Bringing the past to life: “I Was Here” review

So guys, tonight I watched a play written by my fellow public historian Emily Keyes, and I’m feeling compelled to fangirl about it because it was Just. That. Good. Bear with me for a moment and let me tell you why it rang true for me in so many ways.

Picture this scenario. August, 1882. A young woman is unmarried and secretly pregnant – a scandal just waiting to happen. The man she thought she was in love with is supposed to meet her so they can marry discreetly, but he stands her up. Before she can make contact with him, her mother finds out about the illegitimate child and throws the daughter out of the house. She and her brother make contact with the father of the child, and the conversation gets heated. Before the argument ends, a gun fires. Someone has killed the young woman’s lover, but who? And how? And why?

This is the true story of Maria Spearman which was adapted into tonight’s play, titled “I Was Here.” The title refers both to the venue where the play was staged (the very jail that Maria was held in), and also to the fact that the play’s characters were real people, living in real places. SPOILER ALERT: Maria’s case is a mystery that was never solved. She was eventually found not guilty, but only because her confession was considered invalid and no one could prove who fired the shot. During the trial, however, the case became a lightning rod for controversy about the place of women in society and their rights under the law.

Now when you find a gem like that, you might think a play can practically write itself. But what is the best way to do this, and how can you avoid turning historical figures into caricatures? In my opinion, the most interesting and valuable aspect of tonight’s performance was the story behind the story. The interpreted scenes from Maria’s life were juxtaposed with short scenes from the perspective of the historian carrying out the research for the play (and even a scene taking place during the play’s rehearsal).

The writing of the author into the script could have been the play’s downfall, but it was done deftly and didn’t feel at all out of place. Instead, the audience became drawn into the historian’s curiosity, the search for the truth among conflicting sources, the act of adapting the archives into a script, and ultimately, the search for a young woman’s voice in documents and accounts that can be so distant and impersonal. The performance asked questions of itself, wondering if a play is “real history,” pointing out our inability to ever access the complete truth, and problematizing the very act (no pun intended) of playing out Maria’s life story. The final minutes of the play brought the historian into direct contact with the voices of Maria herself, reminding her finally that “I was real, I was here – we all were,” and that our humanity is what connects us with our shared past. I will say, those final moments made me proud to do what I do. I was reminded that the pursuit of historians has never been the mere recording of names and dates, but the discovery and retelling of the stories that make us who we are, even when – perhaps especially – when there are no easy answers. Sometimes it takes a work of fiction to bring those stories to life. In some ways the play was justifying its own existence, but I found its argument compelling.

In other words, “I Was Here” is self-reflexive – a history about history and a story about stories. If I were still in university, I would be tempted to call this a work of historiographic metafiction. A term coined by literary theorist Linda Hutcheon, historiographic metafiction is apparently a genre that Canadians like a lot. Margaret Atwood does this, as do Robert Kroetsch, Michael Ondaatje, Timothy Findley, or – for a Canadian author who does this and throws fantasy into the mix – Guy Gavriel Kay. Among many, many others (particularly postmodern writers). If I were ever to write a novel I would want to play around with something like this.

The “historiographic metafiction” label is typically applied to novels, and so far I’ve been talking about the play as if it were solely words on a page. However, it was the medium of theatre that really brought the whole thing together in the end. That was perhaps the only medium that could capture the essence of Maria and the historian’s intertwined story so viscerally and immediately. It’s one thing to hear about sources conflicting in their accounts, but another experience entirely to have them literally surrounding you, their voices simultaneously clamouring for your attention. And as a work of public history and community engagement, you really can’t get much more intimate with the past than that – especially considering the venue of the jail.

…all that being said, if I were to find out in a year or two that “I Was Here” was available as a short story or a novel, I would read it in a heartbeat – and start fangirling all over again!


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