Stage Histories

Post-War British Historical Drama

by Paweł Schreiber (Author)
©2016 Monographs 192 Pages


The book presents post-war British historical drama not only as a phenomenon within literature and theatre, but also as an alternative form of representing the past, not as much competing with historiography as complementing it. The author shows how some of the central concerns of late twentieth-century methodology of history were also crucial for the historical drama of that time by applying Hayden White’s classification of categories determining the shape of historical writing to the plays of Robert Bolt, David Hare, Howard Barker and Tom Stoppard. The plays discussed in the book offer not only different visions of past events, but also different visions of historiography itself.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • 1. Introduction
  • 1.1. Histories and the stage
  • 1.2. The Definition of Historical Drama
  • 1.3. Historical drama and methodology of history
  • 1.3.1. Thucydides and the idea of reconstruction
  • 1.3.2. Naïve representationism and its critique
  • 1.4. Hayden White’s Metahistory
  • 1.4.1. Hayden White’s tropology
  • Metonymy
  • Synecdoche
  • Metaphor
  • Irony
  • 1.5. The structure of the book
  • 2. Robert Bolt: Between Metonymy and Synecdoche
  • 2.1. Brecht in England
  • 2.2. A Man for All Seasons
  • 2.2.1. Metonymy
  • 2.2.2. Synecdoche
  • 2.2.3. The discrepancy between metonymy and synecdoche
  • 2.2.4. The choice between metonymy and synecdoche
  • 2.3. Vivat! Vivat Regina!
  • 2.3.1. Metonymy
  • 2.3.2. The choice between metonymy and synecdoche
  • 2.4. Freedom from history
  • 3. David Hare: The Individual and Society
  • 3.1. Hare, Brecht and Bolt
  • 3.2. Synecdoche in Hare’s plays
  • 3.2.1. Fanshen
  • 3.2.2. Licking Hitler
  • 3.2.3. Plenty
  • 3.2.4. Teeth ‘n’ Smiles
  • 3.3. Three types of Hare’s synecdochic characters
  • 3.4. Metaphor and irony in Hare’s plays
  • 4. Howard Barker: History and Anti-history
  • 4.1. Howard Barker’s drama
  • 4.2. Metonymy and synecdoche
  • 4.2.1. Metonymy
  • 4.2.2. Combining metonymy with synecdoche
  • 4.3. Irony
  • 4.3.1. Aristotle and Thucydides: the possible and the probable
  • 4.3.2. Metaphor and explanation
  • 4.4. History and the Body
  • 4.5. History and the One
  • 5. Tom Stoppard: Metaphor Overcoming Irony
  • 5.1. The antecedents: After Magritte and The Real Inspector Hound
  • 5.1.1. After Magritte
  • 5.1.2. The Real Inspector Hound
  • 5.2. Irony in Tom Stoppard’s plays
  • 5.2.1. Travesties
  • 5.2.2. Squaring the Circle
  • 5.3. Overcoming irony by means of metaphor
  • 5.3.1. Indian Ink
  • 5.3.2. Arcadia
  • 5.3.3. Empathy in Indian Ink and Arcadia
  • 5.3.4. Rock’n’Roll
  • 5.4. Against the flow of history
  • 6. Conclusion
  • 6.1. The individual and history
  • 6.2. History and the truth
  • 6.3. Conclusion – getting the story crooked
  • Bibliography

← 10 | 11 →1.Introduction

1.1.Histories and the stage

The title significantly contains the word ‘histories’ - in the plural. One of the discoveries made in the twentieth-century humanities was that the monolythic nature of history has to be regarded as an illusion. In the place of a single, all-encompassing narrative describing past events, there appeared a number of accounts, not only different from each other, but very often incompatible. In the post-war world, together with the fading of colonialism, the tales of the European conquerors became supplemented by those of the conquered, originating in Asia and Africa. The shock connected with the Soviet and Nazi totalitarian regimes forced many to look closer at the abuse of history in their propaganda, and ultimately search for alternative visions of the past. With the increase in literacy and the growing level of education, many social groups which had not had their own audible voice in the pre-war world started to explore their identities and compiling their own histories, often opposed to those offered by the rest of society. The growing need for pluralism has led to a great emphasis on the differences between the various points of view possible in the reconstruction and interpretation of certain events. Describing this state of things, Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob (1997: 217) write in the introduction to their book Telling the Truth about History: “Since no one can be certain that his or her explanations are definitively right, everyone must listen to other voices. All histories are provisional; none will have the last word”. The result is “a democratic practice of history”, a polyphonic venture, in which “an ever growing chorus of voices is heard” (Appleby et al. 1997: 217).

Apart from the point of view, modern historiography has become fragmented also on the issue of the subject matter. While traditional historiography concentrated on political history, in the twentieth century there appeared other areas of interest, most notably social history, which to a large extent changed the face of the whole discipline. More recent developments, such as the history of mentalities, have moved it even further from its roots. Furthermore, the importance of historiography in the post-war world is reflected by the fact that many domains of human activity have developed their own branches of history, each with its own focus and, importantly, with different criteria of recognising historical facts.

It appears possible to reconcile all of the above mentioned types of history (or different histories). In the case of the various points of view compromises can be reached as for the facts that are common to all those looking at the past (indeed, the authors of Telling the Truth about History opt for “the rigorous search for truth usable by all peoples” – Appleby et al. 1997: 217), and the different subject matters can all be viewed as separate branches of the same tree, complementing each other. However, in order to reach such an agreement, it is necessary to speak a common language, which in the universe of historiography would consist in starting from ← 11 | 12 →the same premises, using similar methods and aiming at results of the same kind. This, however, is not the case in the late twentieth-century historical writing.

Contemporary historiography is largely built upon on a methodology originated in the nineteenth century by Leopold von Ranke, based on the archival document as the most important source of knowledge about the past. The examination of such documents was conducted according to a set of rules which guaranteed the historian’s objectivity on the one hand, and his deep understanding of the mentality of the authors of the document, on the other. However, in the second half of the twentieth century Ranke’s paradigm of documentary history came under criticism from various sides, and alternative methods of examining and describing history were devised. For example, the Annales school in France, founded by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, and incorporating historians such as Fernand Braudel of Georges Duby, created a model of historiography based on long-term changes, emphasising lengthy processes (from fluctuations of prices to climatic change) much more than singular events, thus introducing such diverse disciplines as economics or geology into the study of the human past. An example from the opposite end of the broad spectrum of modern historiography is the group of experimental historians connected with the journal Rethinking History (edited by Alun Munslow and Robert A. Rosenstone). In the introduction to the published collection of texts from the journal, entitled Experiments in Rethinking History, Rosenstone writes:

[…] we as a culture are no longer so firmly wedded to the notions of literal reality that pervaded the nineteenth century. The impact of the visual media themselves […] alone assures a certain alteration in our sensibilities. Equally important, the continual revolutions in artistic visions over the past century – the movements and tendencies we label cubism, constructivism, expressionism, surrealism, abstraction, the New Wave, modernism, postmodernism – have helped to alter our ways of seeing, telling, and understanding our realities. (Munslow – Rosentsone 2004: 1)

In their work, they combine traditional historiography with the techniques of art and fiction, adopting literary style, using or imitating devices strictly associated with art and in inventing fictitious characters or events and embedding them in the historical context – connections made possible by the essential assumption that historiography is, in fact, part of the realm of fiction.

The alternative kinds of historiography are divergent to an extent that makes it very difficult to reunite them into a uniform discipline. They are divided by the different kind of accepted material, different methods used to examine and process it, different results expected. Furthermore – and perhaps more importantly – even the attitudes towards the truth value of the created narrative of the past vary from methodology to methodology. While the more traditional schools of historiography believe that their findings are compatible with the past reality as such, historiographers influenced by postmodernism (such as the contributors to Rethinking History) situate their writing on the level of fiction whose connection with reality is a very problematic and potentially insoluble issue. The varying methodologies produce a plethora of accounts of the past told in ways so incompatible with each other that ← 12 | 13 →it is sometimes more useful to explore the differences between them than to focus on the far less numerous similarities. As the breaches in contemporary historiography exist on such basic levels, it often appears to be more suitable to abandon the traditional singular “history” for the plural “histories”.

The fact that historiography is at odds with itself, discovering ever new methods of fulfilling its tasks, and forming ever new, separate histories, is not necessarily a bad symptom. A discipline which explores its own alternative forms is able to gain more insight into its own functioning. This self-reflexivity, not unlike that introduced into science by philosophers such as Popper, Kuhn or Feyerabend, is now more and more present in historical studies. Thus, it is the plural, and not the singular which constitutes the most important feature of contemporary historiography.

The plurality of the kinds of narratives included in contemporary historiography finds its counterpart in multiple formulae of describing history in twentieth-century literature. Drama becomes a particularly interesting example. As Hans-Thies Lehmann notices, the traditional, logical structure of Aristotelian drama has been frequently employed in referring to the structure of historical events (Lehmann 50). The intelligible dialectics of a play (be it a tragedy or a comedy) can be viewed as a model for an intelligible vision of the past. The crisis in modern drama, leading to the appearance of postdramatic forms, can be also viewed as a crisis of the idea of intelligibility, leading to the rejection of the rigid forms of plot and character construction in favour of a multiplicity of loose structures. Traditional historical drama reinforces a teleological approach to the past, in which all history has a meaning and a point of arrival. In post-war drama, the disruption of the traditional dramatic forms and the downfall of history viewed as a uniform narrative also go hand in hand, exploring very similar territories and showing similar kinds of self-reflexivity.

Brian Friel’s play Making History may serve as an excellent example of the parallelism between the interests of the historical playwright and those of the theoretician of historiography. One of the characters is Peter Lombard, the early seventeenth-century bishop of Armagh, the author of De Regno Hibernise Sanctorum insula commentarius, a history of Ireland supporting the attack of Hugh O’Neill, the earl of Tyrone, on Elizabeth I’s England (McCormack 1999: 357). In a dialogue with O’Neill, he expresses (anachronically) some of the principal preoccupations of twentieth-century post-structuralist reflection on historiography:

If you’re asking me will my story be as accurate as possible – of course it will. But are truth and falsity the proper criteria? I don’t know. Maybe when the time comes my first responsibility will be to tell the best possible story. Isn’t that what history is, a kind of story-telling? […] Imposing a pattern on events that were mostly casual and haphazard and shaping them into a narrative that is logical and interesting. (Friel 1999: 8)

As Francis McGrath (1999: 224) notices, the opinions presented here can easily be related to the theories on the functioning of history offered by Hayden White or Michel Foucault, as well as the views of the linguist George Steiner. At the same time, O’Neill refers to the rules of logical plot building, characteristic of the Aristotelian model of drama.

← 13 | 14 →Like in the case of historiography, the differences between the various approaches are not only the question of the literary form chosen, or the interpretation of certain events within an established external framework of historical facts. The conflict very often takes place on the level of the very idea of history underlying the play. What differs from play to play may be the notion of historical fact (e.g. the question as to which events or states of things precisely should be classified as facts) or the opinion on the nature of the historical process (including stances in which such processes – conceived as organised, comprehensible changes – are viewed as non-existent). The aim of the book is precisely this – examining diverse instances of historical drama as exemplifications of the particular models of historiography influencing their construction. The methods used are derived from contemporary methodology of history, in particular Hayden White’s tropology of historical narratives. The whole research, therefore, rests on the assumption that methodological tools created in connection with historiography are also applicable to historical drama.

While even the above passage on Friel’s Making History suggests a close affinity between the crucial problems of historical drama and theory of history, the immediate association between the plays and historical texts is not accepted by all scholars. Most notably, Franklin R. Ankersmit, a crucial figure in contemporary thought on historiography, explicitly states that drama is not a narrative form, a feature which he considers to be the most important one in any characterisation of historiography. As a non-narrative text, it cannot be analysed in the same way as the work of a historian (Ankersmit 1983: 6-7).

I will proceed towards overcoming this objection by acknowledging the differences, but also showing the numerous similarities between historical drama and historical narratives, which ultimately allow to use some of the methodology connected with history to the analysis of drama. I shall begin with presenting the state of research on the notion of historical drama, proceed by offering a slightly modified definition of the genre, more suited to its most recent development, and then examine the sources of theory of historiography and theory of drama in the work of Thucydides and Aristotle to determine the common ground between these two forms of writing.

1.2.The Definition of Historical Drama

At the opening of her book Twentieth-Century English History Plays, ← 14 | 15 →Niloufer Harben (1988: 1) remarks that “critics have generally tended to shirk any attempt to define the scope and limits of the genre [of historical drama].” While she appreciates the research done in the field by scholars of Elizabethan drama, she also notices a serious lack in attempting to describe the contemporary forms of the genre (Harben 1988: 1). There are relatively few monographs devoted to this problem. The most authoritative description of the genre itself is Herbert Lindenberger’s Historical Drama. The Relation of Literature and Reality, first published in 1975. It was followed by two books dealing specifically with twentieth-century historical drama. Niloufer Harben’s Twentieth-Century English History Plays. From Shaw to Bond is a selective survey of several most representative examples of the genre, starting with Shaw’s Saint Joan and ending with Edward Bond’s Early Morning. David Keith Peacock’s Radical Stages. Alternative History in Modern British Drama concentrates only on the post-war period, and explores the different, often unorthodox ways in which historical subjects are treated in the drama of the time. Significantly, out of the three only Harben makes an attempt at strictly defining the boundaries of the genre, with the other two authors adopting loose, intuitive definitions allowing for varied interpretations.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (October)
Methodology of history Western perceptions of Eastern Europe Documentary drama Rhetorical tropes
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 192 pp.

Biographical notes

Paweł Schreiber (Author)

Paweł Schreiber is Assistant Professor at Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz (Poland). His main research interests include historical drama in connection with contemporary methodology of history and images of Central and Eastern Europe in British drama.


Title: Stage Histories
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