When I teach writing, I ask people to write down two names: the person they most admire and the one they most despise. Then, depending on which is more interesting (no, don’t admire mom), I ask them to write a scene that makes either their hero seem a heel or their villain seem sympathetic. Villains work best. A liberal student wrote a scene of Rush Limbaugh being harassed in a hospital. Another student wrote about Margaret Thatcher clearing her desk. The exercise is a shortcut to creating three-dimensional characters and understanding what makes them tick.
Lately, I’ve added a caveat: “Try to visualize the person. What is he or she doing? In what sort of play would the character appear?” One would think that the kind of play would depend on the author, not the subject, but I find that a character’s life must have within it an embedded shape, a metaphor, if you will, in order to yield to dramatic form.
Take former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. For the past several years, I have been writing a series of monologues about his life. When asked unexpectedly by my wife about the archetypal story I was telling, I thought about it a minute and then said, “Don Juan,” the legendary fictional womanizer. Any version of the Don’s career is a series of seductions or skirmishes in which the Don outwits his adversary. Finally, the Don is dragged off to hell by the statue of his former lover. Despite the Kahan Commission’s findings (which found then-Defense Minister Sharon personally responsible for failing to take appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed during the massacres at Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon in 1982), Sharon retained his role in the cabinet and later enjoyed years as prime minister. Later, when the press unexpectedly resurrected the Greek Island affair, a 2004 political scandal involving the granting of a favor in exchange for money, Sharon suffered a stroke and fell into a coma. That was the end of the Don.
Why write metaphorically about Sharon rather than a heroic biopic? No other shape — it seems to me — would adequately encompass his roller-coaster story.
Here is another example: Imagine Maimonides on stage. The central metaphor of the Rambam’s life is a page of his Mishneh Torah, a masterpiece composed line-by-line. While alternative opinions are excluded from the text, they keep erupting on stage as arguments, interruptions, trouble. He keeps trying to add to the one page, which is projected on the stage, but it goes up in flames. He has the distinction of having his works burned at the behest of other rabbis in France. Yosef Karo’s universally accepted Shulchan Aruch, which includes a veritable chorus of other commentary in addition to that of Rambam, provides a chorus of dissenting voices that overwhelm the stage. Curtain.
An action must sum up the person.
For many years, I have pondered how to tell the life of Theodor Herzl. As I thought about writing this essay, it occurred to me that Herzl was a man of the theater. He is always writing lousy comedies with French doors; he loves the cheap brocade and he is terrible at life (husband and father, anyone?). Then, he finds a way to make his fantasy real. He stages a Zionist Congress and insists the delegates wear dinner jackets. He encounters the kaiser and plays a statesman with the sultan; he receives an offer to buy Palestine. (Rothschild declined his small character part.) Finally, Herzl’s pageant turns against him and after the turbulent final Zionist Congress (where he is reviled), he dies. But his characters keep moving after him — out of the East, Jews move to Palestine, and his posthumous production continues to run. They are drinking Viennese swirls outside the opera he imagined, in Tel Aviv, even now. He is Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, of course. I just didn’t see it. Now there is a baking tin in which to raise a life.
Sometimes one must squint to see what’s moving in the darkness. And sometimes one must cut away most of the dough before uncovering what is rising in the oven — suddenly alive and running like a gingerbread man. When the character won’t stop running, when one is surprised by what makes the character run, you have a play.email print