Interview with 'Ashurbanipal' writer L.S. Wisnom: Bringing Assyria To The Stage

Writer of our upcoming Ashurbanipal and Assyriologist L.S. Wisnom writes in IAS - International Association for Assyriology about her process with Ashurbanipal and the other two plays in her Assyrian trilogy.

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As we wrote about in the last issue of In Popular Culture, there are a thousand different ways for scholars to bring their research to a wider public, from traditional lectures to board games. Selena Wisnom is one Assyriologist who decided to tell the history of the ancient past in an unconventional genre – theatrical adaptation. For this issue, Selena agreed to answer our questions about the choices and challenges she faced in bringing Assyria to the stage. 

Q: You are the author of a series of plays about the Sargonid kings, starting with Ashurbanipal: The Last Great King of Assyria (2013), moving through Esarhaddon: The Substitute King (2014) and Sennacherib, King of Assyria, a draft of which was read at the Rencontre in 2016, and perhaps ending with a final play about Sargon. What prompted you to undertake this ambitious project of historical dramatization?

A: It all started with a question – what was the war against Shamash-shum-ukin really about? Why was Ashurbanipal not satisfied with ruling Assyria, which was the greater part of the empire after all, but wanted Babylon as well? Why did he go to such lengths to destroy his brother, at great cost to Assyria itself? These questions are great material for drama, and Ashurbanipal is a fascinating figure to try to reconstruct. We know more about the last Assyrian kings than any other Mesopotamian rulers thanks to Ashurbanipal’s library and archives, but our knowledge is still fragmentary. It gives us just enough to sketch an outline, but there is so much we don’t know. It was the challenge of using creative license to piece it together that appealed to me. 


Writing these plays has been like an immense jigsaw, much like the discipline of Assyriology itself – collecting the evidence and trying to make sense of it, but using the logic of storytelling and psychology to do so. I don’t claim to have come up with real historical answers, of course, only a version of what could have happened, constructing some kind of narrative out of it all. It soon became clear that with Ashurbanipal the roots go much deeper – the whole Sargonid dynasty is full of conflict and intrigue, of which he is the final product. The death of Sargon hangs over all of these kings. I don’t know yet whether he should have his own play, or whether it’s better to leave him in the shadows.

Q: The plays are written in an almost Shakespearean format, including blank verse and monologues by monarchs contemplating their impending doom. The format seems at once anachronistic and strikingly appropriate in the context of the Assyrian period. What were your considerations about this choice?

A: Honestly it was just for fun. The subject matter seemed so Shakespearean I could instantly imagine these kings striding about speaking in grandiose blank verse. The royal inscriptions were just begging to be put into dramatic monologues – they already are written in the first person in highly literary language. I like to think the Assyrians would have approved! 

I also wanted to retain a slightly archaic format because I did not want to make the Assyrians just like us. To write it in ordinary language would be to strip away much of the beauty and interest of the culture. I tried to preserve the kinds of metaphors they used in Akkadian, certain turns of phrase, figures of speech, and images from literature, because it’s those things that make it Assyria rather than just a historical backdrop for a story about kings. It’s difficult to put that into everyday modern speech. But it fits very well in blank verse!

Q: As an Assyriologist, you have put far more effort into the accuracy of the depicted events than would be normally expected from historical plays. What has been your experience in squaring the historical background with artistic demands?

A: There are some things that I had to change for the sake of making the story work, which I feel terribly guilty about, although someone who wasn’t professionally invested in this material wouldn’t bat an eyelid. I made the chief eunuch Nabu-sharru-utsur betray his brother, who I made the astrologer Balasi, so as to have a storyline paralleling the sibling conflicts of Ashurbanipal and Shamash-shum-ukin, although there’s no hint in the sources of either of those things being true. And Bel-ushezib is alive and well in reality long after I imply he is killed off in Sennacherib, though ‘implying’ rather than showing it appeases my conscience. My nerves about the opening night of Ashurbanipal manifested as a sudden attack of doubt as to whether I had got the exchange rates right in the astrological report and whether any of the Assyriologists in the audience would notice, which really was the least of our problems! (No one said anything so it must have been fine). However much I would like to be accurate I will have to settle for being plausible. Sometimes details do have to be sacrificed to the larger ideas, and conveying something of the culture of ancient Assyria as a whole is the most important thing for me. Sometimes a story can communicate that much better than the tangle of fragments of evidence – fiction can be more ‘true’ in that sense than the historical facts!

Q: Your plays are remarkable for the psychological depth of their characters, making the ancient dilemmas feel very acute. But the characters are based on historical persons we know only from fragmentary evidence. Can you tell us about the relation between history and psychology? Do you think it’s possible to reconstruct ancient psychologies?

A: Frahm’s article was a great inspiration. I think the way he draws together what is known about Sennacherib and extrapolates the implications is plausible, and I used many of his conclusions in the play. Reconstructing what people really thought is always controversial, but like Frahm I do think it’s more possible than we often assume. The interpretation of literature is somewhat analogous. You can piece together the meaning of a text from what it says and come to a conclusion that would be shared by others without having to know exactly what the author was thinking. We make judgements about modern people like that all the time as well – they might not tell us exactly what their motivations are but we make inferences based on what they say and do. Of course, we have far less information available to us when it comes to the psychological states of these ancient kings, but as with anything in Assyriology, it’s a case of being aware of what our assumptions rest on, and being ready to adapt them when new evidence surfaces. 

If you want to answer questions about why anything happened in history intentions of one kind or another inevitably come into it, of individuals or groups or whole movements, even if they are indirect and deeply buried, because history involves people who intend things, as well as structures and impersonal forces. Returning to the plays, I wouldn’t go as far as to present my version of, say, Esarhaddon as a scholarly argument, because it also invents so much, but I think it’s a plausible impression of what he could have been like. That’s as much as one can hope for in historical fiction, since it is never possible to know every detail necessary for telling a story. At some point a leap of imagination has to be made to connect the dots. And I think the same is also true in scholarship more often than we acknowledge – we cannot always be as objective as we would like.

Q: Your characters cite the classics of Babylonian literature and debate heavenly omens quoting from Enuma Anu Enlil. In general, the plays incorporate not only Sargonid Assyrian evidence, but elements from the cuneiform world more broadly. Why was this important to you? How much do you think the non-scholarly audience picked up on it?

A: I wanted to give the audience an impression of the culture of Mesopotamia, and tried to do that by infusing the plays with real quotations from its literature. Putting these texts in the mouths of characters is another way of allowing the culture to speak, a direct transposition of its ideas and ways of thinking. These texts would have been part of the frame of reference of the real historical characters, so it made sense for them to quote them. 

I don’t know if non-Assyriologists noticed – I would hope they wouldn’t, as I tried to weave them in unobtrusively – but they were always pleased when they found out because of the authenticity it adds. Sometimes the characters really were speaking in their own words, as when the kings quote their own inscriptions, which gives a sense of the characters speaking directly to you from history. And for Assyriologists it’s always fun to recognize the quotations. Ashurbanipal has been used in an undergraduate history course because it uses so many real sources from the cuneiform world.

Q: The Neo-Assyrian period is one of the best documented periods of the cuneiform world. Do you think other periods could be brought to the stage in the same way? Are there any particularly promising candidates in your mind?

A: The Neo-Babylonian period has some very interesting characters, Nabonidus probably deserves his own play. Several operas were written about Near Eastern rulers before the decipherment of cuneiform which are gloriously anachronistic (e.g. Nabucco, Semiramide), and what we now know about those characters would provide completely different plots – maybe the real stories should be told! There have been historical novels about Hammurabi, so he’s another candidate, and one that some people have actually heard of, which helps. And there are plenty of other well documented settings where you could place purely invented characters, or pick out ordinary people, such as the famously colourful Old Assyrian merchants. Shirley Graetz’s ‘She Wrote on Clay is a great example of a historical novel that does that, it’s based on her scholarly knowledge of the gagûm in Old Babylonian Sippar, and imagines the life of a nadītum there. So yes, there are many, many more possibilities.

Q: Do you have any advice for Assyriologists who would like to bring their field to the public using theatre or similar media?

A: Don’t put an unpronounceable name that no one has heard of in the title.

Q: One last question I’ve been wondering about. You are writing the plays “backwards”, as it were, moving through the kings in reverse chronological order. It almost feels like you’re excavating them, moving downwards through the layers of time. What are your thoughts about this sequence?

A: It just so happened that I chose Ashurbanipal first, but then once I’d decided to do the others I deliberately wanted to go backwards for that very reason. The style of the plays also evolves, from being almost entirely in verse to allowing ordinary speech to intrude more and more, so that there is a movement from an artificial style to a slightly more naturalistic one. As you excavate through time you get closer to real people as the characters become freer. It also mirrors the process of historical enquiry, tracing back the ultimate causes. And that’s an impulse that drives many of us to become Assyriologists, the desire to go back to the earliest written cultures in the world. 

I think it appeals to audiences as well as historians – from a dramatic point of view it provides a series of revelations that causes you to revise your opinions of the plays you have already seen, creating a sense of discovery in both directions. That Sennacherib’s story is relevant to Ashurbanipal’s shows that more you learn about the past the more you learn about the present, which is as true in the ancient world as it is today.