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Saturday, 29 April 2017

A Small Argument

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “It means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “Whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.
Thandie Newton caused a small argument last night. In an article she regretted the fact that people of colour were essentially barred from historical costume dramas unless they portrayed an occasional domestic or slave. My opening gambit – a gut instinct because I’m a historian – was that is just an unfortunate fact of life, or if you wish, a fact of the past.

I was challenged by ‘musicals.’ I don’t like musicals very much, for me their essentially fluff and tosh with the occasional hummable tune. Others view them as creative extravaganzas. Both views subjective, both equally valid. Each to their own. ‘What about musicals?’ I said.

‘Hamilton. He wasn’t a black man.’

‘And Cats . . . Lion-king, you don’t have singing cats and moralistic lions,’ I said. We both agreed that the Musical was a form of creative expression bound by its own rules, Opera, too, I imagine. Wotan, the ultimate Aryan, could probably be played by a black man with few turning a hair, though Wagner might not be best pleased. We agreed that Shakespeare, too, was a special point, in the sense that his poetry and message was universal and transcended race.

‘So why are you opposed to colour-blind costume dramas?’ It was said with the tone of one who checkmates.

Because they’re essentially historical and whilst you can fabricate or omit small details in the interests of drama - (though I did demur at the teenage Victoria having the hots for Lord Melbourne, in real life an elderly man prone to afternoon sleeps but played by the seductive Rufus Sewell) – you have to stick to the essentials. You can’t have Victoria played by an Indian, give Queen Elizabeth I a scouse accent, make William the Conqueror Chinese, make George Washington black. I appreciate these are rhetorical statements and in real life you can do anything you want, but then like fake science and fake news you’d be immersing a culture in fake history – harmless enough you might say, but not unsurprisingly I disagree.

You can't change the past for the perceived needs of the present. The past is  a world of its own and never entirely knowable, neither is science, but both disciplines strive for the truth, and history is important—even in costume dramas.

 ‘He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.’ George Orwell ‘1984’ Well we haven’t yet got a global Erdogan but we do have Google and some interesting algorithms. Google: European peoples — and then images. I haven’t yet got my head around this. 

Maybe manipulation and algorithms are the future the historians small sad nonentities, inverted Cassandras who can talk of the past and have no one believe them.



Maria Zannini said...

I don't like eating social Pablum for the sake of construed political correctness.

Let history stand on its own. If they want to recreate a parallel universe where Queen Victoria was a Mongol empress, write it as such. Otherwise you end up with a convoluted stream of fake history, which is almost as bad as fake news.

Mike Keyton said...

I'm tempted to say worse than fake news because there are passionate/partisan alternativies. There is, if you wish a market place for news which is not ideal but better no market at all. Remaking the past is, i think done more subtly and like climate change new orthodoxies can take hold that you challenger at your peril. So may it prove amongst future 'professional' historians

LD Masterson said...

I attended a high school play recently, a story set in the late 50's. In the original, the romantic leads were both white, as was the entire cast if I remember correctly. The school has cast a white girl and a black (or African-American, if you prefer) boy. Both were very talented and I'm sure earned their roles for that reason. But near the end, when boy gets girl, it occurred to me that the students in the audience probably didn't realize that not only would that story never have happened with an interracial couple in that decade but no school would have dared cast it that way. I was gratified by the casting but troubled by the historical inconsistency. If that makes any sense.

Mike Keyton said...

Linda, I think that anecdote says it all.