Another time, another place

It's the playwright's latest game: making posthumous introductions between famous people. Daniel Rosenthal learns the rules

Nineties theatre audiences have watched Einstein and Monroe discussing relativity in New York, Stalin and Prokofiev arguing over musical theory in Moscow, Ibsen and Strindberg comparing notes on stagecraft in Rome. From tomorrow, in Stephen Churchett's Tom & Clem, radical Labour MP Tom Driberg (Michael Gambon) and newly elected Prime Minister, Clement Attlee (Alec McCowen), will promote conflicting brands of socialism in Potsdam. Contemporary dramatists, it seems, cannot resist inviting us to eavesdrop on brief, imagined encounters between historical figures.

Such plays constitute a mini-genre that is quite distinct from biographical plays like Pam Gems's Stanley, or historical dramas like Richard Nelson's The General From America. The playwrights drawn to it are too diverse stylistically to be bracketed together as a movement; but each uses the same simple question - "What if X had met Y at a certain place and time?" - as the starting whistle for a game with history.

"The possibilities are endless with imagined meetings because you can play with the whole of history," says David Pownall, whose 1983 play, Master Class (not to be confused with the forthcoming bio-play about Maria Callas), has Stalin and his cultural supremo, Marshall Zhdanov, joining Prokofiev and Shostakovich in a room at the Kremlin one evening in 1948. Stalin tries and fails to coerce the composers into providing the uplifting music that he insists the Russian people need.

"Those four were all in Moscow at that time," Pownall explains. "I put them together to create a debate that would show, through Stalin's failure, how even the most autocratic power cannot defeat artistic individuality."

Master Class was revived in Romania in 1996 and Pownall returned to its format earlier this year with four 20-minute comedies for Radio 3, which featured imagined but, again, historically feasible, meetings between George III and George Washington, and Winston Churchill and Salvador Dali.

"I love using historical characters because in my imagination they start creating arguments that I'd not thought of when I first put them together," he says. "Shakespeare created countless imagined meetings to serve his dramatic aims in the history plays. I think that is still very much the business of dramatists: to treat history as a malleable form of time."

Stephen Churchett, the actor known to EastEnders fans as Phil and Grant's lawyer, echoes Pownall when he suggests that Tom & Clem, his first full- length play, "re-invents history to make it more dramatically accessible". Tom Driberg, the flamboyantly gay socialist who was the Daily Express's original William Hickey columnist, did report on the early sessions at Potsdam, just before his election as MP for Malden, but was back in England by the time Clement Attlee reached the conference on 28 July, 1945; Tom & Clem has them entering the press room on the same day.

"I'll probably get letters from irritated members of the audience," Churchett predicts. "But this imagined meeting has enabled me to bring together two real archetypes: the Cavalier, romantic Driberg, and the Roundhead, pragmatic Attlee. "

Fine performances from Gambon and McCowen in the play's try-out run in Guildford impressively fulfilled Churchett's hope that Tom and Clem's differences would "make for good drama". Against a sub-plot involving a Russian military attache, the politicians' argument about socialism contains deliberate echoes of the gulf between old and new Labour which give this customised view of history a powerful present-day frisson; though when Churchett completed the play in 1995, he could not have imagined that a week before its West End premiere opinion polls would be forecasting a repeat of Attlee's 1945 Labour landslide.

Where Churchett took his leading characters from 20th-century politics, Michael Meyer looked back to 19th-century theatre. The leading biographer and translator of Ibsen and Strindberg had "always been nagged" by the fact that these two theatrical giants had never met in real life.

"In 1885, bad weather forced Strindberg to return home while he was on his way to visit Ibsen in Rome," Meyer explains. "When his marriage broke up later that year, he became a misogynist and Ibsen was suddenly the great enemy for having encouraged women to leave their husbands through A Doll's House. Strindberg no longer wanted anything to do with him." Meyer plugged this historical gap with Meeting in Rome (broadcast on Radio 3 in 1991 and later staged in London), in which the dramatists discussed women, plays and politics, "the topics I reckoned they would have talked about".

Anyone who saw the recent Donmar Warehouse revival of Terry Johnson's 1983 play, Insignificance, or the 1985 film version directed by Nicolas Roeg, will recall the glorious initial shock when Marilyn Monroe walks into Albert Einstein's New York hotel room; yet their meeting is not all that improbable.

"Einstein was top of the 'Men I would most like to sleep with' list which Marilyn once made, and he was in New York in 1953 when she was filming Seven Year Itch," explains Johnson. "It therefore seemed reasonable for me to say 'She'll meet him and we'll see what happens'."

The dialogue which develops around Monroe's childlessness and Einstein's guilt over his contribution to the invention of the atomic bomb does not seem in the least contrived. With Hysteria, premiered at the Royal Court in 1993, Johnson built an equally convincing, if more fantastical, scenario out of the afternoon in 1938 when Salvador Dali took tea with Sigmund Freud in Hampstead. "With both plays," he says, "I was trying to reflect issues that touch us all by using the icons that we all know."

Unprompted, he adds that depicting legendary figures was less demanding than writing plays, such as Dead Funny, in which all his characters are fictional. "With Monroe or Freud, you start with an image and a set of presumptions that the audience shares. You've virtually eradicated the need for a first act."

Peter Whelan, who imagined a conversation between Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe in School of Night at the RSC four years ago, agrees: "If you can plunge straight into a well-known image you are halfway to reaching your audience."

That's only half the story, counters Pownall. "I think these plays are harder to write, not just in terms of the research they require, but because you have somehow to embody in a short space of time the potency that figures such as Stalin have within history." Only if a writer portrays Stalin as a caricature, Pownall argues, can he enjoy the same degree of freedom as he would when creating a more ordinary Joe.

With so much talk of playing with history, it seemed reasonable to invite entries for a Fantasy Theatre League, in which punters choose the two figures they would most like to see go head-to-head on stage. Whelan suggested Churchill and Nye Bevan, "sworn enemies and the most powerful debaters parliament has seen"; Meyer opted for Jesus and Judas. Or how about Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst enjoying a chat after a private screening of Citizen Kane? The possibilities, as Pownall suggests, are endless.

! 'Tom & Clem' opens tomorrow at the Aldwych, WC2 (0171 416 6007). 'Insignificance' will be broadcast on Radio 3 on 15 June.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

    Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

    After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
    The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
    Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

    Tate Sensorium

    New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
    10 best sun creams for kids

    10 best sun creams for kids

    Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
    Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
    Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

    Remember Ashton Agar?

    The No 11 that nearly toppled England
    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks