Turning History Into Reality
What do Mike Daisey, Tony Kushner, and Sarah Palin have in common? Each has bent history’s facts to serve their dramatic needs. For that matter, nearly every playwright—and politician—does. But Daisey is now taking ethics of non-fiction journalism courses at NYU; Maureen Dowd took Kushner to task; and journalists took to the internet to defend and condemn Palin’s account of Paul Revere’s ride. These high profile (mis)representations of history point to what happens every time theater engages with the past.
In each of these instances, after a faulty depiction of history, we had to accept or reject a new version of reality. The public fought over these portrayals of the world. One can see this in Palin defenders and detractors warring on Wikipedia. This American Life took the unusual step of retracting a story, spending an entire episode delineating its own fact-checking process. A Congressman lambasted the lack of fidelity in Kushner’s script, arguing that “suspension of disbelief” is of a different quality between E.T. and a film “based on significant real-life events.” More virtual ink was spilled on these three contentious representations of history than I can summarize. But, for theater artists, these controversies ultimately signify that stage depictions of history—distant or recent—create a reality onstage with effects offstage.
Recognizing the role public portrayals play, we need to acknowledge the effects of (mis)representing history and carefully think through our aims and methods. I am not advocating a rigid dogma about utilizing history onstage. Every play, every production, is its own organism within a larger ecosystem of theater, and must apply its own particular genetics. But we should examine our art’s relationship to past events, our art’s goals, and how best to accomplish them.
Take, for example, Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9. Its farcical, gender-bending, time-traveling structure is not, strictly speaking, historically accurate. However, its style points to realities about gender, sexuality, and colonialism. It does so in a fashion that clearly sets itself apart from supposedly objective journalistic theater like that of Mike Daisey. Churchill made no attempt at a naturalist representation of British Colonial Africa. Her postmodern techniques nevertheless address historical themes: colonialism’s chauvinism, homosocial relations, and reliance on gender norms, to name an obvious few. One could point to Liz Duffy Adams’ Or,, Naomi Wallace’s Slaughter City, as well as Tom Stoppard’s Travesties as examples of similar strategies.
If, however, a play purports to represent a journalistic account of history, including factual inaccuracies endangers the play’s authority. What if the play’s message is true, but the plot it sets up as historically factual is not? If, for example, the facts in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart were incorrect, its political goals would collapse like a house of cards. That situation may even endanger an accurate knowledge of history itself. After all, the students to whom I teach The Normal Heart weren’t born during the 1980s and take the script as fact. If it were merely liberal propaganda, am I not simply indoctrinating my students with lies? What happens to The Laramie Project if its interviews are fake? What if the history of Melanie Marnich’s These Shining Lives is so inaccurate that its portrayal of disposable workers in the 1920s is nonsensical? Plays of this nature rely on a plausible relationship to historical facts.
But whose history? Whose “facts”? In this postmodern age, can we even say there are “facts”? Discussing this issue with other playwrights, some suggest that history should not get in the way of dramatic necessity. Others have argued that “facts” are unknowable, and, hence, irrelevant. I disagree. When Sarah Palin asserts that Paul Revere warned the British that Americans would keep their guns, facts are necessary to refute her and her politics. Likewise, when Deroy Murdock, Hoover Institute Fellow, suggests that Reagan acted well when faced with the AIDS crisis, either he is right or Kramer is. The only measurement we have is a multitude of “facts” in Murdock’s article versus “facts” in Kramer’s play. I then turn to historians to help me determine who’s marshaling facts more accurately. If we, as artists, give up the idea that a “fact” can exist, we cede all political legitimacy.
Edward Albee says that, “A good writer turns fact into truth; a bad writer will, more often than not, accomplish the opposite.” There are as many ways to turn fact into truth as there are plays and productions, but we must carefully examine our aims and methods while we create art that relates to history.