“When you write about people who are dead, people who exist only in black and white or saturated Technicolor … or grainy pictures from the morgue, you can make certain rationales to yourself: they’re something more than human … or more often, they’re something less than human.”
This line was uttered in a sober moment by Bill Lauder, the author of a tell-all/tear-down biography of the fictitious deceased 1950’s movie star, Karla Daven, in my stage play, Karlaboy. While I generally don’t quote my own work, the line is relevant to the challenge I faced when writing my stage play and screenplay, The Cat’s Meow.
In untraditional trajectory, The Cat’s Meow was an unproduced screenplay before it became a produced stage play. When I first laid pen to paper on this historical mystery, I was twenty-three years old and just recently graduated from NYU. At the urging of the late great film historian, William K. Everson, I decided to tackle no less than the likes of Charlie Chaplin, publishing tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, his public mistress/movie-star, Marion Davies, feared gossip columnist, Louella Parsons, and early movie pioneer, Thomas Ince, in a story centering around a fateful 1924 weekend cruise aboard Hearst’s 220 foot yacht, ending with one member of the boating party on a deathbed and a Hollywood mystery that endures to this day.
As Bill Lauder intimated above, the mission when dramatizing noted historical characters is to find that sneaky midpoint between, on the one hand, treating them like elusive super beings or, at the other end of the spectrum, feeling some precarious right to stand in judgment. Putting them up on a pedestal or looking down at them from your own. In short, the mission is to see them as Human. Nothing more, no one less. The journey begins by “finding their voice”.
For me, it is something of a moral responsibility to refrain from writing until you’ve reached this point. These people are real. They existed. Despite the dream society of a culture that actually reads, the truth is that the majority of audience members will learn one hundred percent of everything they know about these people from watching my play or film. I began the process by immersing myself in as much written material about them as possible. Biographies, articles, memoirs, interviews, obituaries. Ultimately, I found that the autobiography (if you should be so lucky as to have a subject who wrote one) was often the best tool. Not so much for the information, but for the psychology. Chaplin’s autobiography, for example, is notorious for its erroneous history but it provided a wealth of insight into his psyche.
Finding the voice of a historical character is something that just suddenly happens during the research process. You start to hear them. What they sound like, how they would react, what makes them laugh, what doesn’t. You feel confident enough to believe you are channeling them, in the same way fictitious characters suddenly emerge from behind a secret door within the imagination. This allows you the comfort to sit down and literally begin putting words into someone else’s mouth.
The next high wire act is finding a way to place these real life characters into a dramatically engaging narrative. The problem many writers find with historical accuracy is that it doesn’t necessarily equate to good storytelling. I did my best to use all the facts I had at my disposal when fashioning my plot line, but can someone please tell me what, precisely, a fact is?
Webster’s defines “fact” as “a thing that has actually happened or is true”. Well, I wasn’t on that boat in 1924 and, to my knowledge, neither is anyone else alive. Thus, is testimony a fact? Are signed documents a fact? Does the information contained in a New York Times article (the purported “newspaper of public record”) constitute a fact? In general, no. And with Hearst at the spin center of this scandal — arguably the greatest media/politician/law-enforcement manipulator in history — no way in hell can any “fact” my research uncovered be conclusively relied upon. Bottom Line: you can do all the research you want, but once Marion Davies and Charlie Chaplin enter a room and close the door, you are a dramatist not a historian.
With conflicting “facts” at my disposal, I came to realize that the best service I could provide the characters – and history – would be to communicate the essence of these people through their actions on board Hearst’s yacht that weekend. And I would not present my scenario as “fact”, but instead utilize the voice-over of naughty British novelist Elinor Glyn to qualify the entire story as speculation, or as Elinor says, “the whisper told most often.”
Ultimately, it’s the themes that determine the universality of a “period piece”. Here, the themes are no less than the choices we make with regards to love, jealousy, greed, and power. Whether it’s 1924 or 2024, these themes endure.
So, at age twenty-three, I finished the script and then proceeded to travel with these people on that enigmatic weekend cruise, day-in and day-out, for the next ten years, like a less than comic variation on Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. It was optioned numerous times, almost produced, and even held hostage. When all hope seemed to be lost, I found myself watching a revival of the period stage play, La Ronde, in Hollywood and had an idea. I approached the play’s producer and star, Kim Bieber, who was familiar with my screenplay, and offered her the lead role of Marion Davies if she could raise the necessary funds to mount it as a stage play in Los Angeles. She agreed… which meant I now had to adapt my screenplay – filled with close-ups and private glances — into a stage play suitable for viewing from the back row.
We worked on it for a year, had readings and rewrites, and then mounted it under Jenny Sullivan’s peerless direction to wonderful reviews and packed houses. And it did achieve something else I had hoped for: it reinvigorated life for the screen version, which Peter Bogdanovich agreed to direct within a year of the Los Angeles stage premiere.
Looking back on this long voyage, I know that the script became emotionally richer and better crafted for the ten-year journey. In that time, I like to think I matured to some extent as a writer, and hopefully as a human being (at the very least, I learned the meaning of patience). Perhaps that, too, helped to bring these larger-than-life characters into human-sized perspective.
From the Ancient Greek tragedies through Shakespeare and right up to the present, dramatists have taken the essence of historical characters and utilized them to not only elaborate on important universal themes, but to tell a good story. Ultimately, you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror and know that you were fair and responsible with the power you’ve been given to “write history with lightning” (to quote Woodrow Wilson). As in life, this comes by presenting characters who are defined by their choices — by their actions — who are given no extra benefits (or demerits) from the writer for having been “colorful”, “famous”, “rich”, “talented” or “larger than life.” Considering the task, I think I did okay and know I will do even better if allowed a “next time.”
If I didn’t learn one or two valuable lessons on the slippery slope of power by writing about William Randolph Hearst, then I never will.
This article is part of the first ever November Mystery Month, in honor of the 60th Anniversary of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. Throughout the month, we will be highlighting some of the many mysteries in our catalogue through Facebook, Twitter and [Breaking Character]. Learn more about November Mystery Month HERE.