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Between Fact and Fiction

Does history belong onstage?

By Alona R. Bach

It begins by falling in love with a name in a history book. Then comes the search for the details behind the name, then the gradual work to rebuild the world around it. Soon the name grows into a Person, someone I know but can never meet.

I chased my latest name (Margaret) to an archive in London. There were her letters—God, her handwriting!—and the first one, dated 1925, was to her friend Caroline and “completely private.”

“Try + arrange that [it doesn’t] get inserted in your biography,” she wrote. She had penned the note nearly a century ago, but I flushed guiltily when I read it.

I had been planning on citing her letters in a stage play – but Margaret had become a Person, and she’d caught me red-handed.

Historical research can be fascinating and beautiful and challenging and mysterious, but the first time I learned that wasn’t in an archive. It was in a theater.

The play was Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” in which two historians meet on an estate in the British countryside while researching the transition from the Enlightenment to Romanticism. Their historical subjects appear onstage too, not knowing their lives will be scrutinized 200 years later, revealing pieces of the historical puzzle as—or before—the historians discover it.

“Arcadia” mixed passionate love and the search for knowledge into beautiful disorder. Love spilled over into everything: the searches through piles of irrelevant historical documents, the thrill of finding a missing link, the intellectual sparring, the dangers of doing sloppy research.

In its famous final scene, the play’s two time periods exist onstage simultaneously. Hannah Jarvis, one of the historians, sits within breathing distance of her historical actors when she solves the final piece of her historical puzzle, and none of them realize.

Professor Louis Menand described writing biography as molding a character. As you read more and more about your historical actor, he said, you continuously reshape your mental image of who they are.

Theater, I think, works in much the same way. Like archival material, a script can give only so much information. It is the theatermaker’s responsibility to create, then tweak, a character whose actions and words match their echoes on the page. As in biography, the ultimate goal is to create a character who is as close to fully-realized as possible.

But dramatizing history is a contentious topic, and historical characters can’t always find a home onstage. Historians have, time and time again, critiqued dramatic narratives for spreading Whig history—narratives of history which frame the past as a progression towards the inevitable present. Many contend that showing the public only the digestible versions of complex realities is destructive to understanding the past, present, and future. “Dump the destructive ‘March of Progress’ narratives!” historians call out. “Discard those presentist lenses of good and evil, truth and falsehood! People will think that’s how life works!”

So plays about history exist in a formal limbo. They inhabit the shadowlands between fact and fiction, stretched taut between expectations that they will be both dramatic and instructive. But when fiction professes to deal in facts, the collateral damage can be serious.

“Look at ‘Copenhagen’ by Michael Frayn instead,” some historians suggest., “Hhe did it well. That play embraces the ambiguity of the historical events it dramatizes. We don’t know what really happened when Heisenberg and Bohr met in Copenhagen in 1941. In history, that ambiguity is a problem that needs to be solved. In Frayn’s play, the ambiguity is the whole point.”

But is there only room for a historical play that is self-aware?

There can’t be, and there mustn’t be.

A play will not shape or destroy the academic discipline of history. Any play “based on a true story” remains just that. Audience members who take that fiction as truth are most likely also guilty of giving a Whig history of their morning.

So put history onstage, I say—sometimes, fictionalization is worth the risk. Stories are the way people and events embed themselves in public consciousness. You package moments in narratives so that people can remember them and think: yes, this still matters.

What did Lord Byron do that day, and why? the historian asks in chorus with the playwright. We are all asking the same questions, and answering them in different ways.

“It’s wanting to know that makes us matter,” Stoppard’s Hannah Jarvis says, and the audience nods along.

The proper, footnoted history will always be more complex than its stage counterpart—lives are always messier than the ways we can communicate them. But the stageplay reminds us to keep looking back: there is something there. It reminds us to look to the past for the Persons, not just the names,; to remember that these were people who were made of flesh and blood, just like the actors now temporarily bearing their names.

“Come to me,” the theater says, “and I will teach you to continue to want to know, to look to the past for that which is fascinating and beautiful and challenging and mysterious, and perhaps not as distant as it may seem.”

Alona R. Bach ’16 is a history of science concentrator in Cabot House.

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