I am not writing history but biography, and the most outstanding exploits do not always have the property of revealing the goodness or badness of the agent; often, in fact, a casual action, the odd phrase, or a jest reveals character better than the battles...I must be allowed to devote more time to those aspects which indicate a person's mind and to use these to portray the life of each of my subjects, while leaving their major exploits and battles to others.A biography is a (supposedly) factual accounting of the life of a real person. If written by the person it is about, it's called an autobiography. An autobiography in which the author focuses on his or her role in society is also called a memoir. Biographies date back to the invention of the written word, making this Older Than Dirt. The word is derived from the classical Greek root words auto (self or "without external prompting"), bio (life) and graphy (to write about). The biopic is one of these in movie form.
— Plutarch, Life of Alexander
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- The Parallel Lives of Plutarch is generally considered to be the Ur-Example of the biography as we understand it, as it focuses not on grand historical events but on the smaller ones that cast light on the subjects' personalities.
- Many Roman and Chinese emperors left behind biographies of their lives, which are invaluable to historians.
- Related to this, Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian, while primarily a history of China, devotes substantial space to biographies of the emperors and nobles.
- Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder is a fictionalized autobiography.
- Martha Jane Cannary-Burke, aka Calamity Jane, wrote an autobiography of her life which has been confirmed to be mostly true.
- Parson Weems' biography of George Washington is infamous for having just plain made up certain incidents to make Washington look even more morally upright.
- The Life of Samuel Johnson, written by James Boswell, is considered the greatest biography in the English language.
- By the same token, Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is generally considered to be one of the best autobiographies ever written in English—or any other language, for that matter.
- Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory. Nabokov wanted to name it Speak, Mnemosyne (Mnemosyne being the Greek Titaness who symbolized memory), but his publisher suggested otherwise, fearing that readers wouldn't buy a book whose title they could not pronounce.
- Night is the autobiography of sixteen-year-old Elie Wiesel going through concentration camps in the Holocaust.
- Gertrude Stein subverted the genre by writing The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Everybody's Autobiography.
- The Game Is a self help book and the story of Neil Strauss' accent to Pickup Artist all in one package.
- My Feuds and Actions, the autobiography of 16th century German knight and mercenary Götz von Berlichingen.
- Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), famous Italian goldsmith, sculptor and painter, wrote an autobiography (simply title Vita, "Life", by him), in which he, among other things, describes three murders he committed.
- The Disaster Artist is a biography by the actor Greg Sestero, recalling his experiences on set in the notoriously terrible movie The Room.
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of the most famous autobiographical books, telling about Maya Angelou's childhood.
- Wet Goddess is an autobiography of Zachary Zimmermannote , documenting his romantic relationship with a bottlenose dolphin Ruby.
- Imperial German soldier Ernst Jünger's seminal World War I memoir Storm of Steel, which details what life in the trenches was like for the average grunt.
Live Action TV
- The John Adams miniseries on HBO is a biography of the title character.
- A&E has a popular and long-running series called Biography, which has even spawned its own channel (The Biography Network).
- The History Channel aired Hatfields & McCoys, a three part miniseries about the Hatfield-McCoy feud. It was fairly true to history, although it took some artistic license to make the story flow better.
- Subverted by Savatage's Streets: A Rock Opera. The story of DT Jesus and his struggle with drugs and fame bares a suspicious resemblance to lead singer Jon Oliva's life. It isn't supposed to be his story at all, Streets released in 1991 and the original story it was adapted from, Gutter Ballet, being written in 1979 by their producer, Paul O'Neill, before his involvement with the band.
- Significant biographical musicals include:
- The Sound of Music, about the Trapp Family
- Fiorello!, about New York City's Depression era mayor, Fiorello La Guardia (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama)
- The Sound of Music and Fiorello! also shared the Tony Award for Best Musical of 1959, to date the only plays to tie in any of the Tonys' four production categories.
- Annie Get Your Gun, about Annie Oakley
- Grey Gardens, about Jackie Kennedy's aunt, Edith Ewing "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale, and Jackie's cousin, Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale
- Gypsy, about Rose Havoc, the ultimate stage mother, and her daughters "Baby" June and Louise, aka Gypsy Rose Lee
- The Boy From Oz, about Australian singer/songwriter Peter Allen
- Evita, about the charismatic wife of Argentine dictator Juan Perón
- Funny Girl, about Fanny Brice, a comedienne in the Ziegfeld Follies and on radio
- Jersey Boys, about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons
- Keating!, a light-hearted one about Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating.
- Significant biographical stage plays (non-musical) include:
- Amadeus, about the relationship between composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri
- M. Butterfly, about a French diplomat stationed in communist China who carries on a long-term affair with an opera singer — whom (he claimed) he didn't know was really a man and not a woman
- Caesar and Cleopatra, by George Bernard Shaw
- Saint Joan, also by George Bernard Shaw, about Joan of Arc.
- The Lion in Winter, about England's King Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their scheming sons Richard the Lionheart, Prince John and Prince Geoffrey
- Shakespeare's biographical plays include:
- Our own pages on actors, creators, and companies can often be considered mini-biographies. See the Creators index for a complete listing.