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John Logan: an infatuation with history.

According to Hegel, history is nothing more than an agreed-upon myth, and Chicago-based dramatist John Logan couldn't agree more. "If you read a history text, you're reading only one presentation. I've always read more history than anything else; ifs my metier." Of his nine produced plays, five center around historical events from periods ranging from the Russian Revolution to post-World War II Chicago. But these are no museum pieces or waxwork tableaux; Logan prefers to sift through historical myth to shed light on contemporary America. His 1986 Hauptmann, which premiered in 1986 at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theatre and recently ran Off Broadway, examines the 1930s kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby by focusing on convicted kidnapper Richard Bruno Hauptmann. But instead of merely recounting the protagonist's life story, Logan uses Hauptmann's arrest and conviction to explore America's compulsion to preserve the status quo and protect its heroes at all costs. Riverview: A Melodrama with Music, which premiered in June at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, uses post-world War II social change, as evidenced in the lives of visitors to Chicago's most famous amusement park, as a barometer of race relations in the 90s.

As a playwright fascinated by history, Logan had to become an expert researcher, plundering not just the historical record but also literature and popular culture. "I learned with my first play, Never the Sinner, that primary source material is instrumental. I learned not to rely on other people's versions of history. The best way to approach it is by going back as close as you can to the actual happening."

Researched and written in 1983 during his senior year at Northwestem University, Never the Sinner reexamines the 1924 Chicago 'thrill killing' murder case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Logan studied tens of thousands of pages of trial transcripts, documents and letters in Leopold's own handwriting-all housed at Northwestem. What Logan uncovered was a wealth of material detailing the obsessive romantic and sexual relationship between Leopold and Loeb, which had been suppressed or merely hinted at in previously published histories, newspaper accounts, and in the trial transcripts themselves.

For Hauptmann, his second play, Logan did not have access to this type of primary material and had to rely on published histories, biographies and news sources. The resulting play is much more a character study. "Because the world of the research was not as open to me as it was in Never the Sinner, I had to make a lot more dramatic extrapolations. Frankly, I just wanted to explore the character of Richard Hauptmann as I was creating him. The play is a work of historical imagining."

Comics & obituaries

Logan's interest in history encompasses the history of the dramatic form and the evolution of language. His Music from a Locked Room, written in 1989, pays homage to Noel Coward and the comedy of manners. For this play, research included a steady diet of Coward and his literary contemporaries - shaw, Ratigan, Wodehouse and Wells - as well as the writings of Chamberlain and Churchill. Logan watched dozens of British and American movies from the '30s and '40s and immeresed himself in the music of Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and Lupino Lane. Then he sat down and wrote the play in four days.

For all his plays Logan pores over photos and slides, newsreels, sheet music, mail order catalogs, comic books and newspapers. In these popular sources he finds images and, more important, linguistic detail: vocabulary, word choices, rhythms and cadences. The jazz Age slang of Never the Sinner is distinctly different from Hauptmann's more formal speech; the brittle banter of Music from the Locked Room is far from the bebop-influenced idiom of Riverview. Logan carefully studies newspaper ads, obituaries and even the social engagement page: "All of that gives an historical work its glamor, its flash, its panache."

With Riverview, Logan had the luxuries of a four-year development period and research assistance from the Goodman's ample support staff. The playwright worked closely with director Robert Falls, who contributed at every stage of the process, from character and plot development to the selection of songs. Falls had suggested an exploration of American melodrama to see if it remained theatrically viable, and Logan's first impulse was to adapt and contemporize Boucicault's The Poor of New York.

Amusement park melodrama

The idea of creating a new American melodrama instead came to Logan in a creative epiphany as he rode past the site of the Riverview amusement park (torn down in 1967) on a rapid transit line. He proposed it to Falls with the idea of using period songs from the 20s to the 50s in the manner of filmmaker Dennis Potter. Working with Goodman dramaturg Tom Creamer, Logan and Falls extracted the tenets of American melodrama: quicklydrawn characters set in opposition, rapidly rising action short scenes, spectacle, and frequently juggled multiple plots. They proceeded to create a work with 12 principals, a cast of 35 and 5 storylines, one of which dealt with the changing nature of racial politics in Chicago, with no scene longer than three pages.

Creating the show's black characters was especially challenging. "The most difficult part,' Logan says, was finding a way into those characters.' He watched films with black casts such as Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Shy. He interviewed a number of black political figures, including a well-known Chicago alderman and a state senator. He read extensively on the life and career of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor and a man Logan admired. Washington's early career became the model for the character of Robert, a black GI who returns to Chicago with political ambitions.

Until now, Logan has refused to publish any of his work: I dont think any of them are done yet.' Perhaps he doesn't want to admit a play is finished because he delights so much in the process. "All this research I'm doing, I love to do. I love the music, I love the lingo and the jazz and the patter. The joy for me is climbing the ladder, not reaching the top. Every step is fun.'
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Author:Abarbanel, Jonathan
Publication:American Theatre
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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