An interview with Anthony Clarvoe

What are the perks about writing about a historical figure?

Writing about history gives me a chance to try to understand a little better how we come to be where we are now as a nation. Much of what these characters are struggling over in the 1790s is strikingly similar to what we're trying to decide about now. 

One of the great perks of being a writer is that it's your job constantly to try to improve your knowledge of the world. If you're going to write about Joseph Priestley and his time, you'd better be ready to learn a lot! I read books by Dr. Priestley, books about Dr. Priestley, biographies of every major character, history, science, history of science, political science, etc., etc. 

Then there were the places I got to go: Dr. Priestley's house, the wonderful archives at Penn State where I could read manuscripts in Dr. Priestley's own handwriting, the Chemical Heritage Foundation and the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, John and Abigail Adams's house and church in Massachusetts, and many more. 

Finally, Dr. Priestley and his friends have a lot of fans, who are eager to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. Meeting and learning from them was a major perk of writing Gunpowder Joe.

What percentage of writing GPJ was research-based?

Everything in the play is inspired by research by me, director Laurie McCants, and our collaborators at Bucknell University and the Joseph Priestley House. Much of what the characters say is taken in edited form from their letters and other writings. Their actions in the play are based as closely as possible on what they are known to have done. 

Some of these people's lives are more thoroughly documented than others. For example, Mary Priestley burned many of her letters out of her concern that the Priestleys' enemies might use them to persecute their friends. Probably for similar reasons, we have no letters by Sally Hemings and there are significant gaps in what survives of Thomas Jefferson's otherwise meticulous household record-keeping when it comes to her. So, while the lives of these women and the actions they took are in some ways quite well known, we have to draw on a wider circle of sources to speculate on their thoughts and motivations.

How historically accurate is your play? Where are the moment s when you took more artistic license?

The play is as accurate a depiction of events as possible, within the demands of dramatic literature. Some exchanges that took place by letter we depict as conversation. We know that Joseph Priestley gave scientific demonstrations, both out of a love of teaching and out of the need to secure funding for his work; what I have given him to say is a collaboration between Dr. Priestley and me, to achieve both his goals and mine.

History has a cast of thousands. We present a few people and hope to tell a truthful story through them. Historical events have many probable causes. We have made them as directly as possible the result of the actions of our characters. The conversations are invented, but what the characters say is based very closely on what we know they thought and felt.

Some of what I learned about the Founders shows them to be more complicated people than the versions we learned in school. Their stated beliefs and the actions they took are in some cases troubling, even angering. For that reason, I felt a particular responsibility to ascribe to them only what has a strong basis in the historical record. 

That said, other writers can and have taken these lives and this time and built a very different story. For instance, it was easy for me to write about this period and never even mention Alexander Hamilton; Lin-Manuel Miranda's wonderful show Hamilton has no need to show John and Abigail Adams or Sally Hemings. We try to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth. But no one can tell the whole truth, and besides, our ideas of what that is change all the time, as we find more things to learn. 

 Why is theatre a valuable tool for learning about human history?

Plays are made of people, people who want things badly from each other and take action to try to get them. Everything onstage -- the sets, lights, sounds and music, costumes, and props -- is there to serve a story of human beings in action. There are other ways of learning history -- reading books and going places -- but history is made by people trying to get what they need, and no other medium, not even movies or TV, puts you in the same tight place with people in action like theater does.

Gunpowder Joe, in the spirit of science, presents a hypothesis about America. In the spirit of religion, it has faith in things unseen. I believe both the hypothesis and the faith are justified by the facts.