Mind the Gap: Research Between the Lines

This week our Artistic Director, Laura Elizabeth Rice, has been considering gaps in historical evidence and how this can affect both academia and theatre.

In my “other” life, I spend a lot of time working on my PhD thesis, which focuses on performances of medieval plays during the 1951 Festival of Britain. At first that must seem completely removed from HIDden. Actually, some days – many days – there isn’t that much difference between the two. I’ve written previously about some of the places I go to for theatrical inspiration, and it probably goes without saying that the first source of inspiration is, of course, the text itself: the play is the first place to look for ideas, suggestions, and what aspects catch your eye. I mention this because, while the text is the play, quite literally, it is also an artefact itself, a document which exists from some earlier point in time, and that’s where I start looking next for ideas: the past, the records, of what we know about that play from its previous incarnations. Research for my thesis or research for HIDden: in both cases, the documentation is similar, with frequently identical gaps in the record.

In both cases, a lot of the records that I have to work with are detached from the productions almost entirely: they’re actually civic records, minutes and accounts of city government which had some hand in organising and/or financing the plays. It’s more true for the medieval than more modern events, but in both cases, records from the people who actually worked on the plays are pretty limited. (This is especially true of the small towns which put on medieval plays in 1951. In many of those cases, the medieval records actually offer more information than is available for events just sixty years ago!) These records offer oblique information at best: for example, X amount of money was spent on the repair of an angel’s wings. That tells us that a) the angels had wings, and b) they were made of a material with a certain cost, which might hint at what that material was, but… that’s it. Put enough of these pieces together, where you can, and you can start to get a vague idea of what a play might have been like. (And to those who are really curious, I would direct you to the extraordinary Records of Early English Drama, a massive and ongoing compilation of these information nuggets.) You’ll never find a document that says, “This is what our play was like.” You always have to imagine it from the bits and pieces.

While the Middle Ages has been my area of speciality, the same concerns exist across most other eras as well. The need to create a documentary record of performances was never foremost in anyone’s mind, so what has been saved is haphazard rather than deliberate. “The play’s the thing”, not the archive. At some point, I hope to sit down and write about the issues, ideas, and debates around documenting performances deliberately (and whether we even should, or can), but for the present, suffice to say that for academic work, the random survival of records makes it very challenging to write accurately about what a play or performance might have been like. I confess that I was surprised by this: I had assumed that the 1950’s would be much better documented than the fifteenth century; just like that earlier period, it all depends on whether a performance happened in an area that was urban or rural, wealthy or impoverished, and whether the city government, rather than ad hoc groups of citizens, was the driving force behind a performance. In the latter case, even today, you can be pretty sure that it won’t leave much of a documentary trail.

For HIDden, unlike my thesis, in many ways I’m grateful for the gaps. I don’t want to re-create someone else’s production of a play, and if you know too much about the way things have been done before, you run that risk. I’ve been involved in productions that became, effectively, a staged version of a film, down to the way actors delivered lines; so even if there is a filmed or taped production available, I make a point of not watching it from the moment I contemplate working on a play to the day it closes. Where I’m reliant on limited documentation to understand a previous, historic performance, the gaps become the space where I have to make decisions and imagine, where the production becomes our own. The truth is that, in both my theatrical and academic work, it’s the missing pieces that intrigue. They can be utterly maddening at times, but those gaps are what keep us questioning, wondering, and dreaming.

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