Péter P. Müller (HU) - Fact and fiction, document and fantasy – is there a difference, and does it matter at all?

Western thinking based mostly on fixed dichotomies, often structured in binary oppositions tend to make and/or see sharp differences between spheres which in other cultures (e.g. in the East), in other times (e.g. ancient history), and in traditional popular culture have not been separated from each other at all. Referring and adapting these dichotomies in the present paper serves to demonstrate the permeable and relativistic features of these categories, such as fact versus fiction, or document versus fantasy.


Sources of works of art can be facts or fantasies, or a mixture of the two. Often it is almost impossible to make a difference between these two diverse sources. Sometimes the switch in the attitude towards a text considering it not as fiction but as a lay down of facts can lead to astonishing consequences, like in the next example.


From fiction to reality

The archeological works of Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s (and Manfred Korfman in the 1990s) were based on the assumption that the places and events in Homer’s epic, The Iliad, did really exist. Discovering the ruins of Troy, the town against which the Greeks fought in Homer’s fictional epic, could have changed Homer’s work into a factual piece, but it did not happen. One can wonder why not? (Because of the hexameters, the narrative structure etc?) In this case a fictional work has been the source and motivation for real life actions.


From reality to fiction

In his The Theory of Modern Drama (1880-1950) Peter Szondi describes the type of naturalistic drama as a form which is based on real life events. He writes that, “The plot of naturalistic drama usually belongs to the group of ‘fait divers’ [daily news]. Such a ‘fait divers’ is nothing else but a story, alienated from its own ground, something which is interesting enough to be informed about.”[1] Several naturalistic plays are based on real life events which the playwright had heard or read about. Szondi in his examples refers to Gerhardt Hauptmann, and one can add such further dramatists, as the Hungarian Milán Füst with his The Unhappy Ones (1914). Here daily news of a real life event gives the basis for a dramatic work.


Reality is in language

One can agree with Jaques Derrida that there is nothing like ultimate reality. What is considered as reality is a construction in itself, determined by the tradition and history of perception, by ideological, political and cultural presuppositions, and shaped by the framing nature of looking, and the historical relativity of the senses. Reality – whatever it might be – can not be reached in a direct way, it is always mediated. A significant vehicle of this mediation is language. Therefore texts create a clearing that one understands as reality. Documents are written materials that serve to conserve certain information and to register private or social events. In their ontological existence these texts do not differ from other types of texts, e.g. literary works, although they might have special linguistic and structural features.

Reflecting reality

There is no need to suppose a representational relationship between a text and the world beyond the text. Works are not mirrors of “reality”, they are not dependent on a sphere beyond themselves. One fundamental limit of “documentary theatre” is that it is by definition restricted to such a representational attitude.



A favorite field of criticism is the study of writers’ autobiography and their relationship both to fictional works and real life facts and events. Although in drama it is a neglected area, one can think of the documentary and autobiographical feature of Arthur Miller’s play, After the Fall and his autobiographical prose Timebends: A Life. A comparison of them can demonstrate several concordances between the two, although After the Fall is staged neither as a documentary play, nor as an autobiographical drama. The fact that there is no autobiographical drama challenges the concept of a theatre which is based on “real things”.


Film: feature film, documentary and mockumentary

Studying the art of film can help to realize that document is primarily not a “what” but a “how”. Mockumentary (a mockery) is a type of film which uses the techniques and dramaturgy of documentary films, but presents a made up story based on fictitious facts. A famous Hungarian example is The Real Mao (1994), a film by Szilveszter Siklósi, using the clichés of the documentary film genre, including interviews with experts, black-and-white “historical” film extracts etc. Theatre can (or could) use the same means to present false “documents” as a basis for a docudrama or a “theatre of the real”. This method of using false documents is well known in literature.  


Aims and functions of theatre

In different historical periods, in different cultures, in different social contexts theatre can have different functions. Some of the many can be to educate the people, to entertain the audience, but it can also aim at transforming the spectators, to activate them, to motivate their social and political activity. Current social issues, traumas of the recent past can be presented through those new theatrical genres which have been gathered by Carol Martin under the term, the theatre of the real.[2] These include docudrama, documentary theatre, verbatim theatre, reality-based theatre, theatre of fact etc. These types of theatre intend to go beyond aesthetic amusement, and entertainment, they try to restore theatre as a moral institution, to reinforce the ethical aspect of the arts. Nowadays it seems that these intensions often go together with the idea and practice that facts, documents, real life events can better serve this aim.  


Theatrical presence as an overall reality

But the context seems to be prior to the fact and the document based content. Brecht once wrote that „theatre theatricalize everything into itself” („Theater theatert alles ein”).[3] This can be accepted as an overall feature of theatre. Therefore it can be declared that regardless of the source, should it be a dramatic (fictitious) play or a written document (a piece of fact), the result is pretty much the same, i.e. a theatrical piece, an artistic work which can be presented and marketed as documentary, but which will inevitably represent the medium of theatricality.

[1] SZONDI, Peter, Theorie des modernen Dramas (1880 – 1950), Frankfurt a M, Suhrkamp, 1963, 86.

[2] MARTIN, Carol (ed), Dramaturgy of the Real on the World Stage, London, Palgrave, 2011.

[3] BRECHT, Bertolt, Anmerkungen zur „Dreigroschenoper”, in Unseld Siegfried (Hg.), Bertolt Brechts Dreigroschenbuch. Texte, Materalien, Dokumente, Frankfurt a M, Suhrkamp, 1973, 90.