Theatre: Real life and other tall stories

From CS Lewis to Nelson Mandela, William Nicholson has made a living out of other people lives. With his latest play Katherine Howard continuing the theme, he defends the art of biographical drama
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The Independent Culture
On emerging from my study at the end of a long morning, my head still crowded with invented characters and their doings, my children often ask me what I've been writing. I tell them, and they proceed to offer advice. While I was working on my new play, Katherine Howard, the advice was: "Show her head being cut off." "No," I said, "that would be too gruesome, too dramatically vulgar." "But," they said, "it's what happened. It's true."

Yes, it's true. Like many other writers, I'm drawn to true lives as a foundation for dramatised stories. Of my 19 produced scripts, 11 have been "based on a true story". My second work, Shadowlands, was a film for television about the writer CS Lewis and the woman he fell in love with, Joy Davidman. It concerned events that had taken place only 25 years earlier. I thought the main characters were all dead and settled down to construct a drama around their lives without feeling the need to restrict myself to known facts. The heart of the drama was a love affair. The key events were matters of record, but the rest, the unfolding emotions, the words said and unsaid, the tears withheld and shed, were a clean page waiting for my pen.

In the story, Joy's son, Douglas, played a significant role. At one of the turning points, after Joy's death, Lewis asks the boy, "Do you believe in heaven?", and Douglas, bitter and betrayed, answers, "No".

The production of Shadowlands was almost complete when the real Douglas showed up. He was not dead. He had been farming in Tasmania and was a committed Christian. On reading the script, he was understandably outraged. Even as a child, he said, he had believed in heaven. What right had I to steal his early life and his name for an invented character in my story?

This came as a rude shock. In practical terms, I couldn't see how the fault could be rectified. My "Douglas" was knitted too deeply into the structure of the piece. In moral terms, what had I done? It looked very like a kind of theft of Douglas's name and likeness; even a kind of assault. Like every guilty man caught in mid-crime, I froze. The film was completed as written. Douglas came to see it. At the end of the screening, he was silent for a while. Then he said: "It's not what happened, but it comes closer to the truth than anything else about my parents I've seen or read." He understood what I had done, and endorsed it.

Ever since that experience, I have puzzled over the relationship between historical truth and dramatic truth, and on my duty as a writer of dramatic stories to the true stories on which they are based. I have no definitive answers, but I have evolved some principles and guidelines, for my own use. I state them here in necessarily brief form. I'm not as sure of all this as it may appear.

1. Real life is not a story. It's a maelstrom of happenings of unimaginable complexity, that occasionally and briefly stumbles into coherence

2. We are hungry for stories. The story-teller takes recognisable elements of the real world and orders them to produce meaning. When done well, we recognise that the world of the story connects with our experience, and the imposed structure gives us profound satisfaction. We dread meaninglessness. We want to believe we can control the chaos, if only through our moral response to events.

3. All stories are taken from real life. Even fantasy worlds, even science fiction. We tell stories about ourselves. When they work, we recognise our own natures, we identify with the characters and we enter the story. In doing this, we are responding to what we call "dramatic truth". It has nothing to do with historical, legal, or journalistic truth. It's test is not, "Did it happen?", but, "Do I believe it?"

4. All accounts of real life are stories. Autobiographies, biographies, works of non-fiction, documentaries, magazine articles, newspaper reports, even news headlines, are all stories. None of them are complete and objective presentations of reality. This is not because all writers are liars, but because full disclosure is impossible. They must select what to tell and what to omit, and in selecting, they create their own story.

5. Story-tellers must take responsibility for their stories. Stories are powerful. The maker of a story can't hide behind the facts, saying: "Don't blame me, I'm only reporting what happened." Every word is a moral choice. We are responsible for what we write. This is a harder rule than it may seem. It's easy to deceive ourselves that we are acting responsibly, particularly if we insulate ourselves from the real lives which provide our raw material. On four separate occasions, I've had to show to the real, living people, the stories I've made of their lives. My experience has been that they don't ask for factual accuracy. They understand the constraints of story-telling very well. What they ask for is sympathy. They want to be understood. Evelyn Waugh once said, "You can say anything you like about an Englishman in print, so long as you say he's good in bed."

I'VE MADE many mistakes in this area. I continue to find it very difficult. What I do know is that there is no hiding place. In my work for Hollywood, I'm sometimes asked to provide an annotated version of a screenplay, indicating for legal purposes the source of every line of dialogue, and every action undertaken by the characters. I want to say to them: "Why not ask me to list all the lines and actions I've not used? Then you'll get some idea what's going on here." But I don't. I just tell them I've made it all up. The source is my imagination. "Oh," they say, "it's not true? That's alright, then."

I do have one safeguard, which works for me, but perhaps isn't much use to others. I only ever write about people I admire. And so it is that I'm very sympathetic to young Katherine Howard in my new play. She was 18 years old, possibly younger, when she married the ageing wreck that was Henry VIII. He loved her passionately, and he killed her. What happened between them? Did she love him? Did she deceive him? Nobody really knows. There's a great white blank at the heart of the story, a clean page on which my Katherine has been born, and because I have created her, I love her dearly. At the end, heart-breakingly, her head is cut off. That bit is true.