What does the history play mean in 2017?

“What does the history play mean now? What are the politics and possible stakes of staging, writing, and conducting research on history plays in 2017?” Phyllis Rackin asked a version of these questions to the participants on my “Returning to the History Play: Time, Memory, Affect” roundtable at MLA this past weekend. I’m also echoing the closing paragraphs of Brian Walsh’s paper wherein he considered the status of the history play in the age of Wikipedia, truthiness, and fake news.

Reflecting on the fact that the session was organized and the papers were written in 2016 – the year the historical musical Hamilton rocked the theatrical world and precedent-shattering elections shook both the UK and the US – Phyllis called on the panelists, and audience members, to attend to these big questions and the ethical implications of our answers to them. They will certainly stick with me as I work on my book and teach Richard II  and 1 Henry IV this semester.

I’m still thinking about other aspects of Phyllis’s thoughtful and provocative response to the papers as well as the presentations themselves. She reminded us that anachronism – the mix of ideas, objects, and narratives from multiple time periods in a single play – bears the fingerprints of intention and accident. As her own prior work has shown, history plays are always witnesses of the playwrights’s time as much as the historical moment that the playwright seeks to capture. I find myself writing about this as a fundamentally mixed temporality, a palimpsestic layering that that includes the plays themselves, their sources, the moment of their first performance or publication, and our responses to them in the present moment.

I was also intrigued by the many threads running through the smart and generative papers. I’ll limit myself to three here – embodiment, the ground, Shakespearean intertexts – but there’s much more I hope to discuss with the participants in the future. Alice Dailey, Mario DiGangi, and Brian Walsh’s papers each turned to embodiment – dead soldiers (Alice), affectively entangled bodies and class-crossing bodies (Mario), actors’s bodies doubling parts or representing figures on multiple time scales (Brian) – to think about temporality and memory. Alice’s consideration Jeff Wall’s photographs brought the body and the ground into dialogue, perhaps along two different vectors of time. Jean Howard’s paper on Howard Brenton’s Romans in Britain also took up ideas of the ground, the nation, and the work of excavation for thinking about time’s sedimentation. Shakespeare was always present, too. I was especially interested in how many papers turned to Cymbeline and Julius Caesar (while Richard III and Prince Hal made appearances, too.) J.K. Barret’s reading of Brutus and Cassius’s imagined audiences got at the heart of this issue to help us think about the myths of Rome  (in and beyond England) to which the other plays discusses also appealed. These linked ideas pushed our thinking beyond the session’s keyword subtitle – time, memory, affect – and perhaps closer to answers to Phyllis’s questions.

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2 thoughts on “What does the history play mean in 2017?

  1. […] morning hours before a pre-semester faculty meeting, after yoga, and at the end of a long day of preparation for the Modern Language Association conference. It was nice to pause amidst the festivity, work, and routine to transcribe a few pages of Constance […]

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