In the first of seven new weekly writing provocations, director and 2017 Jury member Lyndsey Turner asks Bruntwood Prize playwrights to consider current events.
Some of the most powerful plays ever written were created in response to an event, a situation, a news story or a particular moment. These plays are often the writer’s attempt to begin a dialogue with the world around them: some are written quickly, surfing a wave of high feeling (rage, disgust, shock or joy) whilst others form slowly over time as the dust begins to settle and the play finds its form. Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play Machinal was written in a fortnight as a response to events surrounding the death of Ruth Snyder, a woman found guilty of murdering her husband. A journalist, keen to feed the public appetite for details of this sensational murder case, hid a camera in his trousers and found his way into the public gallery to watch Snyder’s electrocution. When the picture he took of the Snyder’s death, as terrifying as Francis Bacon’s image of Innocent X, appeared in the paper the next day, sales went through the roof. One can only presume that Treadwell, herself a former court reporter and keen advocate of women’s rights, was disgusted by the image. Without pausing to second guess herself, Treadwell worked solidly for two weeks on a play which follows a young woman through an unhappy marriage and into a murder trial. When her central character has her hair shaved before being walked to her death, she asks ‘is nothing mine?’ Presumably a version of the question the writer asked when she herself encountered the photograph which catalysed her writing of the play. Many of the most visceral, rich, complex and provocative plays in the Western canon are the result of a writer being confronted by the world he or she lives in and daring to ‘write back’.
- What is currently making you angry?
- Whose story are you having trouble getting out of your head?
- When did a newspaper article or contemporary event last make you stop and catch your breath?