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  • George Sapio

Past? Current day? Discuss.

Updated: May 13, 2023


So, for the past few weeks I've been berating myself about, once again, attempting a historical play in which the first-hand evidence is near-nil. (The first outing took three years of wading through highly contrasting and sometimes tenuous research--all of it biased*--to get something credible.) “Sapio, dear boy,” I chided myself, “Have ye not learned anything in your many years of historical research exercises? What makes ye so stubborn to the lessons of experience?”


Answer: the subject material was too good to pass by. A one-sentence teaser in a subscribed blog-email told of a horrific record of deliciously gruesome deeds done by a single 16th-century Italian woman. As I tend towards devising sympathetic antagonists, I wondered if there a way to...hmmm... not exactly mitigate the terrible deeds, but perhaps offer a touch of clarity as to the motivation? She would not be a one-dimensional, cackling, wart-covered witch (although those are fun, too), but a credible and complex human with some very severe faults (and how many of you know the score to Sweeney Todd?). Perhaps I could (at the very least) influence audiences to partially consider what drives a person to highly questionable and drastic actions.


Tragedy is only successful when audiences understand why someone acts in antisocial ways. It's not necessary to agree with them or condone their actions, but understanding what makes them believe they have no choice but to do what they do makes them real and sympathetic.


Despite its medieval historical setting, the new play has relevance because this medieval society's ills and pressures are still very much a part of our “modern,” “developed,” and “enlightened” society. I argue that little progress has been made in the case of women's rights. Looking at the political actions of some of today's more conservative United States**, some might arguably say progress is in reverse gear and the pedal has been pushed to the floor.


Historical plays have their own particular gauntlet to run; the events are pre-written, so some folks may already know what happens. In that case the burden for successful retelling rests not on unveiling a sequence of events that lead to a dramatic ending, but solely on the emotional journey of the pro-/antagonist.


And, many times (as is the case with my current historical effort as well as my previous play about Richard III of England, Kynges Games) the availability of much actual verifiable research is woefully lacking. To do any historical subject justice requires a respect for the truth and a dedicated effort to, as fairly as possible, research and translate the essential lesson of the story. (As I see it, of course.) And yes, sometimes, in order to keep the action fluid and intriguing, characters may get combined or eliminated, events adjusted slightly, and timelines made smooth so as to keep the story flowing and easily followed without losing any of the underlying truth.


But I'm making this one work. The story is astounding, reliable secondary evidence is (finally) at my fingertips, and despite the dreadful nature of the subject matter, I will (soon, hopefully) have a play capable of animated post-performance discussion.


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*Such is the nature of historical storytelling. There are usually two reasons for recounting the past; either a moral lesson or glorification.


**For that matter, are we really “united”? Does our “unity” come from the wishes of the states themselves or does the “unity” spring from a jingoistic governing source? Is our union top-down or bottom-up? In many cases, such as the North/South divide, the conservative/progressive divide, the rural/urban divide, the racial/religious divides, I would suggest “mandated affiliation” instead. But I digress.

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