New Adventures in the Arts, or, Art, History, and “Authenticity”

September 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

Yesterday I met with a stage and set designer for a new play being produced at the Hudson Village Theatre in Hudson, QC (just off the Island of Montréal), opening Thursday, 28 October, entitled Wake of the Bones, written Montréal playwright David Gow.  Wake of the Bones centres around the discovery of a mass grave of Famine victims on Pointe-Saint-Charles in Montréal by Irish labourers constructing the Victoria Bridge a decade later.  The labourers were from Griffintown, at least in this version, and they decide that a wake needs to be held to send the dead souls off to their eternal paradise.

The Black Rock, erected in the memory of the mass grave. Today it's located on Bridge St. in Pointe-Saint-Charles, on the approach to the Victoria Bridge

The designer, Anouk Louten, contacted me as she attempts to get a handle on Irish culture and life in Griffintown in the mid-19th century, attempting to re-create a set as authentic as possible.

This, of course, got me thinking about the usual intersection of history, memory, and the public.  Because of course Gow is taking licence from the historical record for the purpose of creating art.  It is true that the mass grave of Irish Famine victims was found by the bridge workers, who were also Irish.  But the workers probably lived in Goose Village, not Griffintown.  A minor quibble with the historical record, to be sure, but still one that those who argue for ‘authenticity’ get their knickers in a twist over.  And, I’m sure Gow will also take artistic licence with the characters, their setting, and so on and so forth.

This week, in class, I was teaching the Persian Wars, including the legendary battle at Thermopylae in 480 BCE.  Of course, pretty much the entire Western world has seen the movie, 300, which fictionalises what actually happened at Thermopylae some 2,490 years ago.  The movie over-dramatises the valour of the Spartans, distorts and obscures the rationale for battle decisions made by the Greeks (including the Spartans, who are conveniently left out of the decision to withdraw 6,700 Greek troops from Thermopylae to avoid being caught in a pincer movement by the Persians), leaving the brave Leonidas and his 299 Spartan warriors to hold off the Persians.  As much as I love this film, I always find myself somewhat troubled by it, I kind of feel the film-makers made like the cops in the OJ Simpson case with the glove.  Recall that the glove didn’t fit Simpson, who more than likely got away with murder at that trial.  At the time, a friend of mine, a law student, opined that the cops may’ve planted the glove, so desperate they were to secure a conviction.  If this is true (and really, who knows?), the over-zealousness of the cops allowed Simpson to walk (though, as they say, karma is a mother, and Simpson is in the slammer for other crimes right now).  In the case of 300, the film-makers took an already dramatic story about Leonidas and his warriors and over-shot, they over-dramatised something which could’ve stood on its own.

So, as an historian, films like 300 bother me.  Not because they take licence with the historical story, but because they pull an Oliver Stone.  Stone, of course, once said that you had to hit American film audiences over the head with a mallet in order to get their attention.  I think he’s wrong, people aren’t that stupid.  But sometimes it makes great art, sometimes, most of the time, it’s just superfluous.

But artistic licence, I fail to see what’s wrong with that, it can make the story more interesting, it can allow the artist to make their point more effectively.

As for authenticity, I’m not sure it matters so much in the larger sense.  Certainly, I like Anouk’s attempts to create an authentic set.  That, for whatever reason, matters to me.  The setting of historical novels, plays, films, this is the detail, the background of people’s lives.  Take, for example, The Gangs of New York: a wildly fictional account of the goings-on in the Five Points of Manhattan in the early 1860s.  The story itself may be a load of bollocks, but the setting of it in the Five Points, from what I can see, that’s authentic, that reflects the reality of life in what was probably the worst slum in the world.

But authenticity of story or experience (in the case of museums, etc.), I’m not so sure this is desirable or even possible.  I think it is impossible to completely re-create the ‘authentic’ historical experience.  For one, there’s the obvious problem: it’s impossible, because it is no longer 1861, or whenever.  The physical setting is just that, a re-creation of the historical, it can be an authentic re-creation, but that’s as far as it goes.  And I think that by itself is a laudable goal, but that should be the end goal.  There is no need to go any further, because it is impossible to go any further.

And, so far as I’m concerned, if the story is based in this historical record, that it aims to reflect the setting, then that’s fine.  Artistic licence needs to be taken, at least most of the time, maybe not so much in the case of Leonidas’ last stand.

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