A play in the life: Caroline Donald investigates the links between fact and fiction in dramatic treatments of Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, Tommy Cooper and Oliver Hardy

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Taking liberties with biographical fact for the sake of the drama has long been the playwright's privilege. Shakespeare himself was a major culprit: Antony and Cleopatra, Macbeth, Richard III - such plays have coloured all but the scholars' view of their historical models, even though they use more dramatic licence than accuracy.

Marvin Close, author of the award-winning Dorothy Parker Is Dead and The Ton of Jollity, a one- man comedy about the life of Oliver Hardy, takes the Shakespearian line. 'There is no point in writing a totally factual account - what I'm interested in is what I, as a writer, find interesting in Dorothy Parker and Oliver Hardy.' Dorothy Parker Is Dead contains about 20 quotes from Parker herself. If an audience mistakes some of Close's lines for Parker's, then so much the better: 'It means that the character is working]'

To Eileen Atkins, who plays Virginia Woolf in her own two-hander, Vita and Virginia, this is verging on sacrilege. 'I do get awfully cross with people who write about great writers when there is reams and reams of the stuff that the person actually said.' Based entirely on the writings of Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Atkins's play opens at the Chichester Festival Theatre tonight. 'What they actually said is there: in letters, in diaries, in criticism. It seems stupid, particularly in Virginia Woolf's case (as she was brilliant) not to use what she actually said.'

Gary Lyons has used his father as his primary source in Frankie and Tommy, written for Hull Truck. Lyons senior, Frankie, partnered Tommy Cooper in a comedy double-act for a short time after the Second World War. 'There are certain bendings of facts and 'objectively verifiable reality'. Things get shuffled about to make a coherent play but the scenes are based quite heavily on truth,' says Lyons. 'That is, according to my dad, who is obviously the main source, though I was able to dig out secondary material in the way of newspaper articles.'

Reviews of the show in Edinburgh criticised it for being too subjective, but Lyons says that he did try to get the other side of the story. 'I was not given access to Tommy Cooper's estate or the family, though it had been my intention when I started out. I was blocked, so it has worked out as something culled from a particular point of view.'

Lyons accepts that it would be difficult for an audience to understand his play without prior knowledge of Tommy Cooper, though he has tried to widen its themes. 'I do think that there is an underlying generality about the play in that it deals with success and failure, hope and disillusionment.' After ENSA had stepped in to break up the quarrelling partnership, Lyons senior went on to be a sheet metal worker, while Cooper became one of Britain's most popular comedians.

Marvin Close chose to write about Dorothy Parker and Oliver Hardy because 'they both seemed to be characters who cared a lot about what other people thought of them. Both had got very public identities - Dorothy was the witty wisecracker and Ollie was the funny fat man. Once they had become famous, both of them became scared about having that identity thrust upon them. It was almost as if the thing that made them famous was the very thing that depressed them.'

When someone is as well-known as Oliver Hardy, a dramatist's task becomes difficult. 'I'm dealing with audiences who know the public face of Oliver Hardy rather well; it's the private face that will be more of a revelation,' says Close. To this end, he inserts the theatrical device of Hardy making a tape recording for his alcoholic wife in which he is trying to explain why he is leaving her. 'In the course of the tape, he comes to realise his own shortcomings,' says Close.

With Parker, by contrast, Close had to assume that many in his audience would never have heard of her. 'It was important that the play stood up as a portrayal of the woman, but it could be anybody who is a writer and is talking about the creative process. It should be as general as it is specific.' As research, he read everything Parker had written, plus three or four biographies, before putting it all away for three or four months. 'Then I sat down and said to myself, 'Now, what is it that I feel about Dorothy Parker? What are the main dimensions of her that I want to dramatise?' '

The result is an alcohol-soaked evening spent with Parker as she attempts to write a review of Katherine Mansfield's Journal, during the course of which the audience learns about her abortion and attempted suicide. These last two facts are true, selected by Close to show her loneliness and despair. 'What biographical material you use is dictated by the approach you want to take to that person,' he says. 'I'm not interested in what she ate for breakfast - what I was interested in was the vulnerability of this woman, of someone who was a very strong and very honest writer, but at the same time self-pitying and brittle.'

A self-confessed fan of Virginia Woolf ('I have lived with her for years, I simply adore her'), Eileen Atkins came to Vita and Virginia through her one-woman play about Woolf, A Room of One's Own. It was then that she first realised the theatrical potential of the writer's correspondence with Vita Sackville-West. 'I always had it in my head that you could mate the letters, and the minute I read them, I saw that you could make them sound like one long conversation,' she says.

The 'conversation' covers 20 years of the women's friendship, and when Atkins first put it together, the show lasted for four and a half hours (it is now honed down to two). When she originally suggested to Penelope Wilton that she should take on Vita, Wilton was wary about playing a woman she did not like. After reading the script, however, she was won over, Atkins recalls. 'She said it was so rare that you get two women on stage talking about all kinds of things. They are usually talking about men and rarely discuss everything in the way that these two do. It really is how bright women speak to each other: they discuss politics, they discuss their feelings and they've both got a good job.'

With so much excellent material to hand, Atkins had a job choosing what to use. 'I've tried to keep to three paths: the personal relationship, the stories they tell each other about their travels and jauntings, and their writing.' And it is all straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak. 'If I've written in half a line to link something, it's the most,' asserts Atkins, although she has occasionally transposed material - for instance, Virginia's diary entry about death being 'a great excitement' appears in a letter to Vita in order to prepare the audience for Virginia's eventual suicide.

The combination of brains, breeding, bohemian style and, above all, the ambivalent sexuality of the 'Bloomsbury Set' ensures their continued fame (Red Shift theatre company is currently touring a popular adaptation of Woolf's Orlando). Atkins nevertheless worked on the presumption that some of her audience might never have heard of them. Apart from adding in a few surnames here and there, though, she feels that the story of the friendship stands on its own. 'I would hope that you could have someone who had never heard of Virginia Woolf but could still be entertained and moved, and whatever you need to be at the theatre,' says Atkins, before adding, warily, 'It might be amazingly boring and everyone will say, 'Get off the stage]' '

'Vita and Virginia' opens tonight at Chichester (0243 781312). 'The Ton of Jollity' will be at the Boddingtons Manchester Festival of Arts and Television 1-4 Oct (061-236 1677). 'Dorothy Parker Is Dead' is at the Shaw Theatre, London, 13-14 Sept (071-388 1394). 'Frankie and Tommy' is at the Spring Street Theatre, Hull, to 3 Oct (0482 23638)

(Photograph omitted)