A Binary Curiosity: Historic versus Modern Drama

Following discussions we have often had at some length at HIDden Theatre about what constitutes Historic/Historical or Modern Drama and what we should be focussing on as a company, we came across an article in Durham University’s student newspaper, Palatinate, entitled ‘The Battle of the Eras‘. This inspired our Artistic Director, Laura Elizabeth Rice, to write about some of her views on the issues raised, spurred on by specific points raised in the article. The pros and cons of working with any particular era of drama have been debated repeatedly in our company and we are certain we have not reached a definitively correct answer – we suspect both contributors to the referenced article, as well as our Laura, have some thoughts which are more true than others and hope putting them out in the open will encourage more people to consider their own views and maybe foster further dramatic creativity. We should also clarify that at HIDden we generally use the term ‘historic’ to refer to works from the past and ‘historical’ for drama about the past.

Humans like to see things in opposition. We often view the world in binary terms: black and white, male and female, old and new. We spill crayon on worksheets in grade school showing off our ability to master the concept of opposites. And then we get older, and realise that they almost never exist, that most things are somewhere between; a mixture, a muddle.

This is part of the reason we’ve spent such a long time coming to a solid definition of what we do at HIDden. What defines “historic” theatre, exactly? Surely the obvious answer is, “It’s not modern.” Well, modern is, of course, subject to change (Shakespeare was modern, once), but even if we can agree that modern is “right now”, it’s still not a cut-and-dried answer. This means that we tend to take a flexible attitude toward the plays we do, and the ways we approach them.

All of this is why I was so interested to read an article debating the merits of historic drama versus modern. George Breare, president of Durham University Classical Theatre, argues for the reasons why he finds historic drama particularly compelling; while Alex Prescot, president of Battered Soul Theatre, makes a case for modern theatre. Although their points are not directly parallel to one another, each make points that are entirely valid, as well as some I’d question. Since HIDden is trying to find a path that doesn’t hew to either extreme, I wanted to sit down and consider their arguments, and what they mean from a third perspective.

Curiously, both seem to have the perception that the other type of theatre is the predominant one. I think part of this has to do with the views in and out of academic theatre programmes. As someone attached to a theatre department myself, I will agree that in some universities there does seem to be quite a visible predominance of “the innovative and experimental” that Breare suggests. I’m not sure this same absolute dominance of the modern or ultra-modern is true outside of the academic world, however; it really seems to be a question of how wide you are casting the net: urban spaces with vibrant theatre scenes tend to have a mix, while more rural areas, with fewer theatre options, do often tend towards the “classic” (albeit often modern classic, rather than an entire diet of Shakespeare). But there are entire sections of historic drama – medieval, for example, or, say, ancient Greek – that you don’t see all that often, and there is a lot of historic drama that is still not considered “canonical”, or is just not known very well, that gets neglected.

We, also, should not see “the innovative and experimental” as incompatible with the historic. Breare and I would completely agree that one of the joys of historic drama is, as he says, “unpick[ing] the conditions of a different period” – but you can also look at what isn’t different from that era to today. As he suggests, there is lots of room to be innovative with classic drama – look at the legions of different ways people have approached Shakespeare. Nobody ever said that every historic drama must be set in its own time, staged in a traditional manner (and we could debate what that even means – the early twentieth-century experiments into recreating Elizabethan staging conditions were incredibly innovative after centuries of being trapped in a proscenium). If anything, I think that historic plays invite the challenge of finding new ways to see them, to use what can be found in their times and in ours to create something new and challenging. By the same token, I would agree that there is much to be said for the Prescot’s enthusiasm for innovative staging and alternative venue use, for site-specific theatre, but I don’t think that’s incompatible with historical plays, either. Drama – all drama, any drama – should be an invitation for creative thinking. (As an interesting side note to this, whilst I was writing this, I stumbled upon an interesting piece on a new staging for A Chorus Line, a play which has been somewhat preserved in amber. Needless to say, I’m glad it’s getting some new life infused into it. For the curious, click here)

Where I do disagree is about the financial aspects. It’s true that rights are cheaper (i.e. non-existent) for plays whose authors have been dead for centuries, but if you’re staging them in their original period, you’ll more than make up the cost of performance rights through costume and set expenditures – not, as stated previously, that there the automatic need to stage them thus. There’s really no reason that many historic plays can’t work just as well in the kind of spare (affordable) staging that Prescot advocates as an advantage to modern drama. Conversely, there are a lot of modern productions (I’m thinking particularly of musical theatre, which is modern, and yes, I do count it as “drama”) which require incredibly complex, and expensive, staging. Age is not an indicator of fiscal viability, and I’d very much like to hope that a company’s choice to focus on historic versus modern would be artistic, and not driven by finance. (Let’s face it: theatre is generally not wealth, no matter what kind you do!)

Play for play, Prescot is probably correct that modern plays don’t get as many revivals as some deserve, but I suspect that’s less for financial reasons and more because, well, there are so many. The more finite number of historic plays that have survived means that each one stands out more, and that they get more repetitions because of familiarity, or because there are simply fewer to choose from. The catalogue of modern plays is dismayingly enormous; one hardly knows where to begin, and by sheer statistics, if we assume an even distribution of revivals (which obviously won’t happen, all plays not being equal) there is still much more territory to cover.

Ultimately, I feel about plays the way I do about people: you have to take each one on its own merits, and the categories aren’t the driving fact about why I might want to consider working on one. I’ve specialised in drama connected with history not because there is no merit in other types, but because it happens to combine two of my personal passions. But we keep the door as wide as possible, because, artistically, one needs different challenges, and everyone, especially audiences, can benefit from variety. Historic and modern drama don’t need to be in opposition. Finding connections between them keeps everyone on their toes, and surely the theatre created can only benefit from that.