History vs. Theatre
Hamilton, Perfect Arrangement, Who’s Your Baghdaddy? and More
Nobody would mistake King Charles III for history; the newly opened play at Broadway’s Music Box Theater imagines the royal intrigue after the death of Queen Elizabeth, when the Prince of Wales ascends the throne. The show, whose characters are given the actual names of the current British royal family, is cleverly subtitled “a future history play,” and is modeled on Shakespeare’s history plays; even the dialogue is written in iambic pentameter.
Similarly, it takes just a few minutes into First Daughter Suite to figure out that Michael John LaChiusa’s musical currently at the Public Theater is entirely a work of imagination, even though it uses the real names and some recognizable characteristics of five First Ladies and their daughters. The tip off to the audience probably occurs when Susan Ford convinces Amy Carter to steer the Presidential yacht to Iran in order to release the American hostages, and once there, an armed, masked Iranian revolutionary attacks the twelve-year-old Carter, shouting “Hezbollah! Hummus hummus! Baklava! Shish kebob!”
If both King Charles III and First Daughter Suite are too fanciful to be thought of as depicting history on stage, they still offer history lessons of a sort, stimulating the members of the audience to consider the real-life people that the shows turn into characters. These shows are among a recent spate of works on New York stages that deal in more or less direct ways with history, and they raise several questions.
Hamilton, The Crucible, and the Elusiveness of “Historical Accuracy”
I’ve written extensively, including on HowlRound, about how breathtaking and groundbreaking I found Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical. One of the ways it’s groundbreaking is in the earnest, respectful tone with which it treats political figures in American history, which differs from the campy attitude toward political history that has been the norm on American stages for the past half century.
If the casting and musical idiom in the musical is not, strictly speaking, “accurate” (no, George Washington was not black and he didn’t rap), Miranda was clearly diligent in his research, and scrupulous in adhering to his source material and inspiration, historian Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.
However, it’s worth underscoring here the elusiveness of historical accuracy. Historians offer differing interpretations of the same facts. “Historians have declared themselves Jeffersonians or Hamiltonians, committed individualists or dedicated nationalists, liberals or conservatives, then written accounts that favor one camp over the other,” Pulitzer Prize winning historian Joseph Ellis has pointed out. Hamilton the musical unmistakably offers a Hamiltonian perspective, in which Jefferson is the villain.
However, it’s worth underscoring here the elusiveness of historical accuracy. Historians offer differing interpretations of the same facts.
Given that history in this way is more an art than a science, how possible is it for the theatrical arts to “get it right”—and how important?
It’s a question I put to Arthur Miller in 2002, right before the fifth Broadway production of The Crucible; the sixth Broadway production of the play about the Salem witch hunts is scheduled to begin performances on February 29, 2016.
“I don't think Shakespeare's plays are historically accurate,” Arthur Miller told me. “That's beside the point.”
Miller set out to write The Crucible because he saw a connection between the witch hunts in Salem and what has come to be called the Communist witch hunts in the 1950s, also known as the Red Scare. He relied on The Devil in Massachusetts by Marion Starkey, a history of the Salem witch trials, but also traveled to Salem to examine the original court records.
“What their internal psychology was, was not on any record,” he said. “That is what I had to create.”
“I suppose it is history,” he said,
but it's something more. It's an imaginary reconstruction. It wouldn't be a document you would turn to for absolute historical truth, if there is such a thing. If you are writing a work of literature, it's literally impossible to avoid changing what people are like. The story takes over finally…The real question is whether a play casts any light on any human or social situation. If it's simply an exploitation of a historic person, then it's reprehensible.
Perfect Arrangement and The Historically Credible
Perfect Arrangement, a new play by Topher Payne, is set in the era in which Miller wrote The Crucible, and looks at an offshoot of the Red Scare—the Lavender Scare, the persecution of gay people in the federal government. The play mimics a 1950s situation comedy in order to tell the story of a gay couple and a lesbian couple who have entered into pretend heterosexual marriages with one another. One of the women and one of the men happen to work at the State Department, and their job for the past few years has been firing insufficiently patriotic employees. In the first scene of the play, their boss, a guest at a dinner party in the home of one of the mock couples, gives them their new assignment—to root out “deviants.”
“Teddy, you don’t mean fags, do you?” his wife asks.
“Kitty, don’t be off-color,” he replies.
The Lavender Scare has been historically documented. One hopes that a sophisticated New York audience will understand that the specific characters are the playwright’s invention, especially since he places them in a comically artificial environment in which, for example, they rave about household products as if they are doing a 1950s era commercial. But the play faltered for me when it turned serious and started telling the story entirely from a 2015 perspective. Almost all of the principal lesbian and gay characters decide to take a stand, one of the lesbians saying: “You know, there’s going to come a day, and it won’t be long, when people like us stop lurking in the shadows.”
There were unquestionably people who sacrificed their careers and their personal wellbeing to speak out against their oppression. But how likely would they be the people who had spent the previous few years getting paid to fire subversives? This leads to a general question: How historically credible must a play be that purports to present an actual moment in history, even if it doesn’t aim strictly speaking to be a history play?
Who’s Your Baghdaddy? And the Historical Disclaimer
One of the worst named musical comedies in New York turns one of the worst blunders in recent American history into a clever, tuneful entertainment. Who’s Your Badhdaddy? Or How I Started the Iraq War begins with the characters gathering for a support group: “I’m Berry and I started the Iraq War,” a CIA analyst says.
“Hi Berry,” reply the others, including several other analysts, a CIA agent, a weapons inspector, and a German interrogator who was the first to confront an Iraqi refugee in the Frankfurt airport who asked for asylum in exchange for information. The information provided by the defector, who is given the code name Curveball, is that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, and that he knew this personally because he was directly involved.
Curveball, a character based on an actual defector who was given that codename, was deliberately lying.
Now, it is no longer debatable (except maybe in a recent GOP presidential debate) that the Iraq War was a mistake. Even President George W. Bush admitted as much in his memoir Decision Points: “The reality was that I had sent American troops into combat based in large part on intelligence that proved false.”
What is in dispute are the details: How did it happen?
In one way, Who’s Your Baghdaddy? goes to unusual lengths to establish its credibility. On their website and in their program they list Bob Drogin as a “creative consultant.” Drogin, a former national security reporter for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of the non-fiction book Curveball: Lies, Spies and the Con Man Who Caused a War. They even offer a note about the show’s accuracy, set it to music, and make it part of the show:
Everything you’ll see today happened.
We added drama
Jerry and all
Added some “shine.”
Our timeline is condensed
And the actions of many in real life
Here are carried out by six
(you deserve to know our tricks)
Yet, it’s fascinating to thumb through the source material for this musical, Drogin’s book, and read his disclaimers—“Clandestine operatives are trained to spread falsehoods…Intelligence agencies spin or hide the truth as a matter of policy and law…I have tried to unravel the intrigue and navigate the distortions that plagued this case. I base my narrative on the facts as best I could determine and confirm them”—but he also adds: “Like any author, I flesh out the written record and the memories of participants to bring life to the page.”
A funhouse mirror of a funhouse mirror of a funhouse mirror of reality—distorting for political reasons, in one case, and “enhancing” for entertainment in the two others.
Does this matter?
In an era when “reality series” are staged, with little connection to any previously recognizable reality, and the phrase “inspired by” apparently gives license to alter, fudge, and fabricate, most people would probably say no.
Given that history in this way is more an art than a science, how possible is it for the theatrical arts to ‘get it right’—and how important?
That would disturb Elizabeth Bishop, one of the “characters” in Dear Elizabeth, a play by Sarah Ruhl currently at the Women’s Project Theater that is about the friendship between Bishop and fellow poet Robert Lowell. Ruhl uses only the poets’ own words—some of their poems but mostly selections from their voluminous correspondence over many years.
At one point, Lowell has given Bishop The Dolphin to read, a book of his poems that incorporates private letters from his ex-wife, the critic Elizabeth Hardwick, and alters them. Bishop is furious with Lowell for doing this, and quotes the English poet and novelist Thomas Hardy: “What should certainly be protested against, in cases where there is no authorization, is the mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions. Infinite mischief would lie in that.”
Hardy died in 1928, and mischief certainly reigns in the mixing now. It was the mix of fact and fiction that got us into the Iraq War. Yes, one could argue, but that was real life, not entertainment. But the line between the two seems more and more blurred.
Jonathan Mandell’s NewCrit piece usually appears the first Thursday of every month. Find his previous pieces here.
The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here
Allegiance opened three days after this was posted. I cited this piece in my review, and now want to cite the review in this piece.
The musical, about the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, is a great example of the competing demands of putting a historical moment on stage. Looking over the reviews (not just mine), I can imagine the producers tearing out their hair: Some say it's "more like a history lesson than a musical," others that it's too much of a typical Broadway musical, others that it's historically inaccurate.
This is a fascinating conversation-starter, and I’mdelighted to see Perfect Arrangement considered in your thoughts. It’s theexact discussion I hope seeing my play will inspire in audiences, as theydiscover that the thoughts and ideals expressed by the characters are by nomeans contemporary. The line you reference, “You know, there’s going to come aday, and it won’t be long, when people like us stop lurking in the shadows,” isdelivered by Barbara Grant, a State Department translator- not a member of theinvestigative board. Her final plea to the quartet was inspired by the writingsof Harry Hay, who conceived the idea of a homosexual activist group in 1948,which eventually led to the founding of the Mattachine Society in 1950, a fewmonths after the events of Perfect Arrangement.
I kept wondering how a group of closeted homosexuals wouldrespond to hearing those words aloud for the first time- the action (orinaction) it would inspire. And it’s established fact that employees of thesecurity board abandoned their positions in protest of the new criteria- myfanciful leap was that in the case of Norma Baxter, it was in pursuit of herown truth. At the end of the play, they don’t know what’s on the other side ofthe door, and in all likelihood the choice to live openly proves disastrous forone or all of them. But someone had to be the first to try.
All of this to say, theatre is storytelling. I see it as parable. When playwrights pursue a story in a certain period, we’re not trying to communicate something about THEM THEN, it’s about US NOW. In some cases, the author chooses to adhere to language or timeline, in other cases they’redeliberately anachronistic- but what’s most interesting to me as an audiencemember is what I felt, and the discussion it inspired.