Where Does a Play Begin?
By Celeste R. Raspanti


I knew I wanted to be a writer in 1943, when I won an essay contest in high school. The prize for the winning essay that second year of WWII was appropriately a $25 War Bond. But more important to me was a framed certificate with the designation: WRITER OF THE YEAR. I reveled in the title and did everything I could to enhance it—writing for the school paper, writing skits for school assemblies, writing a pageant for my parish jubilee, even writing a play in Latin that was performed before the whole school. (I attended a Catholic girls' school in the 40s!)

It was not suprising that when I went to college, I would dedicate myself to perfecting my talents as a writer with a future. But a funny thing happened on the way to the publisher's office. I entered the convent, started to teach—and loved it.

But I never stopped writing. Inspiration was everywhere I turned. A theatre workshop at Columbia University inspired a short play set in Harlem; an intense rereading of the Brontë novels inspired another play; my own teaching of Shakespeare brought me to my first commissioned work: the book and lyrics for a children's operetta during the Shakespeare quadricentennial in 1964.

So it is that I have never had any difficulty in answering the most frequent questions about my plays—both published and produced. Where do your ideas come from? How do you begin? My answer is direct: I begin in fact, in history, in that little knot of truth that I can unravel and spin into a drama. And I find my subjects everywhere, though sometimes they find me. My play, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, is a case in point.

It was some years ago that I stepped into Brentano's bookstore in Chicago to pass the time waiting for a friend. "Waiting doesn't matter in Brentano's," I said. As I wandered into the poetry section, I picked up a book which I thought to be just another book, one of many in a lifetime of books. But as I opened the pages, I sensed that this book would be different. While the title, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, was irresistibly poetic, the subtitle was informative: Children's Drawings from Terezin Concentration Camp: 1942-1944. These simple facts sent me on a long journey of research, writing and publishing.

It was impossible for me to put the book down. I turned page after page, reading the poetry, moved by the simple poignancy of the drawings, charmed by the clumsy child humor, terrified at the brutal truth that came so directly and so openly from the mouths of the children. When I reached the end of the book, I could not speak.

The final section of the book identified the child poets and artists of the works included in this slim volume. There was a brief paragraph, all that was known of each child: the date of birth, the date of the transport to Terezin, and the date the child perished at Auschwitz.

As I glanced at the pages, I noticed one recurring phrase in the grim litany of brief, young lives, "perished at Auschwitz, perished at Auschwitz, perished at Auschwitz." But another phrase startled me, "Raja Englanderova, after the liberation, returned to Prague."

At that moment I knew I was committed to these children, to the more than 15,000 children who were incarcerated in Terezin, to the mere 100 who survived, and in a special way, to that one child, now a woman, who would become the subject of my research, the nominal principal character in my play, and a dear personal friend.

My first reaction to the story of the Terezin children was silence. My second reaction was the inability to keep silent. As a published playwright, I began my research thinking in terms of a play. I was encouraged by friend and director Robert Pitman, who met me almost daily with the question, "How's the script coming?" One day he made a compelling promise, "If you write it, I'll direct it," and I knew I would have to create this play.

The research was absorbing, becoming in time a kind of obsession. I began in my own college library, expanded to the libraries at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the University of Chicago and the Yivo Institute in New York. I contacted a number of Holocaust survivors in the Jewish communities in Milwaukee and Chicago. Through the editor of the book, I located Dr. Karel Lagus, the curator of the Jewish Museum in Prague. Letter after letter passed between us, mine with questions, his with answers that only led to further questions.

As I worked, the single child survivor mentioned in the book became real to me, so real that I decided to use her name for the principal character. Except for that name, I knew very little about her—only the date of her birth, the date of her transportation to Terezin, and that one fact: "After the liberation, returned to Prague."

With a statement that was almost an afterthought, I wrote to Dr. Lagus, "Is Raja Englanderova still living? I suppose like many of the children who survived, she has disappeared into the present, unreachable."

But she was not unreachable, as I was to learn from Dr. Lagus. He wrote that he had located Raja Englanderova, now married. "She is Dr. Raja Lodinova, working in the Clinic for Mothers and Children, a research center here in Prague. I told her there was a woman in Milwaukee writing a play about her, and she was very pleased to be the hero of your play. She asked me to tell you to write to her..."

In a way, the letter frightened me. What could I say to her? What might she say to me? She might be, as were many Holocaust survivors, bitter and silent about her experience, resenting what might look like an outsider's curiosity. But I wrote—with trepidation. I explained that though I intended to use her name, I had no other information about her to use in the play. "I've used the writer's privilege," I wrote, "assuming that what happened to one person in Terezin, could have happened to any other person. I will not use your name, if you do not wish me to do so." I waited for her answer, preparing myself to make changes if she requested them. Three weeks later I received my first letter from Raja.

"Dear Friend," she wrote, "I am very pleased to learn that you are writing a play about the Terezin children. I would be happy to help you. We could speak together about it, and I could give you some information you may not have found in your research. It would be pleasant for you to visit me in Prague."

Yes, I thought, it would be pleasant. Her invitation was so casual, a friendly, "Stop in for a cup of coffee and we'll chat." That wasn't possible, I thought at the time, but at least I had her permission to use her name, and better yet, I had the promise of her memories to share.

Some months later I did travel to Prague and Terezin to verify my research and to absorb the sense of place there. To my suprise, Raja decided to go with me and Dr. Lagus, who was to be my guide. We went together driving silently through the hills outside of Prague into the country, until we arrived at Terezin. I had come to know Terezin through books, documents, and photographs. I was to learn its meaning through the eyes of one who had lived there and survived its terrors.

In Terezin the quality of life was the astounding thing. The question that had prompted me to begin my research and to write my play had been: "Why should Raja Englanderova have survived?" After meeting Raja, visiting Dachau, Lidice, and Terezin, my question was not why, but how, how was it possible that Raja could have survived to become the unique person she was. She seemed a whole person, without hatred, without bitterness, without recriminations.

When we returned to my hotel, Raja asked to read the first draft of the play. Sitting across the room from her, I tried to write postcards to my friends and family, but I couldn't concentrate. My mind was reading through the script with Raja, and I was anxious for her reaction.

How could I have presumed to write her story? Now, more than ever, knowing her, I felt inadequate. I glanced at her several times as she read. But there was nothing on her face or in her posture to indicate what she was thinking or feeling. With a rustle of paper, she turned the last page and placed her hand on the script, gently, it seemed to me, almost lovingly. I looked at her not daring to ask, and her answer came without my question. "But how could you have known? A Catholic nun? How could you have known so well what it was like to be a Jew in Terezin? How could you have known?"

She asked that question many times as we visited. "How could you have known that I fell in love, young love, in Terezin? How could you have known about our teacher in Terezin?" I knew she was pleased and so was I. I had been immersed in these lives for two years, and I assumed that wherever there were young people—lonely and afraid, there would be the need for love. Wherever there were children huddled in the shadows of hunger and fear, there would be at least one strong person to teach the children how to sing, how to write poetry, how to paint pictures—how to survive. How could I have known? If you are a writer, you know. You know.

Three months later she asked that question again. Through the generosity of the Jewish community in Milwaukee, assisted by "twelve Jewish men who wished to do a mitzvah," Raja came to the United States and sat in the audience for the first performance of I Never Saw Another Butterfly. When she left the theatre in silence and came to embrace me, she asked it once more, "How could you have known?"

There is no simple answer, of course. Who can explain how one book, one phrase, one story can affect a writer? How vicarious experience becomes so real, that it can truly be described? Only another writer perhaps.

The writer who truly loves her story—researching, studying, living with it, can begin to enter into the characters. The first rule of writing, "Write what you know," really means, "You must learn what you need to know to tell your story." For me that has always meant reading, research, talking to people who can help me to know what I need to know to tell my story.

Sometimes I stumble across other stories that need to be told. While researching the background of the Holocaust, I came across a reference to another story. A father tells his son that he received his Bar Mitzvah in a German convent, where the nuns were actively involved in the underground transfer of Jewish children to France and England.

Deprived of his Bar Mitzvah, the boy tries to return to his Jewish community, now destroyed by the Nazis. He is prevented by the Mother Superior, who convinces him to stay. She promises that she will arrange his Bar Mitzvah in the convent chapel and then send him through the underground to safety in France.

A Bar Mitzvah in a convent: the knot of truth was irresistable. My own personal history was a rich background for the story I would create around that one true event: a Bar Mitzvah in a convent.

The plays that are still on my hard drive have the same point of origin: history, a true event, a fact. I like to begin my building on the solid ground of fact and then let characters and dialogue emerge. I take what is often called "poetic license," and carefully assume that within the context of a true event, historical and fictional characters will pursue their personal goals—and there will be drama. How do I know? If you are a writer, you know. You know.



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