The use and abuse of history onstage

Or, how Sir Thomas More got his groove back

April 12, 2012

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History is bunk.
History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.


Each of these bon mots makes something of the same point: that we study history to learn not about the past but about the future.  We don’t read Thucydides today to find out what happened during the Peloponnesian War; we read him to find out how human beings do or do not control the events they set in motion.  Likewise Homer and the Trojan War.  But what we need to remember, in examining those histories or any others, is that the author has an angle, an agenda, an ax to grind.  S/he doesn’t know any better than we do what’s going to happen next; but s/he thinks she does, and this guess comes through in the method s/he chooses to present something whose outcome we already know.  S/he borrows from the past to shape our view of the future, and the present.

The problem, of course, is which parts of the past are truly applicable.  The brilliant minds of Bloomsbury were willing to hand Europe to Hitler to avoid fighting another pointless bloodbath like the Great War, and barely woke up in time to the fact that the second bloodbath wasn’t pointless at all.  There are people still arguing about whether the New Deal actually shortened the Great Depression, or whether the Civil War was about slavery.  There’s not much factual doubt about either of these propositions, but that just illustrates the distance between “history” and “facts.”

So the parsing of history reflects the archetypal human tragedy: that we can never know what’s going to happen and yet we feel compelled to try to control it.  And if the stage is the home of tragedy, then it must be a natural setting for history as well.

But then we come down to cases, specifically the case a playwright tries to make about how we should interpret what happened.  In a prizewinning novel last year, Hilary Mantel portrayed Thomas More as a politically retrograde and religiously intolerant counselor to Henry VIII, while lauding his opponent Oliver Cromwell.  But Cromwell will take years to recover from what playwright Robert Bolt did to him in A Man for All Seasons; and, to add insult to injury, while More was impersonated in the movie by the upright Paul Scofield, Leo McKern–he of the huge jowls and tiny pig-like eyes–had his way with Cromwell.  

What does A Man for All Seasons teach us?  Not much about More, perhaps, but quite a bit about Bolt and the year 1960: that he (and possibly other Americans of his generation) saw history as a matter of standing up to tyrants at whatever the cost.  Whereas Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front (and probably other Germans, not to mention French- and Englishmen, of his generation) regarded the costs of war as grossly disproportionate to the value of what it sought to protect.  As the cynical teacher (modeled on counter-historian Niall Ferguson) argues in The History Boys, if you just claim the conventional wisdom is wrong–that history is bunk--your ascent as an historian is assured, the facts be damned.

This makes historical drama a particularly deceptive form of theater.  All theater is deceptive, and that’s not bad; but take what appears on the stage with a suitably strong saline solution.  Were the Pitmen Painters ennobled by art, activated by the class struggle, none of the above?  Did the soldiers in Journey’s End grasp that the Victorian world they’d known was indeed collapsing around them?  Even when the artist tries her best to be faithful, s/he always sees the past through the distorting lens of the present. 

We enjoy historical drama but let's also beware of it.  All the President's Men or Nixon/FrostThe Lark or St. Joan?  A Man for All Seasons or Wolf Hall?  However persuasive the author's efforts, it rests upon you to decide. 

Maybe Richard III wasn’t such a bad guy after all.