Public History on Stage: Theatre and the Past

The latest issue (Vol. 34, No. 3) of The Public Historian finally arrived at my house this week.  The issue presented a number of interesting field reports and case studies, many of which focused on areas of nontraditional historical practice.  One article which drew me in, was “Theatre: A Neglected Site of Public History” by David Dean.  Admittedly, the draw was partially the Canadian content, but I was also intrigued by how public history and theatre co-exist.

Dean’s article focuses on the use of theatre as a point of historical interpretation.  Dean’s particular case study examines Vern Theissen‘s play Vimy.  Theissen’s play uses the context of the battle of Vimy Ridge addresses subjects that many Canadian historians have struggled with — the nature of memory, attitudes toward war, Canadian nationalism vs. regionalism, and myth making.  A visit to the Canadian War Museum includes exhibits which explore many of these issues with in a more traditional public history setting.  

Prior to reading Dean’s work I hadn’t actively given much thought to theatre as an interpretive style for traditional history. I like theatre and I like history and I also love historical film, so I’m not sure why I hadn’t previously made the connection before.  Perhaps, my ignorance is in part due to what Dean points out as a lack of traditional acceptance of theatre as historical interpretation and a general lack of professional writing on the subject.  That being said, Dean does an excellent job of making a case for historically informed theatre as a valid method of historical interpretation.

Theatrical productions can be dynamic, emotional, and historically accurate means of engaging a larger audience.  Perhaps the stage production of The Sound of Music (no matter how great might be) isn’t the best introduction into Nazi Germany.  But, more historically researched and accurate productions such as Vimy can provide an excellent introduction to a range of historical topics.   

Comparing theatre to film, living history animators, and re-enactments highlight the logic behind the acceptance of theatre in historical interpretation.  After all, re-enactors and living history site staff are all acting and tend to be using a script to guide their actions.  This scripted interpretation is exactly what is occurring in a theatre setting.  Just like any other form of historical interpretation theatre is susceptible to  poor research and misinformation, but this is just as likely in a museum panel as it is in a well researched play. 

Dean’s article also inspired a consideration of the prevalence of history in theatre. History, historic events and settings are often used as backdrops for theatre.  Settings, speech patterns, clothing and material culture are all aspects of history that can be portrayed (well or poorly) in theatrical productions.  I’d be interested to know if anyone has seen a seemingly well historically researched production recently or other examples of Canadian history on the stage.

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