Part 1 of 3 – Writing Around the Truth
–Dramaturg Benno Nelson sat down with playwright Emily Dendinger to talk about the pleasures and pains of mixing fact with fiction in Hideous Progeny, a world premiere play about the summer of 1816 when some of history’s most well-known poets and authors, including Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein), Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, lived and wrote together in a villa by Lake Geneva.–
BN: Nearly all of the characters in this play are now famous writers, Byron was massively famous at the time the play is set, and they wrote about themselves constantly – letters, diary entries, memoirs – how did this help you in writing the play?
ED: Claire Clairmont and Lord Byron were so colorful in their own accounts that they basically wrote themselves. Byron is so flamboyant and witty. You can argue he’s one of the first people to understand his artistic persona and how it affected the public. He really was like a rock star. So, he’s a ton of fun to write and very easy to write because he’s so deliberately dramatic. Claire is the same way because she’s such a big personality, she seemed to be sure that people were going to read her diaries.
But Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley were a little harder. Mary was so reserved. She was also very aware of people reading her letters but she didn’t revel in it in the same way. She censored a lot, and she censored so much of Shelley’s papers [when she published them after his death]. So those people were a lot more difficult to write and a lot more creative for me personally.
BN: Were there difficulties in handling characters with such fixed biographies?
ED: Yeah, well they had to serve a dramatic purpose and they had to have a story of their own, so I did a lot of inventing. In real life Polidori [Byron’s doctor] had a big ole crush on Mary. But that wasn’t part of this play so I left that out. I took a lot of liberties. There arguably wasn’t really a romantic relationship between Mary and Byron like there is in the play. It’s clear they had a mutual respect for each other especially in a way that Byron certainly never had for Claire.
BN: Did you feel a responsibility to portray the characters faithfully since they’re real people?
ED: No. Maybe that’s wrong? I don’t know…But I think a lot of what’s interesting about this is writing about people as you would want them to be rather than who they are. Thinking of Shelley as a kind of hipster, for instance. I didn’t set out to modernize the play, but that just made sense to me. You do limit yourself in the way you create a dramatic piece. You have to think of them as characters in a play. And I honestly don’t think they would have had any problem with my…elaboration.
BN: How much of your time do you think you spent researching versus writing?
ED: I worked on this play starting in fall of 2007 just reading and researching, and I started writing it in the winter. I think it was maybe 60% research, 40% writing. It became a kind of obsession. And a lot of it ends up in the play, just by osmosis. They started quoting their own poetry.
BN: So balancing the richness of turning to biographies and the pressure of including that material, do you think you were more free or less free as an artist writing about real people?
ED: It was sort of limiting. I don’t think I’m going to write a play again about literary figures. It would be so much better if Byron left with Mary but she can’t. There are big things you can’t change. Everybody knows that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Your audience walks in knowing that. But the great thing was that at some point it really stopped being an historical story and became really just a story. And that was fun.