History Plays


Some of the greatest dramatic literature is set in an era preceding its composition. This is always true of a form of dramatic literature we usually call by a different name (Plato’s dialogues); but it is also true of some of the most celebrated drama, plays that we identify with the core of the Western theatrical tradition (for example, much of Greek tragedy). And it is very famously true of some of the greatest work by Shakespeare, Schiller, and Corneille. Some of the best contemporary playwrights also set some of their work in the past: Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, Arcadia, The Invention of Love, and The Coast of Utopia are all, in one or another sense, history plays. Setting a play in the past can create and exploit dramatic irony (The audience knows the history to come; the protagonists usually do not.), but there is no single reason for setting a play in the past. For some playwrights, history provided the grandest kind of spectacle, a site of splendid and terrible (hence, dramatic) events. Their treatment of the past may not depict it as radically discontinuous with the present or necessarily different in kind. Other playwrights may make the past setting little more than an allegory of the present; Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (1898) seems to be a celebration of Victorian liberal imperialism. The playwright may set work in the past as part of an urgent analysis of the origins of his own situation. Michael Frayn’s best play, Benefactors, was written in 1984 but set in the late 1960s and attempts to locate the causes of the then-recent collapse of political liberalism, seeking in history an answer that could be found only there. But another of Frayn’s plays with a historical setting, Copenhagen, does not necessarily focus on something irretrievably past; rather, its interests may be concentrated on a living problem of undiminished urgency. Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, arguably the most successful work of 1960s political theatre, was a history play focused on what then seemed the explicit and unbreakable link between late 18th-century politics and the politics of the present. A recent play by Alan Bennett, The History Boys, seeks to illuminate something about the political present by examining a changing fashion in the teaching of history. In this course, we will read a number of works of dramatic literature—all of them, in one sense or another, history plays written for various purposes and of generally very high quality. We may or may not discover anything common to all history plays, but we will read some good books.