Historical Drama

Historical dramas are dramatic portrayals of events in history. These dramas may be portrayed on the theatrical stage, in film, television or literature. By nature, the historical drama should not be relied upon for historical accuracy. Historical dramas may be traced back to Elizabethan England, when playwrights such as William Shakespeare dramatized British history on the stage.

During the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries, historical dramas tended to center around the lives of kings and nobles. Critics of the arts have condemned historical dramas for focusing too much on historical aspects, whereas historians disapprove of the dramas that exaggerate personalities and rearrange events for the sake of dramatic effect. Dramatists have also been praised for presenting history in the most engaging and relevant way possible.

Robert Metcalf Smith, author of Types of Historical Drama, asserts the importance of dramatists in the preservation of history. Smith begs the questions: "Is there such a thing as an objective history? Is history a bare chronicle of facts listed year by year on a musty vellum by some monk in a medieval monastery?" In order to make history understandable and applicable, historians will emphasize important facts and disregard facts that are of no interest. According to Smith, the dramatist should not be criticized for allowing the audience to relive history. During Shakespeare's time, historical dramas were often used as propaganda tools. Plays regarding the War of the Roses such as "Richard III" and the "Henry VI" series validated the reign of Elizabeth's Tudor dynasty. Other plays such as "Anthony and Cleopatra" placed emphasis on a woman's ability to rule and govern, thereby empowering the Virgin Queen. Smith enumerates the potentials of historical drama, claiming that the dramatist "may vitalize and recreate the splendor of the past; he may present a historical figure offering dramatic possibilities; he may employ historical events as a background for fictitious characters; he may present a social picture of a past era; or he may utilize history to give added interest to his main plot." History can and does promote dramatic plot.

Historical films adopt events of history and turn them into cinematic experiences. These films are often referred to as epics, costume dramas or period pictures. For visual effect, they use grand sets and lavish costumes. Historical epics are usually inauthentic, prioritizing political correctness above historical accuracy. Filmmakers will attribute their erroneous depictions to poetic license. Epics have explored different eras, cultures and events, including Westerns, wars and biblical events.

The first American epic was a silent film called Judith of Bethulia, which portrayed the Jewish heroine during an Assyrian siege. Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille mastered the art of the sweeping, overpowering epic with such films as Joan the Woman, The Ten Commandments and King of Kings. His films often revolved around religious figures such as David, Bathsheba, Samson and Solomon. The 1950s and 1960s featured "sword and sandal" epics, films encompassing the Greek and Roman eras and the beginnings of Christianity. Charleton Heston, Victor Mature and Richard Burton were often typecast as the strong, yet tormented, heroes of these films. Biopics are biographical films focusing on famous historical figures. Popular personalities that have been featured include Emile Zola, Marie Antoinette, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi and Mozart. David Lean, an award-winning director, created some of the most classic epic films: Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Passage to India.

Many historical dramas have sparked controversy. In 2011, a miniseries about the Kennedys was criticized for blatant historical inaccuracy. Other filmmakers accused the miniseries of "political character assassination" and of having a "dramatic agenda." Alex Hudson of BBC News questioned the importance of accuracy in historical drama in the first place. Hudson quoted Sue Deeks, an executive head of BBC, as saying: "All historical fiction has a primary duty to engage the audience with a compelling narrative whilst not distorting historical truth. The very best historical drama will inspire the audience to investigate the fact behind the fiction." Historical figures such as John F. Kennedy are often treated with reverence, and anything marring their image is criticized. According to Gareth McLean, there is a distinct difference between historical accuracy and emotional accuracy. McLean claims that historical drama plays an important role in society: "What most of these dramas are trying to do is shed a light on something happening in the present by using historical events. If they can do that successfully -- and in an entertaining way -- then why not?"

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Radical Stages: Alternative History in Modern British Drama
D. Keith Peacock.
Greenwood Press, 1991
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Historical Drama"
American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century
David Glassberg.
University of North Carolina Press, 1990
Types of Historical Drama
Robert Metcalf Smith.
Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1928
A History of Late Nineteenth Century Drama, 1850-1900
Allardyce Nicoll.
University Press, vol.1, 1946
Librarian’s tip: "Domestic and Historical Drama" begins on p. 82
The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare
Irving Ribner.
Princeton University Press, 1957
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "The History Play in Decline"
World Drama from Aeschylus to Anouilh
Allardyce Nicoll.
Harcourt Brace, 1950
Librarian’s tip: "The Poetic-Historical Drama from Scandinavia to Slovenia" begins on p. 737
Strindberg and the Historical Drama
Walter Gilbert Johnson.
University of Washington Press, 1963
Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays
Alexander Leggatt.
Routledge, 1989
Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama
Peter Saccio.
Oxford University Press, 2000 (2nd edition)
Documentary Theatre in the United States: An Historical Survey and Analysis of Its Content, Form, and Stagecraft
Gary Fisher Dawson.
Greenwood Press, 1999
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