Frost/Nixon and the Subjectiveness of History

In the January issue of Smithsonian magazine, journalist James Reston Jr. has authored a fascinating article about his qualms and ambivalence regarding the manner in which the movie Frost/Nixon dealt with the presumed facts of history.

“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is gained and what is lost when history is turned into entertainment,” said Reston in the article.

Reston is portrayed in the movie as one of the journalists hired by British talk show host David Frost to help prepare for the 1976 television interview with former President Richard M. Nixon. The movie, directed by Ron Howard, was based on a play of the same title written by British screenwriter Peter Morgan.

Consulted early on by Morgan for the writing of the play, Reston expressed concern over how Nixon was being portrayed as cracking very quickly emotionally. When Reston argued for a more nuanced and extended portrayal of Nixon’s concession of guilt regarding Watergate, he was told that theatrical requirements demanded a compressed collapse in the story, even if it may not have happened that way in Reston’s memory.

“No one seemed to care about what was historically accurate and what had been made up,” writes Reston, who felt that the transcripts of the Nixon interviews were sufficiently dramatic in their original form.

Reston, who has written plays, grudgingly accepts that the demands on the historian may by necessity be at odds with those informing the dramatist.

“Morgan’s attention was on capturing and keeping his audience,” writes Reston. “Every line needed to connect to the next, with no lulls or droops in deference to dilatory historical detail. Rearranging facts or lines or chronology was, in his view, well with in the playwright’s mandate. In his research for the play,different participants had given different, Rashomon-like versions of the same event.”

In a New York Times story last year, Morgan was quoted as reminding the interviewer of “what a complete farce history is.”

Reston suggests a middle ground, arguing that an author is “on the firmest ground when he does not change known facts but goes beyond them to speculate on the emotional makeup of the historical players.” He goes on to concede that the movie and play were not about Watergate or Nixon at all, but about larger issues such as “guilt and innocence, resistance and enlightment, confession and redemption.”

“These are themes straight history can rarely crystallize,” Reston concluded. “In the presence of the playwright’s achievement, the historian–or a participant–can only stand in the wings and applaud.”

In my opinion, arguments regarding the sanctity of the historical record lose force the farther the story being told recedes in time. Modern luxuries such tape recorders, transcriptions, television and radio clips, and online databases allow us to come a bit closer, if such an enterprise is even possible, to the actual truth of what really happened.

Reston’s article generated several impassioned responses in the February issue of  Smithsonian’s letters to the editor section. One reader was reminded of a quote from Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters:

“History isn’t what happened. History is just what historians tell us.”

Germaine Greer and the Historical Novel

You can probably cross feminist author Germaine Greer off your reading-invitation list for your next historical novel.

“Novels cannibalize historic truths, using the bits they like, throwing out the ones they don’t,’ Greer told The Wall Street Journal last year (April 5-6, 2008, W1) during an interview discussing her biography of Ann Hathaway, the young bride of William Shakespeare. “I don’t approve. I didn’t want to turn this into a soap opera.”

Greer’s blast against the genre seems ironic, given that she has come under fire in some circles for creating a new composite of Hathaway based on a dearth of primary sources.

As WSJ reporter Cynthia Crossen observed in the article, very little is known about Hathaway. Some Shakespeare biographers have deduced from the poet’s silence about his wife a coldness in the relationship, or even an estrangement.

In Shakespeare’s Wife, Greer created a starkly different Hathaway, one who is seductive, smart, and stubborn. Known for her best-seller, The Female Eunuch, Greer took  Shakespeare hagiographers to task for giving Hathaway no credit for the bard’s success.

Greer revealed her distaste for historical fiction when asked why, given the speculative nature of her biography of Hathaway, she simply didn’t write a novel instead.

“All biographies of Shakespeare are houses built of straw, but there is good straw and rotten straw,” she told the Journal. “I was very careful to leave in all the probablys, might haves, could haves in the book, which was very hard. But I can live with uncertainty.”