The problem with writing fiction about history, is that unless it’s incredibly well documented, the author inevitably has to make at least some of it up. This can include dialogue, characters and even entire events. On other occasions the writer can perform tricks for dramatic convenience, such as combining characters or re-arranging the chronological order of how things happened. Sometimes this is necessary, but when it’s done badly it can leave the audience with a false impression of history. For instance the film Battle of the Bulge was so inaccurate that President Eisenhower came out of retirement to denounce it.
Now some would argue that it’s the job of good writers to translate complex historical events into easily digestible stories while also conveying the truth. However it does lead to the dilemma of how upfront the writer should be about what they’re doing. These days most films that tell true stories tend to come with a note at the beginning explaining that they’ve been adapted in some way to suit the needs of fiction. This is probably why the Coen brothers got into so much trouble for claiming that their classic crime movie Fargo was based on truth when in reality it was completely made up.
Tom Stoppard’s play, Squaring the Circle, deals with the Polish Solidarity movement in the early 1980s, when it genuinely looked like there might be a grassroots democratic breakthrough in the Eastern bloc. Stoppard acknowledges the dilemma of writing about something he has no first hand experience of, but does it in a rather clever fashion. From the first scene onwards a physical narrator shows how events could have happened but didn’t, in this case a meeting between the Soviet and Polish premiers. It then shows the same scene again in a different way. Later an important meeting is shown from three different perspectives, each time emphasising a different side to the characters while also underlining the essential artificiality of the medium.
Having a physical character narrating the play is a novel touch, he fills in the details and knowledge we would otherwise not be privy too. The fact that this too is an invention of the author is demonstrated when another character, the dissident, frequently interrupts him to question his version of events. For instance the two have an interesting discussion about the correct interpretation of Polish history. With less skillful writing this could have been clever just for the sake of being clever, but with Stoppard it works.
The central theme of the play is the seemingly impossible task the Solidarity movement faced in reforming the Polish system, reconciling Soviet communism with western capitalism. The fact that they couldn’t and didn’t lends the play its title. Of course it was written in the mid-1980s so Stoppard wasn’t to know that the collapse of the Soviet Union was only a few years away, and Lech Walesa was soon to become the democratically elected leader of Poland.
The play works because it both educates, and makes a story about Polish union workers negotiating with politicians interesting. It was originally written for TV but as I doubt that it will ever be released I’d highly recommend you should buy the play and read it. The version I obtained at a second-hand shop came with Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and Professional Foul which are both great political plays also by Stoppard, dealing with Soviet repression and freedom.