If a play is based on fact, but is not itself fully factual, how is the audience to know?

Saturday night’s talk back at Theater J should be fascinating. The main question will revolve around the question as to the degree which a play dealing with history can re-invent that history on stage. David Ives, in “New Jerusalem”, reworked Spinoza’s life and excommunication trial so that it bore little or no relationship to the actual events. My problem with the otherwise excellent play and production is that the audience thought they were watching a dramatization of actual history. “Imagining Madoff”, which I have not seen, created a make-believe conversation between Madoff and Elie Wiesel and did not purport it to be historically accurate, but Wiesel believed that it would have been viewed historically in spite of the author’s assurance that it was not a dramatization of actual history. “Something You Did”, another excellent play and performance, if viewed without context by an audience, does not present either of these problems, but because the author has stated that the play was based (alibeit loosely) on the crimes of Kathy Boudin and the reaction of David Horowitz, an audience viewing the play in that context could assume that the Gene Biddle character is a doppelganger of Horowitz, which makes his reaction quite understandable. But plays have been based on historical events from the time of ancient Greece, and will continue to be. Whose role is it to ensure that the audience (the viewing audience, the reading audience, the professional audience) has the proper background to ensure that they won’t be misled? Certainly the playwright has a responsibility here, but so do the others involved in explaining the production. It would seem to me that this would be an appropriate role for the dramaturg or its equivalent in each production to ensure that historical confusion is minimized.

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