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Steel Magnolias

By Robert Harling

In 1986 Robert Harling sat down to write about a personal family tragedy and how they dealt with it. The incident in question was the death of his sister from diabetes related complications. He had no idea that the writing he embarked upon would become a play. It started life as a short story but, because he was an actor, he began writing dialogue.

Harling wrote the script for Steel Magnolias in less than two weeks and drew directly on the impact of his sister’s death upon his Mother. He has always talked frankly about the whole situation. All that happens in the play happened in their lives, he says, but it was much worse. “It was a much more tortured situation than anyone could sit through in a play.”

Only his mother and sister are portrayed precisely true-to-life, according to Harling. All the other characters are composites of women he knew from growing up. He remembered that every Saturday morning about 9:00am, all the women in his neighbourhood would disappear. Men and boys would live in a womanless world for about two hours, until wives and mothers reappeared “with their little helmet hairdos.” And there really was a red velvet groom’s cake made in the shape of an armadillo and covered with grey icing!

Despite the fact that Harling felt great anger when he was writing the play, he managed to lighten his script with some very funny lines and situations.

“I had a lot of anger, a lot of it, and I don’t anymore,” Harling said. “I was really in bad shape. Somehow, for me and the cast and the director and everyone to pick up all the pieces of this shattering experience is one of the most wonderful things that has happened to me and my family. Isn’t it wonderful that we have theatre and it can do that.”
Through his agent and a friend, Steel Magnolias came to the attention of the WPA Theatre in Manhattan, which was the first to produce it. Since then it has remained a favourite American play in theatres around the states and was successfully filmed in 1989.

Most recently Steel Magnolias has moved onto Broadway with a production directed by Jason Moore at the Lyceum Theatre.

The playwright - Robert Harling

Robert Harling was born in Natchitoches in the state of Louisiana close to the Texan border. He studied Law at Tulane University but always wanted to become an actor.

After graduating he moved to New York where he first began working as a voice-over artist in commercials before turning his hand to writing. It was the death of his sister Susan that inspired him to write Steel Magnolias. Susan Harling died from diabetes related complications and became the inspiration for Shelby in the play.

The play opened in 1987 to strong critical acclaim and led to a rash of offers from Hollywood. Robert Harling eventually scripted the screenplay for the film version of Steel Magnolias which was released in 1989 directed by Herbert Ross. It starred Sally Field as M’Lynn, Julia Roberts as Shelby and Shirley Maclaine as Ouiser.

Following on from the success of the screen version of Steel Magnolias Harling went on to write the hilarious spoof Soapdish (1991), which teamed him once again with Sally Field, as a soap opera diva whose off-screen life was as outrageous as her onscreen one. He also adapted The First Wives Club (1996) and made his directorial debut later that same year with The Evening Star, based on Larry McMurtry’s novel.

Robert Harling continues to write for screen and stage and has just completed the first draft of a screenplay for a satirical take on the famed TV series, Dallas.