Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Historical Dramas I

It is commonplace that an actor can play the role of a fictitious character, like Hamlet, or of a historical character, like Julius Caesar, on stage or screen and that anyone who confuses the actor with the character misunderstands the dramatic process.

The idea of time travel raises the intriguing possibility of playing a historical role on the stage of real history. In a Superman comic, a time traveller investigating the identity of a twentieth century superheroine wound up playing the role of the superheroine, using futuristic technology to generate the superpowers of flight etc. (See "Getting Superman Right" on my Comics Appreciation Blog.)

In Michael Moorcock's Behold The Man, Karl Glogauer plays the role of Jesus in first century Palestine. The stage is set but no one else comes forward to play the role so a time traveller does. He tells parables when he remembers them. The idea is not that he is completing a causal circle but that he is making Christianity as real as possible. Without him, the New Testament would have been entirely mythological but the subsequent history would not have differed. First century Palestine is a stage on which he can do what he wants but he opts to play the role.

Time travellers would be able to get away with a lot. According to Leon Trotsky's History Of The Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin, on the run, attended a crucial Bolshevik committee meeting in disguise, wearing a wig and with beard shaved off (what a sight)! I cannot help imagining that that disguised Lenin was really a time traveller playing a historical role: kidnap Lenin; take his place at the meeting; hypnotise him with spurious memories as of having attended the meeting; put him in his bed to wake up the following morning. Simple. A group of time travellers could do this to the entire committee.

In Last Men In London, Olaf Stapledon envisaged a different kind of time travel intervention in the life of Lenin, one that connects with our earlier reference to Jesus. The Last Men time travel mentally, not physically. One of them performs a psychological experiment by inducing a mystical experience in Lenin who, after an hour of ecstasy, whispers, "I come not to bring peace, but a sword," and continues writing...

This line of thought started with reflections on two works by Poul Anderson which I will discuss in "Historical Dramas II" on www.poulandersonappreciation.blogspot.co.uk.

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