Conférence plénière

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Fixtures and fissures in English theatre history

Russell Jackson (University of Birmingham)

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Where do we identify fault-lines, and how useful are they in the narratives in which we place the texts we discuss?

Theatre historiography has shifted in emphasis and practice over recent decades. The discipline’s own fault-lines can be discerned in the changing approaches to the accounts of theatre history we draw on in survey courses, syllabi and published overviews. The model that has usually been adopted is one of development, with occasional exciting leaps and breakthroughs. In this, a series of old guards is repeatedly challenged by a succession of avant-gardes. How we conceptualise this history bears on the way we contextualise play scripts, pointing to the significance of, for example, HamletTartuffeGhostsThe Threepenny OperaDeath of a Salesman or Look Back in Anger. The familiar elements of the narrative can be divided into three categories: events and turning-points; the practical, intellectual and aesthetic impact of individuals and movements, and the identification of key performances as representative of shifts in social milieu and dramaturgical and performance technique. Drawing on a number of specific examples of events, individuals, and performances, the paper will consider ways in which the ‘argument’ of theatre history can draw on ideas of of displacement, disruption and renewal. For the theatre and drama in England, the political and social events and turning-points have included the closing of theatres during the Commonwealth in the 1640s and 1650s, and the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the situation after the two World Wars, and societal changes in the 1950s-1960s. In theatre organisation, changes in financial and political support have been regarded as of key importance – patronage combined with box-office in Shakespeare’s time, the rise of the repertory movement in the 20th century, and the establishment of subsidised companies since the 1950s. At what point can we identify any of these factors as amounting to a seismic shift, and should we re-evaluate the terms in which we frame the stories we tell about the theatre in England? Can we elide this narrative with those of the other parts of the United Kingdom, and how influential has been the example of other countries, particularly continental Europe?  Finally, will the upheavals of the pandemic – not to mention Brexit – figure as fault-lines in future versions of this account? As we take stock of where the theatre might go from here, is it time to pay the same attention to how we got here in the first place?