Academic Exchange Quarterly   Summer  2001    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 5, Issue 2To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements or   text lay-out and pagination.


Dramatic History or Historical Drama?


Ray E. Scrubber, Indiana University


Ray E. Scrubber is a professor of history at Indiana University, South Bend, who has served as Faculty Development Coordinator. He has team taught a wide variety of courses with faculty in English literature including one on Shakespeare.



This article is meant to illustrate the difficulty that historians face in attracting students to their discipline and then holding their attention. Yet it is one of the ironies of this era that historical topics remain quite popular in a variety of genre from motion pictures to the theater. What I propose in this article is that historians with dramatic skills should find ways to write plays about historical subjects rather than leaving such tasks to dramatists who mainly use historical figures to attract attention to their plays. The final portion of the article describes the difficulties that historians have in using such an approach and the ways to overcome those difficulties.


Dramatic History or Historical Drama?


Richard II makes a good beginning:

"For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings!"


And later we have Prince Ha:

" . . . They take it, already upon their salvation that,

though I be but Prince of Wales, yet

I am the king of courtesy, and tell me flatly

I am no proud Jack like Falstaff, . . . "


or if you prefer, Henry V:

"And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered

few, we happy few, we band of brothers"


for the finale Richard III:

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"


The quotations are meant to demonstrate what the authors of 1066 and All That declared in their introduction, "History is not what you thought, it is what you can remember. All other history defeats itself." By their definition Shakespeare's characterizations of Richard II, Henry V, and Richard III are history. They are what we remember. For those historians who specialize in subjects that have become famous through plays or more recently through film, it is extremely difficult to publish anything from textbooks to biographies without taking into account the dramatic version. The only way to avoid the problem is to write strictly for an audience of other professional historians in our chosen field.


In this era of specialization there are no more than fifty people in the whole world who are genuinely knowledgeable about our area of specialty. These are the scholars who thoroughly know the places and eras we study as well as the people who inhabited them and the documents they produced. Our academic respectability comes through gaining the good opinion of this band of brothers and sisters. We do this by speaking with one another through papers, articles, and monographs. Except in rare instances, this conversation on the cutting edge of the discipline does not attract much attention beyond this half‑hundred strong group of experts.


The key phrase in that last statement is, speak to one another. While fully recognizing that all scholars regardless of their field need to communicate with one another, in history there is a tradition that we also attempt to make contact with the wider world. Of late that has become problematic. Starting at the most basic level, virtually all historians have encountered undergraduate students who consider the study of history both boring and irrelevant to their lives. These same students grow up to become book publishers and editors, university administrators and trustees, voters and legislators. In short they have a major say in the lives and livelihood of professional historians, and it is an unaffordable luxury to write them off, so to speak, as barbarians. I would argue that the survival of the discipline may well depend on  maintaining a positive connection with them.


The irony is that while the discipline of history is increasingly on the defensive, interest in historical events remains popular as ever. Films about everything from medieval Scotland to early twentieth century Atlantic travel attract vast audiences and win numerous awards. Since most historians are unable or unwilling to communicate to the general public, the opportunity is there for others with a non‑historical set of values about the past to do so . As the opening of this paper indicates, for some centuries they already have and very effectively, too. Perhaps they have something to teach, too.


Before going any further, I need to say something about disciplinary lines and how hard and fast they are drawn. Shakespeare called his lead character Richard III. There is no reason why he could not have written the very same play and then called his king Murray. Likewise George Bernard Shaw's St. Joan could been have been named Virginia. Why weren't they? Because those who write historical drama, be they Aeschylus or Shakespeare or Shaw, understand that part of what draws people to see their plays is that the characters are real people. At the very least historical characters have name recognition, and that is one of the keys to attracting an audience. Take the best known example of Shakespeare's historical sources, Holinshed, who was both a learned and popular writer. Beginning in the late sixteenth century his works went through many editions, and he wrote well enough so that Shakespeare was not shy about paraphrasing him in the history plays. Taking a look at the situation from the other side, if we go nearly as far back as we can in recorded European history, Thucydides in the first book of The Peloponnesian War felt bound to let his readers know that:

With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course, adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.


Unlike Thucydides, even when historians do not self-consciously make up the dialog, they often find multiple versions of an event to sort out, or worse, gaps that require filling by means of historical imagination. When conscientious historians make choices, they hope they are right, hope their version is a reasonable facsimile of the truth. But historians seldom, if ever, concern themselves with highlighting the dramatic aspects of their findings.


It is here that the line does exist between writing of drama and writing of history. In the final analysis Shakespeare's main concern was not whether Richard actually called for a horse during his last stand in Bosworth Field. The dramatic impact of that call on the audience is what mainly concerned him. He needed to succinctly convey what it was like for Richard to understand that he is losing the battle and most likely his life. Shakespeare did it in nine words.


When historian Michael Bennett wrote his fine book The Battle of Bosworth Field, it would have been unthinkable for him to claim that Richard called for a horse and offered his kingdom for it unless reliable witnesses recorded that fact. Since he did not have trustworthy information on whether or not Richard was even unhorsed, he offered a detailed consideration of how likely it was that the king would have found himself in that position. Drama was not a major consideration in his analysis and what Richard did or did not say is never mentioned. Yet as all of us are aware, a very large percentage of the educated world knows of Richard's agonized cry. For them, it is history. "For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings!"


This small incident is but an introduction to a much larger problem in historical dramas. The problem of the historically inaccurate character. Since I started with Shakespeare, I will stick with him to illustrate the point, but he is far from alone in the way he treats historical figures in his plays. The character of Henry V as Prince Ha is an obvious example. There is virtually no contemporary evidence for Shakespeare's view that the prince spent his youth tavern hopping and hanging about with low life characters such as Falstaff and Bardolph. All the surviving evidence indicates that during the campaigning season, even the teenaged Prince Ha was a warrior. No primary source record of what he did during the off season survives. The dramatist Shakespeare perceived that the theater audience would have little interest in the development of a well trained prince. For his purposes he needed change, or at least the appearance of change, and he needed conflict. He created it, memorably, all too memorably, just ask any historian who writes about the reign of Henry V.


With all of these facts in mind, what I would like to propose is that academically trained historians with dramatic sensibilities remember what Thucydides wrote. They, too, should make speakers say what in their opinion was demanded of them while "of course, adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said." But these dramatically sensitive historians should take one step further and consider writing historical dramas as a way to educate students and, hopefully, the wider public about historical figures. Notice the emphasis on individuals. While it is certainly possible to write a play that contains complex ideas and still retain the interest of the audience‑-Tom Stoppard's fascination with quantum physics in Arcadia comes to mind here‑-successful drama is dependent upon character. Writing plays is another way to do biography.


Why plays? Why not video or film? No one connected with the businesses has ever claimed that the film or television industries feel any obligation to stick with the script as written. In fact, for some years there has been a joke making the rounds in Hollywood about the standard definition of stupidity: a would‑be star, hoping for a better part in the film, who sleeps with the film's writer. In the theater, however, even with directors and actors interpreting the lines, even when a commercial production company is involved, there is still respect for the written word as the author wrote it. Yet the nature of that word matters. If drama is going to work to the historian's advantage, then the plays must not be dull ones. If the purpose of converting historical events to a dramatic format is to interest the widest possible audience, then forgetting why it is done makes the effort useless. For the professional historian, of course, the heart of the problem lies in selecting this route. Although historical accuracy and dramatic effect do not always clash, inevitably they will. Then which set of values should prevail? If the play is going to work and hold the interest of the audience, the values of drama must prevail. Given training and values of historians, that is not easy to do.


So why "sell out"? Why not let some non‑historian do the dirty work? Thucydides gave the answer so long ago about himself‑-historians writing plays will be more likely than the professional dramatist to stick to the historical essence of the character, to portray the key people as close to the historical record as they can manage.


It would be unfair of me to recommend a course of action to others if I had not tried it myself. What I have done so far falls well short of catching the attention of the Pulitzer committee. Two historical dramas have appeared before general audiences, and I also used them in the classroom. Not long ago a statewide dramatists' workshop selected a portion of a third play, Remembering, for presentation. A scene from this last effort will illustrate the difficulties of remaining faithful to the historical character, while still creating a drama.


The play has three principal characters: the last queen of Tahiti, Marau, who is the pivotal figure, the American historian, Henry Adams and perhaps inevitably in anything written about Tahiti in the 1890s, the artist, Paul Gauguin. Why put these three figures together? Because all three were, or to be historically more accurate, almost were, on Tahiti at exactly the same time. Adams and the queen spent some months together, and just a few days after Adams left, Gauguin arrived. In real life, or should I say as a matter of historical fact, the queen was concerned about the death of Tahitian aristocratic culture as she knew it. That culture was oral. As French influence steadily grew, those who once expected to become the repositories of island culture increasingly wanted to acquire the new, more fashionable manners that they hoped would advance them politically and economically with their new masters. Since the queen could not preserve what she valued the traditional way, she decided to compromise and use elements of the conquering culture to suit her purposes. She hatched a scheme to write her memoirs, or rather to have them ghost written by Henry Adams who had just appeared on Tahiti. He was traveling to help forget the suicide of his wife a few years earlier, and also to escape from an infatuation he had developed for a married woman. As a historian who wanted to forget, it is not surprising that initially he had no interest in helping the queen in what he viewed as an off‑beat historical project. But ultimately he did act as her ghost writer. In 1891 he left Tahiti with a draft of the memories just days before Gauguin arrived.


Gauguin came to the island to practice what he called "savagery." Before he arrived he became convinced that he could seamlessly merge with what was known to him as Maori culture and record it in his paintings and sculptures. Shortly after his arrival, he met the queen and even painted a picture of the funeral of her recently deceased ex‑husband. Eventually Gauguin went to live in the countryside where he hoped to experience the true Tahiti and to paint it. He was attempting to do visually what the queen through Adams had attempted to do in writing. It seemed clear to me that the contrasting styles of these people and what they hoped to accomplish had dramatic possibilities.


After exploring the relationship and tensions between the queen and Adams in the first act of the play, the second act concentrates on Gauguin. But the last scene of that act brings them together at the art show Gauguin actually staged in Paris in 1893. And yes, for those who are curious, Adams was in Paris at approximately this time.


Fortunately both Adams and Gauguin left extensive letters, articles, books, and memoirs. At least as often as they were authors of books, they were also the subjects. As a result, there is no lack of historically valid material. The difficulty is that as far as the historic record shows, the two of them never actually met or showed any awareness of each others work. How then to structure an encounter between the two of them? Their characters provided the starting place. Adams described himself as "all intellectual, analytic and modern." He had no sympathy for someone who pretended to be something he was not. Gauguin was equally as determined that based on his heritage‑-he claimed the last Inca emperor as one of his ancestors‑-he could shed his European ways, become a "savage" as he put it and paint like one. On the one side, I was lucky enough to discover a negative review of Gauguin's 1893 art show. On the other, in his memoirs Gauguin defends his paintings and attacks his critics. I turned those two works into a dialog between the historian and the artist with the queen acting as mediator and ultimately judge. Quite obviously, an academic historian could never do anything like this when writing traditional history.


What I am trying to convey in this encounter is the essence of both men in a vivid way that remains true to both of their actual personalities and most important of all, is memorable. The Henry Adams who took delight in describing ". . . another Pomare brother, once king of the neighboring island . . . , but expelled for potting his subjects with a rifle when drunk." did not seem out of character using the actual reviewer's words and saying to Gauguin " . . . are you aware that when a country woman of mine saw your red cow, she let out an involuntary scream?"


In the play Gauguin replies to Adams that falsehood contains truth. In his memoirs the artist wrote about a trumpet player who blew a series of notes very quickly to give the impression of silence. At a later point in the scene Gauguin says to Adams that he talks about art like a professor who never painted any. In fact Adams did try to paint while he was on Tahiti. He did some watercolors that, as he was well aware, look like a five year old painted them. I would like to think that neither Adams nor Gauguin would object to my view of them, or each other.


The point of this exercise is not to recommend the abandonment of academic history in favor of a dramatic substitute. What I am arguing here is that historians need a means of drawing the general public, including students, towards the discipline. I am also arguing that this process is one that historians cannot afford to leave entirely in the hands of dramatists who do not share their sense of values, even if it means historians need to adopt some of dramatic arts. It has been my experience that it is truly amazing what people will read once their interest is engaged. More often than not, when a historical play proves intriguing to its audience, the first question asked is, "Did it really happen that way?" When that is the response, the discipline of history has a fighting chance to survive.



Call for papers Summer 2005    Teaching History