On the final night of the AHA, I went to the screening of The Conspirator, the following day I travelled to New York to see the final performance of A Free Man of Color. While I very much enjoyed both, I was struck by the comparison of these two examples of narrative history made for an audience.
[possible spoiler alert]
The Conspirator was the first production by the new American Film Company which has a mission to produce historically accurate films. Directed by Robert Redford, this is a lavish historical film. The conspirator of the title is Mary Surratt, a woman charged with involvement in planning the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. She ran a boarding house where several of Booth's associates had stayed, and where meetings planning the attack allegedly took place. A widow of limited means, renting out rooms to earn a living, she seems a victim of circumstance, that her son had fallen in with the wrong crowd and she was being blamed for these young men's activities.
Robin Wright Penn's performance as Mary Surratt is moving, and she is the centre of this movie - although Frederick Aiken (played by James McAvoy) is the figure we follow through the whole story: from his experience of the battlefields to returning to civilian life as a lawyer to finding himself saddled with this unwinnable case - and slowly realising that his client may be falsely accused.
I hadn't been aware of Surratt's story and at the end of the film I was convinced that she had been an innocent woman railroaded by the system. I was very surprised during the panel discussion following the film when Kate Clifford Larson (who has written a book about Mary Surratt) said that the view of most historians today is that Mary Surratt was very much guilty of involvement in the plot.
Historical examination of her life prior to the last 20 years had seen her as a sentimental martyr of the South, or a feminist victim of society - married as a teenager to an abusive drunk, who died and left her in debt; a woman whose son who committed a felony and left her holding the bag, and was finally destroyed by a cruel military legal system.
That rather than a hapless dupe, she was an active politically motivated participant in a dramatic political crime makes her in fact a much more interesting character, than the view of her as a martyr. In the film we see her as deeply devout Catholic: did she truly repent of her crimes? If she was in fact guilty, I feel somehow tricked into feeling so much sympathy for her (and any audience whose only source of information is the film, will come away believing she was the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice).
[In a way, I was reminded of Dead Man Walking: when it was revealed that in fact he was a rapist and killer, I was so angry I would have flipped the switch myself - which I don't think was the director's intention. This sense of being tricked into emotionally backing the wrong horse annoyed me.]
Mary Surratt was a slaveowner, and financially and personally invested in the Confederate cause. These elements of her life are not covered in the film. While the film is supposed to be historically "accurate", we obviously don't know many intimate details of the characters' lives. There is a character, the girlfriend of Frederick Aiken, who seemed like a filmic invention (perhaps he had a girlfriend who had waited for him during the war: many men did). When finally she leaves him because of his work (defending Mary Surratt has destroyed his social reputation), her speech is anachronistic. 1860s women did not break things off with a beau by saying "I can't do this".
Nonetheless, the film takes a less-known historical episode, and explores a number of nuances to do with the nature of guilt and the legal system - and as someone who wants to see more quality historical films, I look forward to their next production.
In A Free Man of Color, John Guare has attempted to create a Restoration comedy exploring the unique currents of history in New Orleans on the brink of the Louisiana purchase. His hero, Jacques Cornet, the son of a white man and a slave mother, was granted freedom and inherited property from his father. Among other things, he is a collector of maps, interested in knowing what is in the "white spaces" to the West. He is also a renowned Don Juan, cuckolding most of the important men of the city.
Through the same actors playing several characters, we see the layers and threads of Caribbean and Atlantic history. Mos, who plays Carnet's personal slave, also plays Toussaint Louverture, the man standing up for African slaves throughout the Americas. The idea of Spanish Louisiana as a "post-racial" idyll is of course idealistic, but the bitter pill that the Lousiana purchase offered to Creoles of color diminishes the idea of benefit coming from incorporation to the "free" United States of America.
Shirley Thompson's Exiles At Home explores precisely this story - of the free African community in New Orleans (and the situation they faced with the Lousiana purchase), and Shannon Dawdy's Building the Devil's Empire offers a wonderful introduction to how this culture came about.
One white character mentions going to Congo Square to learn African dances. The hip-hop dance style she demonstrates draws a laugh from the audience, and the idea of being able to perform such a routine (her cousin initially cannot), also reminds us of the image of miscegenation in twentieth century popular culture, that sexual contact with black men will bring to life white women's full sexual potential, and that this is what white men so fear. That "fear of a black penis" might have been another subtitle to this play is not lost on Guare. He recasts the sexual romp of Restoration comedy in the racial tensions of the colonial Americas.
As well as the characters in New Orleans, we see what is going on in Paris and Washington, in the political discussions of Napoleon, the king of Spain, and Thomas Jefferson - who is discussing what goes on with his secretary, Meriwether Lewis. In these parts, the play also tells us a story we all know, about Jefferson's apparent hypocrisy with regard to slavery. Indeed, the characters of Lewis and Jefferson in these sections seem to belong to a completely different play - some Masterpiece Theatre-type vignette on the ideas of liberty in the early Federal period.
While Guare's play does not claim to be historically accurate (indeed he uses anachronistic references to underscore his themes), he still touches on many of the key, perplexing and tragic points of the multi racial society of colonial Louisiana. Cornet is a poignant figure. Through various misadventures he finds himself re-enslaved in the newly American Louisiana.The final line, that this is a story of a "Free Man of Color, or How one man became an American" - became an American slave. The speech of Meriwether Lewis, that America remains the land of the "white spaces" is an interesting view of the land of opportunity and that such opportunities may be internal to the self - but also that such opportunities opened themselves to those who were "white" or could be legally defined as such.
The theatre was packed for a matinee, and the audience (much more diverse than the usual Whiter Shade of Pale audiences often seen at Broadway shows) loved it. It did explain some things that the average person might not know about Louisiana history, and while Guare's tendency to link current events to those of the past seemed heavy-handed (I expect some editing if/when the play is revived by another production), anything that draws audiences into engagement with cultural history in this way is no bad thing.