It is almost forgotten that Aaron Sorkin, one of the most powerful voices in American culture, literally began his distinguished writing career in the theatre.
The prolific pen behind TV's The West Wing and The Newsroom and movies such as The Social Network and Moneyball was determined to make his mark on the American stage, following his graduation from Syracuse University with a degree in theatre in 1983. His big break was getting hired as a bartender at a Broadway theatre where, during performances of La Cage Aux Folles, he began writing A Few Good Men on cocktail napkins.
The courtroom drama, which opens the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's 55th season tonight, was based on the experience of his sister in the JAG corps, defending marines accused of assault at Guantanamo Bay. The early buzz about Sorkin's script prompted Hollywood bigwig David Brown to scoop up the film rights, but the 28-year-old wannabe dramatist wouldn't give them up unless A Few Good Men was staged on Broadway first.
"I was like most people who had no idea it was a play before it was a movie," says Charlie Gallant, who portrays prosecutor Lt. Daniel Kaffey in the RMTC revival. "It kind of made it more exciting to know it came from a theatre background."
The 1989 Broadway production, which ran for 497 performances with Tom Hulce as Kaffey, and the 1992 movie, starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, introduced the world to Sorkin's signature style of hyperactive banter, withering wit and rampant earnestness.
As a child, Sorkin had been taken to the theatre -- he was nine years old when he saw Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- but often was too young to understand what was happening onstage.
"I loved the sound of dialogue," Sorkin once said. "It sounded like music to me. As a result I love dialogue, but I'm very weak with story. I consider plot a necessary intrusion on what I really want to do, which is write snappy dialogue."
The movie version was a box-office winner, raking in $141 million and collecting four Oscar nominations, including best picture. Nicholson's show-stopping line, "You can't handle the truth!," was voted the 29th greatest American movie quote of all time.
It was a line not found in Sorkin's original stage script of A Few Good Men.
"It was something like, 'You don't know the truth' or 'If you knew the truth you couldn't handle it,'" says James MacDonald, director of the RMTC-Citadel Theatre (of Edmonton) co-production. "It didn't have the same zing."
The credit for the trademark line should go to Nicholson, not Sorkin, says George Toles, the University of Manitoba professor of film and literature.
"It's not so much what he's saying but who's saying it, with the ferocious gusto that Nicholson summoned," says Toles. "Another actor is very unlikely to make the line as memorable."
A Few Good Men made Sorkin immediately bankable and welcomed in Hollywood, where he shifted to screenwriting. One of his first projects was The American President, the 1995 romantic drama starring Michael Douglas, Annette Bening and Martin Sheen. Sorkin supposedly wrote the script, in which Douglas plays a Democratic president who is popular until he ventures into the dating scene, while he was high on crack cocaine.
The Sorkin style was again on display in a story about smart people written by a smart person. He was confirmed as a guy who loves a soapbox and could make his words sing. His characters always seemed to say exactly the right thing or have the perfect comeback in a way viewers could only aspire to.
"It's like going to a party and everyone is compulsively and colourfully on and they're deft at verbal jousting and saying exactly what they think and feel," says Toles. "There is an effortless pithiness."
The American President inspired his greatest achievement in television, where he became an innovator and original voice. The movie's Oval Office set was recycled for The West Wing, the serial drama that followed the Democratic administration of Jed Bartlett in the White House. To play Bartlett, Sheen followed Sorkin to The West Wing, which won 26 Emmys during its 1999-2006 run. Even some of the dialogue was reused. (The dramatist is not only a great writer but a great repeater -- to learn the extent of his self-plagiarizing, check out the hilarious Sorkinisms video mashup on YouTube.)
For many, Sorkin is a polarizing figure -- the face of liberal America and a hate figure for the right, who dismissed his show as The Left Wing. His social consciousness and unapologetic moral idealism made him a media darling.
"Sorkin is a kind of modern-day George Bernard Shaw -- a bit lofty, maybe," says MacDonald, an artistic associate at the Citadel. "He's a provocateur in that way. He wants to challenge things but do it in a way that's funny and stylish."
Most recently he has been kicked around for his latest series The Newsroom, a show everyone loves to hate for being preachy and not very kind to female characters, who are supplicant to heroic men.
"The Newsroom is loaded with fragrant myths about the integrity of old TV journalism that have an undeniable appeal but are, by and large, poppycock," says Toles.
Back to theatre
A revival of A Few Good Men is set for next season on Broadway.