Arts’ Watch: Truth

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, July 8, 2023

By Bill McCann 


For much of this year, I have been wrestling with writing what some might call “history plays”—plays that deal with real people and actual historical events. And these plays have both challenged me to write honest stories, but not necessarily to write the “truth.”

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The first play, a 20-minute monologue, is called “Fiddlesticks and “Dynamite. Since it is largely finished I’ll focus on it. The play consists of a single actor portraying former mayor William C. Hambley (1911-1989) of Pikeville, . Mayor Hambley served from 1960-1989 and was responsible, in large part, for getting the railroad out of downtown Pikeville and rerouting the river that also ran through it so that the town is what it is today—and not the flood-prone, crowded, dirty town that it was during his youth and for many years before and after that.

My challenge in writing that play for the 2024 Spirits of Pikeville Bicentennial Celebration was to tell a truth that not everyone agreed on and that not everyone heard the same way. And in terms of audience, I wanted people of all ages to be able to enjoy it.

Here are some examples.

Doctor Hamley was a surgeon (with a thriving practice) and a small town’s mayor. Though many people knew him in both capacities, some knew him in only one. So there was some disagreement about who “Doc” was. A simple example: some people said he cussed like a sailor. Others said he never said anything worse than hell or damn, occasionally. Still, others said he used “fiddlesticks” often. Well, from a practical playwright’s standpoint, fiddlesticks should offend no one. So that’s the curse word I used.

I listened to hours of interviews with Doc and a phrase that he overused constantly was “You see.” Well, had I written the script “accurately” there would have had to be “You see” in almost every sentence. Initially, to convey the overuse of that phrase, I had it about once in every paragraph. At the first reading of the script, the regular occurrence of that phrase got on the nerves of me and the audience very quickly. In the final version, it occurs about once a page, which is distraction enough. More than that, and perhaps audience members would lose interest, or even walk out. Was I truthful?

Additionally, histories involving government programs and funding programs change over time, and making sure that all of those name and requirement changes make it into the script would have been distracting, confusing, and not particularly helpful. So the only program mentioned is that of the Model Cities Program—which was the last of several names for what many may remember simply as “Urban Renewal”—which is never mentioned.

Finally, I had 20-minute to have Doc tell his story. In real life, he shared the credit for his accomplishments with those who helped him. In the monologue, he largely does not. This decision was a practical one—it can be hard enough to follow one person’s story, much less a story with lots of characters. And when those people are never seen on stage it is extremely easy to confuse names. So beyond Mayor Hambley himself, I think there are maybe three other people mentioned by name and a few alluded to by position.

The other historical play I am getting started on is called “Wait! This Can’t Last,” which is set here in Winchester and is both local history and family history. Here the challenge is a bit simpler than the ones posed by writing about Mayor Hambley. Here I know the people and have the basic story. But what I don’t really know are how the people spoke and their motivations. So I wrote a lot of that play based on inference and hearsay. Perhaps this will be the subject of a future column.

Meanwhile, remember that writing history is more challenging than just “Telling the truth.” Because if I have learned nothing else this year, one version of “A Few Good Men’s” Col. Jessup’s “You can’t handle the truth” may well be “The writer’s version is the truth.” Or at least part of the truth. Or none of the truth at all.   

But perhaps most importantly, both “Fiddlesticks and Dynamite” and “Wait! This Can’t Last” if they do not tell all of the truth, do give an honest account of events. Both are genuine plays, and I hope they are fair to the people involved and the stories they tell. What more should be expected of any playwright? Other than that his play be entertaining. And it is that that probably matters most. After all, there are other places to go to for truth. Right?