What's Your Back Story?

I’m no actor, so any back story I come up with for the characters (just how long were Gertrude and Claudius an item? where is Cordelia’s mom?) is for my own amusement. If you are an actor, then the back story is obviously part of who you (at least temporarily) are.
So, tell us one. Tell us the most interesting or unexpected back story you’ve ever come up with for a character. What came first, the text or the idea? Did you imagine a back story and then find supporting evidence in the text to work off of? Or vice versa, did you get a brainstorm after reading something in the text, and expanded that backward?
It’s a Friday afternoon and I don’t get my best traffic on Fridays so I don’t know how many actors we’ll get to chime in, but I’m hoping to see a couple of different backstory interpretations of the same character. I think that could be enlightening.

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6 thoughts on “What's Your Back Story?

  1. I think you've read mine. THE MASTER OF VERONA was based on the backstory of Capulet and Montague, an idea born from a single line of text – "My liege, my wife is dead. Grief from our son's exile stopped her breath."

    The short version – why does Lady Montague get the final death of R&J? The title characters have just killed themselves, and Paris to boot. Why should we care about a woman whose last lines were in Act I, scene i?

    Well, an offstage death is symbolic of an ending, and the only thing that ends in Act V is the feud – Capulet and Montague shake hands. So Lady Montague's death is symbolic of – the end of the feud?

    That made no sense to me, until I asked "What if she caused the feud?" Engaged to marry Capulet, she ran off with Montague instead!

    It doesn't play well – the truth is that the feud exists, we don't need to know the cause behind it. But it informs a lot of Capulet's reactions throughout the play, especially his bewildering transformation from loving father to tyrant the moment his daughter rejects the man she's supposed to marry.

    Like I said, I wrote a whole novel over that one, but the play doesn't really need a cause to the feud. And it was more as director than actor – I've played both Capulet and Montague at various times, and in truth, the language just carries me along. On-stage, I don't spend a lot of time working backstories.

    Except in Macbeth. Lots of backstory work in Macbeth. Oh, and Caesar, too…

  2. I once got FAR too into The Winter's Tale.

    Basically, Florizel has never been particularly close to Polixenes and has always been something of a mummy's boy. I don't know if this predates or simply dates back to Polixenes's 9 month stay in Sicilia, but the fact that Polixenes was there for so long and Mrs Polixenes and Florizel weren't suggests to me that whether this was a symptom or a cause, Florizel is going to be much closer to his mother than his father.

    So when did Mrs Polixenes die? Guys, what if it was really not long before the second half of the play? What if Florizel was so utterly affected by his mother's death that he really started acting up and rebelling against his father, who he's still really not close with? It accounts for a prince gallivanting around the countryside and determining to marry a shepherdess completely against his father's will. It also accounts for Polixenes's sudden fury at this decision. It's not Polixenes having his turn at a Leontes-esque rage; it's simply a frustrated father, who has never been able to relate to his son, reaching the end of his tether thanks to Florizel's constant acting-up since his mother died.

    Funnily enough, I came to all this while rehearsing to play a female Camillo. I was trying to figure out her relationships with Mamillius and Florizel, which I decided to play as fondness without being really close. The sort of relationship you'd have with your boss's kids, if you spent much time around them and got on well with your boss. Then I looked at how much Florizel trusts Camillo in 4.4, and thought "what if female Camillo is the closest thing Florizel has to a mother?". Which led into the "where *is* Florizel's mother anyway?" question, which led to the parts you've already read!

  3. For a humorous example, I worked a lot on my backstory for Doctor Pinch in Comedy of Errors. You see, it was a tropical production and I had as my main prop a wooden voodoo head on a stick. I decided that, in fact, the head itself (nicknamed "Little Pinch") was the actual Doctor Pinch, whereas I was but his current host. The Doctor Pinch legacy was a mantle passed down from generation to generation, constantly defending the people of Ephesus from the forces of darkness. Of course, the original Doctor Pinch was actually a charlatan, but as his umpteenth successor my character was unaware of that and fervently believed that he truly had mystical powers.

    David- I'd really like to hear some of the backstory work you did for Macbeth. I'm directing the show currently, and I am using one of your ideas already (the "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech as Lady M's suicide note.)

  4. Alexi – Sure. A touch of it is historical, the rest is textual.

    Historically, Mac himself was a cousin of Duncan's – I forget the exact relationship. He was in contention with two others for his inheritance, up along the northern end of Scotland. As a bulwark against the cousins, he swore an oath to King Sven of Norway – Sweno, as Shakespeare calls him.

    But when Sven finally invaded, Macbeth fought on the Scottish side. He'd already secured his inheritance by not only killing the other heirs, but by marrying one of their wives – Lady Macbeth, whose real name was Groach (no wonder Shakespeare doesn't use it). That's how he became powerful, he married her for her land – all property in Scotland at this time passed through the women. She had a child by her previous husband, who Mac raised as his own. Not sure what happened to him historically – there are lots of rumors.

    Of course, there's lots of room in there for Mac and Lady to have lost a child of their own. We know she's had a kid, but he laments he has no heir. So either she had a child by her first marriage, or they've lost one of their own.

    Now, this is all fun stuff, but once you reach the opening of the show, you kinda have to abandon history. Mac was a great king, the first to unify all Scotland, and he ruled for sixteen or eighteen years. Far from a tyrant, he was able to travel to the Holy Roman Empire for a couple years without a revolt in his native land. Malcolm is the one who invited in the English, making all the thanes into earls, and thus giving the English a foothold in Scotland.

    Anyway, one of the biggest pieces that I like to play with is the right of inheritance – there wasn't any. Mac is blamed for causing disorder in the universe by murdering Duncan. But Duncan making his son the Prince of Cumberland was almost as big a disorder. Prince of Cumberland, the King's Heir, was never meant to be his son, but the toughest fighter on the field. Clearly, Mac shows up expecting to be made Prince of Cumberland. But instead he finds out that he was made Thane of Cawdor as a sop to ease the sting.

  5. And the disorder continues, as Cawdor shouldn't belong to Mac at all, but to Duff. It's Ross who brings word from Fife that Cawdor has been captured. Most people interpret this (wrongly, in my opinion) to mean Macbeth. In reality, there are two battles, and two heros – Macbeth in the south, facing MacDonwald, and Macduff in the north, facing Cawdor. So Duncan promotes his son, who had to be rescued on the battlefield, giving Mac's reward to him, and Duff's reward to Mac – leaving Duff sucking hind tit. ("Tis my limited service" indeed!).

    I have arguments about the two battles all the time. Everyone wants Macbeth to be in two places at once. The fact that Ross, a cousin to the Macduff, brings the news from Fife, and that Duff is the thane of Fife, makes things very clear. In the Bloody Sergeant's speech, he names Macbeth clearly. Ross is more oblique – Bellona's Bridegroom. It's a great title – and I think it belongs to Duff.

    It's sad that the play begins with the Scots finally – FINALLY – throwing off the yoke of Norway, who had claimed the northern part of Scotland since the days of the Vikings, only to have a new foreign threat take power at the end – the English. Mac's reign is the sole period of self-rule they had. Shakespeare makes it look like they were destined to be ruled. Thank goodness he throws in Banquo and Fleance, eh?

    Personally, I think Mac is a good guy at the top. He has to be, to have somewhere to fall. There's a small kernel of ambition, that grows as he perceives Duncan making Malcolm the heir as a great injustice. But it's Lady M who convinces him – man, does he hedge.

    I also like to use the "If twere done" speech as him rehearsing his arguments to his wife. Then when she enters, all he can say is, "We'll proceed no further in this business." She ties up his tongue.

    I hope some of that strange rambling is useful. There's a lot more, of course. But I'll leave it there.

  6. Great question!

    The easiest and most useful backstory I ever worked on for a character was for Hippolyta in Midsummer Night's Dream. My thirst for knowledge is unquenchable, and I am also a total perfectionist. But, there is a finite amount of information existing about the Amazon culture. Once I read it, my imagination could run rampant, filling in all the gaps. I loved working on that story.

    Take that in contrast to playing a character who lives in Ohio in 1945. The questions are unending. What would she eat? What would she study in school? What would she wear? What would she do for fun? How long would it take her to travel to another city? etc etc etc

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