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Stage Histories

Post-War British Historical Drama


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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6. Conclusion

← 176 | 177 →6.Conclusion


While the theme of the above discussion was the application of Hayden White’s classificatory tools (with a particular emphasis put on the theory of rhetorical tropes and the modes of explanation by formal argument) to post-war British historical drama, it can be easily noticed that hardly any of the plays examined was a pure example of the usage of only one trope or explanatory strategy. On the contrary, most attention was given to pieces in which different ways of approaching the past as a subject were combined or clashed with each other. In Robert Bolt’s plays there was a strong conflict between metonymy and synecdoche, as well as the formist and mechanistic modes of explanation. David Hare’s work, while it concentrated almost exclusively on synecdoche, was also based on the choice between the mechanistic and the contextualist mode. Howard Barker combined metonymy with synecdoche, and put irony against metaphor, at the same time rejecting all the modes of explanation and leaving history in the domain of the uncanny. Finally, Tom Stoppard explored the other side of the conflict between metaphor and irony, using the former to overcome the latter, and strongly rejected the mechanistic mode of explanation.

In each case, the structure of the plays was based on a dilemma. The playwright had to choose between two or more of White’s categories in order to determine the way of talking about the past most suited to his intentions. In each case, one of the points of departure in...

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