Living History: Before You Accuse Me

Foundingness

With the same certainty that I put pen to paper I equally understand that amateur historians, talking heads, wide-eyed pundits, and blind party loyalists will both attack and defend this show with the utmost vigor. They will assail my fictional creation because of its connection to history. History is, after all, in the title. We have an obligation to the historical to be honest and fair with the facts and fair to the players. The issues of historical accuracy and artistic license may appear at a crossroads in this show. Indeed, some may see the two issues as diametrically opposed. I do not believe that this needs to be the case. I believe in a world of imagination, creativity, and interpretation. It is my belief that we should not try to conform our world in such a way that one side gets to control the message of the past to fit their view of the future. Since no one can know for certain what someone from the past would do in the present just as we cannot know how we will act in future circumstances any commentary about this subject matter is entirely heresy. No one can be right because there is no way to prove them wrong.

Some will suggest that because they cannot be expressly proven wrong that they are almost as if by default, right. Such errors in logic need little explanation to the normal inhabitants of the Earth, but the conservative is another matter. The cacophony that passes for reason and logic amongst the conservative apparatus is such that their arguments hold little in the way of weight that most people require to make informed judgments or opinions like facts or evidence. In short, those who should listen too often speak and those who should speak too often listen. My chief concern is not that people are debating the historical. I think it is wonderful that we’re having a discussion about our history, but therein lies the catch. It is our history. Not yours. Not mine. History is something that we share.

I understand that this idea of sharing is naturally at odds with the conservative ideology of free markets or freedom or whatever but sharing is a crucial part of what it means to be human. Thomas Aquinas once said that: “taxes ought to be collected from the common goods for the common good.” Note that he did not specify who the “takers” were or who the “makers” were. The sentiment and logic was simple: we all have a price to pay if we are to live together in harmony. It was the conservative Oliver Wendell Holmes who said: “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” After reading these last couple of sentences the conservative machine will no doubt note that I mentioned the word taxes twice, but it would be of equal and perhaps even more important use to notice that the word “for” was also used in each of those sentences. They serve a purpose.

It is because of the basic truth that no one owns our history anymore than anyone else and because history is so open to interpretation that we find ourselves fighting over it. It is because we can fight about it that we do find ourselves fighting about it. The foundation of Living History is essentially a what if? scenario using actors who believe that they are the human incarnation of historical characters. These characters, driven by their own sense of justice and propriety, are what makes the show function. Many will ask: who am I to interpret past events? That’s the thing that some do not understand. I’m not interpreting past events. I’m telling a story. The role of the storyteller is vastly different from the role of the historian. This isn’t to say that a storyteller can take complete and total license with their work: that is most certainly not the case, but we approach people, places, and events though a different lens. The historian must set out much like the scientist with his concern first and foremost being the truth and perspective of those who lived through the time. The storyteller looks at what the most compelling case is for the audience and is based entirely on perspective.

The characters in Living History are not the founding fathers. The characters in Living History are historical re-enactors who get a bit carried away with their characters. Though there may be parallels with the historical and historical events do undoubtedly come up in the story of Living History that does not make Living History a documentary or historical drama. It is fiction. It is a story thought up by a writer with an imagination all his own. It is a little sad I suppose that this much needs to be explained. Some have expressed this view to me and I understand it, but I take no issue with those whose chief purpose is to maintain historical integrity.
Those who ask questions in the name of truth and honesty should be welcomed and indeed I do welcome those who question the accuracy or the truth in a given character, event, or even exposition. This is all part of the process of what makes Living History such a joy to work on. Were it not for the high-minded debates that I get to have with historians – both amateur and professional alike – much of the making of Living History would not be fun or entertaining for me the writer. I enjoy what may seem to most ordinary people to be mundane or trivial bits of history and I enjoy discussing these issues in a constructive way. What is not necessary and what is often counter-productive to the purpose of this show is to take what these actors are saying, the views they are espousing, and the events they are partaking in as fact. They are not. Although their actions may be rooted in some historical fact and though some things may have happened in the lifetimes of some of the individual characters most of what happens in Living History is the result of the writers imagination.

Just as Jefferson wrote out his feelings from the perspective of the head and the heart regarding Maria Causeway I too find myself in a similar philosophic position myself with regards to how to balance the historical accuracy with what is best for the story. While the historical sets strict limits with its true aim being objectivity the story sets few limits with its aim being entertainment and it is in the overlap of these two worlds where it is easiest to get lost in the wilderness that at least on its face appears to be separating the two. We live in a quarrelsome society, especially with regards to our politics. Some live for the quarrel more than they live for the day. These people will find something debatable in everything from the way someone looks to the way they act to the way they speak and carry themselves. This sort of behavior used to be reserved for lawyers but society has evolved or some would say devolved to the point where some are so itching for a fight that they will take the white flag of surrender as an offensive affront to their freedom and will use such action not merely to defend their over the top reaction but as a justification for their own overblown, often misplaced, and always overt hostility.

Balancing the story that I am trying to tell with the comedy and sarcasm that I want to bring to the subject of history, politics and media is the fundamental challenge that this show presents. The cold open of the pilot gives a good example of some of the things that I am trying to bring to the forefront with this show. Here we see a re-enactor playing Henry Clay pitching a position on education to Williamsburg voters using his reputation as a compromiser. The cold open for the pilot goes as follows:

EXT. STATEHOUSE – DAY

A blurry figure appears before a large red brick building fashioned in a colonial design. That blurry figure moves towards us and the camera ZOOMS IN slowly on the figure until he is no longer blurry and stands in front of the building with a smile sewed on his face like that of a ragdoll.

MAN
Hi folks, I’m Henry Clay. You may know me as the Great Compromiser or as the author of the Compromise of 1850. Folks, I’m here to talk to you about compromise. (Beat.) You know, I spent a great deal of my life in Washington living in service to my constituents back home in Kentucky, but you know what? I always tried to remember that we all serve a broader constituency: the American people and freedom. When I was Secretary of State during the Adams administration I made sure to let both our allies and our enemies know that America’s strength came in defense of its values. I’m here in Williamsburg to support your mayor and his bold stance to compromise the school funding compromise. Compromise has a couple of different meanings. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing like to negotiate with the other side. It can also mean to destroy the other sides ideas by beating their ideas and in turn their dignity into submission. Well, that’s the kind of compromise I’m here to support. I hope you will join me in supporting the Mayors compromise of compromise.

There are two comic runners here. The first is that Clay himself doesn’t appear to understand what the word compromise means nor does he seem to understand the kind of compromise that his historical character Henry Clay actually supported. This particular historical re-enactor is also using the legacy of Henry Clay for his own political purpose. No one knows how Henry Clay would actually feel about this kind of behavior (though one can glean from his support of compromises like the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, as well as his support for “the American System” which called for a higher tariff and internal improvements to infrastructure that Clay likely would not support cutting funding for education.) Another comedic element in this is that like most politicians he is building himself up as something greater than he is and he uses every opportunity to tout his experience. Henry Clay played an important role in getting John Quincy Adams elected which was part of what Andrew Jackson and his allies called a “corrupt bargain” that allegedly made him Secretary of State (a role he traded in exchange for the House giving Adams the Presidency; House of Cards anyone?) All of these historical questions and ideas are being thrown out there despite the fact that it is not the historical figure of Henry Clay before us.

Here we see the critical balance at work. There is the historical figure of Henry Clay and the re-enactor who plays him. The re-enactor is the one doing the ad and he’s making light of Clay’s reputation, but he’s also trying to use the legacy of the person he’s pretending to be to the benefit of a politician (the mayor.) The media, of course, takes this at face value as they are either unwilling or not seeing the relevance of fact-checking this ad. Even were someone to fact check the ad one political group or another could likely spin the story one way or the other. This ad speaks to the subplot of the show. In Living History historical re-enactors pretend to be the founding fathers in order to get elected to public office. In other words these are ordinary men who are trying to cash in on the fact that they look like historical celebrities so that they can advance their political careers. Sound like anyone you may have heard of? The basic pandering that goes on is to be expected but that someone would pretend to be someone as important as say George Washington oftentimes goes unquestioned in the show for the same reason people don’t call out politicians who hold ridiculous positions. It is true that the historical re-enactor is not, in the best case, only pretending to be something he is not, and in the worst case blatantly lying, but his policies would help bring in more money to education while his opponent wants to cut funding to education.  Who would you support?

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