In 2017, a new Romantic Biodrama was staged in Edmonton, Alberta. Performed from August 30th to September 1st, the play premiered in the Second Playing Space at the Timms Centre for the Arts. Despite the popularity of Romantic Biodramas in contemporary theatre, this play-in-production can be distinguished as an exceptional case study in this growing collection of performances for several key reasons. First, it was produced and staged at the University of Alberta and involved both the Departments of Drama and of English and Film Studies, thus representing an interdisciplinary, cross-campus collaboration. Second, in addition to benefitting from University supports and student and faculty involvement, this production received sponsorship from members of my supervisory committee, which allowed for the student-artists involved to receive financial compensation. Third, and perhaps most exceptionally, this Canadian Romantic Biodrama was not written by a playwright, but by me: a Shelleyan student-researcher.
The resulting play, entitled Justified Sinners, was therefore the unlikely culmination of what began as a research question: how could I better discuss Romantic Biodrama from a practitioner’s perspective and use my doctoral project to actively contribute to the ongoing history of plays-in-performance? Consequently, what started as a thought experiment ultimately resulted in a one-act script and a full theatrical production that have together become the creative complement to my critical research project and an integral component of this broader dramaturgical study.
Ultimately then, my aim with this experiment in playwriting was to use the theatrical medium to explore my topic in a creative, and distinctly Romantic, way by actively contributing to an existing artistic tradition. In addition to gaining practical insight through the composition and staging of this script, I also consciously wrote Justified Sinners to address what I perceived as a present gap in the genre of Romantic Biodramas. Throughout my research of Romantic Biodramas across the transatlantic world, I had not encountered a play that strictly focused on the relationship between the Shelleys. Thus, this play features only Mary and Percy onstage and is set at an unconventional time in the Shelleys’ fraught relationship: after Percy’s death in 1822. Justified Sinners opens in 1824 as Mary Shelley is about to publish her edition of Percy’s Posthumous Poems. By re-reading Percy’s words, Mary resurrects his haunting presence in her mind and imagines what she would say to him, if given one last chance. As the play unfolds, it reveals the complex relationship between these two Romantic writers, lovers, and co-collaborators and shows how their distinctly modern marriage was not as perfect as all the poetry might suggest. Justified Sinners uses the Shelleys as a jumping off point to explore themes of Romantic love, the often-difficult dynamics of artistic collaboration, the power of words, and the potential human costs of living a creative life. And although the resulting play takes the form of an imagined conversation between the Shelleys, I created a play text that was born out of both Mary and Percy’s own writings: their poetry, prose, letters, or journals.
The story of Justified Sinners emerged from my own creative engagement with the Shelleys’ words and employed both their lives and writing as its formal basis. Following the completion of the script, the play’s subsequent staging further extended this Romantic collaboration by broadening the Shelleys’ circle to include students, alumni, and faculty of the University of Alberta, who all worked together to translate this work from page to stage.
Brittany Reid - Playwright and Dramaturg
Alexander Donovan - Director
Dr. Stefano Muneroni - Faculty Researcher and Dramaturg
Jessy Ardern - Mary Shelley
Morgan Grau - Percy Shelley
Roxanne Cote - Stage Manager
Sarah Karpyshin - Designer
Kelsi Kalmer - Poster Designer and Production Photographer
Production photos and poster by Kelsi Kalmer
During the composition and staging of Justified Sinners, this blog became a process journal that held me accountable to my resolution that I offer a “candid depiction” of my experience. Now that the play has been written and staged, the blog entries can be read together as the story of writing and staging a Romantic Biodrama, told from a first-time playwright.