Posted by on Apr 24, 2020 in Evergreen, On Writing: Craft and Commiseration, Pentamerone (Tale of Tales), The Myrtle | 0 comments

It’s actually a complete coincidence that The Myrtle, my romantic comedy about a tree that comes to life, is coming out on Arbor Day but it’s too perfect so I’m certainly not mad about it!

Check it out today in eBook and Paperback wherever such things are sold!

The Myrtle is one of the first tales in The Tale of Tales collection and it was the first one that I read and just knew I absolutely had to adapt into a play. In a lot of ways, it really was the start of the whole project and I wouldn’t have written any of the others (nor The Green Bird) if not for it.

The story of the whole The Tale of Tales project is deeply rooted in my struggle with insomnia and I first read The Myrtle sitting in the rocking chair in my newborn baby’s room while she slept. And when you look at the themes of family and motherhood in that play, I think it’s pretty obvious what influenced me there.

The Myrtle is one of my favorite plays I’ve ever written and I have seen some wildly different takes on it from production to production but it’s never not funny and adorable.

As I’ve been doing with all these plays, I’m going to do a Virtual Talkback for this play right here on the blog. It’ll be just like the Q & A that follows a production but without you having to leave the comfort of your home to get all the good trivia and behind the scenes details. As with all of these, I’ll be addressing all the stuff that usually comes up during a Q & A for this show but, if you’ve got any additional questions, please feel free to leave them as a comment and we’ll keep the discussion going.

Why is his name Prince Cola?

The Myrtle by Hillary DePiano, Rutgers Preparatory School, Photo by Scot Wittman
The Myrtle by Hillary DePiano, Rutgers Preparatory School, Photo by Scot Wittman

This is the first thing every group of students always asks me about so let’s get it over with right away.

“Why is the prince named after a soda?”

And then I sigh and explain that he isn’t. The prince’s name is Cola Marchione which, at the time, was a derogatory term for bottom. And while that reference isn’t something most people are aware of today, I was afraid of using it in a play marketed to schools and other family friendly groups. For a while I tried to just refer to him as Prince* and then to change his name entirely but I finally decided that, if the phrase itself was what was offensive, I would split it up. Which is why the King (unnamed in the original story) is called King Marchione and the prince is only referred to as Prince Cola. It let me stay true to the original fairy tale without running afoul of anyone’s school board censor.

Fortunately, most teen actors are absolutely delighted to know their character’s name is basically Prince Ass as this is seen as somehow an upgrade over Prince Soda so everyone is happy.

* = In the early days of this project, I was trying to make all the princesses and princes the same character (called simply Prince and Princess) to make it easier for a single performer to play all of them. I ultimately decided it was more fun to make each one an individual character to give as many performers as possible the chance for a meaty role.

What is up with the King?

The Myrtle by Hillary DePiano, Rutgers Preparatory School, Photo by Scot Wittman

Everyone loves the King. He’s over the top with a lot of memorable moments for a smallish part. There is a stage direction in the play that reads, “King comes in like BOOM” and it was one of the very first linesI wrote in the play. It’s very rare that any single phrase survives all the way to the final draft but, to me, it just completely captured the essence of that character as I saw him.

Of all the characters, the King was the one I had the clearest sense of from day one of writing this project which is really weird because, when I went back and reread the original tale, he’s barely in it so I’m not sure where I got his personality from. I think it almost entirely came of just associating him with the bore he sends his son out to hunt. But being so sure of his larger than life personality helped shape the character of the prince and Lorenzo as they interacted with him.

What is your favorite part?

I have a lot of favorite parts but, if I have to narrow it down to a single exchange, my absolute favorite moment in this play, which is also easily in the top ten of any I have ever written, is this one:

PRINCE COLA
I came to that council meeting.

KING
You fell asleep!

PRINCE COLA
Well, it was a boring meeting.

KING
A man was stabbed during that meeting!

PRINCE COLA
I–

KING
In his bare ass!

PRINCE COLA
Really? How–

 Ah, comedy!

Of course, as is becoming a theme with these, I had to change the word “ass” to “butt” for the school markets which doesn’t feel like the word the King would use but sometimes a playwright’s gotta do what a playwright’s gotta do.

Character names

The Myrtle by Hillary DePiano, Rutgers Preparatory School, Photo by Scot Wittman
The Myrtle by Hillary DePiano, Rutgers Preparatory School, Photo by Scot Wittman

Many of the characters in the original fairy tale don’t have names so I had to make them up. The best example of my absolute laziness in this process is that the gardener, La Giardiniera, is literally just called just called “The Gardener”… but in Italian.

But with the rest of the characters, I made sure to either grab names from elsewhere in the fairy tale collection (as I did with the Vendramina and other other suitors) or to use names I knew were popular during the time period the original was written (such as Rocco and Lorenzo).

What did you change from the original story?

The Myrtle by Hillary DePiano, Rutgers Preparatory School, Photo by Scot Wittman

*takes huge breath*

OK, so the thing you need to understand from the top here is that the original fairy tale is only three pages long. Three pages. You could read the whole fairy tale out loud in less than 10 minutes. My play runs between 35 and 45 minutes. And, when you consider that well over half of the original fairy tale is the narrator going on comically long poetic descriptions (of the sort I gave to Prince Cola in the play), you’ll start to see that I really added more than I changed.

It comes down to the classic writing chestnut showing vs telling. The original fairy tale was three pages of telling with very little showing. In order for me to show you those exact same events happening on the stage with a full cast of characters, every moment from the original tale automatically gets stretched out when you put it on stage.

So, right off the bat, the biggest change I made is that I had to show everything instead of just telling it which meant taking it from one line of prose and turning it into a scene that worked within the realism of the world of the story.

Part of this meant naming and giving personalities to characters that are only just placeholders in the original story as we covered above. The other part was creating moments that were only implied in the original story and fleshing them out.

From there, the next batch of changes I made were less about dramatizing the story and more about shaping it into the story I wanted to tell.

People always ask me what made me fall in love with a story and want to adapt it and the thing is… most of the time, I decide to adapt a story not because I love it but because I absolutely hate it and want to fix it.

And that was the case with The Myrtle.

Let’s talk about the original fairy tale.

In the original fairy tale, there is a husband and wife and the wife wants a baby so badly she says she would be happy if she gave birth to the sprig of a myrtle. And then, after she give birth to this myrtle tree, this thing they so desperately wished for, she sells it to the King after a little cajoling and then neither father or mother appear in the story ever again. Did they know about the fairy? It’s never addressed. (And, for the record, in the translation I trust, the tree turns into the fairy but in some translations she’s just a tiny fairy hiding in the myrtle tree? Which raises a lot of questions when we get to all the sex stuff later…)

Then the prince has the myrtle tree in his room and the fairy starts crawling into his bed every night randomly and they start having rampant sex. And then all the prostitutes in town (Who are seven sisters. Keeping it in the family, I guess!) who are no longer getting the Princes’ business (because of all the fairy sex) sneak into his room by digging a hole into his room from their house (a thing I have a lot of logistics questions about but go on) and, when they find the fairy there and find out the prince plans to marry her, they rip her apart. The prince comes back to find the destroyed tree and is sad but then, pop, out comes the fairy anyway and they get married. They have the prostitutes buried alive (ew), all except the one semi nice one that they “gift” to the loyal valet as a wife (double ew) and that’s the end.

And I really hated this? Aggressively? They took this idea that was so interesting and took it in the most boring direction imaginable.

A woman wishes so desperately for a child that she is willing to give birth to a freaking TREE (which has to have seriously hurt!) and the only point of her yearning and sacrifice is an unusual sexual plaything for the prince. Like, what? Forget about the way the whole thing pains me as a woman, this is not even a good story.

The amount of wasted narrative potential itched at me. You’ve got this couple that wanted so badly to have a child they would be happy to raise a tree, they finally get this tree child, and then they give it away? How is this not a story about that woman who wanted that baby so bad she gave birth to a literal tree? She’s what’s interesting here!

So I started from there. There was a woman (and since we’re going to give birth to a literal tree I didn’t see much of a need to have a dad there so I cut him out) who wanted a baby so badly she would give birth to a sprig of a myrtle and then I went with the wild concept that, hey, maybe she might actually love that baby she literally prayed her whole life for? And then, maybe, instead of just giving it away at the first narrative contrivance, it was stolen. And of course she’s going to want to find it again because that’s her literal child?

And then the next logical conclusion that of course is that she knows the myrtle is also a fairy because how wouldn’t she? Unless we’re to believe the fairy part of the myrtle only appeared when the tree got near the prince to gift him with random fairy sex, then obviously the myrtle would have a relationship with her mother who raised her all these years. (I just keep picturing the couple in the original story selling the tree to the King and being like, “It turns into a sex crazed fairy at night, tho, so good luck with that!”)

Which means, obviously she’s not going to want to immediately jump into bed with the prince but rather would be suspicious of him and eager to get back to her mother.

The Myrtle by Hillary DePiano, Rutgers Preparatory School, Photo by Scot Wittman
The Myrtle by Hillary DePiano, Rutgers Preparatory School, Photo by Scot Wittman

Then I took a look at the prince, who has exactly zero personality in the original tale other than Horny, and decided to give him all the over long comic passages of description from the original story because he is kind of socially awkward and the whole thing started to come together.

So the prince and myrtle start to form affection for each other over the course of looking for her mother. Which made the whole story go from a list of random sexual encounter to an actual romantic connection. Which is honestly what happens when you replace one note characters from a three page story with a more developed characters: you get a more developed relationship.

The Myrtle by Hillary DePiano, Rutgers Preparatory School, Photo by Scot Wittman

How much did I change The Myrtle from the original? Not really that much. If you look at the events of the original fairy tale and my play, everything from that story happens in mine and in roughly the same order.

But there is a fundamental shift in my version that in some ways is more sterilized (the prostitutes in mine are just called courtiers but I kept all the really dirty sex jokes because they don’t translate anymore so I can get away with it!) and modern while still sounding classical (which a director once told me is kind of my signature style).

What does Mute Sparrow and Stone in Your Lap mean?

When I first started writing this play, I realized I was going to have to figure out what those archaic dirty expressions meant exactly (even though I can imagine) and dutifully did my research. And, hilariously, most of the references I turned up are people asking what they meant after reading The Myrtle because we’ve all got our mind in the gutter and that’s fine.

In the end, I decided that the answer to what they meant exactly was hard enough to find that it was OK to include them in the play since you’d have to dig reallllly hard to find out more than they are were the title of popular children’s games at the time that are also the names of sexual acts.

What’s great about these phrases is that they sound completely innocent out of context and yet very dirty within context and yet no one seems to be able to explain why! The perfect recipe for comedy!

Pick up your copy of The Myrtle today!