Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Period drama

Period drama has been a staple of British television for as long as anyone can remember. Classic novels of the past, including nearly everything by Charles Dickens, have been dramatised as successfully for the small screen as they have in the past and are still for the big screen.

History as fiction is more popular than history itself. Novels and plays set in the past, whether the characters and events are real or imagined, are popular because the past remembered is a more comfortable place than the present.

British theatre has in general taken a different approach, putting Dickens on at Christmas, but otherwise leaving the realistic depiction of history, with its expensive sets and costumes, to those who can afford it.

While that makes good practical sense, it does not explain why plays that were written in the past, as well as being set in the past, are now invariably performed as if they were set in the present. Or in the future. Or in a different time and place altogether.

Why, when film and television take such an interest in the past, has British theatre turned its back on it?

One answer might be that theatre is worried that it might be seen to be stuck in the past. It is, after all, much older than film and television. It is itself historical and wants to be modern. Its problem is to reconcile that with its wish to keep performing old plays as well as new ones, if only because old plays with familiar titles are easier to sell than new ones.

The solution it has found to this problem is to commission new writers to re-write old plays. Re-imagining, as it is known, is a relatively new phenomenon but one which has left very few classic texts untouched. Most of the best known plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov have had their original historical context removed in multiple operations and replaced by a new one.

The surgery is not always successful. In the process of re-imagining, nerves and blood vessels have to be re-connected, which doesn’t always work. When it does, a living play emerges, not to replace a dead one, but for each to have a life of its own. When it doesn’t, it’s because the heart has been left out.

The result is that history as fiction is deprived of an opportunity to illuminate history itself by enabling us, who are alive today, to identify with our ancestors, who are not and cannot speak for themselves.

Period drama used to be called costume drama, an old-fashioned theatrical term for a play that required the wardrobe department to provide costumes of a specific period. A director called Barry Jackson began the reaction against costume drama with his modern dress production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1923.

Period drama is a more helpful term than costume drama in that it suggests a historical context that depends not merely on what people wore but on what they thought and how they behaved. What Barry Jackson achieved was to shift the emphasis in that direction by humanising the characters in Shakespeare’s play. The audience was asked to see them as people, not clothes horses, people who thought and behaved as we would if we happened to live in Ancient Britain.

Re-imagining old plays goes further than that, taking away not only the costume of the period but the period itself. The justification is usually made in terms of relevance. But by taking away the historical context, the concept of relevance is in danger of being understood merely as similarity or, worse still, familiarity.

The relevance of history itself is in danger of being forgotten by British theatre where, because of its own history, it should be best remembered.

Uncle Vanya, Moscow Art Theatre, 1899

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This entry was posted on October 21, 2020 by in drama, History, Literature and tagged , .
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