Ghost Light & Bringing History to Life
I just got back from a lovely few days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Among the highlights were a superb Measure for Measure, a very fun, exuberant Pirates of Penzance, and a brilliant new play called Ghost Light. Ghost Light was conceived and developed by Jonathan Moscone (Artistic Director of the California Shakespeare Theater) and Tony Taccone (Artistic Director of Berkeley Rep), written by Taccone and directed by Moscone. It explores the 1978 assassinations of Moscone’s father, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, and Supervisor Harvey Milk by Supervisor Dan White. But rather than being a docudrama that recreates historical events, Ghost Light focuses on Jonathan Moscone’s response to the loss of his father, both as a fourteen-year-old boy and as an adult man, struggling to direct a production of Hamlet.
The story that emerges is rooted in historical events (events that I remember vividly, as a twelve-year-old at the time of the assassinations) yet at its heart it is an intimate look at coming to terms with the loss of a parent. As such it is both specific to the characters involved and wonderfully universal. We all struggle to understand our parents as individuals. Loss of a parent is a wrenching fear, and losing a parent is never easy, at any age.
Ghost Light is a haunting play, beautifully acted and directed. It was the first play we saw on the trip, and I thought about it and talked about it a great deal afterward. Among other things, I found myself mulling over what it is to write historical fiction. Real events form the framework in my books (particularly my recent books), but within those events, the arc of the book focuses on the personal journey of the characters. Both the fictional characters and also the real historical characters, such as Wilhelmine of Sagan and Dorothée de Talleyrand-Périgord in Vienna Waltz and Hortense Bonaparte in The Mask of Night. Hopefully there’s something universal in those character arcs, at the same time the story is rooted in a specific time and place. It’s a tricky balancing act, that I struggle with constantly when I’m writing. Often in the first draft I’m focused on just having the historical narrative in place, and a lot of my work in subsequent drafts involves adding layers to the character arcs. My own struggles made me appreciate the brilliant writing in Ghost Light all the more.
What appeals to you most in historical fiction? The historical narrative or the personal stories of the characters? Both? Writers, if you write historical fiction how do you balance historical context and character development?