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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. 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?”
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 said, 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”.
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. For Example: 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”.
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 today’s borders or previous decades borders. He must also decide upon how much of the theatre activity should be based upon a nation’s 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 secondary language. 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 Irish Theatre.
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 progression. Wilmer writes, “Generally, national theatre histories (e.g., in Ireland, Finland and Slovenia) have privileged professional rather than amateur performance”. 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, Wilmer’s 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 we 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.
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