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May 15, 2013 BOOKLIST
Find more The Manley Arts
The history of the world seems infinite. The number of rulers, the number of wars, and the number of affairs of state are uncountable. How is it, then, that certain eras and certain personages from the past keep reappearing in our films, our plays, and our television series? Why is it that our fascination with several small slices of human history is never quite satisfied, while we show little or no interest in entire centuries?
I suppose the answer lies in mystery. What made Hitler so evil? What drove Alexander to conquer worlds that even he did not know existed? Was the Kennedy family really the victim of a curse? How do you explain the attraction of Cleopatra to the most powerful men in the Roman Empire? How could a bloodthirsty, misogynist tyrant like King Henry VIII lead a lasting religious reformation?
A few historical narratives keep being re-created into novels, plays, films, and revisionist histories over and over again, and each time the narrative is retold or redramatized, the verifiable historical facts keep getting twisted, distorted, exaggerated, or ignored altogether. I call it fantasy history. In our time, Oliver Stone is the master of this genre. In his movies JFK, Nixon, and W., he blithely invented “facts” with nary an acknowledgment.
Not that there is anything particularly wrong with that. Homer and Shakespeare were masters at distorting the past to create compelling stories and dramas that appealed to the masses. The irony for both Homer and Shakespeare is that they, themselves, over and over again in the past 30 years, have been the victims of artistic license to the point where a goodly number of people now believe that The Iliad and The Odyssey were not written by the original Homer (but by another man with the same name!) and that Shakespeare was in fact either Sir Francis Bacon or Edward DeVere, the Earl of Oxford.
The thing to remember about fantasy history is that it usually tells us more about the time when it was written than it does about the time being written about. Thus, Homer’s tale of the Trojan War informs us more about the warring factions of gods and goddesses in the rarified air of Mount Olympus in the religious milieu of eighth-century BCE Greece than it does about the actual warring factions of Greeks and Trojans fighting the war in the bloody trenches of Troy in the twelfth century BCE. And Shakespeare’s Hamlet takes place in a court ambience very much like the one you would find not in twelfth-century Denmark but in sixteenth-century Tudor England.
Ah . . . Tudor England. If the saga of the Henrys, Bloody Mary, and Queen Elizabeth did not exist in the annals of British history, Hollywood would have had to invent it because it is the one medieval tapestry that just keeps magically unrolling at a theater or television screen near you. Of course, when it comes to faux history, Hollywood follows the lead of that sixteenth-century Tudor screenwriter himself, Will Shakespeare, the poet who took the historical sources available to him and poked and prodded them to his own crowd-pleasing purposes.
My first exposure to Tudor England came through the considerable talents of great actors—Paul Scofield (Sir Thomas More) and Robert Shaw (King Henry VIII) in the 1966 film classic A Man for All Seasons, the sad saga of Tudor England’s most famous martyr. This critical and financial success was followed in 1969 by another grand, Oscar-winning costume drama that featured Richard Burton (Henry) and Genevieve Bujold (Anne Boleyn). Now this was moviegoing! Not only did these productions satiate a young man’s thirst for sex and violence but they also legitimatized them in the rich leather bindings of high history. Just as we read Playboy for the highly literate short stories by Updike, Cheever, and Roth, we watched the Tudor costume dramas not for the adulteries and beheadings but for the insights they gave into the early development of the English Reformation.
What was good for the big screen was also good for the boob tube, and so these classics of highbrow sex and violence were quickly followed by three very memorable and drawn-out BBC television series: The Six Wives of Henry VIII (starring Keith Michell in 1970), Elizabeth R (starring Glenda Jackson in 1971), and The Shadow in the Tower (a 1972 epic about King Henry VII). Then it was back to the big screen for a high-budget Tudor spinoff entitled Mary Queen of Scots, which featured Vanessa Redgrave as the doomed queen fatale.
Just when you thought that maybe America had its fill of these sixteenth-century royals, a whole new series of productions started in 1995, this time with Elizabeth as the star. There was the Helen Mirren Elizabeth, the two Cate Blanchett Elizabeths, and the Anne-Marie Duff Elizabeth. Against all these Elizabeths, Henry himself made a comeback, in 2004, with yet another extravagant British television series (Henry VII), starring Ray Winstone and Helena Bonham Carter.
Then, in 2008, with a popular film entitled The Other Boleyn Girl (Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson), a whole new cycle of video productions of sixteenth-century England came into play. It culminated with a lavish 40-hour Showtime series entitled The Tudors, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and a whole host of naked, fornicating women. By now any pretense of historical verisimilitude had been abandoned. The creator of the series openly admitted that “Showtime commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history. . . . And we wanted people to watch it.”And watch it they did. Shakespeare would be proud, and so would Hugh Hefner.
Will Manley has been writing the Manley Arts since 1991. Follow Will’s blog, Will Unwound.