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Stage Histories

Post-War British Historical Drama

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Paweł Schreiber

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.
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2. Robert Bolt: Between Metonymy and Synecdoche

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The beginnings of Robert Bolt’s writing career take place at a very important time for the development of the British historical drama. In September 1956, Britain was visited by the Berliner Ensemble presenting the work of its head – Bertolt Brecht. In his account of the tour, Martin Esslin (1971: 75) notes the peculiar character of the reception of his ideas on drama and theatre. The playwright himself had died a short time before the tour, and “his note urging the members of the company to play lightly and not too slowly to please an English audience was one of his last public pronouncements.” The company presented three plays, two of which were Brecht’s masterpieces (Mother Courage and her Children and The Caucasian Chalk Circle). The lack of enthusiasm on behalf of the critics (whose reaction Esslin 1971: 75 describes as “on the whole lukewarm”) was matched by a very vigorous response from theatre practitioners. The peculiarity of the situation was that most of them were unable to understand the German spoken by the actors and, therefore, the first wave of Brecht’s influence in Britain concentrated on elements such as the minimalistic stage design or the use of songs and banners in a theatrical performance (Esslin 1971: 76). The superficial reception of Brecht’s theatre in Britain pointed out by Esslin also has to do with the fact that while his theoretical writings were to remain unavailable in English until the mid-sixties, the British directors often misunderstood some of the methods proposed...

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