Fact versus Fiction, An Historical Quandary

Some thoughts on historical fact and fiction from our Artistic Director.

Thinking about pageants last week, and as I work on my thesis about mid-century productions of medieval plays, I am often faced with the issue of “historical accuracy”. It’s a question I’ve wrestled with for years, because my historian academic side adamantly dislikes playing free and easy with the past. In David Lowenthal’s The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, a book I highly recommend, he argues that ‘history’ is facts while ‘heritage’ is what we believe to be true of the past. From one perspective, it’s a good distinction to make; but working with historic and historical drama offers a different view.

I always say that history has the best stories. It is absolutely chock full of interesting people and events. You could spend a lifetime just reading true, well-documented historical narratives and, assuming they were well written, never get bored or feel like you were reading something obviously non-fictional. The challenge is that history is almost never simple. It’s made up of people, and their actions, and their ideas, and it’s impossible to address all of those things without complexity. Nor is history as unambiguous as we might like to imagine. It is always subject to interpretation, to the subjectivity and biases of whoever is studying or writing about it. Even if you just go back to original documents, you’re left with questions. Why did these survive? What got lost? Who wrote them, and why, and what were their biases? (For very concrete examples of these questions and how historians address them, the first chapter of Alison Weir’s The Princes in the Tower is great.) None of that is much of a problem if you’re a historian or writing a properly researched, well-documented historical study.

However, if your goal is to put a story on stage, you simply can’t address every nuance, every wrinkle, every difficulty. Things get “smoothed out”. And this is where, working in theatre, I part company with Lowenthal’s arguments. He suggests that the general attitude to those performing history (in film specifically, but I suspect theatre would be grouped in with it) is “getting things wrong is quicker, simpler, and usually makes a better story than getting them right”. He also suggests that in a lot of cases, the story is tailored to be the one the audience expect: thereby creating a work of heritage but not one of history.

It’s generally quicker – I’ll agree to that. Unless you want to write a play that will last for fifteen hours, you simply cannot address every complexity of a historical issue. (There are a fair number of historical books which took longer to research and write than the events they discuss took to happen.) Nor can all of them be staged effectively. So in one sense this does create a simplification – but it is not simplification for its own sake, or because we automatically assume that the audience needs things to be dumbed down. It’s literally about practicality. There are certainly situations where, by simplifying, we end up also taking a position about an issue or an aspect of the narrative that might be in dispute. For those of us to whom the historical part of theatre is important, though, it’s our job to make sure that we do our best to give the audience the chance to realise what we’ve done. Making up for those necessary excisisms is part of why we at HIDden try to use this space online to share some of the of thoughts behind our work, including a production’s ‘back story’. I also like to believe that our audiences are intelligent enough to know that no play is the gospel truth. I always hope we’re the spark that makes them ask the questions and want to find out more, rather than the end point of their relationship with a topic.

Does “getting things wrong… make a better story”, though? It’s not unilaterally true. For example, it has always amazed me that not a single major film drama about the sinking of the Titanic has felt that it would be easy able to stick completely to historical characters, because I think one of the reasons the world is so fascinated by that event is that there are so many structurally perfect stories attached to it. There is absolutely no need to play fast and loose and make things up. (Of course, film and theatre are quite different, with the latter arguably less reliant on a very strict formula.) It is worth remembering, thought, that writers exert an influence in their choice of what to use and what to ignore. Even verbatim works are subject to the curatorial interference of creators.

In other cases, the “wrong” is often a creative way of covering over parts of a story that are completely unknown, which is less an error and more a speculation. The Vital Spark will be a good example of this: we’re leaning as heavily as possible on documented history, but we know there will be places where an understanding of the characters, their lives, and their time period will have to be a springboard for filling in the holes. It’s also not necessary to limit that approach to gaps in our knowledge. “What if” is not just an interesting historical conundrum (there are entire series of books dedicated to potential alternative endings to historical events based around that question), it can be a good way of putting connected historical issues into juxtaposition to better understand them. This is very much an aspect of our A Journey with Jonson project. In either case, we will be quite clear, here and in other ways, that we are presenting a fiction grounded in history (this is one way we approach being Historically Informed) rather than full reenactments of actual events. For us, the fictional aspect is not about “improving” history or making a better story. It’s about asking different questions, and finding different ways to know the past, not about suggesting that the factual past is flawed as a narrative.

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