Waltzing Mechanics

Chicago's Home for Documentary Theatre

The Romanov Play: An Introduction

The thing is, I'm writing this play.  

It's a play about the fall of the Romanovs, about the necessary end of the Russian monarchist government and the family destroyed to make that happen. It's a tragedy, but it isn't meant to feel sad, at least not most of the time. It's more about people than events because the people in this story are fascinating. They're complicated and passionate and surprisingly funny. Most of all, they are disturbingly recognizable.  

You won't see this play anytime soon.  While there will be a whole bunch of read-throughs and workshops and meetings and other sexy things to get the pulse racing throughout the next few months, the actual show won't go up for another year. The thing is, though, I'm excited about it NOW.

So I'm going to start talking about it in this blog, every step along the way until I finally get to show you all the whole thing. I don't know who "you all" might be, but to whoever is reading these words: Hello! I am so glad you're here. I want to show you something:

This is Anastasia Romanov. She's thought to be fifteen years old in this photograph. The man next to her, pretending to allow her to smoke, is her father, Tsar Nicholas II.  I love this picture, the look in their eyes. Mischievous.  Goofy, even.  It looks like they are both about to burst out laughing.

After this photograph is taken, they and the other four members of the family have about two more years before they will be shot, bayoneted and buried.

I found this photograph by accident in a library. The moment was like an upside-down, nightmare version of what I felt when I was a little kid seeing the "real" Santa for the first time. In the space of an instant, something that I had categorized as intangible seemed to acquire texture. Breath.

What's more, because the Romanovs lived in an era when photography was becoming increasingly accessible, there is a vast array of images just like this. These pictures of what I used to think of as something long and ago and far away reveal a family that isn't - wasn't - so different from families anywhere.  Not so far away at all.

Further reading only served to cement this realization. There are entire archives of first-hand accounts documenting domestic scenes that are almost obscenely relatable. More often than not I found myself reading not of the drama of life at court or issues of state, but of family dinners and books read for school, of angst-ridden teenagers and bewildered parents. Of kids striking goofy poses for pictures they never imagined the world would see.

This didn't - doesn't -  fit into the narrative I had envisioned for the rulers of Imperial Russia. I struggle to hold in my head these two realities at the same time:

1. The population just outside the palace gates lived in unforgivable poverty.  

2. The family inside was too human for me to hate.

There is more to be said on this. The suffering of six people is in no way equitable to the suffering of the millions - millions - who suffered around them. For every scene I write about the Romanovs, a voice inside my head rattles against my skull, asking "But why these people? Why tell their story?"

The answer I keep coming back to is this: the story of the Romanovs seems to me so much like the story of power everywhere. These were ordinary people who - horrifyingly - thought they were doing the right thing. As did those who took over after them. Historians continue to debate whether either regime was actually better for the Russian people in the end.

All around the world - and all throughout history - there countless examples of the same: revolutions which beget revolutions, fights for justice which beget injustice. And so often the people involved are not the villains I would imagine - would perhaps even prefer - for them to be. They're just ordinary people, doing what they think is right.  Which terrifies me. Which breaks my heart. Which compels me to explore and tell this story as best I can.

There's something else you should know. The most astonishing part about this writing process is how much original dialogue I'm able to use. There are so many diary entries, newspaper articles, personal letters and even witness statements that remain from these years. The truth is, little of the play was born in my imagination; it's mostly the words of the people who were actually there. The way they tell their own story is exquisite.  

So that's the thing - I'm writing this play.