Andrew Darley talks to Danny West about the life of Catharina Linck, who lived as a man, married, and was executed for sodomy.
A] As a woman’s persona and inspirational prophetess
B] Disguised in the persona of a man under the pseudonym of Anastalius Lagarantinus Rossenstengel
(Click images to enlarge)
Throughout history, people have fought and challenged societal as well as governmental law over LGBT rights issues. However, very little is known about the pre-20th century struggle. Shift Productions is readying to present Linck at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival – it tells the story of Catharina Linck, who lived as a man and married a woman before being discovered and executed for sodomy. The stage play examines the life and struggle of this, until now, largely overlooked figure in LGBT history. It hopes to comment on today’s fight for the recognition of same-sex marriage equality by highlighting that it has been happening for more than 300 years – whether legally or not.
I talked to Danny West, the play’s writer and producer, about his fascination with the character of Linck and how the work explores transgendered identity and love across all the ages.
How did you discover the story of Catharina Linck?
The idea arose from the dissertation I wrote in Central School of Speech & Drama about transsexual performance art, as most third years do. I found his story on the web and realized that there was only one source document on it called Historical Perspectives on Homosexuality. It was written in the ‘80s. I found a copy online and that was start of it really. The court transcripts of Linck’s trial, interpreted by an academic, sparked the play’s concept. I couldn’t believe they existed and that no-one had used them for anything as it’s such an interesting and bizarre story, which feels right to be taken to the stage.
What drew you to him and why did you want to tell his story?
One of the main reasons is that it has never been told before and I felt the need for it to be known. But also because of the marriage equality issue dominating the media and gay life and discourse today. It was fascinating to find this couple in the 1700’s who had married, although entirely illegal in the law’s eyes, but they made a commitment to each other. Thinking back almost 300 years ago and doing something so dangerous for their love was incredibly powerful to me as a story.
How did you go about conducting your research?
Well, there really was only the court transcripts. Linck lived in Prussia which means there aren’t many English documents but luckily I have a friend who could translate them for me. However, the play is mainly derived from the court transcripts. The bulk of the research consisted of allowing our performers understand the lifestyle and psychology of a transgendered person. We worked with an amazing company called Gendered Intelligence, who work a lot with transpeople and they were really helpful, in terms of research and funding.
How was the lead for the play cast? Are you using a trans actor?
I put out a casting-call and several actors came forward, both male and female. We ran it as a standard audition and there wasn’t any bias towards any particular sex. To be honest, we found it wasn’t really clicking with anyone and a friend of mine, Fanni Compton, read the role and was really interested in doing something with it. She’s an incredibly gifted actor anyways, but I was amazed at what she brought to the character, so we cast her!
You’ve touched on this slightly already but are you working with members of the transgender community to help understand the character of Linck?
We have had discussions with people in Gendered Intelligence but we’ve moved on now and it’s now more about us as company figuring out what we want to present in Edinburgh. We’ve become a little more insular but I feel that has to happen in order to focus the performance and the ideas. Also, we began researching the play in 2011 so it’s something we have put a lot of time into. The entertainment element of the play is just as important as the history and issues we are trying to present.
To fund the play, you used an online contribution site called Sponsume. Raising funding from fans and public is now a huge trend in all the arts. How was the experience? Nerve-wrecking or liberating?
I’ve never used it before until now. Our producer suggested it to me, having no real idea about it and I didn’t think we would get much uptake. It’s great that we can offer gifts like free tickets and goodie bags and other incentives to people. Ideally, I wish we didn’t have to do it and that there was funding in the arts like previous generations. But I know it’s something we have to engage with to get work off the ground. A lot of people lead their lives through the Internet so audiences do respond to it and I’m extremely thankful to the people who have sponsored us. If people are willing to put money into a project, they either care about you, the issue or theatre.
Did you have a clear vision of how you wanted to frame the play and Linck’s story? Was it difficult to get the tone right for the play?
The play has gone through many incarnations. When we started it was much more surreal, very non-linear with hardly any narrative. We just presented Linck’s life in quite an episodic way. I did the whole thing coming from drama school and wanting to be as avant-garde as possible. Soon enough, I realized that people weren’t getting the main points because audiences were being bombarded with very surreal scenes, like him rolling around on the floor. Recognizing this, we introduced the idea of using the court transcripts as a narrative that would run through it and link scenes together. We still kept the episodic feel but made the story more accessible to an audience. It’s become much more linear but it was necessary.
Were you conscious of presenting a subjective interpretation of a historical figure?
There is no way that you can tell a story of someone from history and not be subjective. I think what was the striking thing at the performances in The Last Refuge, we made some bold decisions in terms of Linck’s character, which we’ve relooked at and changed afterwards. We’ve gone back to a much more ambigious Linck and not making him such a hero. We were conscious of glorifying him because, like anyone, he’s a mix of good and bad. You also have to remember that these court transcripts that we’re working from are, in themselves, a subjective interpretation of him. We will never really know Catharina Linck. All you can do as a writer is find what it is that you respond to.
Were there any other fictional/non-fictional works you used for inspiration in bringing the play together?
I read a lot of academic journals, particularly around pre-Victorian sexual politics. I was struck by writings about women and sexuality in the 1700’s when people led much more pastoral lives and there wasn’t an obsession with labeling in society. Apparently, there was a much more fluid conception of what sexuality is and I found that very informative in how Linck could survive for so long with his lifestyle.
There were also other sources of a pirate, who was a woman but lived as a man on a ship which was also insightful. If you look back in time, there are several incidences of tomboys and why they get away with it is because society thought at the time of course women would want to be men. There’s a line in the play that comes from the prosecutor “There’s one thing you have to remember: why wouldn’t you want to be a man?”. I thought that phrase was very telling in the way we perceive being a man in society and how it can be the upper-hand.
Do you think it was more of a challenge to write a play based on real person than creating a fictional one?
I think it’s different. With fiction, you have the opportunity to do whatever you want but you often have nothing to pin it down to. I find that I respond much better to things that actually happened because there seems more of a point. I think it was more enjoyable, particularly because no-one had worked with this story before. Being honest, it was the least difficult thing I’ve ever written and I think that’s because I got it and felt a strong connection to Linck.
Did researching and writing the play show you something new or given new insight into the experience of a transgender person?
Before I started doing my degree, I had a very difficult understanding of transsexuality. As a gay man, I felt I’d made such a bold decision to come out and be open. So I had this idea that these people were conforming by becoming the opposite sex. I realized by talking to transgendered people that it’s entirely different and you cannot understand it if you are not going through it yourself. The play opened my eyes to something that I was slightly bigoted about, if I’m being absolutely honest! However, I think a lot of gay men and women are guilty of it. You look at Stonewall now; it’s not LGBT, it’s LGB. Maybe that’s right, I’m not sure? But there does seem to be a distancing in the gay community. Maybe it’s a sign that there are prejudices within the community that we need to address.
Even though Linck’s life and struggle occurred before the 20th century, do you hope the play will comment or reflect LGBT issues today?
I think, or hope, people will see that throughout history we have always wanted the same thing: to be in love and to be free to have that love. I think that it is relevant to a 21st century audience. Especially in light of the same-sex marriage discourse, in the fact that this has been happening for 300 years. There’s so little gay history that is taught to us in school or generally spoken about. As a community, we sometimes have a very bad understanding of where we come from and if this play is able to help, even slightly, contextualize anything, then that’s great.
After a run in London’s Last Refuge Theatre, you’re now bringing it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. What feelings do you get when you see something you’ve worked on for so long being performed live and being able to witness an audience’s reaction?
It’s always absolutely terrifying! What’s funny is that we’ve done it for two weeks before and even up to the last night, I’m absolutely terrified. I don’t think I’ll ever lose that. It’s one of the reasons why I decided not to be an actor in the end because going on stage sweating and forgetting lines doesn’t appeal to me. Whereas being a director, you can write and sit in the dark!
What has been the most rewarding or inspiring moment in the whole process of Linck?
On our last day at The Last Refuge we had a group of lesbian women who came to see it. We were all having a drink in the bar afterwards and they began talking about what it was like to be a woman in man’s world and spoke of how much they connected to the play. They said they seen so much of themselves in the character. I realized that the people who will get the most out of this play are lesbians, feminists or anyone who identifies with the need to challenge societal patriarchy.
For them to have such a reaction was the best and I remember saying “That’s why I did it!”. Another highlight has been watching what the actors and Fanni can do with your words and script. Even when I’ve given them a very vague context, they’ve given such powerful and moving performances whilst embodying the characters. Two of our cast are heterosexual women but they’ve really taken the time to understand what it’s like for us.
And finally, what can people expect from play?
People can expect an entertaining, though-provoking race-through of one person’s fascinating story who has been forgotten up until now.
With thanks to Julia Schinkel for translating the Old German inscription from the illustration above