Andrew Bovell and I had a wide-ranging talk the other day about the intellectual inspirations for his play, When the Rain Stops Falling. After a half hour or so of reaching into the recesses of the work's cultural context, Bovell got practical and said, "No matter how broadly you research something, in the end you have to write a play about people who do things to other people. And 'When the Rain Stops Falling' is about people within an extended family, and how they treat each other."

I hope that remark is sufficient to establish the emotional universality of the play's story, because now I'd like to go back to the heart of my chat with Bovell - the creative background. "I had been thinking generally about the idea of change," he said, "and about not feeling in control of change: how we were all feeling powerless about the changing nature of the environment. But I didn't want to write a play about climate change per se."

Bovell grew up in Perth, Australia, lived in Melbourne for twenty years, and now lives on a farm about an hour from Adelaide, but his Rain epiphanies occurred in Paris. Their catalyst was an exhibition at the Grand Palais, called "Melancholy: Genius and Madness in the West," which ran in late 2005 and early 2006.

Bovell said: There, "I saw Goya's 'Saturn Devouring His Children,' depicting a father and son, and I thought: Are we devouring our future?" That was one epiphany. A second: "I always felt that the mood of the play would be one of melancholy. Seeing the exhibition helped me realize that melancholy isn't sadness but deep reflection - the reflection that happens before change."

"Being in Paris," Bovell continued, "these thoughts led me to the Enlightenment. That period in the 18th century was a time of human transformation, and exploring it shifted me from a sense of powerlessness to a sense of hope."

Bovell's Enlightenment studies led him to Diderot, specifically to Diderot in 1780, when the writer had completed the Encyclop├ędie. "Diderot brought cohesion to what was in the air at the time. Often we don't know that there's a movement going on until someone identifies it as such. Diderot did that for that period."

Diderot also wrote about weather. "As I discovered that," Bovell says, "I thought: if I'm going to describe the destructive force of nature, how do I balance that in the play emotionally? Diderot got me thinking about the parallels between extreme weather events in history and the acts of creation that resulted from them."

Fast forward to 1816 (and moving between timeframes is an essential part of both When the Rain Stops Falling and the creative process leading to its composition). This was known as the Year Without a Summer because the world was locked in a cold volcanic winter caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora. "Mary Shelley [nee Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin]," says Bovell, invoking one of the other cultural figures who's mentioned in his play, "and her then-lover Percy Bysshe Shelley are visiting Lord Byron at a villa in Switzerland. The weather is too cold to enjoy the outdoors so they stay inside and write supernatural stories. Out of this time comes Mary's Frankenstein and Byron's work about a vampire."

The point for Bovell of this episode in literary history? "That from calamities something wonderful can be created."

BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.