Playwright Jeffrey Couchman has spent his career bringing historical stories to life that are as fascinating as they are shockingly true. As a part of FST’s Playwright Collective, Couchman is developing his latest project: Master of the Revels, a Shakespearean drama about an unassuming writer with a big secret.
We sat down with Couchman to learn more about his involvement with the Collective and how he approaches the challenge of bringing the past into the present.
You’re writing a new play called Master of the Revels, which is based on the true story of William Henry Ireland. Tell us more about that play.
William Henry Ireland was 19 when he began forging documents in Shakespeare’s name in 1794. Ireland’s work – despite its ridiculous spelling, bad grammar, and subpar poetry – fooled a host of Shakespeare experts, including his own father. They were desperate for letters and documents that would illuminate Shakespeare’s life, so they chose to see what they wanted to see. This play lays out the astonishing details of Ireland’s forgeries and adds some family drama – all taking place during this historical age of Shakespeare worship.
What inspired you to tell this strange-but-true story?
My father gave me Samuel Schoenbaum’s brilliant book, Shakespeare’s Lives, as a birthday present one year. As I read the chapter on Ireland and his forgeries, I could envision the play unfolding onstage. It was full of pathos and surprises.
Ireland’s family situation was strange. His father was constantly belittling him, so the forgeries were Ireland’s secret way of gaining his father’s love and respect. The housekeeper was William’s mother, though it was never openly acknowledged. His life was highly theatrical – almost operatic at times.
Are you finding yourself taking any artistic liberties as you tell this story that really happened?
Oh yes. If you want to create a dramatic work about someone’s life, then your first obligation is to the drama you’re constructing. We can take a cue from Shakespeare – in reality, Sir Henry Percy (known as Hotspur) was much older than Prince Hal, but in Henry IV, Part I, for the sake of dramatic balance, Shakespeare makes the men rivals of roughly the same age. Brilliant! The play is his history, not history’s history.
Similarly, I felt that I could change anything that I needed to in order to tell my version of William Ireland’s life. For a play about a forger, it’s particularly apt for me to be rewriting Ireland’s words and recreating his life. I’m forging the forger.
Did you encounter any major challenges or roadblocks while working on Master of the Revels?
I did the research, planning, and outlining for the play a few years ago, but then other projects came along, and the play just simmered in my mind. This past summer, I was contacted by FST, and suddenly, the play unrolled faster and more smoothly than anything I’ve ever written! Every step of the way, I could hear the characters speaking and feel the rhythm of the scenes. Generally, when I hit a roadblock in my work, I often take a nap, and then when I wake up, a solution comes to me. I didn’t need any naps for Master of the Revels!
In addition to plays and musicals, you’ve also written more academic, nonfiction books – a very different writing style. Do you find your academic writing and research ever influencing your more creative work, such as Master of the Revels?
Playwriting has reminded me that academic writing doesn’t have to be dull. When I write a scholarly piece, I try to keep the nonfiction work engaging and rhythmic. I remind myself that I’m still telling a story.
Nonfiction research has taught me about organization and how to keep multiple thoughts in my head simultaneously, which has been essential in writing Master of the Revels.
Jeffrey Couchman is a playwright, author, and professor currently based in New York City. His theatrical works include the comedy Three Wise Guys and the Off-Broadway musical Battleship Potemkin. His book The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film was selected by the Financial Times of London as one of its Best Books of 2009. He teaches Textual Analysis at HB Studio and Screenwriting at the College of Staten Island.