“There is nothing quite so irresistible to the playwright as the placement of an iconic historic figure in an unfamiliar context”
Playwright Ron Elisha talks about The Soul of Wittgenstein and his approach of writing plays based on historic figures:
As a playwright one always teeters on the brink of contrivance. How can it possibly be otherwise when one’s narratives are the product of one’s own mind? However, if those narratives already exist in the public domain, the onus is no longer on the writer to justify his contrivance but, rather, on the audience/reader to explain the facts.
In other words, if we know that A, B and C actually happened, how do we explain that? How could a human being possibly have behaved in that fashion? What might have been their motivation? What do we know about the ripple effects of their actions? What does this mean for us as sentient beings?
In basing one’s work on an historical subject, character or incident, one is free to drill down onto such questions without being accused of bending the narrative to suit one’s purposes. Put more simply, one’s audience is forced to argue the interpretation of the facts rather than the facts themselves – they are forced to play the ball rather than the man.
Having said this, the disadvantage of historical drama is the sheer amount of research required. Which is not to say that all of it is onerous. Indeed, there is nothing quite like the excitement of uncovering a hitherto obscure gem which validates the line you’ve taken on your central character as a result of your previous ‘humdrum’ researches.
Such serendipitous finds are much more likely to occur when one has come upon one’s story in a tangential or unexpected fashion. In the case of this play, I was researching a totally unrelated story which took place during World War II when I came across the tantalizing tidbit that the great philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, had worked as a porter at Guy’s Hospital in London during the war.
There is nothing quite so irresistible to the playwright as the placement of an iconic historical figure in an unfamiliar context – particularly one that frees him/her up to behave in ways they might not have countenanced otherwise.
Having tripped over this morsel, I began the task of researching Wittgenstein, who he was, what he said and what he stood for. Having formed a (very much lay) notion of his overall treatise, it was then up to me to furnish him with an antagonist (I use the term in its literary sense) who could in some way challenge that way of looking at the world.
As a writer, one knows when one is on the right track when layers begin to emerge – when the narrative resonates with the subtext and when one is able in an intellectually and emotionally satisfying way to interpret the various plot points with regard to the underlying thesis.
In the case of Wittgenstein, whose work on logic is dense to the point of impenetrable, one’s approach is, by necessity, less granular. In his world – a world in which, in a sense, language both defines and sets limits on the knowable universe, words take on a whole new dimension of meaning. (Particularly words that, in themselves, form a kind of code – in this case, cockney slang.)
The world of the play, then, is a world in which the most important things are unspoken, and at times unspeakable. And because of this, they are – to use Wittgenstein’s own terminology – mystical. They cannot be expressed in language, only shown. The intellectual and, ultimately, emotional satisfaction of crafting a story around this premise was immense. And, if the response to the play’s premiere season in 2016 was anything to go by, the audience’s payoff is commensurate.
About the author
Ron Elisha is a playwright based in Melbourne, Australia. His stage plays include In Duty Bound (1979), Einstein (1981), Two (1983), Pax Americana (1984), The Levine Comedy (1986), Safe House (1989), Esterhaz (1990), Impropriety (1993), Choice (1994), Unknown Soldier (1996), The Goldberg Variations (2000), A Tree, Falling (2003), Ladies & Gentlemen (2004), Wrongful Life (2005), Controlled Crying (2006), Renaissance (2006), The Schelling Point (2010), Carbon Dating (2011), Stainless Steel Rat (2011, produced in London in 2012 under the title Man In The Middle), The Crown Versus Winslow (2011), Love Field (2013) and The Soul Of Wittgenstein (2016). He has also written a telemovie, Death Duties (1991), two children’s books, Pigtales (1994) and Too Big (1997), and many feature articles and stories in a variety of publications. His plays have been produced throughout Australia, New Zealand, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Poland, Israel and France, and have won a number of awards, including four Australian Writers’ Guild Awards, the Mitch Matthews Award (2006) and the Houston International Film Festival Award for Best Screenplay.
The Soul of Wittgenstein is Part of #96Festival. A celebration of progress, achievement and possibility. For the full festival programme CLICK HERE