On the construction of Historical Fiction: The RSC’s Miss Littlewood

I went to see Miss Littlewood at the Swan, RSC last night and as it coincided with a question on twitter about “when does history start” I had a few thoughts.

The show is in many ways brilliant. It uses a lot of Littlewood’s techniques to talk with and to the audience. It now famously moves the “character” of Joan around a number of actors, while “JL” is Clare Burt who is amazing (and speaking personally, never have I crushed on so many actresses in the same play).

But the play has much more fun in the first half, with Joan’s life and the early tribulations than it does in the second half when it focuses on her successes, and while some of this is because conflict is easier to dramatize, I think it’s also because the author Sam Kenyon was more comfortable with the “historyness” of the pre-war period than the post-war period. So in the first half we get lots of “signals of the past”, in clothing, in morals, in political context. In the second half, it could all be the same period; there is none of the “tells” so that ‘Fing’s Ain’t Wot They Used To Be, is shown to us with none of the controversy around it (it was eventually the first English language movie to be subtitled when it went to the US, and was considered “chaotic”), and Mother Courage, the British Premier, is skipped, although thanks to Littlewood it’s now one of our great classics. This is what I meant when I said to someone:

I am happy for you to write about the recent past as long as it’s told as historical fiction, not shared memory.

Shared memory assumes common knowledge; this is how Jane Austen writes the militia scenes in Pride and Prejudice. She knows the reader knows all about it.

Historical fiction knows you may not know, so you need to give us more tells.

One last word: I loved this production but hated the last five minutes. Gerry Raffles, Littlewood’s partner, dies. According to Kenyon he was the sole guiding star, and without her she loses all motivation and spends the next thirty years with nothing ever mattering again.

Littlewood’s career was going strong before she met Raffles. She had already lost interest in the Theatre before he died, disliking the commercialisation needed to stay solvent. Making it All About the Man, pretty much wrecked the otherwise fabulous feminism of the play.