Writing a Forgotten Person
Hello readers my name is Oliver Yellop. I’m an actor and a writer and I’m writing this blog to tell you about my show I am Gavrilo Princip and my involvement with the good people at Presence Theatre, who have been supporting me in my work over the past year and a bit. I am Gavrilo Princip is a solo show with live accompanying music about the young assassin that shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, kick starting the first world war and changing history as we know it. This play explores his life, his legacy and the world he left behind forever changed.
In this post what I would like to talk about is writing about a ‘forgotten’ person . The term forgotten here is interesting as it raises the question forgotten by who ? Gavrilo Princip may mean very little to western ears but in his homeland of Bosnia the mere mention of his name is likely to create a heated debate.
I always wanted to write, but what I wanted was a juicy subject to get my teeth into. I had always been a bit of a history nerd and World War One had always interested me. Not just the battles, bombs and trenches but the way in which it simply changed everything that came after it. Back in school doing GCSE history we learned about the causes of the first world war, the annexation of Bosnia by Austria, the arms race between the continental powers and Germany’s rise to challenge Britain’s global hegemony - in short the result of 100s of years colonialism and Europe’s chickens coming home to roost. At that point I know I would have heard the name Gavrilo Princip. I certainly knew the name Franz Ferdinand. I was taught about the assisination, how it was the eventual trigger for the war but as for the guy that pulled that trigger, nothing. This is often the fate of Gavrilo, being the world’s most influential yet forgotten man.
Flash forward to 2018 and on a lunch break from my job at a fried chicken shop I was listening to a podcast called Hard Core History by Dan Carlin. If you haven't listened to it strong recommendations. Dan Carlin did a series of podcasts on the First World War and that was the first time I had heard the name Gavrilo Princip for 12 years. However within 10 minutes of the first episode Carlin said all he had to say on Princip. ‘ He was history's greatest also ran’. That was it. I thought there might be more to the story and started doing some absent minded research on wikipedia. To say that the guy's life wasn’t interesting would be a complete lie. To say he was in anyway an’ also ran’ is at best a joke and at worst a smear. This led me to read ‘The Trigger’ by journalist Tim Butcher. A biography of Princip and a reflection on Butcher's own experience as a journalist in the Bosnian war of the 1990s.
From reading more on Princip I became inspired to write a show based on his life. The Landor Space down in Clapham had an open call out for companies to use their space to try out new work and have a limited run. I pitched my idea and performed a short monologue of what I had written so far with live musical accompaniment. We agreed dates and then I just needed one more thing … the script.
Researching Gavrilo Princip proved to be one of the most interesting parts of the process of making this play. Two unique parts of Princips story really spoke to me and became a way to frame the narrative of the piece. One of the things I found most fascinating about Princip’s life is how it ended. I always assumed that after the assination Princip would have been executed for treason, his life extinguished just before the war began. But that was not the case. Princip in fact survived in prison right up until 1918 only a few months before the war’s end. Princip’s treatment in prison was brutal. Too young to be executed, he was only 19 at the time of the assination, he was banged up in solitary for the remainder of his life and sentence. Eaten by tuberculosis he succumbed to his fate a month short of his 24th birthday. .
I decided that the play should be set in purgatory. It seemed apt that Princips' story should end in prison and that he should wake up in another one on a different celestial plain. The idea of Purgatory is that it’s an inbetween, an allotted amount of time til the sins are purged and God deems one worthy of salvation. This is the perfect place for Princip. Not bad enough for hell, not good enough for heaven. A seemingly endless eternity to ponder the consequences of his actions and his lonely place in history. Franz Ferdinhand was always going to be remembered. For someone from Princip’s background it's remarkable we know him at all. Born into the peasant class at the bottom rung of society he willed himself into the footnotes of history. It wasn't supposed to be this way for Princip. He was a bright boy with a promising future doing what he thought was a noble act to liberate his people. To be thrown in prison was particularly unfair not even given the mercy to be martyred by the firing squad for his cause. From 1914 - 1918 Princip was sat in his cell as the world burned around him. 4 years to see the full consequences of his actions play out in all the horror of the war.
In prison Princip was largely forgotten even before his death. In the west he would forever just be a little footnote in history, Franz Ferdinhand was the important part of the equation in the assination not Princip. One of the reasons I wanted to write about Princip was that so much ink has been spilled discussing the war that it seemed apt to tell this forgotten part of history. To interview the lonely ghost at the dinner table.
However when discussing Princip in the context of his homeland his story becomes immensely more complicated. The relationship between Princip and his homeland is a large part of the play. Whilst Princip is in purgatory he watches the 20th Century unfold, this is his punishment to watch the consequences of his actions over and over again. As the play begins Princip is watching the Siege of Sarajevo, in the 90s, during the Bosnian War.
Even back in 1914 as soon as Princip fired that shot his country was shattered along its ethnic fault lines. Bosnia is a country made of 3 different ‘ethnicities’. Muslim, Croat and Serb. Princip comes from the Serb community of Bonia, which during the 90s carried out ethnic cleansing of the countries muslim population resulting in the murder of over 100,000 people. In the west it is wrongly taught that Princip was a Serb nationalist, he was in fact a Yugoslavist and an anarchist fighting for the creation of a state in which all of his country's people would be equal. Princip is not only forgotten in the west but we do want to ‘remember’ of him is a falsehood. To this day in the Serb community of Bosnia Princip is a hero. Bravely fighting the Germanic oppressors of the Serbian people. Princip was a Yugoslav first and to become the poster boy for a genocidal regime would at best have him spinning in his grave / at worst be a cancer on his immortal soul.
In 2018 after the first performance of the show I traveled to Sarajevo to do some digging and research on how Princip was perceived in the city. What I found was shocking and informed many redrafts of the play. When Bosnia broke away from Yugoslavia they also broke up with Princip. Visiting the site of the assination is a fascinating experience. In Yugoslav times, under a communist dictatorship, the bridge where the shots were fired was a national site of pilgrimage, the birthplace of the nation. Now scant regard is given to the historical significance of the place. A simple plaque and a pokey museum now marks the spot. The bridge used to be called Princip Bridge but that has now changed. When the site was held in higher importance by its inhabitants there was a large statue of Princip that was removed, only god knows what became of it. It’s fascinating what happened to the artifacts of Princip’s life. In 1942 when the Nazi’s invaded Yugoslavia Hitler personally requested the plaque that commemorated the site of the assasination to be delivered to him as a birthday present. It was in the Bunker where he shot himself.
At the hostel I stayed in I spoke to the owner a ( guy called 0101- but I won't go into that right now) about visiting Princip’s grave. He had no idea he was buried in Sarajevo. I met a local tour guide called Adis who loved Blackadder and was keen to discuss Princip with me. He took me to meet his father Ramo, a verteran of the Bosnian war. His reaction was all I needed to know about how Princip is remembered here.
Adis - ‘This is Ollie, he's an actor, he's in show about Gavrilo Princip in London’
Ramo - ‘ Tell him he looks like him’
Adis - ‘He thinks you look like him, the story is set in purgatory and it's about the siege’
Ramo - ‘ Tell him if he comes to Sarajevo talking about Princip we’ll put him in Purgatory’
Adis told me where the grave was and I made my way through the city to the cemetery. Sarajevo is covered in cemeteries . In the 90s over 5000 civilians were killed in the siege. As I made my way through St Marks I passed tombstone after tombstone. Some Muslim some Christian. All of them inscribed with depressingly small dates. 1970 - 1993. 1980-1994. 1975-1994. So many killed in that vile war. Eventually I came to the tomb where Princip and his fellow collaborators were buried. It was at the far end of the cemetery under a new looking flyover. Moss was growing out of the walls and a hole in the roof had been haphazardly patched up after a shell hit it 26 years ago. I thought about the picture of his mug shot just after the shooting. The pale skin, the deep dark sullen eyes. A look that said that he had drowned before the ship had sunk. In Bosnia this was his legacy. He wasn't the only young person whose life was cut short by violence here, there's thousands of them.
You can’t blame Sarajevo for wanting to forget about Princip. There's been so much death here, so much reckless hate, why should their most famous son be a murderer? In the decades after Princips death he has been the poster boy for oppression, genocide and the wrong headed belief that violence is better than peace. In the west he is already forgotten and in his homeland they just want to forget.
What I tried to do with Princip’s story was to create a narrative on the man that was. To fill in the gaps left by history with his hopes, his ambitions, his dreams, his home and his heart. To explore that ever so human and unique fact that sometimes we do things with the best intentions and end up with the worst possible results. That the cost can be so high and the gain so low. Princip, like any of us, has no right to be forgotten. And despite the controversy of his life he will always have a story that is worthy to tell.
In Princip’s cell, after his death, the guard’s found a small piece of graffiti scrawled onto his wall.
‘My ghost will haunt the halls of Vienna, and frighten the Lords’
And it does.
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