This series of plays were intended as a response to the events of autumn 1989, now they're being presented as history. Do they still stand up?by David Edgar / November 12, 2014 / Leave a comment
Those of us who wrestle with the challenges of writing fact-based theatre can take comfort from the fact that playwrights have been here before. The earliest Greek play we have—Aeschylus’s The Persians—was about the recent defeat of a rival army. The RSC is currently running two Elizo-Jacobean plays—Arden of Faversham and The Witch of Edmonton—based on real life stories (Arden ends with a “what-happened-next” speech, like the captions at the end of a television documentary drama). In the 60s, dramatists edited transcripts of important trials (a strategy revived by the Tricycle Theatre in the 1990s). In the 70s, so-called “State of England” plays charted the decline of post-war Britain in fictional plays based on real events (from the Suez crisis to, in my case, the rise of the National Front). Since 9/11, British fact-based theatre has been dominated by verbatim plays based on interviews.
In 1990, I began writing an accidental trilogy of plays about the causes and consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall which are now being revived together for the first time. Three plays which were as topical as they could be when premiered (the first was presented by the National Theatre one day before the first anniversary of the fall of the Wall) are now being presented as history. It will be fascinating to see how they stand up aesthetically, but also factually.
Set on the fictional end of the spectrum between strict verbatim theatre and fictional drama based on real events, two of the three plays follow the same dramaturgical principle. The Shape of the Table is about the actual events of the autumn of 1989. But because, basically, the same process happened five times, in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, East Germany and Czechoslovakia (Romania was different), I decided I could and should create a fictional, paradigmatic east european revolution constructed from the body-parts of all the real ones.
Most closely based on the Czech revolution, the play begins with a dissident writer being brought from prison during a popular uprising to discuss the terms of his release. The play was and is a celebration of those brave East Europeans who had returned revolution to the historical agenda, and with…