How Real is the History in Historical Dramas? It May Not Matter

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

What did the victims of the Salem witch trials actually say when they were about to be hanged for their “crimes”?  We don’t know.  Playwright Arthur Miller didn’t know, either. He obtained all of his material from slender court records of the era and was not privy to any of the dialogue when he wrote The Crucible. Did Caesar really say “Et tu Brute?” when his friend Brutus was about to stab him in the Roman Senate in 44 B.C.? William Shakespeare didn’t know. He based his classic play on the historical work of Plutarch, who didn’t have the exact dialogue, either.

We do not know, cannot know, who said what in most of history.  Even today, with round-the-clock television, text messages and emails, we can’t get everybody’s conversation down for the ages.

What playwrights who write history plays try to do is present an historical event, or a biography, as accurately as possible and attempt to present dialogue that hopefully fits the situation in a way that their characters might have delivered it.  They use their research of people’s lives and statements to do so.  This can get tricky.

We do know what Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address on that blustery day in November, 1863, because he wrote it down, and we know how he said it from newspaper and diary accounts, but what did Columbus say, and in what tone, when he landed in San Salvador?  What did Queen Elizabeth I really tell her troops as they prepared to fight the Spanish Armada?  How confident was she?  How nervous was she?

The missing history in history makes it tough to write history plays.  We just hope that playwrights engage in extensive research and rely on as much true history as they can when they sit down to produce their story.  Sometimes they do not.  Thomas Dixon simply invented history—awful history—when he wrote his play The Clansman, upon which the racist film The Birth of a Nation was based.  Icons of the Old West invented most of the action and dialogues in the plays they wrote about themselves that thrilled audiences back east in the 1890s.  Buffalo’s Bill’s Wild West show was a wild distortion of what really happened out on the plains.

What did people from the past look like?  I have seen a number of plays and movies about the legendary beauty Helen of Troy.  I wouldn’t launch a tugboat, much less a thousand ships, to get any of those Helens back.  What did she really look like?  Consider George Washington.  He survived a near-death battle with smallpox when he was nineteen.  It gave him a pock-marked face.  Have we seen any pock marks on the faces of actors who play him on stage, or in any of this paintings? Of course not. (To be fair to our first president, he’s hardly the worst offender—Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was badly pock marked and had photographs of him retouched to downplay the scars.)

How was the gunfight at the O.K. Corral really fought?  Was there no good side to Henry VIII?  How much of a schemer was the lovely Cleopatra, the heroine of so much theater?

Then there is the issue of time in a play.  A contemporary drama can easily be told, but an historical story cannot.  How do you create an interesting play about a person’s entire life?  The Depression, from 1929 to 1941?  A four-year war?  It is difficult to do unless you drop events and people, streamline the story and produce good dialogue that fits a situation.  And, as they say in the theater and in film, you need lights, camera and action, plenty of it.  I used to be a newspaper reporter and told a television star how he got the life of the reporter all wrong in his series.  He frowned and asked me to tell him what I did that day.  I did.  When I finished he smiled, folded his arms and said, “Now, who would watch that?”

He was right.

History plays written in the last twenty years or so have been far more accurate than previous efforts.  Historians have written more books—and more researched, evenly balanced books—about history in recent years.  They have looked at the stories of minorities, women, small businessmen and laborers more closely than their predecessors.  They have used more diaries and letters from real people.  We now have the History Channel and other historically-oriented television channels on which we can see better history.  There is backup expertise, which was not there forty years ago.  Now theaters hire historical experts to double-check history in plays; movies hire history professors as consultants.  The history on stage is often as good as the writer can make it, with his fictional plot added.

An example of solid stage history is the recent Off-Broadway play Oswald, by Dennis Richard, at the Richmond Shepard Theater.  Richard took the actual notes of the Dallas detective who interrogated Lee Harvey Oswald about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, added information from actual FBI and CIA papers and wrote his play.  This real history play was as gripping and poignant as any fictional history play he or anyone else could have written. Oswald, which will surely be staged again and again as the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination looms, is a treat.  It is a rare treat, though.

It is entertaining history, not truly authentic history, that people in the audience crave, whether on stage or on the silver screen.  Historians wring their hands that playwrights or screenwriter put a character in the wrong century, or the wrong town, or had them involved in the wrong political spat.  The public does not worry about that; they just want a reasonably historic story that is engaging.

Example:  I teach a course on film and history and show, in a documentary, proof that General George Patton did not run out of his headquarters in North Africa, whip out his ivory handled revolvers and fire away at an attacking German plane, as he did so heroically in the movie Patton.  He stayed inside for his own protection, as he should have.  The documentary shows other flaws in the film, too.  My students’ reaction to the real truth?  Everybody’s reaction to the real truth?  Didn’t care. Liked the movie. Got most of it right.  The “spirit of the story” was good. Patton ruled.

So, with audience attitudes like that there is never going to be a strident demand for real, exact history, just pretty good history and an effort to get the “mostly” true story into a play, done somehow in an entertaining way.  So I keep hoping for better history, applaud all of those playwrights that research their topics looking for the authentic story, and there are a number of them, and sit back when the lights go down and thoroughly enjoy the play.

And I remember, and we should all remember, that the real story of the American past is far more fascinating than anything a playwright or Hollywood screenwriter could make up.

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