At the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, one among the many performances dealt with a familiar tale: the six wives of Henry VIII. Six: The Musical is framed as a competition among the wives to pick who will be the lead singer of their group. Each woman sings of her experiences at the hands of Henry; Catherine of Aragon reminisces on the many insults Henry piled on her, while Anne Boleyn describes her reasons for her beheading. One by one, each woman takes center stage to tell her story, ending with Katherine Parr. Parr argues in her song, “I Don’t Need Your Love,” that she, and the other wives, should be known for what they did, not who they were married to.
The focus on the women also reveals the power struggles that might otherwise be looked over for their dated feel. Katherine Howard sings of her endless struggle with boys, finishing with her relationship with Henry’s courtier, Thomas, that ended with her beheading. A play on the previous chorus, Katherine sings:
'Cause all you wanna do
All you wanna do baby
Is touch me, when will enough be enough?
All you wanna do
All you wanna do baby
Squeeze me, don't care if you don't please me
Bite my lip and pull my hair
As you tell me I'm the fairest of the fair
The question of consent is suddenly thrust into the forefront. Katherine’s story takes on an unexpectedly dark tone. In a musical where modernisms like Tinder and rock bands are sprinkled throughout, listeners can identify with this girl whose lover overstepped his boundaries.
Six is more than a silly romp through Henry VIII’s romances. Rather, it becomes a stage to revise history. Instead of telling the same story where the wives are reduced to a marriage, they become characters in their own right. This illustrates a recent trend in the world of theater: historical revisionism. Six focuses on giving interiority to historical characters who, because of their gender and social position, are reduced to chess pieces. Through pop songs and ballads, the wives finally receive their moment in the spotlight, free from Henry’s shadow. In the climax of the show, the six wives sing,
It's the end of the show of the historemix
We switched up the flow and we changed the prefix
Everybody knows that we used to be six wives
But we want to say before we drop the curtain
Nothing is for sure nothing is for certain
All that we know is that we used to be six wives
This final bridge reminds the audience that history does not need to be fixed in its perspective. Rather, new views of history can reveal interiority of characters that those who feel overlooked by today’s society can resonate with. Whether that is in Katherine of Aragon, with a halo seated in her natural curly hair, or in Katherine Parr’s free relationship with sex, historical figures are suddenly as real as a contemporary woman.
Six’s approach to historical revisionism isn’t the only method to modernize history. Perhaps the most popular is found in Hamilton. In the international spotlight, Hamilton’s choice in casting mostly actors of color deliberately bring layers of meaning to a rather straightforward depiction of Alexander Hamilton’s life. While there is concern among historians of the educational value of the Founders Chic trend, the casting of black and latinx actors as white historical figures does make a statement about inclusivity. “I walked out of the show with a sense of ownership over American history,” said Daveed Diggs, one of the lead actors of the musical. Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator of the musical himself, said, “This is a story about America then, told by America now.”
What exactly is it that makes this casting revolutionary? The white Founding Fathers are juxtaposed with actors of color; Thomas Jefferson rocks an afro, despite the historical Jefferson’s complex relationship with slavery. Hamilton and Lafayette sing at one point, “Immigrants, we get the job done,” which reliably receives long rounds of applause from the audience. While Hamilton does try for historical accuracy in its content, it uses casting as a way to give interiority and connection between minority audiences and history.
Theater can be a powerful location of social change. It becomes a method of giving voices to the voiceless, and, whether sung or spoken, can help a contemporary audience understand the complexities of society.