November 15, 2015

DOOLITTLE | History Has Its Eyes on You: Revisionism on Stage

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On the eve of the Battle of Yorktown, George Washington sang a few words of advice to the newly promoted Alexander Hamilton: “You have no control, who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Or, at least, that’s what Hamilton composer-star Lin-Manuel Miranda thought George Washington should have said, because it’s a really great thematic through line for a musical about their lives. The scene itself is an introspective, even self-referential moment for a show that literally tells a story about people who have no control over the narrative.

Yes, I’m talking about Hamilton in another column. Get over it.

Ponder the phrase “historical fiction.” It sounds like an oxymoron, an innate paradox at first glance. How can any piece of fiction take dramatic license with the past and still claim to depict what happened? It rouses one of the great epistemological questions that historians face everyday: How do we really know what the past was like? Read all the primary sources you want, you’ll never really know exactly what Thomas Jefferson or the Marquis de Lafayette were like. So dramatists, well, dramatize. But to what degree?

Historical fiction runs the gamut of truthfulness, from docudrama (the most true to life, often literal re-enactments of events we have transcriptions and eyewitness accounts for) to straight up alternate or revisionist histories, like Inglourious Basterds. Of course, there are tons of movies in between that purport to be history in one way or another but get some of the details wrong, like Braveheart, which envisioned Scottish revolutionary William Wallace as a racist anti-semite with an affinity for the phrase “sugar tits.”

There’s a thin line between depiction and revision that writers have to face whenever they decide to work with history. Is this important enough to merit staying truthful? Would it make more sense, narratively, to change this detail? One detail becomes three details and soon you’re working with something that may misrepresent itself to audiences.

Last week, Allegiance, a new musical starring Lea Salonga and George Takei opened at the Longacre Theatre in New York. It tells the oft-forgotten story of Japanese-Americans in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the signing of Executive Order 9066, which effectively gave the government the power to forcefully remove American citizens into internment camps based on ethnicity. It’s that one little detail that gets paved over in history textbooks because we were busy fighting Nazis and saving the world like America ought to. Such an important tale of marginalization and hysteria deserves accurate representation.

Allegiance has come under fire from critics, however, for the dramatic license it apparently takes with the events experienced by Takei and thousands of others during the war. The civilian-administered camp of Heart Mountain, in which the bulk of the story takes place, is conceived as a more-or-less direct stand-in for the Nazi concentration camps. Whereas arrivals at Heart Mountain received vaccinations before being allowed to go about their business in the confines of the camp — they were in the middle of Wyoming, with no real chance of escape, so the guards were fairly lax — here they are depicted as having been brutalized by vicious MPs, shoved to the ground and beaten in a scene reminiscent of the processing of Jews on their way to a concentration camp in Schindler’s List.

It’s clearly meant to evoke strong emotions, and while it is incredibly necessary to represent and condemn the systematic dehumanization of an entire race, to do so by equating it with the Holocaust is a quite a leap of fact. The Japanese American Citizens League, the oldest Asian-American civil rights group in the country, issued a statement a little over a month ago, stating their belief that “it is important to keep in mind that this musical is an artistic interpretation of events that provides a backdrop for a love story … [and that] audiences may forget that they are watching a historical fiction.” Allegiance becomes a bit of revision that may do more harm than good.

Now, I should clarify by saying that this revisionist label is not necessarily meant pejoratively. Not in the case of Hamilton, at least. Hamilton’s brand of revisionism is most visible in the casting choices; Lin-Manuel Miranda chose to cast his entire show — each and every founding father, mother, and otherwise — with people of color. Not simply color-blind casting, but a methodical choice to represent PoC in “white history,” which can be shortened to just “history” for all intents and purposes. As the phrase goes, history is written by the victors, and the victors are almost exclusively white men. Hamilton never shies away from discussing slavery, adultery and the many unsavory aspects of the founding fathers’ lives. Perhaps most inspiringly, it shirks the entire historical fiction schematic by devoting its entire finale not to glorifying its eponymous character, but to the life of Eliza, Alexander Hamilton’s wife. In this context, the line, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story,” takes on another meaning, addressing the systematic ignorance historians and dramatists alike have paid to the agency of women and PoC throughout recorded history.

Revisionism, when done right, can be a powerful tool in reclaiming history and giving a voice to the voiceless, but it should never forsake the historical fact it is rooted in for some cheap dramatic effect. Truth is stranger than fiction, and history is often more interesting than drama.