I was eleven when I wrote my first stage adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (a much abridged children’s translation), and even pestered a bunch of classmates into staging it. Yes, I know, I know… but that’s the sort of kid I was. I also was to direct the thing – under the amused supervision of a teacher – and really, really meant to play the Lady Rowena as well.
You see, she was the pretty, blonde one, the nominal heroine, the one with the happy ending… and the boy I fancied was to play the eponymous hero – so I wanted the part. Badly. I could be a very single-minded child, and being the director meant that I had unfair advantage over the other would-be Rowenas who had no say in casting decisions…
But of course, we never made it to the stage. All else apart, my grasp of the possibilities and limits of theatre was vague at best, and my adaptation replete with a host of characters, a lot of different settings and numerous scenes of battle, siege and tournament… What can I say, I was eleven. After a few months of enthusiastic planning, with the school-year nearing its end, the whole thing just faded away, leaving me with nothing worse than a little disappointment for my aborted play.
Disappointment that, during the summer, I thought I’d cure by re-reading Ivanhoe for the hundredth time – and it was then that I made a rather startling discovery: after all the fuss about playing Rowena, I found I didn’t care all that much for the woman. Yes, she was pretty, and yes she got to marry Ivanhoe – but what did she do all along, except being sweet, sighing, and needing to be rescued a lot?
Rebecca, on the other hand… Rebecca of York is a capable healer, can take initiative, and knows her way with the law. Besides, she is proud and dignified and, even when passionately in love, can suffer in silence. A much better, more complex character – and, my eleven-year-old self realised, a far more interesting character to play.
I think that is how I became aware that the central character is not necessarily the best one, and that depth and complexity trump pretty gowns and happily-ever-after any day of the week. Goes to show you never know, doesn’t it? I can’t be sure that all the sudden wisdom about Rowena wasn’t a little girl’s case of sourgrapeitis, but the discovery of Rebecca certainly proved to be a milestone in my perception of character and narrative. So, to the list of the stories that influenced my storytelling self, I think I could add Ivanhoe – via a much abridged translation, and a play that never was.