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Life is Impossible

"I’ve played fast and loose with the truth"

With a new production of his bio-drama about the philosopher Simone Weil, Paul Gilchrist considers the challenges and joys of writing historical individuals for the stage.

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Category: Theatre
Company: subtlenuance
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Life is Impossible: Fact and Fiction

Date: 7 Feb 2020

A decade ago I wrote a play. It was performed and was well-received.

Then I buried it. I didn’t seek a further production. I didn’t chase publication. I even refused to allow friends to read the script.

The play was Life is Impossible and it purported to recount a period in the life of French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil.

Weil is a fascinating character. Albert Camus called her “the only great spirit of our times.” Simone de Beauvoir admired her “for having a heart that could beat right across the world.”

And, despite being a Sorbonne-trained intellectual, Weil was a doer. She enlisted to fight in the Spanish Civil War. She rejected her middle class background to work with the rural poor in the fields and with the urban proletariat in the factories. During World War II, she joined the Free French and, before fate played its hand, hoped to be parachuted behind enemy lines as part of the Resistance.

Google Image Weil and there’s a photo of her warm serious face, captioned with one of her most famous lines: “I can, therefore I am.”

Weil is ripe for dramatisation.

So why was I troubled by what I had done?

Because she was a living person. This woman I attempted to conjure once walked the earth. She laughed and wept, and knew all the aching complexity of life. And any representation, no matter how technically accomplished, seemed inadequate, if not downright disrespectful.

As a playwright, I’m not alone in being attracted to the portrayal of historical individuals yet conscious of the challenges.

Mark Langham’s We are the Himalayas tells the story of Anna Larina and Nicholai Bukharin as they struggle to survive Stalin’s repressive regime.

Shortlisted for the Patrick White Award and receiving a superb production by Brave New Word in 2019, the play sharpened Langham’s awareness of the challenges of historical drama.

“The main challenge is keeping a clear narrative,” he says. “This means you spend a tonne of time deciding what to leave out.  Historical events tend to have multiple strands and you don’t have the luxury of following them all.”

Steven Hopley, whose successful series of plays Convict Footprints presents individuals from our colonial past, expresses similar doubts. Speaking of his characterisation of Elizabeth Macarthur, Hopley says, “It’s daunting to put words and feelings into the mouth of someone like that, and the more you research, in some ways the harder it becomes, because the more you feel them as real people and don’t want to make assumptions.”

Does the desire for historical accuracy cripple the artist?

Hopley doesn’t think so. “The more research you do, the more you feel you know the person and know how they would react – however illusory that feeling might actually be! Conversely, when virtually nothing is known, that can be quite liberating.”

Fleur Murphy has a slightly different take on the relationship between research and dramatic creation. Her Shadows of Angels, which has toured Victoria, explores the lives and minds of female criminals. As a researcher, Murphy says she sometimes feels like a “crazy detective” but finds the historical facts help keep her representations alive.

“Sometimes you think you ‘know’ a character, but it’s really exciting when these factual details shed new light or challenge perspectives.”

And, of course, the factual record is often full of holes, and it’s the dramatist’s gift to give voice to those whom neglect and privilege have silenced.

In The Woman on the Twenty Dollar Note, which was shortlisted for an AWGIE and produced at the Ensemble, Margaret Davis presents the life of Mary Reibey. “Even though the ‘facts’ of Mary’s case had been painstakingly detailed by the historian,” Davis says, “the reasons behind the character’s behaviour were a matter for conjecture – so, the challenge was to stay true to the established facts while teasing out the layers of motivation behind them.”

So where does this leave me with my Simone Weil play? Weil doesn’t need me to speak for her. A mouse can’t provide the lion’s roar.

And I know in Life is Impossible, I’ve played fast and loose with the truth.

Put simply, I was fascinated by one of Weil’s ideas and wanted to work it out in a dramatic context. Weil is one of the few modern thinkers ambivalent about the role of the imagination. Heirs to Romantic thought, we tend to deify the imagination, but Weil saw it as a threat to an honest understanding of reality. Imagination fills the cracks – but the cracks matter, because they’re how the light gets in.

In 1942, the hard-headed historical Weil was in New York, desperate to return to war-torn Europe, yet stranded in the land of the distraction. I imagined this serious young woman besieged by billboards and Broadway and boulevards of bustle, an entire city devoted to dreams of the brighter, the bigger, the better … and my story was born.

And Simone, I know it’s not true. But a decade later I want to share this story again. You desperately wanted to make a difference and we know that need, perhaps now more than ever. And this time I’ll be honest the story is just a story. There’s more songs, more dance, more fantasy.

Yes, the cracks will be filled, but hopefully the tale will be translucent.

We’ll see it for exactly what it is, yet still it might glow.

Life is Impossible plays at the Old 505 Theatre, February 18-23

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