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Plays

3 Winters

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Tena Štivičić’s play 3 Winters follows a single Croatian family living in Zagreb throughout the vicissitudes of the nation's history between 1945 and 2011. It was first performed in the Lyttelton auditorium of the National Theatre, London, on 3 December 2014 (previews from 26 November) and went on to win the 2015 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.

The play's action is set in and around the Kos family house in Zagreb, Croatia, in three alternating time periods: November 1945, January 1990, and November 2011 (with the exception of the first scene, which takes place in an office in Zagreb in 1945). In 1945 we see Rose, with her mother, husband and their baby daughter, Maša, moving into a partitioned house at the time of the victory of Tito’s communist partisans. By 1990, Maša and her history-teacher husband, Vlado, are occupying the same house, with their young daughters, at the very moment when Croatia and Slovenia are about to break up the dominant Yugoslavian communist regime. Finally we meet the Kos family in 2011 when Maša’s youngest daughter, Lucija, is about to marry an avaricious entrepreneur and Croatia is on the brink of joining the capitalist club of the European Union.

In an article published on the National Theatre's blog (http://national-theatre.tumblr.com/post/103126868756/tena-%C5%A1tivi%C4%8Di%C4%87-on-3-winters), Štivičić writes: 'The very first moments of inspiration for this play came from stories in my family. My mother’s, my aunt’s, my grandmother’s and even my great grandmother’s when I was very little. These women spoke in very different voices, each with a different set of tools, or in fact, lack of tools to express their circumstances and articulate the plight of their life.'

The National Theatre premiere was directed by Howard Davies and designed by Tim Hatley. It was performed by Charlotte Beaumont, Lucy Black, Susan Engel, Siobhan Finneran, Daniel Flynn, Hermione Gulliford, Jo Herbert, Alex Jordan, Gerald Kyd, James Laurenson, Jonny Magnanti, Jodie McNee, Alex Price, Adrian Rawlins, Sophie Rundle, Bebe Sanders and Josie Walker.

55 Days

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Howard Brenton's 55 Days is a historical drama set at the culmination of the English Civil War when the future, not only of the King, but of the nation itself is decided. The play was first performed at Hampstead Theatre, London, on 18 October 2012.

The play's action begins in December 1648. The Army has occupied London. Parliament votes not to put the imprisoned King on trial, so the Army moves against Westminster in the first and only military coup in English history. What follows over the next fifty-five days, as Oliver Cromwell seeks to compromise with a king who will do no such thing, is nothing less than the forging of a new nation.

The Hampstead Theatre premiere was directed by Howard Davies, with Mark Gatiss as King Charles, Douglas Henshall as Oliver Cromwell, Gerald Kyd as John Lilburne and Simon Kunz as Lord Fairfax. The production was generally well received by the critics, with The Guardian applauding its 'fervent dramatic power' and the Evening Standard noting that 'It could have been a dour history lesson. Instead it engages with the present, raising some pungent questions about the kind of democracy we have in Britain today.'

In an article describing the play's genesis (published at http://nickhernbooksblog.com/2012/10/25/howard-brenton-a-forgotten-revolution-the-historical-context-to-55-days/), Brenton wrote: 'Recently I met a Frenchman in London and we fell to talking about the high drama of the climax of the French Revolution: the struggle between Danton and Robespierre. "In this country you don’t remember you also had a revolution," he said, adding, rather waspishly, "and you don’t realise you still live with the consequences". He was right. The heroic, horrific story of our revolution, the Civil War that began in 1642 and resulted in the execution of King Charles I in 1649, is not part of our national consciousness.'

Albert's Boy

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Graham’s portrait of Einstein’s tortured conscience is delightfully tinged with both homely and black humour, in a play that is nonetheless deeply serious about questions of pacifism and necessity.

It is 1953 and Albert Einstein’s house is empty, his cat is missing, he can’t unify the fields of relativity and particle physics and he can’t escape his guilt. When a family friend, newly released from a POW camp, comes to visit, a warm reunion soon becomes a collision of opposing beliefs on the subjects of evil, the winning of wars and the construction of the atomic bomb. Albert’s Boy is both a fascinating biographical sketch and a passionate duet about the ethics of moral responsibility. The play premiered at the Finborough Theatre in 2005.

All For Love

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

All for Love, or The World Well Lost is John Dryden's epic adaptation of the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra into a neo-classical quintet with supporting voices. The play, which the 1678 quarto titlepage claims is ‘Written in Imitation of Shakespeare’s Stile’, draws heavily on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra; it does away, however, with the salaciousness of Shakespeare’s text, and reduces his temporal and geographical range to that of one time and place as per Aristotelian dramatic unities. The play was arguably intended to be seen in direct relation to the contemporary Antony and Cleopatra: A Tragedy (1677), written by politician and playwright Charles Sedley. Dryden’s application of neo-classical conventions and contemporary dramatic practice gives the classic love story a structural beauty and an austere power.

After Cleopatra’s desertion of Antony at the battle of Actium, not only his wife Octavia but also his general Ventidius and his friend Dolabella strive to win him over to their side. Antony, torn between the claims of duty, friendship, dignity and love, despairs when he hears the rumour of Cleopatra's death, which is not, as in Shakespeare’s version, spread by the queen herself but by her deceitful eunuch.

The first recorded performance was at the Theatre Royal, London by the King’s Company in 1677. The play’s political implications have perhaps been lost over time: absolute monarchy and the illicit love of a ruler were highly topical concerns in a post-Restoration Britain, when King Charles II’s extra-marital amours, most famously with the celebrated actress Nell Gwyn, were the subject of much anxiety.

Anne Boleyn

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Howard Brenton's Anne Boleyn is a dramatisation of the life and legacy of the notorious second wife of Henry VIII. It was first performed at Shakespeare's Globe, London, on 24 July 2010.

King James I, rummaging through the dead Queen Elizabeth’s possessions upon coming to the throne in 1603, finds alarming evidence that Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, was a religious conspirator in love with Henry VIII but also with the most dangerous ideas of her day. Anne comes alive for him as a brilliant but reckless young woman confident in her sexuality, whose marriage and death transformed England forever. The potent love between Anne and Henry is so alive and electric that it cannot be contained in the stultifying social mores of the time, but is viewed with alarm by those at Court who fear the threat it poses to their position and influence.

The premiere at Shakespeare's Globe was directed by John Dove, with Miranda Raison as Anne Boleyn, James Garnon as King James and Anthony Howell as King Henry. It was well received by the critics, with the Daily Mail (not generally favourable to Left-leaning playwrights) commenting 'It takes a big, generous spirit to fill the Globe, and in this Brenton follows Shakespeare – not just with asides and soliloquies, but with a large colourful canvas.' The play was named Best New Play at the Whatsonstage.com Awards in 2011.

Anne Boleyn was revived at the Globe in 2011 and toured regionally in 2012 in a joint production between Shakespeare’s Globe and English Touring Theatre.

Antony and Cleopatra (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Antony and Cleopatra rival Romeo and Juliet for the title of most famous lovers in Western drama. Shakespeare’s play, probably written around 1606-7 (though not appearing in print until the First Folio of 1623), reflects the popularity of the story in the early modern imagination. Shakespeare’s play is heavily indebted to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans, written in the first century AD, and translated into English by Sir Thomas North in 1579.

Marc Antony is one of three triumvirs ruling Rome following the assassination of Julius Caesar. Neglecting his political duties, he lingers in Egypt with Cleopatra, a queen who sees herself as a demigod, an embodied Isis. When unrest threatens Rome, Antony must leave Cleopatra in order to solidify his power against threats from Pompey and fellow triumvir Octavius Caesar. Despite marrying Octavia, the passive sister of Caesar, for the sake of peace, he soon longs for his ‘wrangling queen’ and returns to Egypt. The ensuing war between the lovers and Octavius Caesar engulfs the Roman world. The eponymous lovers are unable to reconcile their martial defeat and its consequent shame with their hyperbolic self-images, and commit two of the most memorable suicides in the Shakespearean canon.

From its earliest audiences, Antony and Cleopatra has received criticism. Post-Restoration critics knocked the play for the way it disregarded the classical unities of drama, which stated that a play should cover one idea, in one place, at one time. With its action historically spanning a decade, and its scenes ranging from Europe to Africa and back again, the play affronted those who desired a neater retelling of the famous love story. John Dryden took it upon himself to rewrite the tragedy in his play All for Love, first performed in 1677: covering only the last day of the lives of Antony and Cleopatra, the play reaches for a grander love affair, removed from the lust, jealousy and self-inflation of Shakespeare’s play. Scholarly criticism has dwelt upon the play’s use of opposites, the imagery of instability, and the performance of gender on the early modern stage (to which Cleopatra metatheatrically refers, when she fears boy actors will portray her ‘squeaking [. . .] i’th’posture of a whore’ [5.2.219-20].

The staging of the play has long been of special interest to critics and theatre-makers alike: the play calls for a sea-battle, and a colossal monument to Cleopatra up to which the dying Antony must be hoisted. Notable Antonys have included John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Patrick Stewart; notable Cleopatras Peggy Ashcroft, Vanessa Redgrave and Mark Rylance, in the 1999 all-male production at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London.

Appomattox

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

4th March, 1865: On the night of his second inauguration, a few weeks before his assassination, Abraham Lincoln meets the veteran black abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the White House to discuss the prospect of extending the vote to black men who have served in the soon to be victorious Union armies.

4th March, 1965: In the White House, Lyndon Johnson, anxious to introduce a new Voting Rights Act, is briefed by his sinister and "unfirable" FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, on the imminent Selma to Montgomery march, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. It is a demonstration prompted by a state trooper's murder of the young activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, in Marion, Alabama, following a rally in support of voter registration in Perry County.

In this play, Christopher Hampton traces a line which runs from the last days of a brutal Civil War to the high-water mark of the Civil Rights movement and on, all the way to the present day; and considers the agonisingly slow healing of a wound, universal, but especially deep and painful in America: racism.

Appomattox premiered at the McGuire Proscenium Stage in the Guthrie Theater on 5 October, 2012.

The Art of Success

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Eighteenth century London. The world of art is on the brink of transformation, about to spread from the drawing rooms of the rich to public houses across the country. Compressing the events of ten tumultuous years into a single night, Nick Dear uncovers the hidden world of seminal artist William Hogarth. The Art of Success is a raucous play with resonant debates about gender, sex, hedonism in the face of censorship and the responsibility of the artist.

The Art of Success by Nick Dear was first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, in July 1986.

The Astronaut’s Chair

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Rona Munro's The Astronaut's Chair is a play about the race to be the first woman in space. The second of a proposed trilogy of plays about space exploration, it followed her earlier play Little Eagles (2011), about the engineer behind the Soviet space programme.

The Astronaut's Chair was commissioned by and first performed at the Drum Theatre, Plymouth, on 20 September 2012.

The play's protagonist, Renee Coburg (loosely based on pioneer woman aviator Jacqueline Cochran), is a gritty, glamorous aviator, the fastest, highest, bravest woman in the world. A self-made pilot, she battled against a poor childhood to fly planes in World War II. As America and the USSR enter the space race, she becomes determined to be the first woman to go into orbit. However, it won’t all be plain sailing as she faces stiff competition from an ambitious new rival. Jo Green is a determined, brilliant and much younger pilot with her eye on all Renee’s records. They both want to be the first woman in space but there’s only one chair at the top of the rocket.

The Drum Theatre production was directed by Simon Stokes and designed by Bob Bailey. The cast included Ingrid Lacey (as Renee Coburg), Tom Hodgkins, Jack Sandle, Eleanor Wyld and Amanda Ryan.

Battle Royale

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

1795: England is at war with France, women are seen but not heard, and the Prince Regent, a man with ‘an undeserved reputation for enjoying the amusements of his position whilst not embracing duties’, is under pressure to marry and produce and heir.

Historical drama is almost as old as theatre itself and continues to play a viable role in contemporary theatre. For the oldest surviving play, The Persians in 472 B.C.E., Aeschylus drew on events from the Greco-Persian War in which he had fought eight years earlier. Using historical characters and events, he imagined dialogue, compressed episodes for dramatic effect, and dramatised material to make points relevant to his contemporary audience, all strategies that remain part of the genre. In The Poetics almost 140 years later, Aristotle advised that tragedies based on history increased an audience’s belief in the probability of events and thus heightened the emotional impact of the play.

“History play”, describing a genre as opposed to the subject matter of a play, has imprecise origins and boundaries. When the editors of the 1623 folio edition divided Shakespeare’s plays into comedies, tragedies, and histories, they already had some sense of the history play as a distinct dramatic type, but among the histories they included Richard II and Richard III, which today we consider as tragedies, emphasizing the difficulty of making sharp generic distinctions.

In the 19th century the term “chronicle", which had medieval origins, was introduced to describe plays that depicted a series of events in temporal order, unified usually by a central character or a specific occasion. Some critics posited a more disconnected, episodic sequence in the “Chronicle play", contrasting with a cause and effect order of events in the history play. While a useful distinction, it was not observed by playwrights in any period. Today the term history play describes any play ostensibly drawing on actual events.

With the development of theatre in the Renaissance, the history play re-emerged from the religious moralities, a process we can see in England with John Bale’s King Johan, written about 1538 for the court of Henry VIII. Here the abstract characters of the morality play morph into historical figures with King John depicted as a proto-Protestant battling an evil pope. Christopher Marlowe developed the genre more fully with his Edward II and The Massacre at Paris, both probably written in 1593, and Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy and the Richard II/Henry IV/V tetralogy follow in the 1590s. After the death of Elizabeth in 1603, the popularity of the genre rapidly declined to the point that John Ford in the prologue to his history play Perkin Warbeck, published in 1634, commented that the genre was “of late so out of fashion, so unfollowed.” This was in large part because the focus of art in this period was to depict universal truths unencumbered by the peculiarities of specific times and places.

Interest in history plays revived in the early 19th century with the Romantic rejection of neoclassicism in favor of a view that history depicts a metaphysical plane revealing itself as it unfolds through the material world. Historical precedent was also enlisted to support emerging forces of nationalism, democracy, and spiritualism. Friedrich Schiller in Germany, Victor Hugo in France, and most of the important English Romantic poets wrote history plays, though of the latter group only Alfred Lord Tennyson’s plays had any degree of commercial success. Historical authenticity became a new standard for elaborate stage spectacles throughout Europe and America, and even melodrama explored historical or pseudo historical material.

In spite of elaborate staging, the 19th century history plays were basically biographical dramatisations of major historical figures. Early 20th century historical drama kept this focus, but reflecting the rise of realism, often shifted toward domestic settings and greater emphasis on the private rather than public lives of “shakers and movers.” The English playwright John Drinkwater created half a dozen successful bio-dramas between 1918 and 1925, two of the most popular dealing with prominent Americans Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. George Bernard Shaw, in separate plays, reshaped General John Burgoyne, Julius Caesar, and Joan of Arc into social iconoclasts who advocated Shaw’s political and social ideas.

Saint Joan was also the subject of one of the American Maxwell Anderson’s more than half a dozen historical dramas. Of these, three of the most successful, written in verse, dealt with British queens: Elizabeth the Queen (1930), Mary of Scotland (1933), and Anne of a Thousand Days (1948). The most successful verse dramatisation of the period was T.S. Eliot’s one historical play Murder in the Cathedral (1935), depicting the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett. Christopher Fry also cast historical material into verse. His most successful play, Curtmantle (1962), dealt as well with Beckett, but focused more on King Henry II, who was also the subject of James Goldman’s popular 1966 play The Lion in Winter. This, like John Osborne’s 1961 psycho-biographical history play, Luther, was successfully adapted as a film.

Another variation of historical drama developed in the 1930s— outdoor summer productions, often with musical accompaniment, staged principally in America. The first outdoor symphonic drama, Paul Green’s The Lost Colony, opened in 1937 and is still performed. Green wrote eight subsequent history plays for outdoor theatres, often built especially for each play. His plays usually retained a central male figure, but focused more broadly on how events impact a community, reflecting the influence of the early 20th century Community Pageant Movement. The even more prolific Kermit Hunter wrote as many as 40 outdoor historical plays. While the vogue for outdoor historical plays peaked in the 1960s, more than 30 are still produced each summer in the United States. Their impact is measurable more as a social phenomenon and an economic resource for communities than in the quality of the scripts produced.

After World War II attitudes toward historical studies began to shift, a change eventually echoed in the structure of history plays. Traditional historical studies, termed pejoratively “Old History” or “Whig History", focused on political and military events, commonly from a Euro-centric perspective. Individuals, usually male representatives of the dominant culture, shaped events that led progressively to the ascendance of the hegemony. Historical “facts” that could be discovered and objectively reported were assumed to exist. The first challenges came from Marxist historians who viewed history in terms of economic forces and class conflict. Later a group of French historians known as the Annalistes shifted attention away from dominant figures to social, cultural, and demographic processes. The Deconstructionists, influenced by Jacques Derrida, called into question the efficacy of any metanarrative of history and rejected the positivist confidence that historical data could be objectively discovered and reported.

Many contemporary historical dramas exploit the strategies of new history. In addition to Marxist histories, social histories dramatise group actions rather than those of individuals, and oppositional histories depict events from the outlook of the oppressed, the losers, or the disenfranchised. Feminist drama borrows from other historical approaches to reposition women and gender issues in the historical account. Conventional narratives are challenged by Deconstructionist histories that use pastiche techniques and emphasize micronarratives.

Traditional historical methods were not abandoned but reconfigured. For example, Joan Littlewood in satirizing World War I in Oh What a Lovely War! (1963) intermixed music hall techniques with projected charts, clippings, and graphics, the latter used earlier by the Living Newspaper docudramas of the Federal Theatre project to dramatise recent events.

Historical drama had always carried messages, but in contemporary theatre, history serves even more blatantly to support specific agendas. For example, Charles Wood’s pacifist play Dingo (1967) used expressionist and music hall techniques to deconstruct World War II in North Africa from the viewpoint of common soldiers, a technique of social history. David Hare’s Fanshen (1975) is a Marxist micro-history recreating the collective process at work in a Chinese village. Caryl Churchill combined social, Marxist, and feminist history in a number of plays. Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976) dramatises the English Civil War in terms of the frustrated objectives of Levelers, Diggers, and Ranters, with multiple actors playing a single character to deemphasize the individual’s role in shaping historical events.

This more complex view of history has reawakened contemporary playwrights, particularly in the British theatre, to the rich possibilities of the history play.

Richard H. Palmer, Ph.D., Professor of Theatre, The College of William and Mary