The theatre, like any performing art, is devoted to tradition in a way that written arts don't have to be, so in the Department of Drama at the University of Birmingham our trees were rooted in the soil of this classic Stanislavskian exercise. Mind you, quite how the experience of being a silver birch or a cork oak helped Stanislavski's actors to play Uncle Vanya I've never been sure, although perhaps it was more fruitful when it came to rehearsals for The Cherry Orchard. But the more I write, teach and blog about fiction, the more I realise just what a good grounding a Drama degree is for a historical novelist.
I wouldn't dream of suggesting that just because we set our novels in the past, they're all about heaving bosoms. But when you've had to wear full, period costume for anything from Hamlet to Strindberg's Easter, you discover that the only way to breathe is indeed for your bosom to heave. Corsets work better than a Wonderbra for showing off your assets, but at the cost of 90% of your lung capacity. Racing up the spiral green room staircase to make your entrance through the audience, or running into the arms of your stage lover, shows you exactly why all those heroines keep fainting: sheer lack of oxygen.
Directors need to know this stuff, but so do novelists. Then there was Wardrobe. I not only know how to wear a corset, I've made one. And a straitjacket (Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty). I've realised how much sewing it takes to make a bodice, how much cloth to make a skirt and the petticoats beneath, and just how much mending it takes when you tread on the hem (A Doll's House). Even a twentieth century show should have not just clothes but underwear actually from the period; fabrics have changed and so have erotic tastes in breasts, bottoms, waists, shoulders and makeup. And that goes for men as well as women, as I must remember now I'm writing a novel set between the wars. And have you tried getting out of a too-low sofa wearing high heels, a 1950s roll-on, and not much else? I have, because in Albee's The American Dream they switched sofas between the last dress rehearsal and the first night. Now, which of my characters shall I do that to?
Stage Management? I know how to research period weapons (Peer Gynt) and nurses' uniforms (Testament of Youth). I know that hiring real scaffolding for a Constructivist set (Meyerhold) brings in more dust than you'd thought existed in the whole of the West Midlands. I also learnt that if you fling a bloody heart to the ground it bounces, and reduces the entire cast of The Duchess of Malfi to giggles.
Some of what I learnt is useful for any novelist. There's Pinter: what's between the words spoken is as important as the words, so how do you make that happen in your reader's head? There's learning Shakespeare by heart and speaking it, to develop your ear for how character-in-action is embodied in the sound and rhythm of words. And it's useful for an author: after all those years of acting, I'm not too fazed at an event when the sound system goes down or the coffee machine starts up.
I also learnt that I wasn't much of an actor myself. Years later, as a beginner-writer, I came across the bizarre suggestion that you should "cut all adverbs". This is the bastard, tyrannical offspring off a good regime: fiction is built of character-in-action, so keep looking for the perfect verb for that action and don't settle for a bland one spiced up with an adverb. At which point, I had... well, I was going to say a lightbulb moment, but it was more of an olive-oil-and-wick-lamp moment, which sent me back to my undergraduate copy of Aristotle's Poetics:
For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality. Now character determines men's qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse...if you string together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically constructed incidents.He's talking about theatre, and Tragedy (Comedy got lost, and lost again in The Name of the Rose), but it could just as well be a snarky TLS fiction review, couldn't it? Action - actors - act-ors... I remembered working on Stanislavski's idea of "intentions", from An Actor Prepares, where for each speech you have to decide what the character is trying to do, in speaking it. Not, "he's in love with her", "she's furious with him", "they're bored"; your idea must be expressed as a verb: "to seduce", "to scold", "to destroy". As Aristotle says, there's no point in having a crystal-clear idea of your character and their thoughts and emotions, if you don't know exactly what that makes them do. It's all in finding the right verb.
Of course, we historical fictioneers have a particular relationship to this basic truth about narrative; we write about the foreign land of the past, and it's too easy for us to get caught up in the "qualities", the "diction and thought", of that foreigness. But it's how our characters act in their Then that makes the connection with our own Now. We wouldn't whoop at a bear-baiting, or happily die for our faith. But if I start thinking, "to cheer on the team", or "to save my soul" I begin to get it, and so can write it. And what about locking up a sister so she can't run away with her lover? Is that "to protect", "to control", "to possess" or "to prevent evil"? Now there's a story...