Biography is a strange beast. Clearly it is a very popular form,
with new iterations of people's lives appearing on a very regular
basis on film and television or a rack at your favourite bookstore.
Biographies also tend to be greeted, depending on the subject, with
a certain frisson of anticipation. Oh, finally we're going to get
the goods on the Queen Mother, or Bill Clinton, or Lady Gaga! In
contemporary culture, the big-book bio or movie seems most often to
be pitched as a kind of highbrow gossip. We've been conditioned to
expect bios to be filled with hitherto untold tales of bad
behaviour and revealing sexual exploits.
Historically, we have credited biography with having something
of a higher purpose. In the eighteenth century, Dr. Johnson lauded
the form: "I esteem biography as giving what comes near to
ourselves, what we can put to use." In other words, in studying
other people's lives, we can come to a better understanding of how
to live our own. In the twenty-first century, one is hard pressed
to imagine someone approaching a biography with the goal of using
the life in question as a template for one's own. I might aspire to
be a Mother Teresa in word and action, but it seems unlikely that I
would look to her biography as a template for my own life.
Simply, we know the world to be a much more complicated place.
In contemporary life, as the great biographer of Sylvia Plath,
Janet Malcolm, observed: "In a post-modern, relativistic world, the
roles of fiction and non-fiction have been reversed: we can no
longer trust the truth which a non-fiction work purports to provide
(since it is always debatable), whereas we have to accept the truth
of what a fictional artist writes."
This leaves us with the strange paradox we are forced to
confront in encountering any biography. We want to believe it's a
true representation of a person's life, but deep down we know it's
all a fabrication: the story the biographer decided to tell, based
on the "facts" as she has collected and organized them. So,
inevitably, all biographies are open to controversy. The stories
they tell can and will be contradicted by someone else's version of
the very same events. Let alone what "meaning" the events all add
And despite the fact that this is a given, people are often
shocked and appalled that biographies don't line up with their own
personal version of reality. Think of some of the reactions to the
trash-talk "unauthorized" biographies of the rich and famous by
Kitty Kelley as a banal example. More recently, the British
director Phyllida Lloyd's movie The Iron Lady was assailed
for its reshaping of the facts of Margaret Thatcher's life, to
which Lloyd responded: "It's not a biopic. It's not a documentary.
It's something else."
It's this "something else" thing that is hard to get a grip on.
As with any work of art, we have to continually remind ourselves
that biographies are going to reflect the preoccupations of their
creators. Should we be surprised, for example, that Sigmund Freud's
biographical essay on Leonardo da Vinci's childhood spends a lot of
time mucking about with the notion of evidence of homosexual
fantasies in the artist's work? Freud is clearly working out his
own ideas, and Leonardo is more or less along just for the
And, so, our Hirsch. It isn't a bio, or a documentary,
either. It is definitely "something else." Yes, it does offer
interpretations of some of the events in the life of John Hirsch.
And you will hear John's "actual" words on many occasions. And the
chronology of the narrative reflects John's life. But at the end of
the day, you are actually experiencing what a group of theatre
makers, and specifically Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson, think
about John Hirsch and, perhaps more importantly, what he represents
- to them. It is a vision, and a very passionate one at that, about
what theatre can mean. The creators of Hirsch are not
claiming to be presenting an exhaustive portrait but using the form
of this biography to attempt to discover just what it is about the
theatre that drives some of us to create it.
As audience members, we come to the theatre for lots of reasons
- ranging from searching for the numinous to hoping for plain and
simple entertainment. So did John Hirsch. And while the John Hirsch
in Alon and Paul's play might not be biographically accurate in all
of the details, I think we can rest assured that the passionate
commitment on view does reflect John's view of the world and his
role in it. Despite the difficulties inherent in all biographical
projects, and the quibbles one can raise about details, surely what
is most important is coming away from the experience feeling as if
we have touched the spirit of a very special soul. John Hirsch was
many things - a great artist, a passionate patriot, a self-absorbed
drama queen and a visionary in many ways - but without doubt, he
was a very special soul, and we are fortunate to be able to call
him our own and have him back at the Festival tonight.
Bob White is dramaturge on Hirsch and Consulting Director,
New Plays, for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.