A Western democracy clashes with a Middle Eastern despotism in a war whose outcome will shape a new world order. Just a few years later, a writer presumes to turn this epoch-defining conflict into drama. He transforms real figures into stage characters, fabricates monologues and conversations, puts words into the mouths of living (and recently dead) rulers and their families. Every critic who has ever scolded the dubious mash-ups of history and invention found in the hybrid forms of “faction” or “docudrama” would find cause for harsh complaint here. Yet European drama begins with this work: The Persians by Aeschylus.
Aeschylus himself may have fought, in 480BC, at the Battle of Salamis. In 472, the Athenian warrior-playwright won first prize at the City Dionysia festival for a trilogy that included The Persians. The play imagines the aftermath of Salamis at the stricken court of Xerxes, King of Kings, in the wake of the Athenian naval victory that scuppered his rash invasion of Greece. Aeschylus probably wrote other topical plays but The Persians is the only one, and the oldest of his works, to survive — and so ranks as the founding text of Western drama.
Staging current events could stir controversy in ancient Athens, as it does today. An older dramatist, Phrynichus, was fined a thousand drachmas after a work of his embarrassingly revisited a Greek defeat at Persian hands. In contrast, Aeschylus plays patriotically safe. Still, The Persians shows that reality honourably shared the Athenian scene with mythology. Documentary drama boasts roots as deep as the European stage itself.
The critical quarrels of the City Dionysia have not gone away. Bring actual, near-contemporary events to stage or screen, and you risk today’s equivalents of the thousand-drachma fine — lawsuits, political and media outrage, career blight. Concoct imaginary politicians and their deeds, and a public steeped in the 24/7 melodrama of rolling news may find the made-up stories tame and lame.
Last weekend, BBC1 began to broadcast the playwright David Hare’s four-part series Roadkill: the latest of many attempts to channel the theatre of politics into effective TV narrative. Roadkill invents, rather than adapts, characters and events. It stars Hugh Laurie as Peter Laurence, a Conservative transport minister with a cheeky, populist persona (“People like me because I break the rules”).
Laurence dodges one scandal, successfully suing a newspaper for libel, only to find that his well-buried past threatens him with others. The opening scenes merge two favourite political-drama tropes: backstairs skullduggery in Westminster and Whitehall and old skeletons, whether erotic or financial, rattling in closets. Scenes set in a women’s prison serve to yoke grand affairs of state to life below the salt: a familiar swerve in Hare’s work — and, for that matter, in Shakespeare’s Histories.
At least since the mid-1960s, when Dennis Potter converted his own experience as a Labour candidate into two BBC plays about his alter ego “Nigel Barton”, political dramatists for television have sought to balance the competing claims of fiction and reality. Some playwrights have followed Aesychlus in his Persians vein, mining events for their plots and people — as James Graham did in Brexit: The Uncivil War, or Peter Morgan has in his monarchical saga The Crown (significantly, neither project came from the BBC). Others, from the BBC’s original Machiavellian farce House of Cards to series such as Paula Milne’s The Politician’s Wife, have skirted the minefield of docudrama and opted for fictitious scenarios. One of the best-loved corridors-of-power epics, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, blends hyper-realistic detail about US government with the wish-fulfilment fantasy of a liberal White House, transmitted during the presidency of George W. Bush.
Roadkill firmly eschews what James Graham calls “fact-based fiction” and largely avoids allusions that could quickly pass their sell-by date. Hare argues in his introduction to the series that “So much television drama is now based on documentary events that it is hard to remember the primary trigger for fiction is meant to be the imagination.”
Once a research-based dramatist — in plays such as Racing Demon, about the Church of England, or The Absence of War, on the Labour Party — he now assumes that too much topicality will shrink his canvas. “In Roadkill, neither Covid nor Brexit consume every politician’s waking hour,” he writes. In this light, the best political fiction unveils the core truths of personalities and processes while avoiding the messy taint of actuality, and the ruses of roman-à-clef disguise. “Mine is a parallel world to the real one,” Hare maintains, “and there is no secret passage between the two.”
Here, Hare is obeying the ancient preference for the general or exemplary plot over a mere description of events that dates back to Aristotle’s Poetics. “The poet’s [i.e. creative writer’s] function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but the kind of thing that might happen,” Aristotle insists. Therefore “poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.” Roadkill opts, in Aristotle’s terms, for the universal over the particular. This represents not just a time-hallowed choice but a prudent one for a broadcaster always mistrusted by Conservative governments, and now more vulnerable than ever to hostile Tory fire.
Laurence, in common with most TV politicians, comes across as more operator than ideologue. (He announces early on that “You have to forget about Brexit,” thus letting his creator, and the series’ funder, off a nastily barbed hook.) Dramatists who invent rather than reflect events like to suppose they are stripping an ephemeral veil of policy away from the eternal pulse of pride, greed, lust and ambition throbbing beneath. Nothing in Roadkill hints that Hare will stray far from this approach.
Laurence, “a relaxed Conservative who admires progress”, makes bland statements of a vaguely free market/libertarian bent. He, the Croydon lad made good, is the story, not his principles. So far, so TV-typical. Parliamentary and political drama tends to be not anti-Tory or anti-Labour, but anti-ideology. “Universal” human passions matter more, as do the equally timeless motifs of careers that wax and wane, colleagues who flatter then betray, and triumphs that turn to ash. The post-Cold War assumption that politics turns exclusively on image, spin and showbiz put a postmodern, end-of-history twist on this downgrading of big ideas.
In the 21st century, however, all-consuming ideology has returned — and, with it, the need for political drama to engage with the content of beliefs as much as with the character of their upholders. Writers — such as Graham and Morgan — who do bring actuality to screen and stage are better placed to do exactly that. Morgan’s 2003 TV film of the pact between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, The Deal, set the tone for later docudramas, with its twin-track attention to principle and personality. Although far from flawless, and contentiously selective, Graham’s referendum drama did address ideas and technologies. It amounted to more than a Dominic Cummings biopic.
Tales of political strategy and subterfuge that diminish the convictions that fuel intrigue feel increasingly threadbare. For the lurching upheavals of our times have left stories of polite (or even vicious) political manoeuvrings about not-very-much looking like an antiquarian sideshow. With austerity, Brexit, Trump and now the pandemic, we may have drunk too deeply on reality’s strong wine. So Roadkill’s wrangles over privatising prisons taste like thin broth in comparison. Laurence may assert that “This is the moment we start again as a nation”. But Hare’s show has yet to explore the deeper reasons for that collective reboot.
Of course, James Graham’s “fact-based fiction” sets its own artistic and ethical challenges. He believes that audiences have a firm grasp of docudrama conventions and are seldom misled. Speaking of The Crown, which can stretch its artistic licence to the limit, Peter Morgan has argued that viewers “understand a lot of it is conjecture. Sometimes there are unavoidable accuracy blips… But I’m absolutely fastidious about there being an underlying truth.” People who choose a career in public affairs must now expect dramatists as well as journalists to compose a subjective version of their “underlying truth”. The Crown, though, makes queasy, if transfixing, viewing precisely because the royal family did not choose. “Fact-based fiction” still needs deeper thought, clearer pathways, keener criticism.
No doubt subjects of Xerxes, King of Kings, objected to Aeschylus’s portrayal too. When the playwright first put statesmen, and statecraft, on stage, the beleaguered Athenians could take nothing for granted about their identity, status or survival. Another period of flux, fear and division means that the most urgent TV drama now pivots back to real events and their makers. Should calm return, and harmony reign, then fictional suited smoothies — Roadkill-style — might satisfy us on screen again. For now, the hunger for transformed reality feels sharper than ever. In due time, I hope to watch a Covid-themed dramadoc to match the genre’s one undisputed masterpiece so far: Craig Mazin’s great miniseries Chernobyl.
’Roadkill’ continues on BBC1 on Sundays. The fourth series of ‘The Crown’ starts on Netflix on 15 November