THE HISTORY PLAY
Why dramatists lie in the pursuit of truth
by Charles Deemer
(originally published in Oregon Magazine)
The recent Hollywood blockbuster "Pearl Harbor," for
all the disappointment of its plodding love and buddy
stories, generated the usual amount of controversy
that arises whenever Hollywood brings history to the
screen. In Letters to the Editor and Op-Ed pieces
across the country, historians were quick to point out
the inaccuracies and historical short-comings of the
film. Typically, many of these comments reflected a
basic misunderstanding of the task of the historical
dramatist, whether writing for film or stage.
I've written an unusual amount of historical material
for a playwright and so am well aware of the ways in
which dramatists and historians can come into
conflict. I want to defend the task of the historical
dramatist by giving you a case history of my most
recent history play, a short reworking of material I
first put together for a Bicentennial Play. This
material focuses on a dramatic character in our early
history, a forgotten "Founding Father."
Among our most cherished Fourth of July rituals is
extraordinary admiration of our Founding Fathers. What
brave and brilliant men, rising to the needs of the
times against great odds! The names of our first
patriots are embedded in the national memory: Thomas
Paine and Paul Revere and Patrick Henry, Thomas
Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, Samuel and John Adams
and George Washington. However, none of these are the
man whom John Adams called "the First Patriot."
Ask people on the street for this name and you are
unlikely to hear it. Today the Boston lawyer who
earned the admiration and respect of the generation of
our Founding Fathers by leading the cause of liberty
in the American colonies, the man who first argued
that taxation without representation is tyranny and
thereby coined the slogan of a revolution, "no
taxation without representation!" -- today this man is
forgotten. His name was James Otis.
There are two reasons why Otis has been neglected by
history. The first is that he ended up on history's
wrong side, the losing one, and history gets written
by the winners. Otis never wanted American
independence. What he meant by "no taxation without
representation!" was that American colonies should
have representation in the British Parliament. To his
dying day, Otis believed that the British Constitution
was the best document ever written and that if England
only would have behaved constitutionally, then all
colonial troubles would have disappeared.
The second reason we have forgotten Otis is that he
believed so strongly that change should be made
peacefully within the system of government that when
colonial action began to move in the direction of
street rebellion for independence, he couldn't handle
it. Defending the British Constitution against growing
dissention led to a nervous breakdown, near madness,
and eventually he had to be bound hand-and-foot and
forcibly removed from Boston for the protection of
himself and others. Otis' mental imbalance led to
other self-destructive acts that would assure his
disappearance from all but the back pages of history.
I first became interested in the ordeal of James Otis
in the early 1970s while researching material for a
Bicentennial play. Originally I was attracted to Otis'
sister, Mercy Otis Warren, who is credited with being
America's first playwright. But the more I read about
the period, the more I saw in the story of James Otis
the perfect dramatic question for the times: do we
have to rebel against the government, indeed
over-throw it, in order to change it in fundamental
ways? It's a question that gets repeated every
The play that resulted is called "Mercy to the
Patriot," and on July 8th (a quarter century after its
first public presentation) a short version of it will
be presented as Readers' Theater at Portland's First
Unitarian Church, the play providing the 9 and 10:45
Returning to this material 25 years after my
full-length Bicentennial Play, I find myself moved
once again by Otis' extraordinary personal story,
challenged by the questions it raises about politics,
and amazed that so few people are familiar with it. I
also again faced, as I haven't for a while, the
conflicts that naturally arise when a playwright
brings the craft of dramatic storytelling to the
panorama of historical events. I found myself
manipulating certain "facts" of history in order to
emphasize what I consider to be the emotional truths
of Otis' story.
Facts versus truth: perhaps only a dramatist would
conceive of such a struggle. From my point of view,
the trouble with a "literal" rendering of the Otis
story is that it is inefficient and dramatically
unfocused. Drama is about conflict and focus and
pacing. Playwrights like to order their story events
in ways that build tension and keep focus on the
central dramatic issue of the story. History almost
never plays out with such order, and therefore
dramatists frequently rearrange events and change
emphases in order to tell a more compelling story.
However, as they do this, conscientious dramatists
strive to retain the essence of the emotional truth
that lies at the foundation of the historical events
Before I give you examples of how I manipulated
history in my Otis play, let me return to a
controversial scene in "Pearl Harbor." It's the scene
in which FDR, facing a table of nay-saying advisors
and cabinet members when he suggests a quick
retaliatory strike against Tokyo, struggles out of his
wheel chair to his feet and says, "Don't tell me it
can't be done!" It's a powerful dramatic moment -- and
it never happened.
This scene identifies the heart of the conflict
between dramatists and historians. I like this scene,
I defend it, and I wish I would have had the insight
to write it if I'd been the screenwriter. Why? Because
it powerfully and efficiently communicates FDR's role
as spiritual leader of the nation in time of war.
But let me qualify my enthusiasm for this scene: I
don't know the history of the period well enough to
judge if this scene is "spiritually accurate." For
example, if the Secretary of Defense supported the
quick strike against Tokyo and FDR was against it,
then this scene lies in an essential way. It changes
fundamental human values. But if FDR was, in fact, the
optimist at that table, the one who said we must
strike fast (and since we did just this, he probably
was), then this scene changes facts in order to
communicate an essential truth in a powerful and
efficient way. This, I submit, is precisely the job of
the historical dramatist.
Now to Otis. Here is what we know about his story:
-- In 1761, Otis resigned his position as King's
Advocate because it would require that he defend the
Writs of Assistance in court (these were powerful
search warrants). Instead he led the legal fight
against them, representing the citizens of Boston.
-- Otis became a leader against unpopular new taxes
levied against the colonies.
-- Otis' wife Ruth, a High Tory (Otis was a Whig),
became embarrassed by her husband's political
activities. Some considered his activity treasonous.
-- Otis met with Governor Bernard of Massachusetts,
defending his loyalty to the Crown. He agreed to write
a Vindication arguing that citizens should comply with
the law and pay taxes, not refuse to pay them as the
Virginia Legislature had urged its citizens to do
(Samuel Adams had published this decision in the
Boston paper). The publication of Otis' Vindication
coincided with a Crown promotion for Otis' father,
leading many to believe that Otis had struck a deal.
His popularity began to wane.
-- As protest over taxes moved into the streets,
sometimes turning violent, Otis became more erratic in
his behavior. He broke windows, picked fights in the
House of Representatives, and had fits during which he
burned his writings.
-- In 1771, Otis was forcibly removed from Boston as a
danger to himself and others and went into exile in
-- He spent the Revolutionary War in exile.
-- After the war, Boston held a James Otis Day. John
Adams called him the First Patriot. The entire affair
depressed Otis considerably because he saw no progress
in the victory. In fact, the new Constitution being
discussed had no bill of rights and was less
enlightened than the British Constitution which had
-- Otis died while watching a thunderstorm, struck
down by lightning.
-- An anonymous short poem commemorated the death.
I manipulate these events in several ways in my play.
Let me focus on two moments: Otis' burning of his
life's work and the poem written after his death.
Watching my play, the audience is led to believe that
Otis burned all his life's work in one moment just
before his death because this is the only time I
mention it. This is not what happened. I changed the
"facts" of history in order to emphasize the
overwhelming emotional content and importance of the
act -- destroying a life's work and thereby writing
oneself out of history! This was such an extraordinary
act that I chose to emphasize it, which meant relating
it in a way more dramatically powerful than the
erratic, unfocused action of the historical Otis.
So I save this event until the end of the play. If I
had revealed earlier that Otis was periodically
destroying his work, then I would have lost the edge
of this scene, its powerful and shocking surprise at
play's end. I deliberately sacrificed the literal
facts for what I believe is a deeper emotional truth,
conveying to the audience the emotional meaning of
In my play, the short poem about Otis' death is
recited by his sister, Mercy. Although I never say she
wrote it, the implication is clear. The audience
already knows she's a poet. Most will assume she wrote
it. Why do I let this historical inaccuracy slip by?
For reasons of focus and emphasis.
Mercy is the narrator of the play, the story is cast
as her recollections of her brother and her sense of
tragedy that history has forgotten him -- so it makes
perfect dramatic sense that the last moment, the poem,
belongs to her as well. I don't have her say "here is
an anonymous poem" because doing so is too messy, it
compromises the focus of the moment with information
that isn't important enough to justify doing so. In
writing drama, what is left out is at least as
important as what is written. Drama is about focus and
efficiency, so that conflict isn't dissipated by
relatively unimportant information. Historians favor
informational complexity, as if covering their bets,
while dramatists favor emotional complexity, which is
best communicated by simple, not complex, exposition.
We want our audiences to feel our material first and
understand it second.
Often, the historical dramatist has to create scenes
out of insufficient information. Consider Otis' visit
with the Governor, in which he agrees to write a
Vindication urging citizens to obey the law, an act
that is the turning point in his story, the moment
when his own vision of the future (colonial
representation in Parliament) and the vision of his
followers (moving toward independence) begin to move
apart. This is a critical scene in the play, a clash
between two strong personalities. Here is how I wrote
it in the short version of the play:
OTIS: I am here to pronounce and clarify my loyalty to
GOV. BERNARD: Then what is all this constant
nitpicking and finding fault with this
administration's running of things? Do we not get our
power from the Constitution and Charter?
OTIS: If I ever seem critical, sir, it is only because
I love the Constitution so much that I abhor anything
that violates it.
GOV. BERNARD: I trust you've seen these resolves out
of Virginia, that Samuel Adams has insisted on
OTIS: I've seen them.
GOV. BERNARD: And how do they mix with your love of
OTIS: I must confess that I find them, a few portions
of them, close to treason.
GOV. BERNARD: Really? I'm surprised to hear you say
OTIS: One does not respond to an unconstitutional act
by advocating other unconstitutional acts. The proper
course is for the Stamp Act to be repealed.
GOV. BERNARD: But if it isn't?
OTIS: It must be. It's unconstitutional.
GOV. BERNARD: The citizens of Virginia have been asked
by their own legislature to disobey the law, have they
not? And Virginia would declare something close to war
on those of us who accept the law. What then would you
have the citizens of Massachusetts do?
OTIS: I advocate the quick repeal of the Stamp Act.
GOV. BERNARD: Do we obey it or not?
OTIS: It must be repealed.
GOV. BERNARD: But obeyed or disobeyed in the meantime?
OTIS: Governor, I have never been disloyal to the
GOV. BERNARD: Until repealed, should the Stamp Act be
obeyed or not? Is it the law or not?
OTIS: For the moment, it is law. But it is not a
constitutional law and will certainly be repealed.
GOV. BERNARD: But at this hour, Otis, it is the law.
Am I correct?
GOV. BERNARD: Good. If you would be willing to
publicly clarify your views, just as you've clarified
them now, I think you would go far in proving your
OTIS: Are you asking me to publish something on the
GOV. BERNARD: A clarification, yes. A vindication,
perhaps, to remove the suspicion of those who do not
realize that you advocate compliance with the law.
OTIS: I will write such a vindication.
GOV. BERNARD: Excellent. One other thing. I want to
apologize for not appointing your father as Chief
Justice. I was new to the Province and more familiar
with Hutchinson's qualifications than his. However, I
do plan to nominate him for appointment to the
OTIS: Father will be very pleased.
GOV. BERNARD: I also want to reinstate you as King's
Advocate. You're a brilliant lawyer.
OTIS: I would have to think about it.
GOV. BERNARD: Does a man who is loyal to the Crown
refuse honor by the Crown?
OTIS: I am not disloyal.
GOV. BERNARD: Then you accept?
GOV. BERNARD: The Crown will be pleased to be
represented by the best lawyer in Boston.
If I succeed here, then I've dramatized the
cat-and-mouse nature of the encounter and also shown
Otis' movement into a compromise he's not thrilled to
accept. But no one really knows what happened in this
meeting. We know the conditions that led to it and the
results of it, and from this the historical dramatist
puts words into the mouths of his characters.
Not all historical drama is written conscientiously,
of course. Sometimes a writer has a particular
interpretation of history to pitch, such as Oliver
Stone in "JFK." More often a writer will let the
dynamics of a story find their own way: thus Peter
Shaffer has three different versions of "Amadeus,"
the London stage play, the New York stage play, and
the movie. Each version becomes less historical but at
the same time more powerful because more focused and
more dramatically efficient. Shaffer has written
about this process in the introduction to the
Occasionally the conflict between dramatists and
historians becomes comic.
In the 1980s I was commissioned to write an historical
play about the relationship between Abigail Scott
Duniway, Oregon's major suffragist, and Harvey Scott,
her brother and the powerful editor of The Oregonian
(who opposed the vote for women). Two scholars were
assigned to this grant-supported project: the
biographer of each figure.
I've worked before with historians on such
grant-supported history plays, and the experience can
be tolerable or not depending on the historian's
understanding of dramatic storytelling and its
necessary differences from a literal telling of
historical events. What became comic about the
Duniway-Scott project (the play became "Abigail and
Harvey" and was quite successful) was that the two
scholars could agree on almost nothing. I loved the
situation because it meant I could pretty much do what
I wanted since no matter what I did, someone was going
to object. No historical consensus was possible, which
liberated the dramatic potential of the story
Given such a free environment, I took the risk of
telling the story backwards, on a timeline that went
from the end of their relationship to its beginning. I
did this in order to conclude the play with the most
dramatic moment -- betrayal, when young Harvey acts as
mentor to young Abigail and tells her to "go for it"
and realize her full potential. She did -- and in
great irony, finds in her brother and former mentor
her greatest adversary.
Historical dramatists always will emphasize a good
story over a literal treatment of events, and
historians always will complain about the results. If
we are to believe the epistemology suggested by the
new physics, in which neutral observation is
impossible, the conflict is won by the dramatists who
at least admit what they are up to. Too many
historians still act as if a definitive "history" is
within reach. But history is what the winners tell the
losers, and here perhaps is the greatest dramatic
irony of all.