Hard Choices in Living History

A few weeks ago, my dad and I saw Kenneth J. Serfass perform as Ulysses S. Grant. At one point, an audience member asked “Grant” for his opinion of another Union Civil War general. Serfass/Grant replied that he never let his personal opinions interfere with his military decision-making.

On the ride home, my dad, who has read more about the Civil War than anyone else I know, shared his opinion of this response: it was bullshit. My dad was right. Arguably, Grant’s single biggest flaw as a president and as a businessman was trusting the wrong people. His personal feelings got himself, his family, and the country in trouble on more than one occasion. It’s unreasonable to believe that he simply didn’t have this flaw while he was wearing a uniform. Indeed, some Grant biographers have argued that he did, in fact, let his personal feelings influence his personnel decisions during the war.

Yet, in another sense, Serfass’ answer was perfectly true: I am certain that he answered the question just as Grant would have answered it. That got me thinking…

If your goal is to teach people about history by portraying a specific person, is your primary loyalty to the person you’re portraying or to historical accuracy? Suppose, for example, I was playing the role of Christopher Columbus and a young child asked me what it was like to discover a “new world.” I would have two choices.

I could stay true to Columbus’ own beliefs and respond that I didn’t discover a new world, but a new route to Asia. That would confuse the child about the historical fact.

On the other hand, if I acknowledged that I had landed in the Caribbean, I would mislead the child about Columbus’ own opinion on the matter.

At the end of the performance, Serfass stepped out of character and addressed some of the issues from his own point-of-view. That’s one possible solution to the problem. On the other hand, over the course of a 30-60 minute performance, it’s unrealistic to expect to be able to “footnote” and correct everything you said at the end.

If you ever get the chance to see Serfass, by the way, I highly recommend it. He knows his stuff and he puts on a great show.