Horrible histories: Has revisionism gone too far?

Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare, Van Gogh didn't kill himself, George Harrison was the hero of The Beatles and Hemingway was a feminist. Revisionism has gone too far, says Geoffrey Macnab

It's not quite clear when Godzilla director Roland Emmerich decided that aristocrat Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was the real writer of Shakespeare's plays.

The production notes for Emmerich's new film, Anonymous, suggest the question of Shakespeare authorship has been preying on the German director's mind for a decade or more, since he first discussed the subject with screenwriter John Orloff (who scripted Anonymous and was recently assigned to write the Battlestar Galactica remake.)

The film advances the thesis that Shakespeare (played by Rafe Spall) was a near-illiterate, provincial oaf who put his name to Shakespeare's plays as part of a pact that fellow playwright, Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), struck with De Vere (Rhys Ifans.)

Anonymous is one of a number of recent movies, books and plays seeking to reverse received ideas about celebrated artists and writers. This rampant (and often reductive) revisionism is an increasingly prevalent cultural trend. Every writer, artist or film-maker of note risks having his or her reputation undermined as researchers pore over details of their private lives or look for hidden signs about their personalities in their work. That work can never be left to speak for itself. The assumption is always that the work must be rooted in events in the artist's own background or that the artist has been "cheating" – taking credit for the efforts and ideas of others.

This revisionism isn't new. What has changed in the internet era is that everyone has an opinion – and that opinion can be posted instantly. In the past, if "authorship" of a play or film was being challenged, the revisionists would be obliged to marshall their arguments in academic journals and books. Now, they can just post a blog. "Not a shred of documentary evidence has ever been found that connects De Vere to any of the [Shakespeare] plays or poems," wrote Columbia professor James Shapiro recently in the New York Times. In the digital age, the absence of evidence isn't a hindrance. If you assert something aggressively enough, you'll be heard. What matters in the digital age is how strident you are, not how diligently you have done your research.

One commonplace strategy is to attempt to glorify one figure at the expense of another. The subtext to Martin Scorsese's new documentary about George Harrison is that the "quiet Beatle" deserves as much attention as Lennon and McCartney, who've been hogging the limelight. When Julien Temple made Kingdom Come, his recent documentary about Dave Davies, his intention was to remind the world that there was more to The Kinks than the songs written by Dave's mercurial brother, Ray. The drive behind The Invisible Woman, the film about the relationship between Charles Dickens and actress Nelly Ternan, which Ralph Fiennes is due to direct, is to expose Dickens's hypocrisy and to rescue Ternan from the anonymity in which she has been allowed to slip. As Claire Tomalin's book (on which the movie is based) makes clear, this relationship was kept very secret so as not to scandalise Victorian society or damage Dickens's reputation. When Salma Hayek made Frida, about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, one obvious goal was to shift the spotlight away from her lover, Diego Rivera, a larger-than-life figure whose story has sometimes eclipsed that of Kahlo. Books (and film) celebrating poet Sylvia Path invariably do so at the expense of her former husband Ted Hughes.

It's not just the work of artists that is coming under scrutiny but their temperaments. We all thought we knew that Vincent Van Gogh shot himself aged 37. However, a new biography has just been published suggesting that Van Gogh didn't, in fact, commit suicide but was shot accidentally by two delinquent teenagers with "a malfunctioning gun".

Ernest Hemingway has long been labelled as macho but he too is being given a makeover by a new generation of biographers. As American columnist Maureen Dowd recently wrote, citing Gioia Diliberto's biography of Hemingway's first wife Hadley, "women are wrong to think that Hemingway has nothing to offer them." Critics are discovering increasing evidence of sexual ambiguity in his work.

The battle over authorship, credit and final cut has been going on for almost as long as films have been made. In the silent era, there were plentiful examples of maverick directors locking horns with studio bosses. For example, Erich Von Stroheim fought a losing battle with Irving Thalberg over his film, Foolish Wives (1922.) An argument can be made that Thalberg, as producer and money man, was just as as responsible for how that movie turned out as as Von Stroheim. Similarly, producer David O Selznick has a fair claim as the main creative force behind Gone with the Wind. A generation ago, critic Pauline Kael contested that screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz was as important an influence on Citizen Kane as its wunderkind director, Orson Welles.

Ironically, Kael herself has been targeted by the revisionists. In The New Yorker this month, a review of a new biography of Kael suggests that the critic "conned" a UCLA academic out of publishing his research on Citizen Kane. "She promised a collaboration, vanished with his proprietary research, and ultimately used it for an extended piece of her own, Raising Kane... seen today as one of the defining works of her career."

In the late 1990s, author Evan Hunter (better known as Ed McBain) wrote a waspish memoir, Me and Hitch, about his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds. Hunter wrote witheringly about Hitchcock's attempts to justify the film as a "great work of art" and explain away as symbolism parts of the screenplay that didn't stack up. More recently, there was the dispiriting case of the American short-story writer, Raymond Carver, when it was claimed that his editor was responsible for his famously terse, pared-down style.

The revisionists are often trying to make their own reputations. Their work also underlines our sneaking desire to expose our idols as charlatans. Pull back the curtain and the wizard will be exposed just an ordinary man, like you or I...or the venal, bungling Will Shakespeare depicted by Emmerich.

"Most writers lead dull lives whether or not those lives may be fun to lead, and are likely to be boring to read about in any detail," Kingsley Amis wrote in the preface to his Memoirs. This idea is anathema to revisionists. They will always look for the mythic dimension or the self-destructive streak. They will sift for any evidence that their subjects "cheated" either professionally, by claiming credit to which they weren't entitled, or privately.

They relish sexual or economic imbroglios. They can't accept that their subjects were often too busy writing their plays or music, painting their canvases or shooting their films to lead the colourful and unruly existences that would make their stories worth telling. Emmerich refuses to countenance the idea that a Pooterish, money-obsessed man from Stratford who led (at least by Elizabethan standards) an uneventful life could have had the imagination – or the experience to draw on – to write the plays.

'Anonymous' is on nationwide release

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