Over the past decade, playwright David Edgar has become one of the region's most frequently produced British playwrights. Only William Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard come to mind as having had more shows mounted in that period—and of the three, Edgar's the only one to have actually come around for a visit.
Years before PlayMakers Rep's abridged 2009 version of Edgar's epic two-part adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, Raleigh's Burning Coal Theatre introduced us to the playwright in its audacious first-season production of Pentecost. In this gripping political drama, the meaning of an ancient fresco in an abandoned Eastern European church becomes intertwined with the fate of a group of refugees who take art historians and the artwork itself hostage in a desperate bid for freedom.
Following a 2008 production of The Prisoner's Dilemma, this week Burning Coal completes what Edgar calls his Iron Curtain Trilogy by presenting the first play in the series, The Shape of the Table, a 1998 work based on the fall of Communist governments in several Soviet-bloc countries of the time. Edgar also speaks about his works this week at Quail Ridge Books and during a talkback after the show's opening on Thursday, which will be its American premiere.
The Shape of the Table takes us into the rooms where a country's present government and its opposition ultimately decide whether a historic transfer of power will be a monument to peace or an all but unimaginable bloodbath. Given present developments in Northern Africa and the Middle East, the issues in Edgar's work remain decidedly of the moment.
We spoke with him at his home by phone on Sunday, April 3. Read the full interview on Artery, our Arts blog.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: I'm struck in some ways by the almost journalistic qualities of The Shape of the Table. After all, you were writing the work within the same year that the Communist regimes in Poland and Czechoslovakia fell. I also note that as the trilogy progresses, the problems in Pentecost and The Prisoner's Dilemma become increasingly complex. Is that a point you were deliberately trying to make over these three plays?
DAVID EDGAR: I think it's important to say one thing: I didn't sit down and say, "I'm going to write a trilogy of plays about Eastern Europe." [Laughs] The Shape of the Table was written as a play that tried to respond, more or less instantly, to the events that were taking place.
It said, six months later when I was writing it, I think the way we look back on these events is like this.
Some things would be lost, and certainly some people would be losers. A particular way of thinking about the world—perhaps rightly, perhaps with some regret—has been removed from the table. And when it was actually happening, people didn't quite realize the extent of what was going on, which often is the case even among the central actors.
The Shape of the Table opened a year—minus a day—after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But, as proven by the fact that Burning Coal is doing it 21 years later, the play, as it turned out, had a lot more resonance.
But it was intended to be a play shortly after the events that occurred, saying this was what was happening underneath it all ... You know the saying about journalism being the first draft of history? Well, I think this is the second draft. If I put it in a sort of aphoristic sense, I think that journalism tells you what's happening. History tells you what's happened. And the kind of play I'm talking about tells you what happens in these types of cases ... It's describing an overall syndrome.
It's also very interesting what the present Arab revolutions have in common—though there are some things they don't—with the East European revolutions of 1989.
What sort of parallels are you finding between the two?
Once crucial issue is the level of the use of force. The crucial moment in the East German revolution and the revolution in Table was when the ruling group realized that they could not order their soldiers to fire on their own people. That certainly happened in Egypt.
There's also the issue of a set of compromises. Clearly with Mubarak, I think in Egypt more than Tunisia, because Egypt went on longer—but it's also beginning to happen in Syria and Bahrain—is a series of compromises being offered which might have been acceptable on the streets a week ago, but aren't anymore.
There was a recognizable syndrome in Eastern Europe where most of the Communist parties thought they'd done a deal which would keep them in power in a reformed manner, and it didn't work. The world had moved on, in a matter of days.
In Table, Prus, a character sort of based on Vaclav Havel, says, "If they give into our demands, it proves our demands aren't strong enough and we'll be strung up by a vengeful populace."
Outside, the demands are increasing as the demonstrators become more and more confident.
There was a wonderful expression during the Czech, and I think East German revolution: "Fear changed sides."
That's obviously what happened, and what's happened more recently in some but not all the North African countries.
In these very fast-changing situations, what seems like an inconceivably extreme demand on Monday may seem like an overmodest request on Tuesday.