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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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5. Tom Stoppard: Metaphor Overcoming Irony

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In one of his best known interviews, conducted by Mel Gussow (1994: 30), Tom Stoppard says that his decision to move away from journalism and start writing drama was motivated by the fact that being a playwright is “the most respectable way of contradicting oneself.” He further develops this remark by presenting one of the most famous descriptions of his work: “I’m the kind of person who embarks on an endless leapfrog down the great moral issues. I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation” (Gussow 1994: 30). The sequence of rebuttals and counter-rebuttals, negating all the ideas present in the play, is an excellent example of irony at work. In the infinite game of intellectual leapfrog, it is only the trope itself which prevails over the successive ideas and opinions.

Employing irony as the cornerstone of most of his early work, Stoppard created a particular structure carried on from play to play. Its basis can be best summarised by a short anecdote presented by Stoppard as the inspiration for the After Magritte. A peacock escapes from its owner. The man finally catches it and is walking home, holding it in his hands. He is just passing a road when a car drives by. The people in the car, in Stoppard’s own words, “see this fellow for about 5/8ths of a second – never again, and they are not quite sure exactly what they saw” (Delaney 1990: 25). Stoppard’s attention in this case lies...

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