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In Praise of Anachronism

The cast of Six at the Lyric Theater. From left to right: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.

One of the highlights of my (now sadly concluded) vacation was getting to see live theater again. I saw three plays—two musicals and a Shakespeare production; one in a West End theater, one in smaller, more experimental space, and a third outdoors. Without my planning it, all three plays approached their historical or quasi-historical subject matter with a great deal of irreverence. Since we’ve talked in the past on this blog about anachronisms and inaccuracy in historical fiction, I thought I’d look at the way these three plays deployed these tools, and what they were trying to achieve with them.

First up, Six at the Lyric Theater. This was one of Broadway and the West End’s hottest tickets before the pandemic shut down theaters, and I was delighted that the production was able to start up again quickly enough for me to be able to see it. Originally an Edinburgh Fringe presentation, Six, by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, still wears its indie origin on its sleeve. For this type of venue, it’s a fairly stripped-down production, just six actresses and a band, no set changes or props (though a lot of fancy lighting and some pretty involved choreography). It’s also a very short play, clocking in at less than 80 minutes. Which is part of the reason why it was such a great reintroduction to live theater (so many musicals these days run too long). But mainly, the reason is that Six is an enormous amount of fun, half play, half live concert, the sort of show that literally wants you dancing in the aisles, and a great reminder of what we’ve been missing.

As you might have guessed from the title, Six is about the six wives of Henry VIII. Here presented as glammed-up wannabe-divas, the wives decide to hold a singing competition to decide which one of them was most hard-done-by. Katherine of Aragon channels Destiny’s Child-era Beyoncé while singing about how she won’t accept Henry setting her aside. Anne of Cleves is in Queen Bey mode as she exultantly sings about how great it is to be independently wealthy post-divorce (she then drops out of the competition with a bit of noblesse oblige). Jane Seymour channels Adele with a ballad about her love for Henry. And Katherine Howard recalls early Britney Spears with a cheeky song about how everyone wants her. There’s a bit of a sliding scale of historical accuracy, with Anne Boleyn at the furthest end, singing a song in which she’s portrayed as an online mean girl who doesn’t expect her viral put downs to come back to haunt her.

“Don’t Lose Your Head” from Six. I know we’re not supposed to encourage bootleg tapings, but of all the clips I’ve found, this is the one that best captures the show’s vibe.

This is all, obviously, wildly anachronistic, but to me the biggest deviation the show makes from history is in its core assumption. The singers it recalls and has its stars emulate all sing, in one way or another, about love—successful love, failed love, love that you’re better off without now that you’re independently wealthy. But framing the six wives as modern exes is a profound category error, one that ignores the way that relationships and marriage worked in the 16th century in general, and in the Tudor court in particular. None of these women chose Henry. And while they all affirmed their love for him (in Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn’s cases, all the way to their graves), that love was probably very different from how we’d define it today. It was bound up in religion, in the perception of the king as god’s ordained instrument, and of course, in the fact that Henry had the power to either shower them with riches or send them to their deaths.

So, what is Six doing with this anachronism? Within the play itself, it’s a vehicle for a girl power message, in which the wives realize that they shouldn’t be competing with each other—and implicitly validating a historical perspective that lumps them together purely because of the choices of a man—and end the show singing together. But I wonder if the show doesn’t end up commenting more effectively on the singers it imitates than on the history it’s depicting. Katherine Howard, for example, is presented as a victim, an over-sexualized child whose affairs were really acts of exploitation. That’s historically iffy (and anyway, it’s unnecessary; even a woman who willingly had an affair doesn’t deserve to die for it). But it tracks much more closely with the way that singers like Britney Spears have been treated by audiences and producers, often since actual childhood. That the wives end up forming a band together, rather than competing for the dubious honor of “most abused”, feels like a commentary on singing competitions, and the way that they expect performers to bare their hearts for a few minutes of airtime.

My next excursion to the theater was a happy accident. The town where my friends and I had rented a house turned out to be hosting a performance by the Handlebards, a touring company who spend their days cycling between venues, and their evenings performing comedic, outdoor, bicycle-themed renditions of Shakespeare. In our case, Macbeth

This video is from 2014, but it does feature a surprise guest appearance by Ian McKellen!

The production we saw was an all-female version of the play, with three actresses doubling, tripling, and quadrupling roles (in scenes where an actress was called upon to play two parts, another performer would hold up a broom on which she could hang a distinctive item of clothing representing the character who wasn’t currently speaking). The show is a delightful combination of modernity with a straight retelling of the play—in one scene, Macbeth and his cohort are shown riding to Inverness, and stopping at a “Services” (the British name for a roadside stop with gas station, bathrooms, and restaurants); when Macbeth calls for his armor, he’s handed a pair of bike shorts with a padded bottom; and Lady Macbeth, to illustrate “Out, damned spot!”, pulls a bottle of hand sanitizer out of her coat pocket. 

But there were also a lot of moments of plain old slapstick. About to launch into “is this a dagger which I see before me?”, Macbeth is interrupted by one of the other cast members waving a dagger before his face, to keep the audience from being confused. Banquo’s ghost is a sheet with holes cut out for eyes, but Macbeth reacts in horror, shrieking that he has never seen anything so terrifying and running off stage and into the audience. And as the play neared its end, the actresses announced that they were feeling peckish, and waded into the audience (who had come prepared with picnics) to beg some wine and cake. Throughout all this, however, it was still Macbeth, with vast swathes of the play’s language left intact.

At the end of the performance, the actresses thanked us for putting up with their “irreverent” take on the play. It occurred to me that while this is true, watching Macbeth this way—outdoors, with the audience free and even encouraged to interact with the play—is probably a lot closer to how audiences in Shakespeare’s time experienced his plays than the more serious, cultured productions we’re used to. Even in a play like Macbeth, I suspect, comedic interludes, fourth-wall breaks, and slapstick would have been common elements. It felt to me as if the Handlebards, by taking a deliberately anachronistic approach to their subject matter, had found a way to connect their audience to it in a way that few more traditional productions would have managed.

Finally, on my last night before leaving the UK, I ventured South of the Thames to the Southwark Playhouse, for a performance of Operation Mincemeat. If that name sounds familiar, it’s the either because you know it from WWII history—it’s the name of the MI5 counterintelligence operation in which the Brits diverted the Nazis’ attention from the planned invasion of Sicily by planting false intelligence on a corpse whom they’d dressed up as a fictitious officer and dropped off the coast of Spain—or because it has been fictionalized, on stage and screen, many times before (a film version starring Colin Firth is in the works for 2022). This iteration, by new company Spit Lip (who are an offshoot of the writers’ collective Kill the Beast), is a musical that takes a comedic approach to an already quite absurd story.

The heart of the show is the partnership between the brash but reckless Ewen Montagu and the brilliant but socially inept Charles Cholmondeley, the two officers who between them mastermind and shepherd the plan, aided by MI5 secretaries Jean Leslie and Hester Leggett and overseen by Colonel John Bevan. The cast is just five actors, who on top of playing the central team double many other roles. In addition, Montagu, Bevan, and Leggett are cross-cast, contributing to a sense of zaniness and unreality. The show repeatedly stresses the ridiculousness of not just the Mincemeat plot but the entire intelligence community—much is made of the fact that Ian Fleming was still working in intelligence at this point, and an early song imagines him coming up with James Bond-ian plots to kill Hitler. But that absurdity is treated as the flipside of the agents’—and especially Montagu’s—cavalier belief that they are the secret masters of the universe, by virtue of their posh birth and education. The opening song introduces Montagu’s musical motif—”some are born to follow/and some are born to lead!”—which recurs again and again throughout the play, in total defiance of the fact that his plan his falling to pieces.

An earlier version of “Born to Lead” from Operation Mincemeat. The problem with writing about an indie show is that there are fewer clips online. This is a production diary from 2018, when the show was still in development. The music starts at 2:50.

This is broadly accurate as an indictment of wartime British society, of course, but it might be stretching reality a little in this particular case (for one thing, Montagu was Jewish, which surely would have excluded him from full-fledged elite status in 1943). More generally, Operation Mincemeat overstates both the importance of its titular plot to winning the war (wikipedia seems at least a little skeptical that it was even crucial to misdirecting the Nazis from the invasion of Sicily), and the plan’s flimsiness (a second-act twist revolves around the discovery that superstar coroner Sir Bernard Spilsbury, who advised Montagu on his selection of a corpse, has been revealed as a fraud; in reality, Spilsbury’s reputation didn’t start being called into question until after the war).

You can’t exactly blame Spit Lip for overegging their story (which, after all does have a superstar coroner in it, not to mention fake love letters, a corpse-stuffed torpedo, and many other eyebrow-raising details). But the emphasis the show places on Montagu’s recklessness—which eventually mutates into a fevered insistence that the plan must continue no matter how many things go wrong with it, because sometimes you just have to roll the dice and damn the consequences—and Cholmondeley’s growing exasperation with it, feels increasingly ahistorical. It’s not until the end of the show that you realize the point isn’t the man or the mission, but the people like him today. The born-to-rule politicians who don’t bother to plan or even learn the facts, who think things will just work out because they, personally, have never experienced a setback in their lives. 

To be fair, Operation Mincemeat is not the best historical event with which to shine a light on such people, since it did after all succeed (and in its final song the show seems aware that it may have delivered a flawed moral). But the growing dismay with which it regards Montagu undercuts the sense of triumph that he clearly feels. (Cross-casting the character also helps: having a woman play the part makes the character’s overbearing arrogance, which might be taken for granted in a man, much harder to swallow.) It’s not exactly a subversive play, but it has a bit of bite, which gives its rather loose take on history an added significance.

So, what have you watched recently that played fast and loose with history? What was that anachronism in service of, and did it succeed?

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