Turning history into watchable drama

`HISTORY,'' Henry Ford is reported to have said, ``is bunk,'' a comment that has opened his memory to sneers from the intellectual and academic world ever since. Had he qualified this this way - ``History, as dramatized, particularly on television, is in grave danger of turning into bunk if not worse'' - he might have been more accurate, but no one would have quoted him. To berate ``docudrama'' is a popular pastime for critics, ideologues, and scholars defending their turf. The sad thing is, they are sometimes right ... but not always.

Historical dramas, like historical novels, have a long and honorable literary history. Fortunately for our colleague Will Shakespeare, no one had a daily column in the Arts & Leisure section pointing out the errant distortions of fact he perpetrated in his various docudramas. Similarly, not too many PhDs thundered against Count Tolstoy for misdating several minor battles in and around Moscow.

One of the differences, of course, is that both theater, and novel, are generally accorded respect as serious cultural endeavors, while the television product (interesting that it is termed ``product'' - no one would think of describing ``War and Peace'' as a product) exists in a tangled bog of vulgar and popular entertainment, tabloid news, and commercial hawking.

But there are dangers in the cutting and shaping of history for popular sport and amusement, if not illumination, particularly when the events being dramatized are so recent as to be better described as current rather than historical.

Or even if they are in a respectable historical past, if they relate directly to social and political issues currently in conflict the danger is there. The measure is not some arbitrary standard of literal verbatim reporting, but rather the integrity of the folks doing the show, the writers, producers, directors, and network executives.

In turning history into drama, the test isn't whether or not a given conversation took place on a Monday or a Thursday, but whether the writer has a good feeling and understanding of more important general truths. Dates may be juggled, minor events rolled into convenient scenes, what was written in a journal or a letter may be introduced into a face-to-face meeting, but what must be preserved is the truth about the social, political, psychological meaning of persons and events.

If, as I found myself doing, one has to swallow hard and invent what Abraham Lincoln said to Mary while both were in bed without a shorthand reporter present, the test becomes: Is what you invent consistent with the character, the politics, the speech patterns, and the psyche of Old Abe and His Lady, as reported by the best possible witnesses of the era?

The license the historical dramatist takes is to make a dramatic character out of a historical one. The measure of success, from an ethical point of view, is that even if no one knows whether he said such a thing to such a person, is it what he would have said if he did]

At its best the historical drama can collect, focus, clarify, and illuminate the times and people gone by. At its worst it can distort, blunt, or totally obliterate the social, political, or psychological truths.

One should note that this grasp of underlying truths in history depends on subjective judgment. Poor, laboring TV writers are not the only ones pilloried as mistaken, misguided, corrupt, or ignorant. Nothing is more bitter than the crusades and sieges mounted by one scholarly historical expert against another with whom he disagrees on fact and interpretation. From the fury of the True Believer who does not share the same view of social, political, or psychological essential truth, the good Lord deliver us.

There are, of course, difficulties stemming from the patterns of American television which end up affecting the historical validity of the project.

While adapting the Gore Vidal novel ``Lincoln'' for the recent miniseries, I growled constantly to anyone who would listen that if this were the BBC, I would have 26 hours at least. At the time, the wisdom at NBC was that four hours were as much as the American public could stand of Honest Abe. I remember pointing out that the ``Mayflower Madam'' was being accorded six prime-time hours.

As it was, the treatment alone ran somewhere near one hundred pages, and the first draft was about one hour too long. To compress, elide, hop, skip, and jump through the whole Civil War years to squeeze it into four hours, actually 3, considering commercials, was a fearful experience. The constant battle was to preserve those essential truths mentioned above, and at the end of it all I came out with an enormous respect for those geniuses who invented bouillon cubes.

It has been noted with varying degrees of glee and despair that in these illiterate days, television has become the primary teacher of history among other things, and the debate rages, is this opportunity or disaster?

The answer, I think, is in that same gray, subjective, chancy area I have described above. It all depends primarily on who is doing the show, how well do they know the truths - social, political, and psychological. What kind of decent integrity do they bring to the times, the issues, and the people? Oh ... and of course, it helps to have some skill at playwriting, or should I have mentioned that first?

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