What do you think of when you hear the term “historical fiction”?
While the word fiction is, in its strictest definition, a reference to literature, the term has expanded to include film, television, and yes, stage productions too. Historic Fiction is an invented story set against a factual backdrop of a time and place in the past, where true details from the setting are used to bolster and and play off of the fictional story set there. For instance, what would Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With The Wind be like had it not been set in the midst of the Civil War? Would we care at all about the journey of Forrest Gump had it not been a marathon romp through significant American events of the 2nd half of the 20th Century?
In Hamnet, playwrights Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd take one of the most well-known writers of all time, the scant details of his only son, and invent a story of what it’s like to be raised in the shadow of greatness. There is little historical evidence regarding Hamnet’s short life, primarily because of his premature death at age 11 and lack of public acknowledgement from his wildly famous father, but also due in part to insufficient historical records. In Dead Centre’s Hamnet, history intertwines with fiction to bring the inner world of a young boy into the spotlight. On a bare stage, young Hamnet appears and addresses the audience, asking if his father is out there. Where and when are we? It’s hard to say; the show seems to take place outside of time and space, almost (in that way, there’s an almost an argument to be made that this production is part sci-fi, part historical fiction!). Hamnet wears a modern hoodie, references contemporary events, and does his best to cover a Johnny Cash song, and yet, unmistakably, his father is indeed one of the greatest writers of all time. The combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar here work brilliantly to ground audiences and, at the same time, lead them directly into the unknown.
Now a well beloved genre in multiple mediums, historical fiction allows audiences to engage with the past while reflecting on the current moment—think of classic stories such as Absalom, Absalom, The Help, and Saving Private Ryan. Each of these tales explore a “what if” scenario or an imagined conversations in different periods of history, all resulting in compelling pieces of art and literature. Think about how Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha‘s stakes are raised so acutely by the reader’s knowledge of how World War II ends, or how Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now made the horrors of war so vivid and repellent for an entire new generation by updating Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness to the Vietnam War for the 1979 film.
We will never know what Hamnet’s life was actually like. We don’t know how much he knew about his famous father or even how he felt about him. Perhaps this is the reason that Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd’s creative account of their familial drama is so satisfying. It scratches our deep desire to know; it gives audiences a feeling of being satiated even while we know that the details are invented whole cloth. In this way, Hamnet is a fantastic, emotional, and praise-worthy entry into the genre of historical fiction.