Someone in a Tree, History’s Audience

This week our Artistic Director considers the role of those who view and recall or record events in history – an audience of sorts.

In the musical Pacific Overtures (which, I think, is a brilliant piece of theatre about history, though it is not performed often), there’s a song called ‘Someone in a Tree’. It deals with an episode where no records were kept, and writers Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman had to find a way to both show this gap, and also make sense of it to the audience. Much of it is sung by a character who claims to have been a witness to these lost events, but at a distance, while hiding in a nearby tree, and so he can offer no details. The result is a song which says something incredibly interesting about history and the act of witness:

And there’s someone in a tree

Or the day is incomplete.

Without someone in a tree,

Nothing happened there.

I am hiding in a tree,

I’m a fragment of the day.

If I weren’t, who’s to say

Things would happen here the way

That they happened here?…

In a way, ‘Someone in a Tree’ is a brilliant reiteration of the hoary old question “if a tree fell in a forest and no one was there to hear it, would it make a sound?” Of course the obvious answer is yes, because sound waves and physics don’t require participation by outsiders to occur – just as events and lives happen even if no one documents their stories – but then, the question wasn’t really about a tree in the first place.

History isn’t about what actually happens, because only those who are present in any given moment can know that, and even then an event or experience is interpreted by those individuals, filtered through their perspectives. The reality of history is that it is determined by what is documented and that documentation can build its own story, its own momentum, and effectively become known as “the true history” when there are no surviving witnesses. In essence, if no one records that a tree fell in the forest, it doesn’t make a sound across time, because there will be no way to know that it happened. (I do not, in this instance, mean “document” in a strictly paper sense: archaeology might tell us that this hypothetical tree had fallen; dendrochronology might tell us when; but if no archaeological research was ever conducted on that forest, the fact of the tree’s demise would be lost to us.)

What brought this to mind was reading about Ben Jonson’s walk from London to Edinburgh, which has been a point of inspiration and departure for our A Journey with Jonson, particularly in the play Ben and Steenie. That he went on this journey has been long known; that someone went with him to record the journey is a relatively new discovery (by James Loxley in 2009). It certainly stands to reason that he would have had a companion: not only would such a journey have been much more pleasant, and safer, in company, but if the walk was indeed part of a bet Jonson had made, as has been suggested, he would have needed someone to go along to make sure he did complete it to the terms set down. If Jonson had travelled alone, the lack of record certainly wouldn’t negate the fact that he did walk to Edinburgh, but Loxley’s discovery of his companion’s account means that we now know details of the trip that had, heretofore, been lost – and in being lost, they had effectively not happened to our knowledge. Historical discoveries are like that, a resurrection of sorts; they seem to bring to life events that had “unhappened” by virtue of being unknown.

While Jonson’s travels weren’t technically a performance, his companion acted as an audience. And this is a point where history and drama connect. The metaphorical tree falls whether or not there is witness and record, but it only leaves traces and continues to impact the future if it does in some way have, or creates, an audience. We are conscious of this sort of ephemerality in the performing arts but tend to forget that aspect when considering the past. We know more about Jonson now than we did twenty years ago, because his “audience” was rediscovered.

In Ben and Steenie, writer Brean Hammond has chosen not to include a character as Ben Jonson’s travelling companion. This character isn’t necessary, because the audience, in effect, becomes that extra entity. It stands in as witness to his experiences – and its participants get to see some events that Jonson does not, which adds an important layer to the question of what “really” happened. While there are elements of the play which are fictionalised, putting the audience in that all-important role as witness (as audiences, by definition, always are) becomes a reminder that even if our role in history is only to see it as it happens, that act carries weight. Whether onstage or in real life, we are part of the history happening all around us.

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