Friday, 26 June 2009

The dangers of oversimplification

Sorry for the dearth of recent posts here – the promenade play, plus a couple of other work-related matters have been keeping me very busy. But, as I have now subdued the Reformation, so to speak, and am well on the way to finishing the last playlet (Dickens) I thought I’d post a few reflections on what I’ve been doing.

As John Fisher and Nicholas Ridley were both Bishops of Rochester and were on opposing sides (as it were) of the Reformation, we thought it would be interesting to have them confronting each other over an altar (which could plausibly act as a symbol of the whole Reformation argument as all altars moved from being stone, carved and ornate with beautiful hangings to being plain and wooden and bare – Rome vs. Puritanism).

But trying to distil the complex Reformation arguments of theology and religious practice into something around nine minutes long proved surprisingly (or, perhaps, unsurprisingly) difficult. Take into consideration the fact that this promenade play is not being written for an audience already well-versed in Church of England practice and history but for anybody from Rochester and the surrounding Medway Towns district who fancies a bit of casual Saturday afternoon entertainment and saying anything meaningful in such a short space of time moves into the realm of ‘distinctly tricky’.

So, I’ve slipped a bit of Why the Reformation Happened 101 into the transition from the previous scene to this one (as the characters and audience walk from the High Altar through the Quire and down into the nave, since you ask) and I’ve gone for lots of visual imagery so as not to make the whole thing too wordy. Oh and introduced two chaplains to the bishops who are basically into a whole game of ‘my bishop’s better than your bishop’. So we’ll see what everybody else involved thinks at the first production team meeting on Monday.

But one thing has struck me and that’s how easy it is to slip into saying things which are so simplified as to be scarcely recognisable as the actual truth. Strangely, my elder son came across this phenomenon when he was studying A-level biology. ‘Don’t worry about what you were taught at GCSE’ the class was told ‘because that was so over-simplified it was, basically, wrong. ‘ Actually, they were given to understand that, compared to the wonders that they would discover on a degree course should they choose to pursue the wonders of biological science, they’d discover that A-level wasn’t exactly 100% accurate either.

But then, isn’t it true that the more you look into anything, the more complex and multi-faceted it becomes? Nothing is simply cause and effect; everything is a multi-layered confection of causes, effects, spin-offs, unforeseen consequences, more effects and further causes of the next major upheaval.

When I was writing a speech for John Fisher (who fell foul of Henry VIII’s determination to divorce Catherine of Aragon in pretty much the same way as the more famous Thomas More did) on the whole sorry episode of ‘The King’s Great Matter’ I found myself making him say ‘If Catherine of Aragon had borne Henry a healthy son there would have been no break with Rome, no suggestion that the king was the ‘supreme head of the church in England’.
But is that true? If the sons Catherine gave birth to had lived to young manhood (bear in mind he was married to her for sixteen years before Anne Boleyn came on to the scene) would he really have been content to stay under the sway of the Pope? Would he have left the monasteries alone or did he have his eye on their great wealth anyway?

The problem with research is that you need to do it otherwise you’re in trouble; but the more you start asking questions, the more complicated everything becomes and you can end up in trouble anyway.

But ain’t that true of life in general?

5 comments:

Frances Garrood said...

I'm not an historian, Alis, but I too am having trouble with research, uncovering (as you say) layers and yet more layers. I'm trying to write a crime novel - I really need to write this novel - but am getting hopelessly muddled up over police procedure, and each time I sort out one thing, another rises to the surface. Just how many times can I go back to my friendly policeman and say 'yes, but what if...?'? At least with (historical)dialogue, no-one can say 's/he didn't say that' because nobody knows. But it must be quite difficult, if absorbing. And of course there's always the risk that the book/play will scream 'look at all the research I did!'. I started using too much dried egg in my first book (2nd world war) and had to cut it out, because wars were never won with dried egg, and there's just so much egg anyone can use. But good luck with the plays - they sound fascinating.

Alis said...

'I started using too much dried egg in my first book' - what a line! Brilliant.

Thanks for the good wishes, Frances, and I hope your policeman continues to be accommodating!

Tim Stretton said...

I think this is the essential skill of the historical novelist, Alis: not doing the research right, not writing credible dialogue, but subduing the gooey mass of history into a coherent *narrative*.

"History" is a mass of facts, and the novelist has to elicit, or impose, some kind of pattern on them. In a 10-minute play that pattern must, of necessity, be a simple one. A novel allows for greater subtlety, and to present different and even self-contradictory interpretations of events.

In the end, you can never get the history "right", because there is no right in that sense (although it's all too possible to get it wrong...). All you can do is present *your* history and make it plausible.

Neil said...

Hi, Alis. Sorry to drop this here, but don't have an email address for you. Have you heard of Summer of Blood?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jun/28/history-starkey-historians-writers

Alis said...

Hi Tim - I like that - it's possible to get it wrong (we've all read those historicals!) but there is no definitive 'right' - thanks!

Hi Neil - thank you, yes, I have a copy of Summer of Blood - it's next on the list to be digested!
BTW - you can always email me via my website - my email address is on there.