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“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” John Ford’s The Man who shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Documentary drama that dares to enter into a showdown with ‘The Western’. Some thoughts…

Claiming the Territory

As a child of the 60’s, with an American mother, I was brought up on a diet of countless cowboy movies, TV shows and comic-books. The main playground game was ‘Cowboys and Indians’; the cap gun was a coveted toy – preferably two, in holsters, sheriff’s badge optional. In later life, during a spell as a teacher of A-Level Media Studies, I critically revisited the Western as a film genre, and a thought occurred to me: why, apart from a bunch of rather folksy musicals, are there no serious stage westerns? Initially, there’s an easy three-word answer: guns, horses, landscape. That might be a challenge for a literal staging, but it’s a breeze for the make-believe approach of poor theatre: guns = two fingers; horse = chair; landscape = Shakespearean invitation to use your imagination, as in his Henry V Chorus –

“Think when we talk of horses that you see them...” etc.

So, the thought festered … a stage western – what’s a good story? At this point I was still only considering which movie to choose to adapt for the stage.

I settled upon a much-filmed story that that has become synonymous with the title of the most famous of these films: Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) based on a real event that took place in a town called Tombstone on October 26th 1881. It’s an episode that has also come to be seen as one of the prismatic moments in American history (Yes, history). It’s prismatic because it incidentally raises crucial ethical questions around gun control and American foreign policy: e.g. at what point is it justifiable for individuals or representatives of the law to bend or disregard the rules about the use of force in the face of a threat to the peace and well-being of citizens or state? Are there just good guys and bad guys or is it more complicated than that?

History v Myth : Truth v Lies?

I watched the ‘OK’ films and I also read the history books, and saw that there was a massive disconnect between the two. The films are undeniably very entertaining – they were designed to commercially cater to a mass market, and I’m one of the mass – as much a sucker for a good cathartic yarn as anyone else. But the history is just so much more engagingly complex and interesting – and it’s still hotly contested. I found myself progressively, and somewhat obsessively, drawn in to the environment that created the conditions that led to the controversial showdown – there were so many other stories woven in and around it. Goodfellow is now my third visit to this source material. Whence the obsession?

Tombstone was a silver boom-town that popped up almost overnight in the deserts of Arizona Territory. Boom-towns are a magnet for risk-takers, gamblers, entrepreneurs: one could pick almost any individual off the streets of 1880’s Tombstone and their story would be worth a listen. I did just this with Tombstone Tales and Boothill Ballads (Arcola Theatre 2008), only in this case I dug several bodies out of the famous graveyard, giving a voice, and even a song-and-dance, to some of the losers who didn’t live long enough to enhance their own stories with a pinch or two of self-aggrandisement – a common weakness of the entrepreneurial spirit.

This is certainly a pronounced character trait of Dr George Goodfellow, who featured in a lesser role, attending at the deathbeds of several of the above-mentioned victims. He was one of life’s performers, an actor who instinctively knew how to find his light. As I have discovered, he was not entirely scrupulous when it came to claiming to be the first to undertake a pioneering operation (See previous blog: Was Goodfellow a Liar?). However this little peccadillo only lends a touch of roguish charm and complexity to the character that I am awarding his own play. I willingly adopt his self-directed spotlight as an opportunity to redirect an audience’s gaze away from Hollywood’s million dollar floodlight on the heroes and villains putting bullets into each other (the mainstay of its yarns). I invite them to look instead towards a doctor tasked with pulling the bullets out; who became known as ‘the physician to the gunfighters’; and earned his renown as the US’s leading expert on gunshot wounds. Well, he had plenty of chances to practice.

However, in the interests of historical fair play, I am asking him to share his spotlight with a few other doctors. The narrative economics of Hollywood’s mass-audience storytelling tends to require a frontier town to have one of everything – one sheriff, one doctor, one judge, one comedy old-timer, one wholesome female love-interest, one whore with a heart of gold. Only generic shopkeepers and bad-guys get a more generous allocation. When George Goodfellow arrived in Tombstone in late 1880, there were about a  dozen doctors already practicing, and they inevitably formed a kind of community of colleagues and rivals, working individually as GP’s but teaming up and consulting on significant surgery. I have included the three who came most closely within Goodfellow’s orbit.

Reality v Realism: True Stories

“True”, in the context of the American Old West, is a word that comes with a health warning. It generally signals that someone is out to soften you up for a tall story with a kernel of truth somewhere in the middle of it. ‘True story’ is to be taken with a pinch of salt; as for ‘based on a true story’ – that requires a generous handful.

The impulse on the one side to dish up tall stories, and the appetite on the other to consume them, were there at the start, long before Hollywood organised the myth-making on a mass scale. The pioneers heading west took delight in exaggerating accounts of events to impress the timorous stay-at-homers back east, greedy for vicarious adventure. Writers of pulp fiction turned it into a commercial enterprise.The new film industry was quick off the mark. The first ever hit feature film was a western, Edwin S Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) – based on a now lost stage play.

Historical accuracy has not been the guiding spirit of the Hollywood (even less the Spaghetti) Western. As a substitute for historical truth, the Hollywood audience is offered, and has gratefully accepted, a number of realisms that have given fresh plausibility to constantly recycled story-lines of good versus evil, quests, epic journeys, revenge conflicts. The genuine landscape and locations have always been there on Hollywood’s doorstep. The realistic attention to detail in the interior designs and costumes of Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) has been celebrated. However, this first cinematic account of the OK Corral story was liberal with many other facts, constructing a good story out of a (fictional) doomed attempt by Wyatt Earp to redeem a misguided kid, Billy Clanton, as he is swept along to death by his family’s gang culture.

Portrayal/ Betrayal?

The movies have singled out Wyatt Earp and elevated him into the quintessential semi-mythical lawman, in spite of the fact that his less-celebrated brother Virgil was held in greater esteem at the time and occupied more senior law-keeping posts. Wyatt was a good self-publicist. He lived out his later years in Los Angeles when the film industry was in its infancy; went on set as an adviser with his friend John Ford; and provided a real life role-model for Ford’s stuntman and bit-part player Marion Morrison, who later took on the screen name of John Wayne. Wyatt’s sustained on-screen eminence owes a significant debt to the publication, just after his death in 1929, of journalist Stuart Lake’s biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall, the result of a close collaboration with the 80-year-old Earp. A succession of pro-Wyatt and anti-Wyatt historians have subsequently strenuously exercised themselves in attempts to forensically disentangle the truth from the myth in Wyatt’s own authorised version of the events.

Wyatt’s friend, the unsavoury tubercular ex-dentist ‘Doc’ Holliday, has done well out of Hollywood screenwriters because their unlikely relationship offers good bromance value – notably exploited by the Kurt Russell/Val Kilmer pairing in George P Cosmatos’s Tombstone (1993). As a movie fan, I freely confess I loved the film. I bought into it emotionally: I hated the bad guys, was moved by Holliday’s poignant death scene,  and fell in love with Wyatt’s girl. BUT… I will hand over here to Bob Boze Bell, the artist and founding editor of True West magazine (see Blog: Goodfellow R & D USA 1) who gives an excellent 3-minute critique of the film’s betrayal of the original director and screenwriter’s attempt to give a genuine historical account of the more complex and interesting story:

I gave my own epic stage version of the same events in The True History of the Gunfight (Near) the OK Corral – piloted with the students of East 15 Drama School in 2009, and patiently awaiting a revival that is somewhat held back by its uncompromising insistence on a large (12) cast.

A Licence to Fill

So, Goodfellow is shaping up to be the third part of an odd trilogy, born out of a writer’s obsession with a piece of history that he picked up and just couldn’t put down.  Which brings me back to the drama-documentary dilemma. Tombstone Tales gave me greater creative leeway because in many cases the biographical detail available was restricted to a few tantalising words on a grave-marker: “John Gibson and Malvina Lopez – climbed the golden stairs on the fumes from a pan of charcoal.”

The characters I have chosen to foreground in Goodfellow are much better documented – in the diaries of George Parsons, the memoirs of John Clum, and the columns of the Tombstone Epitaph and other newspapers, augmented and evaluated by the work of subsequent historians.  I feel a greater sense of responsibility to their lives and legacy.   Several of the characters I have selected (Parsons, Clum, Dutch Annie, Curly Bill Broscius) are interesting enough to have a play all to themselves, and perhaps someday they will. Wyatt takes a non-speaking back seat to his brother Virgil, and Doc Holliday barely warrants a mention. Their part of the larger drama is played out mostly offstage.

One of the dangerous effects of the Hollywood Western is that history and myth have been so blurred that it has become hard to tell them apart. I think that matters. Of course a play, even one that labels itself a documentary drama, is still a construct. Characters are chosen or excluded, given words they may never have spoken; events go through a similar selection process, are arranged in a sequence, and assigned degrees of importance.

With that caution in mind, I have still tried to set myself clearly defined limits. The dates of events are reliably recorded, so I have kept a strict adherence to dates. If a character has written his thoughts, or his or her words have been reported, I have tried to include those words and build out from them. Only where there is gap in the known facts have I allowed myself a licence to fill.

However, that’s more of a guideline than a rule, and rules and guidelines can be stretched. I’ve had dramaturge Neil Haigh sitting on my left shoulder during the writing, tempting me often to stray from the path of virtue, like a (well-intentioned) evil angel.

True Confession 

The play’s subtitle: Anatomy of the Gun declares a significant choice. The play’s focus on the doctors’ dilemmas, and their role in pulling bullets out of their patients, will inevitably read as some kind of contribution to the US’s contemporary gun control debate. I freely confess to that being a part of my agenda. Fundamentalists of all stripes, who cling to the ‘truth’ of their holy book in all its literal detail, refuse to recognise the flux of history and fear the threat of moral relativity, even though they also have to somehow selectively overlook slavery, multiple wives, blood-letting of unbelievers etc.

The 2nd Amendment of the USA’s written constitution –“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” – has similarly acquired the status of a sacred text to gun fundamentalists. The latter clause of the amendment is interpreted by them as the justification of an individual’s unimpeded right to carry a lethal weapon; whereas opponents point to the first clause as the justification of the right (even obligation) of state bodies to regulate that possession. Interestingly there was a greater regulation of gun-carrying in 1880’s Tombstone than there is today, with the bylaw requiring those arriving in town to check their arms in at the nearest saloon.

When the Quaker William Penn (who gave his name to Pennsylvania) asked the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, whether it was acceptable to be wearing a sword, Fox sagely advised: “Wear it as long as you can, William” i.e. for as long as you can square it with your pacifist conscience. Apart from the Quakers, you’d have found very few people at the time who would question gun possession. Therefore I have refrained from making my historical characters passionate mouthpieces for gun control, while allowing the Reverend McIntyre and Mrs Goodfellow to have plausible moments of doubt in the face of a local epidemic of gun fatalities. My finale song Gunorrhoeia exists outside the historical frame and allows me to express my own opinion.

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