On paper, my character in Marat/Sade is nothing to really take notice of. The Nurse weaves in and out of the tapestry – enforcing some kind of doctrine of order. I’ve been thinking a lot about his circumstances and story, and what I’ve been thinking about has allowed me to take some freedom in discovery. So I began to write a backstory.
Writing a backstory is something that I’ve come to enjoy. When there is this much liberty to take with a character, why not make up some exciting circumstances? So, here’s what I’ve got:
“My name is Ferdinand-Victor. Born April 26, 1768, in Charenton (Saint-Maurice, Val-de-Marne), Île-de-France, France.
I have specifics about my family and their circumstances. My father, Eugene, was an attendant who worked at the asylum at Charenton. He was a violent alcoholic. My mother, Isabelle, died when I was 5. I never knew her, nor do I have a memory of her. My sister, Juliette, whom I believe is 3 years older than me, ran away when I was 10. Last I knew, she had ran away to Paris; but that was 20 years ago.
I grew up as an abused son. Experienced physical, mental, and emotional abuse first-hand from my father. He was a believer in hands-on punishment. Charenton was known for its humanitarian treatment of patients, especially under Abbé de Coumier, the director of the asylum. I am predisposed to using my authority to put down a threat or a perceived threat.
I came to work at Charenton in 1793, when I was 25. I’ve had no education, but I easily found work as an attendant, like my father. I began working at the asylum on June 24, 1793, the same day that the Constitution was ratified by the National Convention. That July 13, I was a witness to the murder of Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday. I also witnessed her arrest and imprisonment. I was not at her execution by guillotine.”
So far, so good. I’m still establishing his backstory – there is much more to really get specific on. At the same time, I’m beginning to get into his body. I want to play with his physicality and find his center of gravity. As the company really maps out the structure and begins to get a story out, I know that I’ll be observing and adjusting where I can.
What’s really exciting to me is the other backstories that have been shared with the ensemble. I’ve heard and taken notes from several of the actors who shared their backstories. Their stories will inform my story. As an attendant of the asylum, I know EVERYONE’S story, and their circumstances. And I have complete control over anything I see. It’s a bit scary, knowing that this character can wield any type of power he sees ‘fit.’
What this means for me as an actor is that there are exciting discoveries to be made, and this character will have it’s own life onstage.
What is your experience of developing a backstory?