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Leonardo da Vinci's writings inspire Mary Zimmerman's play

Leonardo da Vinci may be better known for painting the "Mona Lisa" than for writing thousands of pages of journal entries. But playwright Mary Zimmerman was so intrigued by his writing that she took his words and crafted "The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci" in 1993. She now brings the play to the Old Globe Theatre.

Zimmerman can trace her obsession of da Vinci to decades ago when she was watching Kenneth Clark's BBC TV documentary mini-series, "Civilisation."

"I was doing a kind of performance art piece and I wanted some text that had to do with the eye," Zimmerman said. "I remembered from 'Civilisation' there was a sepia colored page with these profile drawings and then these sort of radiating lines from the eye or to the eye, and that it was Leonardo. I went to the library to look that up, and to my amazement, there were two shelves full of his writings. We don't think of him as a writer. We think of so many other things. But the writing itself felt to me very beautiful and kind of poetic in a kind of superabundant way that was very attractive to me."

Jim Cox
Old Globe Theatre
Mary Zimmerman wrote "The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci" in 1993. Now she directs the play at The Old Globe Theatre.

So she began culling through the thousands of pages of material — some from actual notebooks others from random loose pages — and started to craft a play using Leonardo's own words from five centuries ago.
Leonardo never intended his writings to be published. He wrote for himself. So sometimes it reveals his own reflections, sometimes it is notes for future projects, and then other times it is a shopping list or a doodle. But Zimmerman was captivated.

"I felt like there was metaphoric resonance I could sort of tease out of it that felt dramatic," Zimmerman said. "And then also just the range, the range of stuff that's in the notebooks, not just writings, but sketches, and on a given page will be a math formula, a drawing of a church or an angel, a sort of to do list, some doodling."

She also found that after some lengthy detailed scientific description she might turn the page to find a single sentence like, "If there is no love, what then?"


It was those hints of his personality that she found compelling along with what she called "how awake he was" and that that was his true genius.

"He never got bored of the world," Zimmerman said. "When we're children, we're full of questions. Everything's amazing. Why is the water in the ocean blue? But in the bathtub it's clear? And then as we get older, we just sort of give up and we lose our amazement at the world. But he never did. And anytime that you stop for a moment and notice the light in the evening or the birds and how they sound or anytime you're arrested by natural phenomenon, and the kind of miracle of it that's the Leonardo in you."

Jim Cox
Old Globe Theatre
The Old Globe Theatre cast of Mary Zimmerman's "The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci."

The play uses 10 actors who are each playing Leonardo — each represents a different aspect of him.

"It hints at a kind of multiplicity of the personality," Zimmerman said. "But it also helps convey the scope of him."

The production design sets the action in a large room filled from floor to high ceiling with drawers. It suggests each drawer is a memory, idea or thing that is part of Leonardo's mind.

It unfolds through a series of vignettes that are unrelated yet subtly build a narrative about Leonardo's life and who he was. It also reminds us why 500 years after his death we remain fascinated and inspired by him.

"The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci" opens this weekend and runs through Feb. 26 at the Old Globe's Goodman Theatre.

Zimmerman also created the play "White Snake" that was staged at the Globe in 2015.

White Snake and the Playground of Live Theater

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I cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.
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