Theater & History (not to be confused with Theater History)

One of the relationships I’ve always been fascinated by is that between the work of the theater artist and the work of the historian. How do their tasks differ and overlap when dealing with historical subject matter? The writing of history is inherently subjective, and involves framing and narrating. Where is the line between function drawn? What are the limits of fact and fiction? Can imaginative fictions add insight and truth into that which is intended to be factual or objective (if flawed in this pursuit)? One of these days, I’d love to do a study of theater as historiography (as opposed to theater historiography).

Sir Phillip Sidney has some things to say about theater and history in The Defense of Poesy (1583). Now he’s approaching this with the goal of defending poetry from its detractors, so he’s out to win (and doesn’t really see a larger purpose for the writing of history other than the narration of fact). He also holds the belief that poetry’s goal is to delight and teach (rather than represent reality, hold the mirror up to nature, etc).

Here’s what he says:

The philosopher therefore and the historian are they which would win the goal, the one by precept, the other by example. But both, not having both, do both halt. For the philosopher, setting down with thorny arguments the bare rule, is so hard of utterance and so misty to be conceived, that one that hath no other guide but him shall wade in him till he be old before he shall find sufficient cause to be honest. For his knowledge standeth so upon the abstract and general that happy is the man who may understand him, and more happy that can apply what he doth understand. On the other side, the historian, wanting the precept, is so tied not to what should be but to what is, to the particular truth of things and not to the general reason of things, that his example draweth no necessary consequence, and therefore a less fruitful doctrine. Now doth the peerless poet perform both; for whatsoever the philosopher saith should be done, he gives a perfect picture of it in some one by whom he presupposeth it was done; so as he couplet the general notion with the particular example. (121)

And:

So then the best of the historian is subject to the poet; for whatsoever action, or faction, whatsoever counsel, policy or war stratagem the historian is bound to recite, that may the poet, if he list, with his imitation make his own, beatuifying it both for further teaching, and more delighting as it pleases him, having all, from Dante’s heaven to his hell, under the authority of his pen. (122)

And:

If evil men come to the stage, they ever go out (as the tragedy writer answered to one that misliked the show of such persons) so manacled as they little animate folks to follow them. But history, being captivated to the truth of a foolish world, is many times a terror from well doing, and an encouragement to unbridled wickedness. (122)

I love that bit about history being “captivated to the truth of a foolish world”- that’s great writing. And its interesting to think about theater as creating an idealized world—there is so much hope in that, a lovely belief that art can make the world better. But can we not also learn from our mistakes and confronting our “foolish world”?

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about history and theater as we go on. But wanted to pull out those little bits for you and start that conversation.

*All selections from Theatre/Theory/Theatre edited by Daniel Gerould.

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