler--and we compared notes on the difficulties we encountered and the satisfactions that ensued when we got it right.

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"I think as writers we choose historical characters with whom we empathize--characters who are more extreme versions of certain aspects of ourselves," says Doug Wright, whose widely seen works Quills, Grey Gardens and the Pulitzer-winning I, Am My Own Wife all use biographical characters for inspiration.

For Dan O'Brien, the appeal of history is that it gives him an opportunity to explore untold stories. "I'm drawn to hidden stories, no matter what kind of play I'm writing, and so my history plays have tended to be about minor characters in well-known stories, or chapters of history that are forgotten or only partly remembered--stories that investigate a historical myth, maybe," he says. O'Brien's The Cherry Sisters Revisited is the true story of the five Cherry Sisters of Marion, Iowa, vaudevillians who made it all the way to Broadway on the sheer awfulness of their talents. Pulling from more recent events, his The Body of an American tells the story of photographer Paul Watson, who in 1993 photographed the desecration of a dead American soldier in the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, and has been haunted by the soldier ever since.

Anna Ziegler's play Photograph 51, commissioned by Active Cultures in Maryland and recently produced at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, tells the story of Rosalind Franklin, a scientist who was in the race to discover the double helix. As the play developed, Ziegler says, "I realized I couldn't be married to actual events if I wanted my play to succeed as a play--and that was more important to me than getting the history word-perfect. I wanted to do justice to the history, to tell the story largely as it happened, but for the sake of the play, I had to stray every now and then."

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Adapting historical events and historical characters for the stage, we all agreed, comes with very particular challenges.

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