“All the world’s a stage” – and in fiction, this saying is more true than elsewhere, with the author as director, moving her actors in and out of the floodlights, as the story demands. Kathe Koja, however, adds yet another dimension to the saying in her new novel Under the Poppy, in which the stage of the novel holds the stage of the theatre, and much more. Koja looks at how the stage inspires the writing, which in turn has inspired the stage.
The theatre is the locus of ultimate fiction: the one place on earth where normal everyday people, people you might run into at the café or the grocery store, people you might even know (their names, their fears and loves, the way they toss their underwear not quite into the damn hamper) – people like you, in fact – become indisputably someone else, someone completely different, right before your very eyes. Change the lights, put on a mask, and voila: instant strange. And instant license to behave in a way in which the world’s most stringent laws become just another part of the script, to be used, ignored, or flouted at will: under these lights, it’s story that’s paramount.
For a fiction writer, is this not heaven?
And when the actors themselves are puppets, the ultimate playthings and the ultimate in freedom on the stage – they can fly, die, pop off a head, literally break a heart, and come back whole and gleaming for the matinee … well. Then the only limit is the bedrock challenge of the page: What can you make live here, writer, with your blank space and your choice of words? Let’s put on a show.
Under the Poppy is my response to that enthralling challenge. Set in a darkly shabby avenue of the Victorian age, its story is of Istvan and Rupert, childhood comrades, lovers, and puppeteers, as they make their lives and make their way by the uses and enchantments of theatre, by rendering their puppets of wood and wire so real that people will pay to watch them play at life, so real that when they themselves are parted, by jealousy, anger, and a most intimate betrayal, their only road back to one another leads across the stage: the artifice of approach and retreat, the exquisite humor of making a wooden man with a mocking grin speak for you to the one you love.
And because that stage is set in a brothel – a place called Under the Poppy with its own local reputation for play-acting and fantasy, where the girls and the boy can be whatever you like, as long as you pay the price; watched over by stern madam Decca, who keeps playing her own desperate, crumbling role as war takes over the town – the ante is upped by the unpredictable nature of sex and desire. As Istvan says to Lucy, one of the working girls, “We are so much alike, you and I … Both of us vendors of the art of the moment, the impermanent pleasure,” which is the pleasure of fiction, too, isn’t it?
Writing this book was different, and special, for me in a lot of ways: my first novel of historical fiction, my longest novel ever, my first work specifically for adults (I also write YA) in over ten years. As to the story’s theatrical nature, I have never been an actor, worked in stagecraft, or even watched a puppet show before this book, but I knew without question that this story, these people with their stages and feints and plots both before and behind the footlights, was for me. I loved the research into the period and the puppetry, and I loved the details that I learned and incorporated (and a lot of things I learned and may use later….). And I loved the writing itself, the absorbing daily act of imagining and making this book.
And when Under the Poppy was completed, I knew that there was even more to this story, more to do. So I adapted the first half of the novel for a stage presentation, a work of immersive theatre that I and a host of talented collaborators – a filmmaker, a set and costume designer, a musician/composer — are working to bring to the stage in 2011. Which means that I’m a playwright, now: another act of transformation-by-theatre!
The biggest idea of all here is the pure pleasure and play of imagination: of making believe. Under the Poppy is a stage of the imagination, and it sits waiting for you to bring yours to the performance, to engage in the willful collusion of reader and writer, participating in this act of theatre-on-the-page, where you and I pretend that words are really people and that what happens here is really real: and as long as we both believe, the show goes on.