Playing with the Past: History and Matawan

From the rehearsal room to the Jersey Shore of a century ago, dramaturg Kristin Perkins gives us a tour through the worlds of Texas Theatre and Dance’s upcoming production of Matawan.


Matawan is the story of the 1916 New Jersey shark attacks. Fun fact: many people think that the novel Jaws is a loose and contemporized adaptation of the 1916 shark attacks, although the author Peter Benchley has denied the connection.

Matawan is not Jaws. It is not a loose adaptation. It is not contemporized. It is the true story from 1916. The characters are all representations of actual historical figures living (and dying) in 1916 New Jersey. Dan Caffrey, the playwright of Matawan and an M.F.A. in Playwriting candidate at The University of Texas at Austin, has remained remarkably true to the historical archives—to the newspaper articles, death records and maps from the period. Our director Alice Stanley has called Matawan “hyper-historical” in a way that most period plays are not.

So what was happening around 1916? Quite a lot, it turns out. Here is a primer for the inquisitive audience member who wants just a bit more historical engagement with the world of Matawan.

Beachgoers in Asbury Park, New Jersey in 1911.

Beachgoers in Asbury Park, New Jersey in 1911.

A Historical Primer

One of the central themes of Matawan is fear and how that fear impacts human behavior. Of course, people had good reasons to be scared of a man-eating shark cruising the shore, but 1916 was a year marked by fear and anxiety for reasons unrelated to the shark attacks.

World War One, or The Great War, started with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. Up until 1916, the United States had managed to stay out of the costly war, seeing it as a mainly European conflict, but the feasibility of neutrality was beginning to falter. In 1915, the sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania by a U-boat claimed the lives of 128 U.S. citizens. The sinking sparked strong protests that succeeded in swaying many Americans towards involvement in the growing conflict. Given that British intelligence operatives knew in advance about the U-boat and did not provide the Lusitania with a military escort, some speculate the sinking was allowed by the British to draw America into the war. The aggressive sea warfare tactics of Germany, as well as their collusion with Mexico, finally succeeded in convincing President Woodrow Wilson to join the fray in April of 1917.

The New York Times headline for the sinking of the Lusitania.

The New York Times headline for the sinking of the Lusitania.

The memory of polio in the United States is frequently associated with the 1950s, when outbreaks were widespread. In reality, the viral disease had been flaring up periodically for centuries. In 1916, there was a severe epidemic all along the eastern United States, particularly in New York and Philadelphia. Germ theory was just beginning to infiltrate the popular understanding of how illnesses spread. Viruses like polio had been identified only a couple of decades earlier in the 1890s. Far from being a comforting explanation, the idea that one’s health could be determined by invisible particles flying through the air that contaminated food and water was yet another reason to be worried.

On top of the war and the polio outbreak, this era saw an escalation in print journalism, leading to fierce competition between newspapers and the rise of sensationalist news. Newspaper rivalries pressured reporters to find colorful ways of grabbing a reader’s attention, a practice known as “yellow journalism.” Eye-catching headlines about crime, graphic violence and lurid sex helped sales while bending the truth in the process. While entertaining, this journalistic focus on the sensational often compounded anxiety about a range of issues, including the war and polio.

It was in this tense world of 1916 that a shark swam up the Jersey coast. Like the U-boats and the polio virus, the shark would remain unseen until it was too late, and like yellow journalism, the shark attacks of 1916 proved to be quite a story. This story just happens to be true.

History in Process

As important as the history of Matawan is, it can be limiting for artists to cling too tightly to historical accuracy. Working with history in the rehearsal room demands a careful balance of remaining true to the real story and victims while not letting the history imprison actors and designers. Brooks Laney, who plays “Stanley Fisher” in Matawan, describes how “it’s become important for me to kind of toss that historical accuracy out of my mind and just focus on the beautiful words Dan has given us to work with. While I try to ignore the history when focusing on my role in the story, I constantly remind myself that these events really happened. It’s insane to think that this freakish, unexpected event really happened.”

Actors Kyle Cordova and Brooks Laney rehearse a scene while fellow actors look on.

Actors Kyle Cordova and Brooks Laney rehearse a scene while fellow actors look on.

Director Alice Stanley has set the tone for balancing historicity with creative freedom. Even as they encourage period-appropriate posture, they also work to help actors find motivation in the text of the play and not rely on spotty historical documents. As a cast and creative team, we are pulling together to create a story that honors the historical inspiration for the play and is still unique and exciting. Probably the biggest change from the historical record is that, in our show, the shark talks.

We are excited to bring the history of Matawan alive with a little help from the audience. We hope you come join us as we pull the past into the present and play with history.

—Kristin Perkins (Dramaturg, Matawan)


By Dan Caffrey

October 10-21, 2018
Oscar G. Brockett Theatre

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