Historic Drama: an invitation or too big a challenge?

Our Artistic Director shares her opinions on the willingness of others to tackle historic drama.

Because we like to take an interest in theatre beyond our own four walls, and be part of the wider York theatre community, we recently attended the AGM for another local theatrical organisation. Among the interesting moments was their discussion of the inclusion of classical (read “historic”) plays in their repertoire. Although some people seemed quite keen on the idea, it was noted that the more recent occasions when a historic play was calendared, finding a director proved unusually difficult. I had seen notices for those plays and, had I not been tied up with academic commitments, would have jumped on the opportunity, so it had never really occurred that other directors didn’t feel the same excitement.

Is there something about historic plays that directors in particular find intimidating or uninspiring? I don’t really know the answer for sure. Inarguably, there are possible aspects to approaching historic plays that might give someone pause – but it’s hard to talk about historic plays as if they are monolithic. Medieval dramas will present an obvious challenge with language… Renaissance, perhaps, with poetry… the Victorians with a sensibility which seems melodramatic and over the top today… but these are different issues, and any director might be intimidated by one set of circumstances while feel totally okay with another.

One thing which might be universal to historic plays is the feeling that you have to do something “innovative” with them. After all, they’ve been done (and in some cases, done and done and overdone) before, so there is an additional pressure to be ‘clever’. There is also the pressure to create ‘relevance’, rather than letting what relevance is present in the play itself pop to the surface and speak to you. And yet there are an awful lot of directors who are thrilled to tackle Shakespeare, whose plays have some of the densest performance history (and therefore really require something special to stand out). They may feel this is mitigated, ironically, by its very familiarity: if you can be reasonably sure the audience already knows the story of Romeo & Juliet, you might think that you can and should push the boat out pretty far, and clarity is less necessary. (I passionately disagree with that theory, by the way, but I’ve seen enough productions which clearly relied on foreknowledge by the audience to know that sometimes, whether deliberately or not, a dependence on audience awareness is taken for granted.) Conversely, I wonder if some directors feel that ‘classic’ plays require a certain degree of reverence, and therefore circumscribe creativity.

Of course, there is also the possibility that directors don’t have an aversion to historic plays, so much as a preference for modern ones. If you’re hooked on contemporary theatre styles, or plays dealing with contemporary matters, then obviously a call to direct a three-hundred-year-old play might not be particularly exciting to you.

I can’t really speak to the motivations of others, only speculate; because I find historic plays fascinating, it’s hard for me to get into the mind-set of avoiding them. Ultimately, however, I wonder if (perhaps ironically, all things considered) categorising plays by the date they were written isn’t missing the point. A story is interesting to you, or it isn’t, and perhaps by emphasizing the date of writing blinds people to that. Naturally directors need some form of filter to decide what projects they wish to pursue and which ones aren’t for them, but I’m not sure if using a date is the best one possible. Do we do a disservice to historic drama by focusing on that aspect, rather than other ways of describing plays? I really don’t know. A feature which I find attractive may be the opposite to someone else, and anyway you couldn’t get rid of the knowledge that an older play had a long history even if you didn’t describe it primarily as ‘historical’.

I don’t have all of the answers. The only one that I firmly believe to be true is that, if indeed there are people who have an aversion to plays of or about the past, the only way to convince them otherwise is to keep putting them on, continuing to make them as interesting as possible, every chance we get.