“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.

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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.