SEVERAL decades ago, on the threshold of the television era, Broadway was briefly enthralled by ``If Booth Had Missed.'' The title of Arthur Goodman's drama conveyed its content: how history might have been altered if the bullet fired at Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth had gone awry. Clearly the events unfolding on stage were fiction, speculation, the products of a lively imagination. Audiences knew what to expect. Today, as TV viewers are bombarded by ``docudramas'' and revisionist excursions into the past, along with doctored biographies in which real-life personages mingle freely with invented characters, the lines are not so clearly drawn. Audiences are often confused - and historians understandably upset.
Are cream-puff epics like ``The Woman He Loved,'' glamorizing the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson, using history or abusing it?
Yet doesn't all history, all biography, come down to a matter of selection and interpretation?
The dilemma has been intensified by the impact and sweep of the new electronic media. But it didn't start with us. As far back as 429 BC, Sophocles tinkered with the then-prevailing historical record in ending ``Oedipus Rex.'' According to Homer, Oedipus fell in honorable combat on the battlefield. Sophocles has him suffer the personal humiliation of exile.
And Shakespeare is replete with instances of dramatic liberties, fused characters, and casual borrowings. His historical plays range from the virtually documentary ``Julius Caesar,'' a compressed-in-time retelling drawn from Plutarch's ``Lives,'' to the freewheeling ``King Lear,'' for which he reached into Sir Philip Sidney's ``Arcadia'' to appropriate the touching subplot of blind Gloucester and his son Edgar.
In his 10 history plays starting with ``King John,'' Shakespeare moved, as Hamilton Mabie put it, ``from the narrative chronicle play to the true drama,'' introducing motive, developing character, building action to a final catastrophe.
All of which leads to precisely the same questions of truth, history, and drama troubling us today.
Do we put our faith, then, in Carl Sandburg's Lincoln, or the far more widely circulated television portrait by Gore Vidal?
Does ``Evita'' pay its obeisance to the facts of history by introducing a fictional Ch'e Guevara who, from the sidelines, recites some of the leading lady's less agreeable aspects? Can this compensate for a silence about her collaboration with fleeing Nazis, and for the emotional power of a melting ballad - ``Don't Cry For Me, Argentina'' sung by a beautiful woman backed by a full orchestra? Isn't her ultimate downfall the equivalent of the obligatory ending of the gangster movies of the 1930s, where, after eight reels of dispensing irresistible charm, the antihero was cut down by the law?
Difficult queries, but from my own experience in the area I don't believe we are without answers. Not absolutes, but guidelines, foremost of which is the obligation of the author to define his sources and indicate how closely he has stuck to them. That should be done up front, and unambiguously.
In the screenplay of ``Fear Strikes Out,'' based on the life of Boston outfielder Jimmy Piersall, screen credit was given to Piersall's autobiography and the sportswriter who helped him with it. In retrospect, I wish co-author Raphael Blau and I had added that additional research material was supplied by our producer, Alan Pakula, and that our dramatization stayed with the characters in the book and the broad line of Piersall's story, while modifying and inventing specific scenes to make maximum use of the visual medium.
I was far more comprehensive in my biographical novel of James McNeill Whistler, ``To Seize the Passing Dream.'' A three-page prefatory note spelled out carefully not only the details of the research involved - the many visits to museums, libraries, archives, homes, and studios, the consultations with artists - but the reasoning behind my use of the novel form: Whistler lived a life of camouflage and masquerade, and such a life could be illuminated only from the inside.
I made plain that although the book was rooted firmly in documentary evidence, mostly from verbatim contemporary accounts, I had taken advantage of the novelistic license to invade the thoughts of my central character; and the dialogue attributed to Whistler, apart from a few celebrated bons mots, was my own. I added, however, that my fiction began where the trail of ascertainable facts ended; and that I took no liberties with key relationships, brought in no made-up characters beyond the occasional waiter or concierge, and violated no fact of consequence.
More complicated, because it involved both a book and film rendering of fairly recent history, was ``Cast a Giant Shadow.'' This was my biography of Colonel David (Mickey) Marcus, the West Pointer who shaped Israel's underground fighters into an effective army in 1948. I was fortunate to have access to much firsthand material: letters, diaries, Army records, recollections of people who were on the scene. These became the grist of the book. I permitted myself one arguable indulgence, a concession to readability: where the facts of an incident were available only in summary form, but the participants were indisputably identified, I sometimes used dialogue rather than narration.
The film rights, acquired by writer-director Melville Shavelson, involved other considerations. The subject was touchy, and short on conventional romantic elements; production costs would be enormous. How much should ``reality'' be compromised in order to bring before millions of moviegoers, eager for heroes in an unheroic age, the saga of this remarkable man?
Shavelson opted first to line up star names big enough to carry an expensive production. Surprisingly, John Wayne came aboard in a supporting role, paving the way for Kirk Douglas to sign as Colonel Marcus. But United Artists, as financier-distributor, insisted on a romantic subplot. Too close to a production to give up, Shavelson developed a secondary story that led him into at least one totally fictional character and a couple of whole-cloth scenes. Otherwise his changes were confined to drama-heightening twists.
What emerged on the screen, to leave a sharp imprint around the globe, was a powerful and absorbing blend of fact and fancy, of blurred memory and embroidered legend. But isn't that the stuff of all history, from primitive campfire tale through troubadour song? Aren't these what matter most - the grand themes of justice, bravery, loyalty, honor?
And Shavelson did try to play fair in terms of disclosure, with a long prefatory title ending on the note that some of the principals in the story were still alive - ``although it wasn't easy.'' Once again, however, hindsight would suggest the picture might have been defined more accurately, if less familiarly, as ``a dramatic distillation based on the life of'' Colonel Marcus.
It seems to me more urgent to do this when dealing with relatively recent events, where there is abundant documentation, than with material shrouded in ancient mists.
Thus the opera ``Nixon in China,'' for all of its musical and balletic virtues, is hardly - as announced by Walter Cronkite on PBS - ``real events retold, the inner drama of private thoughts and emotions.'' It is on the contrary a speculative journey into certain minds. And ``The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank,'' while asserting that it is ``based upon actual events,'' gives us no clue as to how loosely or precisely those events were followed; whether any scenes were totally fabricated, any characters invented or substantially altered.
Preferable was the TV production of the musical ``Sunday in the Park with George,'' whose roll title made the straightforward announcement that it was ``inspired by'' the art of Pointillist Georges Seurat ``and the little that is known about his life.'' That kind of clarity could serve to bridge the gap between historian and dramatist.