Márta Minier*

M-Minier

When discussing historical drama, biographical drama, documentary and verbatim theatre as architextually related types of drama, the concept of adaptation is not utilised often enough, though it is occasionally cited at least as a trope and, in rather few cases, more systematically as a description of the critical and creative activity that sieves through the mostly “real-life” originated material and creates dramaturgically sound, mostly performance-oriented, structures from it. Inspired by Brian McFarlane’s use of “relative transferability” of stories in the adaptation process, eminent scholar of documentary drama, Derek Paget writes of the “showing through of prior referents into drama” in this particular form (Paget 196). In her recent monograph on biographical theatre, Ursula Canton (2011) explores the genre with reference to concepts such as the factual and the fictional, authenticity, truth and theatricality, among others, but does not see this process as primarily adaptive, either in terms of creatively selecting, or creatively reworking existing material that is connected to, and indeed traces, somebody’s lived experience. In a recent collection of articles on contemporary biopics of British biographees, Márta Minier and Maddalena Pennacchia examine the biographical film as an inherently adaptive film genre. As biopics, biographical dramas use a broad selection of source materials in the creative reimagining of someone’s life:

Source materials do not tend to offer themselves to easy taxonomisation; determining the sources appears to be a case-by-case matter. It can be one or more written biographies that are consulted, it may be an autobiography, a memoir, a diary, a collection of letters, interviews or eulogies. These potential sources . . . are primarily of a verbal nature (although we should not forget the inclusion of photographs in many biographies, for instance), but visual and aural sources are equally significant: photos, pictures, video footage or other sorts of semi-documentary materials that may or may not be attached to any written sources. (Minier and Pennacchia 8)

Within this particularly rich and wide-ranging area of theatrical practice, involving intricate and far from seamless adaptation processes, the present short, work-in-progress essay will only discuss a subgenre that may be demarcated within dramatic adaptations of biographical material (namely of verbal, visual and other “source texts” that inspire playwrights and other theatre-makers to bring historical characters to the stage). The subgenre I am setting out to draw attention to is concerned with the celebrity status of the biographical protagonist, with how they are known, either in the original context, of their upbringing and/or in the wider world, how they may think of themselves, and how fame and the fan culture around them may structure their lives. Addressing local, global, or indeed glocal, fame and frequently juxtaposing the fictionalised (or rather factionalised) celebrity figure with a fictional fan character and/or characters who may stand for members of the broader public, this subgenre of drama—which functions at the same time as a cog in the fame machinery, just as its filmic counterpart, the biopic, tends to be—may assert the celebrity status of the protagonist and, in its selection of material to be adapted as well as in terms of its tone, it may tend towards the adulatory. Yet—due to the conflict-driven nature of dramatic theatre, which is the broader generic category many of these plays are situated in—this intriguing subgenre also has the potential to humanise the idol, to present them as no less of an everyman or everywoman than the fan or other “groundling” character with whom they are paired up in the play dramaturgically. In addition, these plays may disclose and, at times, critique the workings of celebrity manufacturing in the media (even if somewhat ironically the subgenre itself may engage to some degree with the same processes of celebrity-making within its own medium).

Turning our attention to examples, there is a fan character largely on a par with the celebrity protagonist, in terms of dramaturgical importance, at least in two recent British plays (one premiered in the UK capital and one in the Welsh capital): James Phillips’ McQueen: or Lee and Beauty opened at the St James Theatre in London, in May 2015, and transferred to the Theatre Royal Haymarket in August 2015;[1] Say It With Flowers, a play by Meic Povey and Johnny Tudor about the nationally and, to some degree, internationally reputed Welsh singer Dorothy Squires, opened on 15 May 2013 under Pia Furtado’s direction at the Sherman Cymru, in Cardiff, and toured within Wales. In both these plays, the biographee, whose life is adapted, is a relatively recently deceased person, and there is some degree of hagiography in the writers’ and producers’ approach. Neither of them is a two-hander, but they significantly concentrate on the fan-idol relationship, which provides the dramatic frame to the dramatised storytelling.

Staged five years after McQueen’s suicide and tying in with a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Phillips’ play focuses on the rapport that emerges between the famed fashion designer Alexander McQueen and a twenty-year old fan, Dahlia—a fictitious character who sneaks in to McQueen’s shambolic Mayfair basement full of mannequins to get herself a dress and ends up trying on some of the magical and unaffordable dresses and shoes that her idol has created. John Caird’s direction of the play about the much troubled designer (played by Stephen Wight) and the petite and outspoken intruder (played first by Dianna Agron, known for her role as Quinn in cult television show Glee, then, for the run at the Haymarket, played by Carly Bawden) is received partly as the stereotypical story of a “tortured genius,” “primarily an act of worship: a secular hymn to a famous iconoclast who died tragically young at the age of 40,” in Michael Billington’s words (2015).

Lee stumbles across Dahlia in his basement. First he wonders if she is a ghost or a burglar or indeed somebody spying after him to sell information to the media. He describes her in his ongoing telephone conversation to hat maker Philip Treacy as “a fucking useless burglar, if she’s actually real. Pretty shit ghost too” (Phillips 4). Then, taking a cue from his friend on the phone, McQueen suspects Dahlia to be a stalker and, indeed, the way she introduces herself is somewhat typical of a stalking fan attitude:

Lee You were watching me or watching for a way into the house? In your eleven days and five minutes.

Dahlia I wasn’t up there all the time. I’m very clean. I had comfort breaks and everything. I was watching for a way in at first. And then I saw you. Or not saw you, not really, just became aware that there was someone in the house. Just like a shadow in the house. You’re so quiet aren’t you? Not out all the time, not loud, a good man. Just the little television in the corner of one room. And so I suddenly wondered whether you just work all the time, all day and night. Or just sat there thinking. You make these things, these things that people love. I looked you up online. I looked at all the pictures. People have opinions about you. They write essays and stuff. (15)

Lee and Dahlia go on a night journey of London together, travelling both in time (across stages of the designer’s career) and space—the trope of like-minded though not always and in all senses equal travellers journeying together is a well-tested trope of Western literature (we only need to remind ourselves of Dante’s Divina Commedia). The performance’s reviewer Lawrence (2015) connects this journey in the play, rather appropriately, in his phrasing to the topos of the “long, dark night of the soul,” which has become well-known especially from the writing of Saint John of the Cross, a charismatic and spiritual poet-saint. The play and performance attempt to exhaust the dramatic potential lying in these topoi as the two insomniac travellers (re)visit places and moments of significance uniting the (personalised) celebrity and the fan.

In Say It With Flowers, Maisie, the fan, and old Dot also journey together to a certain degree. Maisie provides shelter to the “imperious but broken” (Gardner) old Dot, who is, at this stage of her life, penniless, fragile, somewhat embittered and a substance addict. As she reminisces at Maisie’s, we see numerous scenes from her younger life flashing back. The play works with two Dots who are clearly to be cast as two different actresses—a younger one and a more mature one—and, in the scenes of recalled events, old Dot (played by Ruth Madoc) watches the young, naive and ambitious Dorothy (Gillian Kirkpatrick).

The fan in both plays is an alter-ego of sorts: the person the biographical protagonist could have become, especially in Say It With Flowers, where the two women are of a similar age, but even in McQueen, the young Dahlia’s gradual sinking into depression reflects McQueen’s own loneliness and agony. As Dahlia’s character puts it, “We were awake the same times, like we were twins I thought” (Phillips 15).

The fan in Say It With Flowers, Maisie (played by Lynn Hunter), is local, representing the place of origin of the idol and also drawing our attention to the falsity of perceptions about one’s compatriot who has (also) achieved fame primarily elsewhere, outside their own country. On her return to Llanelli, Dot, however, lives the life of a glocal celebrity, as it is her international as well as British fame that secures her shelter back home where it all started, in “the valleys” of South Wales. The fan in the McQueen play, on the other hand, is American—here two cultures encounter and are jarred against each other: the Americanness and the Britishness of the two protagonists is marked from the start.

Another recent Welsh biographical play may be cited briefly as a point of reference in relation to the importance of the interplay between the local, the national and the global. The play entitled Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage (2015), written by documentary and verbatim expert Robin Soans and directed by Out of Joint’s Max Stafford-Clark, takes as its subject Gareth Thomas, a Welsh rugby player who came out as gay after several years of living in the closet. Parallel to his story of national and international fame, the audience are also brought into the microcosm of the sportsman’s home town, Bridgend, a small town in South Wales that gained some degree of questionable repute because of a string of teenage suicides occurring especially between 2007 and 2009 (while there has been no direct connection established between these incidents, social commentators and artists alike have attempted to look at the reasons for why young people may choose to end their lives in this particular area, and this play too almost dutifully brings in the success story of a sportsperson who—after embracing long-hidden aspects of his identity in public—may act as role model to disoriented teenagers). The two main plotlines—the one about Thomas and his internal conflicts and the one about a small group of disaffected and rootless teenagers—run parallel for much of the play but come together towards its closure. Here, the “supporting” characters from the secondary plot may not be fans directly but they are representatives from the local community, and the play on the whole reinforces the sustaining force of local (Bridgend) and national (Welsh) identity. For illustration’s sake, I will quote the play’s opening lines spoken by the protagonist Alfie (Gareth Thomas), which set the tone for patriotism and local patriotism:

I fucking breathe the fact I’m from Bridgend. I’m more proud of that than anything else in my life. It’s what forged me . . . made me what I’ve become. . . . I always say if you cut my arm, I’ll have blue blood coming out, cos it’s the colours of Bridgend Rugby Club. If I go round the world and people say, “Where are you from?” and I say, “Bridgend,” they say, “Where’s it near?” and I say, “It’s in Wales,” and they say, “Is Wales near London?” and I say, “No, it’s not fucking near London.” (Soans 1)

To return to the key dramatic examples, both McQueen and Say It With Flowers have a fairy tale element—the fan in Say It With Flowers first sees Dorothy’s journey as little less than a fairy tale story, where the princess-to-be emerges from her modest and unappreciative background and even meets her prince (James Bond actor Roger Moore), if only for temporary happiness, while for the fan character in McQueen the encounter with the designer is a dream come true—truer than imagined. In this rags-to-riches-to-rags drama, Maisie conveniently disregards what she does not want to see from the life story of the idol—she edits as she pleases so that the picture she has in her mind of her idol is what she would like to see, although her devotion, through their personal acquaintanceship and her very active and sensitive caring attitude towards Dot, becomes a somewhat more even-handed and balanced friendship. McQueen is described by the author (in the brief notes following the dramatis personae) as “not a documentary, nor a biography. It is a fairy story, like a McQueen show.” In this, otherwise perhaps not entirely untypical, biographical play, Dahlia has a wish to have an item designed for her by McQueen, which does indeed happen, as if in a good fairy tale.

Self-referential scenes alluding to the icon’s profession carry their weight in both plays: Billington, in his review, highlights the moments when we actually see McQueen at work, when he works as a tailor and designer, and creates a dress for Dahlia reminiscent of The Girl Who Lived in the Tree collection. Choreography, by Christopher Marney, elegantly moves around the ensemble of live mannequins in a metaphoric world, where attributes of the biographical character’s art and craft—dresses and the designing studio with all its props—stand for much more than themselves: the holy of the holies of the creative artist (to return to the religious origins of the term “fanatic”), where the fan, the devotee enters, is immersed and unites with whom s/he believes to be little less than a deity. Say It With Flowers abounds with scenes when the audience—and the aging Dot—watches the young Dot sing and entangle her life with various aspirations.

While both Say it With Flowers and McQueen may be perceived as perhaps uncritical acts of homage and obeisance, and therefore lacking more traditional Aristotelian conflict-driven drama (see for example Billington’s aforementioned review of McQueen), both plays will score highly if examined as dramatised and creatively adapted case studies in fandom and celebrity culture. Presenting the biographical subject from the perspective of a fan does not only maximise the potential of the biographical or biofictional genre’s inherent trait of negotiating the public and the private (across all media, be it screen, stage, radio or otherwise), but also allows for the famous protagonist to be rendered ultimately as very human, just as the fan character herself, and brings them down from the ivory tower of artistry and fame to join the company of mortals. Little wonder that we see Dorothy on her death bed and the McQueen play, while it emphasises that Dahlia initially comes across to McQueen as a ghost, actually reveres the ghost or spirit of the fashion designer himself, also attempting to show him—posthumously—as a flesh and blood figure, one of us, behind the many masks of celebrity and social roles. By focusing on an everyman or everywoman character—a groundling around the stage of celebrity performance—, these plays bring the adapted biographee closer to the consumer of art and fame, and thus—somewhat ironically—contribute to the survival of the mythmaking fame machinery. While celebrity as a cultural phenomenon is also a driving force in casting plays about famous people (it may suffice to refer to the casting of the two performances of Morgan’s The Audience, for example), and the casting largely contributes to how “real lives” are adapted for theatrical performance, this short essay has focused on celebrity and fandom as themes that catalyse a certain subgenre of contemporary theatre dramaturgically.

Works Cited

Billington, Michael. “McQueen Review—Fashion Designer Drama is an Act of Worship.” Guardian. Guardian, 20 May 2015. Web. 22 Nov. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/may/20/mcqueen-review-fashion-designer-bio-cut-too-far-on-the-bias>.

Canton, Ursula. Biographical Theatre: Re-Presenting Real People? Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Gardner, Lyn. “Say It With Flowers – Review.” Guardian. Guardian, 20 May 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/may/20/say-it-with-flowers-review>.

Lawrence, Ben. “McQueen, St James Theatre, review: ‘insufferable navel-gazing.’” Telegraph, The Daily Telegraph, 21 May 2015. Web. 22 Nov. 2015. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-reviews/11617617/McQueen-St-James-Theatre-insufferable-navel-gazing.html>.

Minier, Márta, and Maddalena Pennacchia, eds. Adaptation, Intermediality and the British Celebrity Biopic. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014. Print.

Paget, Derek. No Other Way to Tell It: Docudrama on Film and Television. 2nd ed. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2011. Print.

Phillips, James. McQueen: or Lee and Beauty. Bloomsbury Methuen, 2015. Print.

Povey, Meic, and Johnny Tudor. Say It With Flowers. Cardiff: Sherman Cymru, 2013. Print.

Soans, Robin. Crouch Touch Pause Engage. London: Oberon, 2015. Print.


M-Minier

*Márta Minier is Lecturer in Drama at the University of South Wales (UK). She has published widely in the fields of adaptation and translation studies. Her main research interests also include Shakespeare studies, intermediality, remediation, the biopic, biography, biographical drama and European theatre (with an emphasis on Central and Eastern Europe). She has co-edited a journal issue on Hamlet and poetry for New Readings and a collection of articles on the contemporary British biopic for Ashgate. Currently editing a collection of articles on translations of Hamlet, Márta is also assistant editor of the Journal of Adaptation in Film & Performance and one of the associate editors of the theatre studies journal Symbolon.

[1] McQueen is due to come out on DVD in October 2016.

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Interdisciplinary Considerations about a Subgenre of the Contemporary Biographical Drama: Celebrity and Fandom in Recent Adaptations of Famous Lives for the Stage