Historic Drama: an invitation or too big a challenge?

Our Artistic Director shares her opinions on the willingness of others to tackle historic drama.

Because we like to take an interest in theatre beyond our own four walls, and be part of the wider York theatre community, we recently attended the AGM for another local theatrical organisation. Among the interesting moments was their discussion of the inclusion of classical (read “historic”) plays in their repertoire. Although some people seemed quite keen on the idea, it was noted that the more recent occasions when a historic play was calendared, finding a director proved unusually difficult. I had seen notices for those plays and, had I not been tied up with academic commitments, would have jumped on the opportunity, so it had never really occurred that other directors didn’t feel the same excitement.

Is there something about historic plays that directors in particular find intimidating or uninspiring? I don’t really know the answer for sure. Inarguably, there are possible aspects to approaching historic plays that might give someone pause – but it’s hard to talk about historic plays as if they are monolithic. Medieval dramas will present an obvious challenge with language… Renaissance, perhaps, with poetry… the Victorians with a sensibility which seems melodramatic and over the top today… but these are different issues, and any director might be intimidated by one set of circumstances while feel totally okay with another.

One thing which might be universal to historic plays is the feeling that you have to do something “innovative” with them. After all, they’ve been done (and in some cases, done and done and overdone) before, so there is an additional pressure to be ‘clever’. There is also the pressure to create ‘relevance’, rather than letting what relevance is present in the play itself pop to the surface and speak to you. And yet there are an awful lot of directors who are thrilled to tackle Shakespeare, whose plays have some of the densest performance history (and therefore really require something special to stand out). They may feel this is mitigated, ironically, by its very familiarity: if you can be reasonably sure the audience already knows the story of Romeo & Juliet, you might think that you can and should push the boat out pretty far, and clarity is less necessary. (I passionately disagree with that theory, by the way, but I’ve seen enough productions which clearly relied on foreknowledge by the audience to know that sometimes, whether deliberately or not, a dependence on audience awareness is taken for granted.) Conversely, I wonder if some directors feel that ‘classic’ plays require a certain degree of reverence, and therefore circumscribe creativity.

Of course, there is also the possibility that directors don’t have an aversion to historic plays, so much as a preference for modern ones. If you’re hooked on contemporary theatre styles, or plays dealing with contemporary matters, then obviously a call to direct a three-hundred-year-old play might not be particularly exciting to you.

I can’t really speak to the motivations of others, only speculate; because I find historic plays fascinating, it’s hard for me to get into the mind-set of avoiding them. Ultimately, however, I wonder if (perhaps ironically, all things considered) categorising plays by the date they were written isn’t missing the point. A story is interesting to you, or it isn’t, and perhaps by emphasizing the date of writing blinds people to that. Naturally directors need some form of filter to decide what projects they wish to pursue and which ones aren’t for them, but I’m not sure if using a date is the best one possible. Do we do a disservice to historic drama by focusing on that aspect, rather than other ways of describing plays? I really don’t know. A feature which I find attractive may be the opposite to someone else, and anyway you couldn’t get rid of the knowledge that an older play had a long history even if you didn’t describe it primarily as ‘historical’.

I don’t have all of the answers. The only one that I firmly believe to be true is that, if indeed there are people who have an aversion to plays of or about the past, the only way to convince them otherwise is to keep putting them on, continuing to make them as interesting as possible, every chance we get.

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Difficulty with Theatrical Eras

Our Artistic Director gives some of her views on Theatrical Eras, and the idea that William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson are sometimes viewed as from different times.

Many of our brains like labels; box-like systems of organisation. It’s no accident that we usually divide history into defined periods – we have the idea that the years which fall within a certain era have some similar qualities, and are distinct from other periods. In a purely organisational sense, it gives us points of reference – for example, some historic records are organised by the year of a monarch’s reign, rather than the calendrical date. Americans might speak of “the Reagan years” or “the Clinton years” as a shorthand for the 1980s or 90s, and the assumed cultural aspects which are often associated with those times are often thought to have been reflected by those leaders.

Theatre is not exempt from similar concepts, but it is sometimes more complicated. For example, in my PhD thesis I had to argue that The Satire of the Three Estates, which dates from the mid sixteenth century – chronologically quite late to be considered ‘medieval’, should for the purpose be considered a medieval play. Part of my argument was that the people who were staging it in Edinburgh in 1948 considered it to be medieval, and they advertised it as such. This perception (probably due to it containing certain elements which were, and still are, often associated with medieval plays) influenced their decisions about staging, publicity, and probably audience reception.

Which brings me to Ben Jonson. In scholarly circles he would be comfortably considered an ‘early modern’ playwright, which is a nicely wide label. More generally, however, we tend to think of Jonson in two different ways. One is as a Jacobean writer. The other is as a contemporary of Shakespeare – who is generally associated with the Elizabethan period. Which appears to directly contradict that part about Jonson being a Jacobean playwright.

Apart from the monarchs who give their individual names to these eras, a lot of people naturally straddle two (or more) eras if one understands them in terms of who was sitting on the throne of England. Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 – Shakespeare (born in 1564) outlived her by thirteen years; Jonson (born in 1572), by thirty-four. Both men were Elizabethan as well as Jacobean in their timeframe, and in their lived experience. After all, while that change in monarchy was in many ways a significant shift, the world simply did not alter completely overnight; it, and the culture around it, evolutionary processes took place over time.

Over the course of their lives, both men would have seen their world change, and the practices of theatre as well. And yet we (inevitably, but understandably) have popular ideas associated with these eras that colour our thinking about anything connected to them. Elizabeth’s long reign has the patina of success, of ‘Gloriana’, and the forward movements that we tend to call “The Renaissance”. “Jacobean England” seems less familiar (it hasn’t enjoyed the same profusion of exposure through films and novels, for example), harder to define, probably because King James himself was a very different personality, and ruler, than his predecessor. Offhand, Elizabeth’s life might be thought of as the era of the playhouse, where buildings were springing up devoted to performance, and a space where they could be enjoyed by all classes of people. Plays were becoming something you could read and own a copy of, rather than something you could only see once and that was it. By the time James VI/I appeared on the throne, neither the playhouses or the style of plays that had been written for them were quite such a new phenomenon; at court, the masque was the thing. Jonson wrote both plays and a great many masques, so perhaps this is part of why he seems to be more “Jacobean” than Shakespeare, who did not.

In terms of how we view them in the present day, I think how and of when we consider these men and their work to exist colours how we feel about their plays, and perhaps how they are approached. It’s possible that Shakespeare’s association with the Elizabethan era, the apogee of England’s experience of the Renaissance, is one of the reasons he has come down to us as our greatest playwright of all time. Jonson, more connected to James’s era, is associated with a time when the theatre was being questioned, when the Puritans were gaining ascendance, a timeless theatrically celebratory, and perhaps that has helped to keep him somewhat more shadowed: we may appreciate his plays less today because the people of the era could be considered to have appreciated them less. (This is not to suggest that this is the only reason, just a possible one of many.) Shakespeare’s “earlier” era gets the credit for innovation; Jonson’s, merely the carrying on thereof.

The question of eras and periodisation is all, ultimately, so much perception. One of the best descriptions of this I’ve ever found was about the fact that Persia and Iran are the same piece of rock: geographically identical, yet the cultural baggage and perception we often have of each is radically different. Where these early modern dramatists differ, I am inclined to think that, while we may want to assign different eras to them to try to make sense of the ways that Shakespeare and Jonson are different, it has less to do with their time periods, which were after all shared for many years. It was not their times which were so distinct and separate, it was their personalities and individual experiences which made them the playwrights that they were, and gave their voices such distinction.

When Old becomes New

After seeing a touring production of Mankind (a show with which we have quite a recent history) our Artistic Director explains her views on seeing someone else’s take on material with which one has previously worked.

When you work with historic dramas, there’s a fairly good chance that at some point you will have the chance to see another production of a play that you’ve worked on. In such cases, I find it impossible not to make comparisons, to have little voices in your head of the actors you’ve worked with saying the lines, to anticipate the cues that you’re used to.

This weekend I had the chance to see the production of play we have become quite familiar with – Mankind. By now I know that play inside and out, and have three different HIDden variants bouncing around inside my head. Sure enough, that echo was there in my ears, and there were definitely moments where I laughed unexpectedly because it brought back amusing memories. But it was a radically different spin on the play, a completely different style: you’d certainly recognise it as the same play, but it’s like apples and oranges – both fruit, yet very different guises.

This is why I think that the chance to see a play you know and have worked on, when done by someone else, is a chance you should never pass up. The beauty of historic theatre, that makes it so interesting, whether it’s your work or your hobby or just something you go to see occasionally, is that there are so many ways of doing the same piece. As I’ve said before, you can get it completely wrong, but there are also a lot of totally different ways of getting it right.

It might be easy to worry that, in seeing another production, you’ll have to face up to it being better than your own. Sometimes that happens. Other times you walk away wondering what on earth another director or actor was thinking. In most cases I’ve found, however, it’s actually not about comparative value judgements at all. Instead, it’s reassuring, a reminder that you don’t have to spend aeons hunting for “The One Best Way”, because it doesn’t exist. Somebody else’s creative choices might inspire something in you for the future; or you might really love a production and think it’s brilliant but also acknowledge that you simply have a completely different style, and there’s room in the world for both. Theatre isn’t a competition. It’s profoundly analytical – no matter what your engagement with it – but it’s not arithmetic, with one fixed answer and a limited way of getting to it; it’s a world of nearly infinite possibility. (People may talk about “definitive productions” but I personally think that’s the wrong end of the stick. Nothing is ever so brilliant and perfect that it could not be equalled under different conditions.)

It’s also possible that, after having spent a lot of time working on a play, you will have lost your ability to see it objectively, or joyfully. It becomes something where you feel that you’ve wrung out of it all that you could. Seeing someone else’s version of it helps restore perspective, helps you see all theatre with clearer eyes if your own are tired. It’s also just healthy to be an audience member, seeing things from their perspective. When you spend all your time on productions of your own, it’s quite refreshing to really laugh about moments that you had no hand in devising.

So here is my suggestion to you. Go out and see a production of a show you know – one you’ve done, or one you’ve seen before. Don’t watch it to pick a favourite – watch it to think about how each company came up with their different versions, and what each one highlights. Enjoy the fact that, whether you work in theatre full-time or see yourself as just an occasional audience member, you’re part of something so amazingly dynamic.

Pondering Historical Accuracy

Inspired by a BBC News article, our Artistic Director gives some of her thoughts on historical accuracy in drama.

History, theatre and their relationship – we’ve mentioned it here before, and probably will again, because it’s exactly what we do. So we take note when the question about the balance between them is debated in public, as it was recently in an article on BBC News.

The interesting thing is that it always seems to be an either/or discussion. “Artistic licence was favoured over historical accuracy.” “In one camp are the purists who would say if you must do historical fiction then it must be based on the fact… Then there is the second camp.. which is history is always good and what’s really important is to make people excited about history.” The phrase ‘favoured over’ implicitly suggests that one must trump the other, while the division of schools of thought into ‘camps’ posits that there isn’t a possible compromise, not to mention the implication that people won’t get excited about history if it is fact-based. The question “is it even possible to make a historical drama that is 100% accurate” – with answers given of yes and no – continues to suggest that, really, it’s not possible to responsibly chart a middle course. However, the question that isn’t being asked here is: what do we mean by accuracy? Once you start considering this, some of the either/or begins to break down.

If accuracy means that the costumes, set, and props are period appropriate: yes, that’s achievable, and if one of your production goals is to place a story in a time period, there’s not much excuse for getting that wrong carelessly, even it means that your audience will have to get used to something that looks a little bit different from their imagined ideal of that period. If accuracy means language: it may or may not be achievable. If you wanted to, say, create a play about the Roman Empire, are you going to do it in Latin? (And if you are – do you really know what the local accent sounded like?) If the goal is 100% authenticity, that’s a big hurdle to leap over, one that is automatically going to limit your audience to an extremely small number of people. If accuracy means trying to create the feeling of a period, for example in a play set in the past but made up of fictional characters: we’re moving further away from something achievable, because while you can aim to do so by putting in as many details as possible, most of us would be hard pressed to define the “feeling” of our own time, much less one we didn’t live in. If accuracy means trying to convey an idea from the past, rather than the past itself (for example, the way we approached Mankind), you simply can’t measure accuracy in yards of fabric or verb choice, and the definition of success in achieving it isn’t going to calculated in the same way.

What’s really being questioned in this argument about accuracy is what we do with plays when real historical figures are the central characters, when their lives, which we know from documentary history, are put onto the stage. And most of the argument is about whether the absolute facts are followed, in exact chronological order, in the precise locations where they were known to occur. This is where a degree of ‘dramatic licence’ becomes a point of contention.

But even here there are bigger questions that the debate tends to glide over. Let’s imagine that you’re building a production from primary source documents (such as what we’re trying to do with The Vital Spark). Are you obligated to use all of them? Do you have to depict every single known incident in a character’s known history to achieve accuracy? If the answer is no, then you’re making editorial decisions right away, and while everything might be coming from verifiable historical sources, there’s an argument to be made that you’ve already been “inauthentic”. I don’t think even the so-called purists are actually arguing that a drama need be all inclusive.

The BBC article does hit one particular point that is easy to forget: knowing the facts doesn’t mean we know the thoughts or feelings behind them. It’s an almost inevitable historical hole, and one that drama by its nature requires to be filled. So ascribing motivations and thought processes to characters, while going beyond documented fact, is unavoidable. It may open the door to charges of “inaccuracy”, but it would in most cases be equally hard to make a watertight case for an “accurate” version (as opposed to simply a different interpretation). Arguably, you can get it entirely wrong by making things up without supporting evidence or blatantly contradicting what the record indicates, but that doesn’t mean that it’s inherently wrong to try to fill in the question with educated guesses. Since intention behind action is something historians argue over all the time, I don’t think this is the flashpoint of accuracy arguments in most cases, either.

No, it’s the playing fast-and-loose with chronology and geography that seems to get people truly worked up. “That never happened”, “it didn’t happen like that” – these are the cries of the heart from historians who sit through period drama that has taken artistic licence. And I get it, because I’ve been there and done that. (I’m sure the friend who dragged me to see Titanic remembers being presented with a multi-page list of all its inaccuracies the next day.) Historians don’t want audiences to learn things wrong, to become wedded to an idea of the past that is provably erroneous. However, I also get why following history to the letter isn’t always what a writer or director does. Maybe the point they’re trying to make isn’t about history as a thing unto itself. Setting aside, for the moment, commercialism as a goal unto itself, it’s wrong to suggest that there could never be a valid reason for make some (minor) changes to a story in pursuit of a wider narrative.

So: how important is artistic licence? From the vantage point of sitting right down the binary fence of historian and director, my answer would be twofold.

First, that it varies moment to moment in any given piece, and you have to take each case separately. It’s important in that the lack of one inexhaustible definition of “accurate” means there are many different “accuracies”, and as a theatre creator you need to have the freedom to make those choices. You have to be allowed to fill in gaps, actors have to be able to imagine fully-formed characters where the documents may only give you flat facts. A more purist approach than that would be to suggest that there should be no historical theatre (or historical fiction, or even, perhaps, history with interpretation, rather than just facsimiles of historic documents). As creative people, writers and directors need to be allowed to have room to ask bigger questions – of the world, of life, of human nature – through putting things together and taking them apart, and sometimes that is the goal, not historical fidelity, even if the past is part of the question itself. If you’re honest about it to your audience (and that, to me, is a critical component of being responsible to history), there is nothing wrong with asking, What if?

For my second answer, I’m going to echo Dr Tracy Borman’s statement that “where changes are made to the facts then they should be… for a good and justifiable reason.” Otherwise why on earth are you working on a story about history in the first place? Borman adds that “change for change’s sake is irritating,” but I’d go further and say that it’s also irresponsible, both as a historian and as a director. From a director’s standpoint, “just because” is lazy, and also because it’s blatantly saying that you don’t really care about the historical aspects of your production at all. I’d like to think that HIDden’s approach to historic drama isn’t that unusual, and that other directors who work on it try not to put one aspect of their work above the other but work with them in constantly renegotiated tension. If I didn’t believe that history could stand on its own two feet as inherently dramatic, I couldn’t do my job.

If we take on historical drama as our work, we know that audiences will trust that our productions will contain at least some degree of authenticity, and so we are also taking on some degree of educational responsibility. To advertise a production as “a true story” if we have taken liberties is a disservice to everyone involved, including the people of the past whose lives we’re putting onstage. How we make those distinctions available to audience members can vary, but we should at least try to let them know what they’re getting. We should be allowed our measure of artistic licence, but all licences come with responsibility. Historic drama at its best demands that we respect both.

N.B. It is worth noting that, although the production primarily under discussion in the BBC article is one of live drama, many of the examples given in the actual debate are television series, and the goals, needs, and audiences can be radically different between the two. Neither the article nor this essay attempt to delve into them, but it’s worth considering that the answers to these questions may vary considerably with the change in medium.

“Britishness”, a view of culture from a Theatrical Historain

Influenced by some of the thoughts and opinions expressed during, and immediatly following, the UK’s recent referendum on EU membership, our Artistic Director (Laura Elizabeth Rice) considers culture and identity in Britain with a particular focus on the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Every time I sit down to write for the HIDden blog, I try to come up with something interesting that’s caught my eye – a bit about a play we’re currently working on, an item out of my studies or an article we’ve found, for example. This week, however, between putting the finishing touches to my PhD thesis and following the recent current events surrounding the UK’s referendum on membership of the European Union, I have to admit that historic theatre has not been the first thing on my mind in the usual sense. So whilst I try very hard not to mix my personal politics with HIDden’s work, it has been hard to avoid the political developments over the past week.  It has inspired me to reflect, a little, on culture and identity in Britain.

My area of doctoral study is the Festival of Britain in 1951. It’s an interesting time to study because sometimes the period of the early 1950’s seems so present. The Festival was held as a grand national fete, an attempt at cheering up the populace after a costly war and during a continuing period of miserable austerity. It came at a point when Britain was losing its Empire satellites, and immigration from those places was picking up. The country was trying to figure out what it was going to be, and the Festival reflects that: a mixture of forward-looking optimism, especially in the central London event; and an attempt at re-establishing a nostalgic view of itself, particularly in small communities across the land.

Medieval drama might not have featured significantly in terms of frequency of occurrences, but because there were more major revivals in that year than had ever been the case since the early Renaissance, it stands out (and is what I write about in my thesis). Here’s why I think it’s interesting at this particular juncture following the campaign and result of the referendum: whilst the majority of plays performed that summer were from English cycles like York and Chester, it was not without influence from abroad in several ways.

First, due to the way the Reformation happened in Britain, we have a very poor record of surviving dramatic records compared to Continental Europe. They have more plays, and more information about how they were staged. Look at any study of medieval drama from the mid-century or earlier and they will almost invariably invoke Valenciennes, one of the few places to leave illustrations of the intricate, decorated wagons they pulled through the streets for their performances. The design of the York plays in 1951 directly invoked the Valenciennes model. Although we now know that there was a lot of difference in the ways local regions approached their drama in the Middle Ages, in the mid-century period we looked to Europe to understand how our plays might have been staged, and to imagine what kind of plays we might have lost.

Second, there is a fascinating history of cultural exchange at work in the Festival. To backtrack slightly: the explosion of medieval drama in 1951 was in-part owing to the success of morality play productions in Edinburgh in 1948 and 1949. These productions of The Satire of the Three Estates, which appeared yet again in 1951, were often referred to as a “Scottish Jedermann”, a reference to a production which had been a repeated feature at the Salzburg Festival since 1920. Jedermann was a translation of the medieval English Everyman. Everyman is probably the most performed of all English medieval dramas, but it’s not actually English in origin: it’s a translation of the Dutch Elckerlijc.

Third, there is evidence that at least two communities which staged medieval plays in 1951 chose not to use British plays at all, but instead chose Continental ones.

Without even getting into the musical evidence, or the “Festival style” of architecture which came out of 1951 and owed its genesis to Scandinavian developments (both of which would be separate studies well outside my knowledge base), the point is that the Festival of Britain might have advertised itself as a celebration of Britishness, but that Britishness didn’t exist in a geographically and culturally British vacuum. Nothing in the world ever does, and the arts are one of the most amazing form of cultural exchange. We are inspired by the ideas and works of others, from across time and across borders. The amazing thing is that this has always been true, even in eras when travel was hard, when communications were limited, when having the English Channel between Britain and the rest of Europe was a truly formidable thing. Read about the weeks it sometimes took to cross during the Middle Ages, and the ships which sank in the attempt – the modern mind can hardly process how physically cut off we once were; yet these exchanges still happened. Elckerlijc landed on our shores and took root, and then we passed our version on to Austria. So even at our most proudly nationalistic, in the middle of a festival when we announced ourselves proudly to a post-war world, we were celebrating a Britain that was more an international melting pot than we may have realised.

Studying history frequently leaves me feeling extremely cynical. But when I think about the way that the likes of theatre somehow find a way to speak across times and time zones; across borders, cultures and languages, and how the ideas presented in performance become so interwoven into us that we can’t even tell the differences of origin – I feel a little bit hopeful.

Past Performances & Performing the Past

After a recent theatrical visit our Artistic Director started to think about the performance history of dramas and how this can influence an approach to a production. Here are some of her thoughts and ideas.

This week, I had a chance to see the York Minster Mystery Plays. Whilst watching, I inevitably thought of all the other mystery plays I have had the chance to see and work on, in York and elsewhere in the country. I thought about all the mystery plays I have studied; both in the twentieth-century, the Middle Ages and early Renaissance period. I could no more have watched the play “just for fun” – un-analytically – than I could fly to the moon. And, in a way I hadn’t quite thought about it before, it occurred to me what an enormous weight there is on the shoulders of anyone working on historic drama.

In the past, it’s been a general axiom of mine that, if you’re getting ready to work on a play, you should definitely not watch other versions of it. Read the source text, or see the film, if there is such source material, but don’t see other productions of the exact same play you’re preparing for. It’s far too easy to latch onto someone else’s ideas, onto things that have already been done; better to come to the project with fresh eyes, I would think. But I realised, sitting in York Minster, that actually, that isn’t necessarily the best approach to take, because historic plays – have history; and the audience (or actors and others involved) may have a history with them.

When you tackle an historic play, it’s not just another script. It’s not even just a work moored to a particular place and time in the past. It has an entire entourage of heritage in production, and some of those productions may be well-known. How does that change things for your audience, or your actors? They’ll have expectations. They’ll have their own ideas about how things “should” be done, or something they expect the performance to give them. That’s not to say that you are obligated to give them what they expect or think they want; arguably part of what you’re often trying to do is come up with something that presents the play in a new light. But you can’t do new, if you don’t know what’s already been done.

I’m not suggesting that you need to know every production in existence of, say, Hamlet, before working on it. It’s not possible. But it might be a good idea to have some idea of what baggage might be coming into your theatre through the audience or those working on it, beyond the history as presented in the play. Like a snowball rolling downhill, growing larger as it picks up detritus along the way, an historic play will have an entire performance history battened onto it: seminal productions will be remembered, extraordinary performances vividly recalled. And in some ways, this history actually does change the play itself. The 2016 York Minster Mystery Plays would not be what they are if the past sixty years’ large-scale productions hadn’t happened; they were a departure in concept and style, in nearly every sense, from their original form, and have become their own proud tradition, because of that history. People engage with them, as performers and audience, as a direct result of that past. While ninety-five percent of audience members probably aren’t encumbered with in-depth academic knowledge of those earlier productions, and therefore aren’t analysing what they’re seeing with that dancing across the back of their mind, they’re not watching a play which is divorced from that heritage, either. The production history doesn’t have to be conscious baggage. Some of it – or most of it, perhaps – can be subliminal, or simply ambient culture. (Not everyone has seen The Sound of Music but I challenge you to find anyone who has absolutely zero knowledge of it.)

From a purely pragmatic angle, there is also a practical benefit to seeing other productions of a work you’re pondering. Without advocating for the wholesale lifting of any part of another production, seeing a few will give you some idea of broad concepts which work, or don’t. You can look at one and realise that there is an idea you think works very well, or at another and know that you want to do something particular differently because you didn’t think it served the play well in that form. The idea is not to make judgmental comparisons for their own sake (unless, perhaps, you’re in the field of criticism) but to get at why you might think one choice works better than another. In a world of theoretically infinite possibilities, it’s not really a bad thing to do some judicious winnowing of choices, and this is one way of starting to do that.

All of this is broadly true of any drama, of course, not just historic; the historic has just had longer to evolve and has often accrued more cultural baggage, more expectation, or tradition. As much as we’d like to think we come to it with a completely new perspective, we’re part of that wider cultural matrix, and so we should probably approach it intelligently, by being well informed. Besides, as a colleague commented recently, every chance to see theatre is a chance to think about these things, even if it’s a totally different play – you should go any chance you get. There are, as this very situation points out, always chances to try on new ideas.

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.