In defence of the unhistorical drama

This is an article I never thought I’d write, from a viewpoint I never thought I’d have. Being nerdy about historical music and instruments, I’ve been one of those people who have tutted and rolled my eyes in dismay when historical anomalies, inaccuracies and impossibilities appear in historical films and novels. I’ve played small parts in such films myself, playing historical music. My role as musician in one TV series marked my transformation from annoyed nerd to a more informed person about the multiple processes involved in creating such dramas, and the necessity of putting complete accuracy aside. This article explains how and why, and my realisation of the truth that everyone involved in living history is choosy about which parts we re-enact and which aspects of modernity we’d rather keep. As I’ll show, the same is necessarily true of film-makers, for more complex reasons.

Historical anomalies

Here are a few examples that have had me spilling my tea.

The TV series The Tudors, a sensationalised sex romp history of Henry VIII, has Henry dark-haired and slim throughout, not red-haired and piling on the weight; Anne Boleyn, who had dark eyes and olive skin, is portrayed with blue eyes and fair skin; the King’s secretary, Richard Pace, is sent to the Tower of London, an event which never happened; Thomas Tallis, musician of the Royal Chapel, is shown in homosexual romance with Sir William Compton, though nothing is known of Tallis’ sexuality except his 33-year-long marriage, and there is no evidence he ever even met Compton; and so on and so on. A whole article could be written just on the historical inaccuracy of this tabloidesque series.

The Tudors TV series: once you’ve seen the advert you know what to expect.

In the film, Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett in the role of the monarch, the Queen tells her court musicians, “Play a volta.” We don’t see the musicians, but we hear them: a modern orchestra, transported invisibly back in time. The piece they play is something like la volta, but it’s not the genuine article, and the same is true of the dance. (For more information, see this article about la volta.)

The folk music film, Inside Llewyn Davies, is set in 1961. Llewyn Davies remembers hearing the song, Shoals of Herring, when he was a child of 8 years old, even though it was written in 1960 by Ewan MacColl. Among other mistakes, he performs the traditional song, The Death of Queen Jane, to a melody that had not yet been composed, written by Dáithí Sproule in 1971, 10 years after the film was set.

It isn’t just films. Rose Tremain’s historical novel, Music and Silence, is set in the Danish court of King Christian IV during 1629-30. This was the court the great English lutenist John Dowland served intermittently from 1598 to 1606. In a backwards glance, Tremain describes Dowland as moody and difficult, an understandable characterisation if one’s only source is his great body of often darkly brooding songs, but Dowland’s contemporaries described him in person as cheerful. More annoyingly, for a historical novel, instead of having Dowland play in King Christian’s consort, she writes that he played in the royal orchestra, a use of the word not recorded until 1720.

No doubt some readers will have their own examples to add, perhaps from Braveheart, A Beautiful Mind, Pearl Harbor, etc.

Three problems for historical drama

These examples illustrate three problems for historical drama: keeping to the historically known facts; using the language of the time, not anomalous terms projected backwards; and at the same time portraying the story as drama in a way that will engage a modern audience. Let’s examine these problems one by one. 

There are many details of history that are crucial for a drama that neither a historian nor a dramatist can ever know. While all the buttons, buildings and battles may be historically accurate, since they can be created according to the evidence, there is no historical foundation for what is most important in a drama: the person to person contact, the words that were used, the way they were spoken, the inflection of a voice, the sincere or duplicitous body language, the gait of a walk. Some of this may be inferred from the evidence, but none of it can be definitively known. Where there are historical documents of person to person encounters, or from which such encounters can be inferred, they are always partial and biased, since any account of human interaction necessarily has a particular point of view, and any detail is therefore open to contradiction from another perspective. And what does a dramatist do where the evidence is clearly flawed, or has holes, or is entirely lacking? It has, of necessity, to be made up.

Language is an equally difficult problem. In Michèle Roberts’ novel about Mary Magdalene and Jesus, The Wild Girl (republished as The Secret Gospel of Mary Magdalene), the author uses the term, puritan, projected back into 1st century Judea. The word was not in use until 1564, first in England, and in a specific Christian rather than a Jewish context. It could easily be argued that both Michèle Roberts and Rose Tremain should have done their linguistic research but, if taken with utmost seriousness, this leads to a much more deep-seated problem. If they were to be strict about using historical language, then Roberts’ novel would have been written in Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin, the languages of Jesus’ milieu, and Tremain’s novel would have been written in early modern Danish, using only words likely to have been known and used by the protagonists. In each case, their reading audiences would have been limited to practically zero in publishing terms, and their books would have failed in the key task of drama, to communicate to a mass audience. It is the linguistic historian’s task to grapple with the minutiae of language and meaning, but this is veridical history, not emotion-inducing drama. While the historian’s task is to cite, verify and inform, the dramatist’s task is to evoke the engagement, emotions and empathy of an audience, and that necessitates the immediacy of modern language which readers and viewers can understand.

In her talk, Is the past a foreign country?, historian Suzannah Lipscomb succinctly describes the problems of bringing history to a modern audience via drama. “History in the popular media tends to be something that stresses the similarities between us and them. So when you come across history in the popular media you tend to come across stories that tell you things that you know. So the great disaster of Titanic is told as a love story; The Other Boleyn Girl re-imagines Tudor history as chic-lit sibling rivalry; or a film like The Duchess, which is a story about an 18th century aristocrat, had the strapline, “There were three in their marriage”, and it came out just a year after the death of Princess Diana.”    

Left, the book cover of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, and right, the way it was sold for the cinema.
The Duchess, a story of the past promoted by keying into the events of the present.

“The past is so very different”, says Suzannah Lipscomb, “that we fail to understand it because we only understand our own time. People in the past had very different mental and imaginative worlds to us. Perhaps this is the difference between popular history and academic history: is popular history more interested in the similarities than the differences? For example, Philippa Gregory’s books, wonderful historical novels but, quite often, the women in them tend to be, essentially, proto-feminists, and their attitude towards sex tends to be ‘it’s quite a good thing, let’s get on with it’ which, before the age of the pill, before there was any reliable contraception, isn’t congruent with the age of the past … We have a tendency to look at the past and think they were just like us, but what was going on inside their heads was really, really different.”     

There are many examples of historical outlooks which, if more accurately portrayed in popular films and books, would get in the way of a modern audience’s empathy: classical Greek and Roman beliefs in multiple gods and their divine roles in human life; misogynist views about women and the racism that justified the keeping of slaves; the widespread practice of wife-beating and child-beating; early modern supernaturalism, widespread belief in spirits, fairies and witches, and the felt need to live in accordance with a particular reading of the Bible. Such everyday facets of life have to be downplayed or overlooked completely by a script-writer if a modern audience is to identify with characters in the drama: in essence, historical people have to be updated.      

The plot drives the drama

My view on historical accuracy in drama is now more nuanced, more understanding of the competing interests involved in making a film, the need to focus on what is most important for driving the drama, and the impossibility of pleasing everyone all of the time. So, while I wish drama would get historical details as right as possible, I don’t feel the irk of the nerd in quite the same way now. The difference between academic history and history-as-drama may be obvious to writers of novels and writers for TV, cinema and the stage, but it wasn’t obvious to me, and it isn’t always obvious to many historical music and dance enthusiasts. I know that specialists in other fields – historians of armour or weaponry, or of clothes, for example – can feel as frustrated as I did.

The turning point came for me when working on The White Princess, a TV series based on the Cousins’ War novels of Philippa Gregory, revolving around the personal costs in the political marriage of Elizabeth of York and King Henry VII. My contact on set, whose task was to organise the historical music and the musicians to play it (and therefore me) was very keen to get everything right. She is a specialist in film organisation, not in late 15th century music in England. I was more than happy to organise period-specific music and musicians to play it with me, since I realised something previously hidden to me, now obvious: film staff are skilled in organising and making films, not in knowledge of specific aspects of narrow periods of history.

On the set of The White Princess, let to right: Jaime Payne, director; Emma Frost, script writer; Jacob Collins-Levy, Henry VII; Jodie Comer, Elizabeth of York.

Several further revelations on set cohered to give me a completely new perspective. One scene needed a short piece of late 15th century English dance music for Elizabeth of York (Jodie Comer) and Cecily of York (Suki Waterhouse) to dance for Henry VII (Jacob Collins-Levy). I chose Ly Bens Distonys from the Gresley dance manuscript, written out by John Banys, dated between 1480 and 1520, so justifiably in the right period. I sent several differently-paced recorded versions for the director to listen to, played by me on gittern with Andy Casserley on rebec. When we met, the director considered the rebec/gittern pairing to be too harsh a sound for a modern audience, preferring the more gentle lute/recorder pairing we subsequently used on set. I soon understood his viewpoint: his concern was for the presentation of the show to a general, drama-watching, modern audience. While all four instruments are in keeping historically, his concern had to be the aural effect. If, in his judgement, the ears of the audience would be jarred by the instruments, then this would detract from, rather than enhance, the dramatic drive of the scene. For the director, the music is a condiment, not the main meal, and if the unfamiliarity of the sound distracts from the taste of the main meal, then all the time, effort and expense given the chief ingredients are overpowered. So while I lament the lack of crumhorns, sackbuts, gitterns and rebecs in historical dramas, I understand his point of view.

I also sent the dance instructions for Ly Bens Distonys from the Gresley manuscript, which were not used, leading to my next revelation. The dance choreographer explained to me that she had to coach two young actors for the scene to a tight time schedule, neither of whom had any dance experience. This being the case, getting across the finer points of historical dance could never be on the agenda. The dance was there in the service of the drama, not vice versa.

The storyline was that Elizabeth of York was forced into the position of dancing unwillingly for Henry VII. In the early takes, Jodie played the unhappy-looking Elizabeth, insulted by the king who compared her reluctance to dance to her sister: “Cecily will have more grace.” It seemed to me that, in the early takes, Jodie was thinking of her newly-learned movements as much as or more than the part she was playing. On a film set, the same scene is typically filmed multiple times with a different focus each take – long shots, close shots, particular characters, etc. After four or five takes, Jodie’s acting deepened visibly and viscerally. No longer was she simply unhappy, she was palpably filled with such seething resentment that her incandescence filled the room. As we played for the dancers, I found my eyes kept being drawn again and again to her. She was no longer acting: she was the part.

It was impressive to witness, so now I have to ask myself, from a director’s, choreographer’s or actor’s point of view, what is more important: dancing historically or driving the plot? It was crucial that movements be learnable and achievable, to allow the actors to be free enough of choreographic considerations to become the part. A historically authentic dance would, of necessity, have been learned improperly because their skill is acting, not dancing. As such, an attempt at accuracy would have detracted from the scene, not added to it.

Filming The White Princess, left to right: Dowager Queen Elizabeth, played by Essie Davis; Henry VII, played by Jacob Collins-Levy; unknown extra; Margaret Beaufort, played by Michelle Fairley; and court lutenist, played by the author of this article, Ian Pittaway.

Having learned this lesson, some weeks later Paul Baker (recorder) and I (gittern) spent a day on set rehearsing a basse danse with dancers, to be filmed the next day. It was instructive to watch the dance instructor coach the actors through their dance steps, seeing two non-dancers turn into a couple moving credibly together within a single morning. This was only possible because the instructor knew not to stretch the dancers beyond capacity. In the tight schedule, historical choreography necessarily gave way to the art of the possible.

The impossibility of fully authentic drama and music

All this considered, is a completely historically authentic drama on TV or in the cinema possible? It would require:

  • Expert advisors on every aspect of production – clothes, music, buildings, scenery, language, dance – with no compromises made.
  • A completely new wardrobe for all actors and extras, none hired from stock, all clothes made with exacting historicity, all hand-stitched, no machinery.
  • For medieval drama, actors would need to learn the appropriate language – Middle English, Middle French and Latin in England, with such proficiency that they can speak it, think in its own terms, and act convincingly at the same time, with modern English subtitles for the audience.
  • A director and producer with enough specific historical knowledge to be committed to the above, or a team of historical advisors permanently on hand to overrule any historically inaccurate directorial or production decisions.
  • A much larger budget and a much longer time schedule to accommodate all of the above.
  • An extremely brave person to pitch all of this to the financial backers, convincing them that all the extra time and expense would reap financial rewards, that the more exacting historicity has a high likelihood of resulting in larger revenue.

It’s never going to happen. This fully authentic drama is also literally impossible. The details of history do not give us dialogue or demeanour. Factual details are often obscure, incomplete or missing. Perspective colours everything, and that depends on whose historical side we are prepared to believe. A historical drama cannot deal in uncertainty: uncertainty and obscurity are the stuff of academic papers, not of story-telling. The historical dramatist must therefore take a view and make up what cannot be known before the story can be told, even if it cannot be fully justified academically.

Stephen Gottlieb, whose research revolutionised modern lute-making.

It is also impossible to be completely historically authentic since new research renders old knowledge obselete. There are many examples in the field of music. No early musician now would mix up a citole, gittern, mandore and mandora, but that’s only because of research conducted by Laurence Wright (The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity, published in The Galpin Society Journal, volume 30, May 1977), before which confusion reigned due to our lack of clear grounds for classification. In 1974, luthier Stephen Gottlieb travelled the museums of Europe to examine, measure, photograph and draw their lutes. Such knowledge revolutionised lute-making. It wasn’t that luthiers prior to Stephen’s work were ignoring historical knowledge and deliberately building too-heavy instruments with the wrong proportions: the knowledge simply wasn’t there. So the wonderful paradox is that what we regard as ‘historically authentic’ changes over time. Such is both the historical and scientific method: history does not exist apart from us, it changes with us, so a drama made in the early 1970s with ‘historically accurate’ music and instruments would now, in many respects, be inaccurate.

A fully authentic historical drama, then, is not achievable. Even in the impossible world of historians over-ruling producers, directors and financial backers, the most up to date knowledge becomes outdated. ‘But still,’ I hear the cry, ‘they could take more care to get it right.’ In the real world, the chief concern of those on set is communicating the narrative to a modern audience within the contraints of time, budget, knowledge and commercial viability. The attempt to achieve authenticity would not serve the function of an emotionally-present drama, with characters an audience can empathise with.

All re-enactment has its limits

Some re-enactors go as far as wearing historical underwear that no one can see, saying they feel better, more authentic, when wearing it. Such attention to detail can yield surprising results. Through such experiences of living history, little details can be discovered that no amount of abstract thinking can yield. For example, historical harpist Mike Parker told me that, in around 1795, harpers’ left hand position changed from being higher and more vertical than the right hand to a lower position. Harp historians explain this as a technical issue, this supposedly being a move to a stronger and faster position to play in. Mike, playing in his period clothes, discovered the probable truth to be more mundane. It was in around 1795 that the fashion for expensive lace cuffs faded away. Those lace cuffs flopped over the hand and got in the way of playing unless the hand was held vertically so, when the cuffs went away, so did the vertical hand position. 

Luthier Paul Baker with electric time-saving device, Mr. Scary.

Such practical experiences and discoveries are only gained through attention to historical detail. But it would be wise to humbly admit that the reality of limited authenticity does not only apply to TV, cinema and novels. Even the most exacting historical re-creators have their limits. There are always concessions to modernity due to circumstance, convenience and gaps in knowledge. The constraints of money and storage may mean a historical musician plays 13th century music on a 14th century harp, or plays music from the 1590s in clothes from the 1570s. When performing, we can always strive to be in the right general period, but we simply cannot be ultra-specific, as sheer practicality forbids it: car space, performance space, the money to afford every single permutation of an instrument type and the impracticality of umpteen sets of clothes changed several times during a performance. Likewise, modern luthiers sometimes use unhistorical electric tools because they can save hours of otherwise laborious work to get the same job done.

I’ve yet to meet a historical re-enactor who habitually speaks in Middle English, Tudor English or 17th century Civil War English (etc., depending on their specialism): doing so would render parts or all of their speech unintelligible to the modern public, and doubtless to many other re-enactors. When going to the toilet, I know of no medieval or renaissance re-enactor who wipes their bottom with historically correct straw, hay, grass, or, for the elite, lamb’s wool. They use toilet paper, not invented until 1857, and I don’t blame them. Even the most rigorous re-enactor will make choices, concessions and compromises when necessary, particularly when it concerns their rear end.  

Bum-wiping, the historical re-enactor’s nemesis. You could use historically inauthentic toilet roll or, depending on your social status, historically correct wool, straw, hay or grass.

Shakespeare rewriting history  

It is as well to realise that there never has been a time when the purpose of historical drama was to impart historical knowledge. We can criticise The Tudors, Braveheart, Inside Llewyn Davies, etc., etc., and doubtless doing so is good sport.

But, if we are going to be consistent, we should criticise William Shakespeare’s history plays on the same grounds. Troilus and Cressida is set in the Trojan War of Greek mythology, yet makes reference to “the high lavolt”, la volta, a 16th century dance. Henry VI Part I has Lancastrians and Yorkists picking red and white roses as emblems, an event which never happened: the combination of the two colours into one Tudor rose was an invention of Henry VII’s reign. Macbeth, based on the life of an 11th century Scottish king, was written to please James VI of Scotland, since he had also become James I of England. Among the many changes to history, Shakespeare has Macbeth murdered by Macduff, nobleman and Thane of Fife. Historically, Macbeth was fatally wounded in battle by Malcolm Canmore, next but one King of (parts of) Scotland, aided by the English army of Edward the Confessor. Shakespeare clearly thought better of writing a play for a Scottish King of England in which the monarch is murdered with the help of the English. And let’s not even start on the debate about the play, Richard III

The role of historical drama

My point, then, is that historical drama can only be historically accurate up to a point. Beyond that point, the practical necessities and conditions of story-telling mean that historical details are necessarily either unknowable or subservient to the requirements of the drama.

I doubt that any Tudor or Jacobean went to the Shakespearean theatre to learn an academic history lesson any more than anyone watches EastEnders to learn the finer details about life in the east end of London. Shakespeare’s plays were about plots, character, intrigue, mixed motives, horror, language and laughter, with historical settings as the backdrop, not the main feature. The same is true of any historical drama produced today for TV, cinema or as a novel. It’s true that script writers and novelists invent new characters alongside those who really lived, for dramatic purposes; they merge two people into one for plot efficiency; they change what we know happened to create plot twists. This may be academically frustrating, but this is entertainment, not academia; and in this the script writers are using history in the same manner as Shakespeare. A detailed academic argument about historical evidence is never going to be popular family entertainment. Modern-day producers of stories for mass consumption have to make sure their products entertain and sell: without a fee-paying audience there is no book, no film, and no living to be made for the whole production team.

Spartacus: an historically questionable dramatic triumph.

The 1960 film, Spartacus, for example, is a thrilling 3 hours of sheer cinematic pleasure. I know it’s not completely historically accurate. It modernises characters and fills in details that historical documents are silent about. It really doesn’t matter. If I wanted a history lesson I’d be doing academic research, not watching Hollywood. It’s fabulous, gripping entertainment. It does what it’s designed to do.

I still think historical accuracy is important, no less than I did before. I’m still a historical music nerd and I will still endeavour, in all my musical arrangements and performances, to achieve maximum historicity within the bounds of the possible. Just like anyone involved in living history, I freely admit that I have to make guesses and compromises, as we all do. And I now know there is a significant difference between history for history’s sake and history in the service of art. Thanks to my experience on the set of The White Princess, I can now sit more lightly to the unhistorical details of stage and screen, and understand more fully what drama is for. William Shakespeare, I’m sure, would approve of my new insight.

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