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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Why choose ‘The Devil is an Ass’?

Our new production project, A Journey With Jonson, will include two shows – a piece of new writing about Ben Jonson’s life and his own The Devil is an Ass. Below our Artistic Director explains some of her reasoning for choosing this play.

In just about any field, it’s pretty normal for there to be ideas that the academic community has largely rejected, to which the general public still clings. This is especially true if you’re in a niche field that doesn’t get a lot of press through which to reveal developments. Theatre history definitely suffers from this lag, and so the idea that there are fairly hard and fast delineations between one era of drama and another often persist. The notion that it’s an inexorably forward-moving evolution – drama in churches leading to mystery plays giving rise to more secular moralities morphing into classically informed interludes which suddenly give way to the completely public theatre and, poof, suddenly there’s Shakespeare – tends to be a narrative that sticks around. In the context of drama historians, it’s a narrative that is, at best, a vast oversimplification, but it hangs on because it’s neat and tidy.

The reference to medieval drama that most people know – without realising it – is the “rude mechanicals” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, their shorthand title alone telling you how people viewed medieval plays. That stuff was de classe, old hat, only fit for bumblers by Shakespeare’s sophisticated day, right? But not all of his contemporaries had dismissed all things medieval in such a fashion.

When it came to choosing a project to follow Mankind, we knew we wanted to move out of the Middle Ages, but without such a seismic shift that it unsettled everyone. One step at a time. We’d been interested in Jonson for a while, for various reasons, and The Devil Is An Ass was practically made to order.

It’s not a morality play. The majority of it is focused on real – if periodically absurd – people, who aren’t representing humanity as a group but who are decidedly individual. It’s also not divorced from the morality tradition. The first scene opens in Hell, with demons and allegorical vice characters. The actions of the demon Pug influence and affect those of the worldly people throughout the play. It’s impossible to not see the demonic scenes as a connection to the medieval morality plays.

The virtues are missing. Virtue is provided by certain human characters, in differing degree, although none of it is morally unambiguous – which is perhaps the biggest step away from the black-and-white ethics of morality plays. Additionally, the fact that Pug is completely inept – a fairly significant point – undermines reverence for the concept of embodied, allegorical evil. But it’s not the morality play tradition Jonson is mocking, because he’s still using it effectively through these scenes. His commentary is not that the plays were bad; rather, he is pointing out that a world-view which suggests that good or evil is disconnected from human agency is in error, that life is not made up of absolute virtue or inescapable viciousness. Those who start out with questionable motives can change, while those whose intentions are malicious may end up fostering decency – and those groups of people are all one and the same.

The Devil is an Ass gives us a bridge into theatre beyond the medieval period and some of its moral clichés, without kicking over the traces so hard we lose the thread of the plot. It has the extra advantages of being really enjoyable (without which we wouldn’t have considered it, despite its other utilities!), and it’s not exactly played out. Upon reading it, it was in fact quite surprising to realise just how slight its performance history has been, historically – it seems like the sort of early modern play you may expect to be more popular. I suspect that something else it might share with Mankind is a more harsh judgement historically than we might be inclined to give it today, when our minds are (I hope) a bit more open, and when we’re more willing to take a new look at old things.

An Update

Regretfully, our planned production project, ‘A Journey with Jonson’, will no longer be taking place this November.  There is a range of reasons for this, and in conjunction with the decision to initially postpone this project, HIDden Theatre shall be taking a hiatus until the new year.

A factor in this situation has been our limited core team, both in terms of staff numbers and areas of expertise.  We still really believe in our mission statement: HIDden Theatre aims to enrich the lives of audience members and creative participants through stories from and about the past; and will return to working towards it in 2017.  In the meantime, if anyone has any ideas to help us move forward (both practically and creatively) we welcome any contributions, equally if you have no specific thoughts but would like to get involved and bring some new views and enthusiasm to the table please feel free to get in touch via our contact form on the About Us page.