Pondering Historical Accuracy

Inspired by a BBC News article, our Artistic Director gives some of her thoughts on historical accuracy in drama.

History, theatre and their relationship – we’ve mentioned it here before, and probably will again, because it’s exactly what we do. So we take note when the question about the balance between them is debated in public, as it was recently in an article on BBC News.

The interesting thing is that it always seems to be an either/or discussion. “Artistic licence was favoured over historical accuracy.” “In one camp are the purists who would say if you must do historical fiction then it must be based on the fact… Then there is the second camp.. which is history is always good and what’s really important is to make people excited about history.” The phrase ‘favoured over’ implicitly suggests that one must trump the other, while the division of schools of thought into ‘camps’ posits that there isn’t a possible compromise, not to mention the implication that people won’t get excited about history if it is fact-based. The question “is it even possible to make a historical drama that is 100% accurate” – with answers given of yes and no – continues to suggest that, really, it’s not possible to responsibly chart a middle course. However, the question that isn’t being asked here is: what do we mean by accuracy? Once you start considering this, some of the either/or begins to break down.

If accuracy means that the costumes, set, and props are period appropriate: yes, that’s achievable, and if one of your production goals is to place a story in a time period, there’s not much excuse for getting that wrong carelessly, even it means that your audience will have to get used to something that looks a little bit different from their imagined ideal of that period. If accuracy means language: it may or may not be achievable. If you wanted to, say, create a play about the Roman Empire, are you going to do it in Latin? (And if you are – do you really know what the local accent sounded like?) If the goal is 100% authenticity, that’s a big hurdle to leap over, one that is automatically going to limit your audience to an extremely small number of people. If accuracy means trying to create the feeling of a period, for example in a play set in the past but made up of fictional characters: we’re moving further away from something achievable, because while you can aim to do so by putting in as many details as possible, most of us would be hard pressed to define the “feeling” of our own time, much less one we didn’t live in. If accuracy means trying to convey an idea from the past, rather than the past itself (for example, the way we approached Mankind), you simply can’t measure accuracy in yards of fabric or verb choice, and the definition of success in achieving it isn’t going to calculated in the same way.

What’s really being questioned in this argument about accuracy is what we do with plays when real historical figures are the central characters, when their lives, which we know from documentary history, are put onto the stage. And most of the argument is about whether the absolute facts are followed, in exact chronological order, in the precise locations where they were known to occur. This is where a degree of ‘dramatic licence’ becomes a point of contention.

But even here there are bigger questions that the debate tends to glide over. Let’s imagine that you’re building a production from primary source documents (such as what we’re trying to do with The Vital Spark). Are you obligated to use all of them? Do you have to depict every single known incident in a character’s known history to achieve accuracy? If the answer is no, then you’re making editorial decisions right away, and while everything might be coming from verifiable historical sources, there’s an argument to be made that you’ve already been “inauthentic”. I don’t think even the so-called purists are actually arguing that a drama need be all inclusive.

The BBC article does hit one particular point that is easy to forget: knowing the facts doesn’t mean we know the thoughts or feelings behind them. It’s an almost inevitable historical hole, and one that drama by its nature requires to be filled. So ascribing motivations and thought processes to characters, while going beyond documented fact, is unavoidable. It may open the door to charges of “inaccuracy”, but it would in most cases be equally hard to make a watertight case for an “accurate” version (as opposed to simply a different interpretation). Arguably, you can get it entirely wrong by making things up without supporting evidence or blatantly contradicting what the record indicates, but that doesn’t mean that it’s inherently wrong to try to fill in the question with educated guesses. Since intention behind action is something historians argue over all the time, I don’t think this is the flashpoint of accuracy arguments in most cases, either.

No, it’s the playing fast-and-loose with chronology and geography that seems to get people truly worked up. “That never happened”, “it didn’t happen like that” – these are the cries of the heart from historians who sit through period drama that has taken artistic licence. And I get it, because I’ve been there and done that. (I’m sure the friend who dragged me to see Titanic remembers being presented with a multi-page list of all its inaccuracies the next day.) Historians don’t want audiences to learn things wrong, to become wedded to an idea of the past that is provably erroneous. However, I also get why following history to the letter isn’t always what a writer or director does. Maybe the point they’re trying to make isn’t about history as a thing unto itself. Setting aside, for the moment, commercialism as a goal unto itself, it’s wrong to suggest that there could never be a valid reason for make some (minor) changes to a story in pursuit of a wider narrative.

So: how important is artistic licence? From the vantage point of sitting right down the binary fence of historian and director, my answer would be twofold.

First, that it varies moment to moment in any given piece, and you have to take each case separately. It’s important in that the lack of one inexhaustible definition of “accurate” means there are many different “accuracies”, and as a theatre creator you need to have the freedom to make those choices. You have to be allowed to fill in gaps, actors have to be able to imagine fully-formed characters where the documents may only give you flat facts. A more purist approach than that would be to suggest that there should be no historical theatre (or historical fiction, or even, perhaps, history with interpretation, rather than just facsimiles of historic documents). As creative people, writers and directors need to be allowed to have room to ask bigger questions – of the world, of life, of human nature – through putting things together and taking them apart, and sometimes that is the goal, not historical fidelity, even if the past is part of the question itself. If you’re honest about it to your audience (and that, to me, is a critical component of being responsible to history), there is nothing wrong with asking, What if?

For my second answer, I’m going to echo Dr Tracy Borman’s statement that “where changes are made to the facts then they should be… for a good and justifiable reason.” Otherwise why on earth are you working on a story about history in the first place? Borman adds that “change for change’s sake is irritating,” but I’d go further and say that it’s also irresponsible, both as a historian and as a director. From a director’s standpoint, “just because” is lazy, and also because it’s blatantly saying that you don’t really care about the historical aspects of your production at all. I’d like to think that HIDden’s approach to historic drama isn’t that unusual, and that other directors who work on it try not to put one aspect of their work above the other but work with them in constantly renegotiated tension. If I didn’t believe that history could stand on its own two feet as inherently dramatic, I couldn’t do my job.

If we take on historical drama as our work, we know that audiences will trust that our productions will contain at least some degree of authenticity, and so we are also taking on some degree of educational responsibility. To advertise a production as “a true story” if we have taken liberties is a disservice to everyone involved, including the people of the past whose lives we’re putting onstage. How we make those distinctions available to audience members can vary, but we should at least try to let them know what they’re getting. We should be allowed our measure of artistic licence, but all licences come with responsibility. Historic drama at its best demands that we respect both.

N.B. It is worth noting that, although the production primarily under discussion in the BBC article is one of live drama, many of the examples given in the actual debate are television series, and the goals, needs, and audiences can be radically different between the two. Neither the article nor this essay attempt to delve into them, but it’s worth considering that the answers to these questions may vary considerably with the change in medium.

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