For centuries, playwrights have been writing about the lives of real people – both historical and contemporary. But unlike prose-based life writing (biography and memoir), there are few clear definitions of forms, genres or sub-genres associated with what might be called “biographical theatre.” In fact, there is no term in common usage to describe the general practice of presenting real lives on stage. This thesis begins by looking at what categories of theatrical practice might be defined as biographical before investigating the implications of one of its key findings: that playwrights have more licence to invent in their biographical works than do biographical prose writers.
The approach taken within this thesis is firstly an examination of the types of plays that might normally be categorised as biographical: for example, verbatim or documentary theatre. The category is then widened to include some of the most commonly produced plays: plays that are based on, but not limited by, real lives. Biographical prose writing is a useful antecedent genre for biographical theatre and parallels are drawn between the two forms, especially with regards to some of the ethical issues pertaining to writing about real people (whether living or deceased). In addition to categorising the practice of biographical playwriting, the critical essay uses this literature and the analysis of a number of case studies of biographical plays to examine the problems of genre and theatricality. The case studies include Frank McGuinness’ Mary and Lizzie, Paul Brown’s Aftershocks, Robin Soans’ Talking to Terrorists, Sasha Janowicz’s The Kursk and Scott Rankin and Leah Purcell’s Box the Pony. These works raise ethical issues that are made more opaque by a lack of frameworks, guidelines or theory. Whereas biographical writers of prose and film find themselves censured for straying from the accepted “truth” of an event, biographical playwrights appear to be free to invent without restrictions or censure.
The conclusion drawn from this study is that theatre is allowed to fly separate of the strictures that society imposes on much other biographical endeavour. The critical essay posits that the reasons for this are to do with theatre’s role in society, its “liveness” and temporality, its reputation and marginal status and the number of filters placed between the original subject and the eventual audience. All of these findings were discovered, reflected and tested in the practical process of writing a play about real people. The dual processes of writing creatively and academically for this dissertation proved to be a rich source of inspiration and grounding as the questions raised by the creative practice set new tangents in the academic research, and the resultant study brought fresh ideas to the playwriting. Alongside the critical essay, this dissertation includes a play script of the original work Motherland, written over the course of this study. Motherland is a play about three remarkable real women: Nelle Kerensky (née Tritton) – a woman from Brisbane who married Russia’s deposed Prime Minister, Alexander Kerensky; Nina Berberova – a Russian writer and poet, living in exile in Paris; and Alyona Volkova – a Russian museum curator and historian who married an Australian and ended up in Brisbane, exiled from her homeland. Motherland covers decades, continents, revolution and World War as it explores issues of home, belonging, love and loss. As an appendix, the thesis includes an annotated version of Motherland that shows where the playwright found her sources, where she chose to invent and why she made those choices.