Catching the Devil: Writing in Response to a Well Known Play 

Playwright Athena Stevens’ short play, Recompense, is being performed at Shakespeare’s Globe as part of Dark Night of the Soul: The Feminine Response to the Faustian Myth. In this guest post, she shares her experiences of writing in response to a well known play.

If we are very lucky, a playwright’s commission comes with a set of boundaries and guidelines. There is little so overwhelming as an open ended prompt. “Write about anything you want” can quickly become the kiss of death as the parameters quickly become unwieldy.

To be commissioned to write a response to a well known play almost feels like a relief.

Until you start doing your research that is.

When Michelle Terry approached me a year ago with the request to write a feminine response to Faust, I knew I wanted to become more familiar with the story before putting pen to paper. So I started reading. Then I started asking. A fellow feminist wrote a university dissertation on the Faustian Bargain, so we had coffee. A friend in the US was a professor of religion at an Ivy League school, we had late night Facebook chats on how one quantifies the value of a soul. Others told me of their interpretation of a Faustian Bargain: it was a quest for power, it was a form of self hatred, it was to give oneself a temporary advantage which could never be repaid, it was to give up what was most valued in the world, it was to give up what was valued least.

After a while I came up with one question which unified everything: Are we even talking about the same play?

I’m a plotter by nature. While impressions and ideas are important, I have to be able to tell a well made story in order to feel like I’m doing my job well. Like questioning the Devil, the longer I interrogated the backbone of Faust, the more bewildered I got and, to be perfectly honest, the less I wrote.

As much as writing a response to a well known play feels like it should give you a huge amount a structure, very often the task becomes so daunting it can seem that we have no place to put pen to paper at all. Who are we to respond to Marlowe, or Shakespeare for that matter? Perhaps it were better nothing were to begin?

Walking around my London office I somehow didn’t feel like committing that kind of career suicide for the sake of keeping my mouth shut. So I started with some very basic and simple steps towards putting pen to paper, even if it meant throwing it all away in the process.

1. Look at the original prompt, then look at the promotional materials.

 The Globe’s website was pretty clear on what is was I needed to be focused on, and it wasn’t where my gut instinct was taking me. The central question of the festival was: what would I sell my soul for? It was not:  What would women sell their souls for, or what is the value of a soul, or even how would Faust be different if she were a woman? None of the academics mattered. Rather, I had a deeply personal question to ask, and then had to come up with a script that answered that question.

2. You are HERE, and that’s exactly right. 

Whatever you feel like is your connection to the play, that has to be your starting place. It does nobody any good to read all sorts of academic articles or the moral ambiguity of Faust if you simply are enchanted with the idea of being able to talk to devils. By all means do your research, but don’t let scholars or literature teachers, or even critics tell you how you should relate to your play. Your way ‘in’ is completely valid, and as long as you are answering the questions put before you, it doesn’t matter if your in is the story as a whole or a single word choice.

3. They were writing for then, you are writing for now.

It sounds really obvious and yet sometimes it needs to be said, centuries can separate you and the author you are responding to. Yes, human nature can be universal, and sure the more things change, the more they stay the same. However, artistic sensibilities have changed. The narrative tools we use to tell stories have progressed, and, most importantly, what was once considered to be cutting edge is sometimes quite simply an everyday occurrence now. Figure out how to keep the stakes as high as they once were, even if the original problem seems easily solved today. My job was never to write a new Faust, nor was it to prove myself a comparable playwright to Marlowe. My job was simply to put the Faustian bargain within the context of my life.

4. Nothing is sacred. 

I’m probably the last person Marlowe would ever expect to have a decent response to his play. The idea that a brain injured, thirty something, single, immigrant woman could even show up to a production of Faust never crossed his mind, much less that I would be granted a commission to speak to it. The world keeps changing and it is our jobs as artists to give voice to those changes. As writers it is never our job to write a ‘modern’ anything. Instead, it is our job to lend our voice and our times to give a new shade to the story that has already been told. It might be that simply shifting the setting of a familiar tale is enough to throw it into new light, or perhaps the story has been waiting for someone of your exact background to throw it on it’s head. Never be afraid to put your own voice towards redefining the work of the canon, its author was a mortal just like you and was confined by their place and time in the universe,

5. Whatever you do, just keep writing. 

Writing is rewriting. Sorry. There’s no getting around it. Even Ayn Rand talks about sitting at her desk and simply not wanting to do the work. I say this not because I hold Rand up to be some extraordinary writer, but because if the high priestess of hard work paying off admits to the struggle, why do you think you are immune? Set a reasonable page quota daily (mine is four pages) and meet it. If you go over, great. If you don’t meet it, the days you exceeded your goal help to fill the gap. Keep writing, slowly consistently, even with a good amount going straight to the trash, just getting the words down is progress.

Athena Stevens’ short play Recompense is being performed at Shakespeare’s Globe as part of the Dark Night of the Soul Festival between 5 January and 1 February. The festival brings together a chorus of women’s voices to respond to the Faustian myth, asking the question: What would you sell your soul for? Find out more about the festival and book tickets on the Shakespeare’s Globe website.

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