The Inspiration behind The Invisible – Agents of Ungentlemanly Warefare
An Interview by Vertigo Theatre with Playwright Jonathan Christenson
We asked Jonathan Christenson about Catalyst Theatre’s upcoming production of THE INVISIBLE- AGENTS OF UNGENTLEMANLY WARFARE. THE INVISIBLE will be premiering May 11- June 9 as the fifth show in our 2018/2019 season.
THE INVISIBLE – AGENTS OF UNGENTLEMANLY WARFARE has its roots in real-life history, including Canadian Millionaire William Stephenson’s WW2 contributions to British Security in the fight agains the Nazis. How are you going about researching these stories, and what excites you about what you’ve learned so far?
The first book I read was A Man Called Intrepid. It’s a biography of William Stephenson that was written in 1976 before people generally knew much about the Special Operations Executive (SOE) – the agency Churchill secretly set up to fight a covert war of espionage and sabotage in Europe during WWII. The book was originally considered a work of non-fiction, but over the years its veracity came into question and it was recently reclassified as fiction. Which is interesting because I imagine that in the world of espionage the truth can get very slippery. Anyway, I started there because Stephenson was this Canadian who had a huge impact on WWII and on the evolution of espionage during the last half of the 20th century. And I’d never heard of him. I’m interested in Canadian stories that have the potential to speak on a global level and I was struck by the international nature of this story. It had a significant Canadian connection, but it had equally strong ties to British, European and Asian history.
More than anything, though, I was interested in the women who were recruited by the SOE as secret agents. I had no idea that women played this particular role in WWII. And these women were fierce. They weren’t the agent/seductress sort of female spies that populate the work of writers like Ian Fleming. So, I got my hands on as many books as possible about them. There have actually been a lot of them written over the past two decades. And as I began reading these books, I also started to see the stories of these women cropping up more and more in popular culture. There seems to be a growing interest in them.
One of the women that I became most intrigued with was someone named Vera Atkins. A lot of people say she was the real-life inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Miss Moneypenny (much as many people say that William Stephenson was the inspiration for James Bond). Vera was very high up in F-Section – the branch of SOE that was dealing with agents in occupied France and she became very involved in the lives of the female agents. Before they set off on their missions, she was often the last person to see them. At the end of the war, many of these agents were missing and no one knew what had happened to them. Vera made it her personal mission to go to Europe after the war and find out. She spent months investigating and, if not for her, the stories of many of them may well have been lost forever. I find Vera an endlessly intriguing character and she was the first to really take hold of my imagination.
THE INVISIBLE is titled as such because it refers to spies in the Second World War, but there’s possibly another meaning about this story being “hidden” by history, while other more famous aspects of the war are celebrated. Was it important to you to write an “untold” story? What excites you about being able to bring this to the stage?
Yes, absolutely. As male agents were increasingly identified & targeted by the Nazis, female agents were recruited from around the world & trained at secret camps throughout the UK & Canada. Women, it was believed, could coordinate the resistance without being suspected, without being observed, without being detected. Women could be invisible. We’re reimagining the stories of this international team of female agents through a 21st Century lens. Drawing on historical research, film noir, spy fiction, & graphic novels, we’re working on creating a genre-busting, multi-lingual, “film noir musical” for our times, a contemporary portrait of 7 extraordinary women who risked their lives to fight a dangerous war of sabotage, propaganda & espionage during WWII, only to find themselves betrayed by the very world they believed they were fighting for.
Catalyst and Vertigo previously collaborated on NEVERMORE, which went on to tour nationally and internationally, including a run Off-Broadway. What are you looking forward to when working with Vertigo again? What unique aspects do you find Vertigo brings to the table?
We had a great time working at Vertigo in 2011! The Vertigo audiences were fantastic – so supportive and enthusiastic about NEVERMORE. So, I’m definitely looking forward to sharing this new work with them! Also, Vertigo has a fantastic team! Artistic Director Craig Hall and Executive Director Rose Brow have been amazing! It’s not easy committing to something that only exists as a concept. It requires a lot of trust and confidence. It asks everyone involved to take a leap of faith. That’s not easy – stepping into the unknown – and even in the world of theatre, people can be reluctant to take that risk. But Craig and Rose never hesitated and I’ve really felt, from the very beginning, that we’re all in this together. It’s been a real gift to begin a creative journey by such trust and support.