Until well into the 1960s, the
terms ‘theatre studies’ and ‘theatre history’ were largely synonymous, because
the first and major concern of the new subject was the theatrical past.1 However,
today theatre history is certainly not the exclusive field of teaching and
research, historical study remains an important area of work. My work so far
has led me to focus on understanding the most important methods and research
patterns employed by theatre historians. I have attempted to identify the main
sources often employed by historians as well as the different types of
information they provide. I have also been exploring the way we can divide up theatre
history into periods. This focus on questions of theory and methodology meant
that I was not looking at specific periods of theatre history (the Greeks, the
Elizabethan period, etc.) but rather at the problems involved in the writing of
it, which is technically called historiography.
As an academic discipline, theatre
history has seldom had a high profile, possibly because the demand for theatre
historians is on the decline. That being said, there are still scholars around
the world who engage actively in the study of theatre history meaning that new
approaches are still being introduced from time to time. Theatre historians
like to date their discipline from the Theatriké historia or King Juba II. This
was a large work that was devoted entirely to all matters associated with the
stage. We don’t have access to this work, and like our knowledge of theatre
history itself, its existence is based upon indirect evidence and speculation.
Between this early time and the sixteenth century, theatre history was rarely
the forefront of discussion, that’s not to say that scholarly work wasn’t being
produced, however only a fraction of what could have existed has made its way
through the history books.
We are very much aware of the
extensive history behind ancient Greek and Roman theatre however my work will
take us a few centuries ahead of these ancient periods. Thankfully there are
now many different ideas about how students and scholars should approach
theatre history, and it is these ideas that I hope to now summarise and
ultimately employ through my own work.
The first book, Writing and Rewriting National Theatre
Histories I found both intriguing and enlightening. Off the cusp, this book
deals with approaches of writing theatre history based upon the changing
factors within different countries. It was a good choice to start with as it
introduced me to the basic principles behind theatre historiography from an
early stage in the book, however it was clearly presented so that it didn’t
avoid causing any confusion or contradiction given that I was only being
introduced to the ideas for the first time.
The first main question it poses is:
What is the meaning of history, and what is the purpose of
studying it? Essentially here it forced me to think on a rudimentary level to
understand that it would be almost impossible to define the term ‘theatre
history’ if was unable to understand the basic principles of history itself…
“Is world history, then, a kind
of theatre history, the philosophical study of which must inevitably lead to
enlightenment about the infinite perfectibility of the human race?”2
To write a theatre history, surely we must be able to then
answer the question What is the meaning
of theatre history, and what is the purpose of studying it? However this
brings about a number of difficulties.
How we define the object of our study? In my
case this would be the definition of amateur theatre.
What is theatre? This is a difficult question because
theatre in a broad sense is a collaborative form of art using live performers,
however in the context of my research we are referring to a specific type of
theatre that incorporates three disciplines of singing, dancing and acting
together where the plot is conveyed or assisted through song. In the
twenty-first century, there are so many new forms of contemporary theatre being
evolved that even the most unsuspecting forms of activity could be classed as
theatre, so it is vital to make the definite distinction of what the term
theatre means in the context of my own work.
The concept of theatre is being constantly broadened when we
consider how it was during the avant-garde movements in the early decades of
the twentieth century. In the broadest sense, could incorporate any definition
of performance and the Rediscovery of ‘ritual theatre’ in 1960’s/70’s
highlighted just how obscure the term theatre could evolve to. Helmer Schramm
Wherever someone put him – or herself, someone else, or something on
show, consciously presenting a person or object to the gaze of others, people
spoke of theatre”3
This book also suggests that you cannot explore the history
of theatre in a specific field, without first identifying and taking into
account, the historical happenings that surround the events.
Did the terrorism acts of the 1950’s/60’s effect
how people in Northern Ireland chose to view, attend theatre due to fear?
“Everyone must delimit the subject area of their theatre history in
accordance with their specific epistemological interests and competence, select
the events that are likely to be productive in terms of the questions they are
asking, and construct their history from their examination of the documents
related to these events” 4
Perhaps the best way to present a specific field of theatre
history, is to explore it in a refined environment, only taking into account,
where necessary, other surrounding historical/political factors that may have
influenced the refined topic at one given time.
These are just some of the opening remarks. Further into the
book we are introduced to quite a systematic approach to refining our research.
Wilmer suggest that when writing about the history of a particular nation, then
you must break it down into four categories.
Wilmer suggest that where a countries borders have changed
through time, a historian must determine whether to represent the nation with
todays borders or previous decades borders.
He must also decide upon how much of the theatre activity should be
based upon a nations capital, or regions.
Many historians focus on the theatre activity within a main
capital and disregard outside regions, however in my own field of research it
is the smaller regions that lie almost more important than the capital.
In Dublin for example, historians tend to bypass popular
theatres such as the Gaiety or Olympia, and turn solely to the National Concert
Hall (National Theatre). This is because the national theatre takes on the role
of representing the national culture, even if the state was not independent. So
regardless of the production standard, be it professional or amateur, the
national theatre best represented the appreciation of theatre within a nation.
Can we also limit theatre personnel within borders?
Christopher Fitzsimon’s ‘Irish
Theatre’ refers to many well known dramatists who more time outside of the
present day borders of Ireland than within them.
Theatrical events that are performed in the native language
are given greater predominance in terms of national history than those in a
I personally look a drama as monolingual especially if we
account opera as an early form of musical theatre.
We could of course also include exploration of the idea
involving immigrant theatre, however this is again slightly unrelated to my
field. Where Ireland did face this issue was notably in the Abbey Theatre where
upon actors where contracted to speak both Irish and English on the same stage,
up until the 1980’s when this was phased out.
As language does not play a huge factor in my research, I
foresee myself focusing primarily on a single language when writing, that being
English of course.
How do historians categorise which ethnic groups feature in
a national theatre history? In the case of American history, these decisions
can cause political implications when deciding whether or not to include the
contributions of the African-American community and also the indigenous
peoples. Whilst this decision may appear more apparent in recent years, there
was a time before the civil rights movement when this distinction was not as
easy to facilitate.
In Ireland, we face a rather unique perspective on
ethnicity. The nationalist community firmly believe that they are a distinct
homogeneous Celtic people. However we must take into consideration that Ireland
was once part of Britain and in some provinces of the country, Notably in
Northern Ulster, there are minorities who still consider themselves British
whilst others would call themselves Irish.
Historians must decide how they intend to incorporate the
British contributions to Irish theatre, and visa versa because of the rather
important distinction made between the Irish and British. We must also account
that theatre was not an indigenous artform in Ireland, but rather a British
import and drama was reportedly not performed in the Irish Language before
1890. This leaves a difficulty when defining the difference in British and
Finally, what specifically is your research addressing?
In my case, the focus is Musical Theatre as the genre or
performance mode. My research will also focus slightly more upon amateur
theatre and only reference the professional scene where necessary to show
Wilmer writes, “Generally, national theatre histories (e.g.,
in Ireland, Finland and Slovenia) have privileged professional rather than
amateur performance” 5
I would disagree and there on average 2 amateur productions
taking place for every one professional. This statement minimises the already
marginal cultures in society who cannot afford to or do not wish to produce
their productions professionally.
In summary, Wilmers book is both engaging and concise. I
feel that the methods outlined here whilst very relevant and certainly
insightful, are a little rigid. The four categories for example will prove
quite useful I’m sure, however I feel that if I was to use these methods as the
sole framework of my research then perhaps I would find them slightly delimiting
to say the least. I must also take into consideration that I am dealing with a collection
of essays, some written 20 years ago so I think it would be fair to say that
how w view and write about history can no doubt evolve over a twenty year
period. This aside, I still found this an excellent stepping stone and a
perfect book to start with.
1 Balme, C. B. (2008) The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Studies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 96
2 Page 1
3 Helmar Schramm, “Theatralität und Öffenlichkeit: Vorstudien zur
Begriffsgeschichte von ‘Theatre.’ in Karlheinz Barck et al., eds., Ästhetische Grundbegriffe: Studien zu einem
historischen Wörterbuch (Berlin: Akad.-Verlag, 1990) p.206
4 Notes section 8
5 Wilmer p. 24