Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Dramatic History or Historical Drama?

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Dramatic History or Historical Drama?

Article excerpt


This article is meant to illustrate the difficulty that historians face in attracting students to their discipline and then holding their attention. Yet it is one of the ironies of this era that historical topics remain quite popular in a variety of genre from motion pictures to the theater. What I propose in this article is that historians with dramatic skills should find ways to write plays about historical subjects rather than leaving such tasks to dramatists who mainly use historical figures to attract attention to their plays. The final portion of the article describes the difficulties that historians have in using such an approach and the ways to overcome those difficulties.

Dramatic History or Historical Drama?

Richard II makes a good beginning:

   "For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground And tell sad stories of the
   death of kings!"

And later we have Prince Ha:

   "... They take it, already upon their salvation that, though I be but
   Prince of Wales, yet I am the king of courtesy, and tell me flatly I am no
   proud Jack like Falstaff,..."

or if you prefer, Henry V:

   "And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by, From this day to the ending of the
   world, But we in it shall be remembered few, we happy few, we band of

for the finale Richard III:

   A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"

The quotations are meant to demonstrate what the authors of 1066 and All That declared in their introduction, "History is not what you thought, it is what you can remember. All other history defeats itself." By their definition Shakespeare's characterizations of Richard II, Henry V, and Richard III are history. They are what we remember. For those historians who specialize in subjects that have become famous through plays or more recently through film, it is extremely difficult to publish anything from textbooks to biographies without taking into account the dramatic version. The only way to avoid the problem is to write strictly for an audience of other professional historians in our chosen field.

In this era of specialization there are no more than fifty people in the whole world who are genuinely knowledgeable about our area of specialty. These are the scholars who thoroughly know the places and eras we study as well as the people who inhabited them and the documents they produced. Our academic respectability comes through gaining the good opinion of this band of brothers and sisters. We do this by speaking with one another through papers, articles, and monographs. Except in rare instances, this conversation on the cutting edge of the discipline does not attract much attention beyond this half-hundred strong group of experts.

The key phrase in that last statement is, speak to one another. While fully recognizing that all scholars regardless of their field need to communicate with one another, in history there is a tradition that we also attempt to make contact with the wider world. Of late that has become problematic. Starting at the most basic level, virtually all historians have encountered undergraduate students who consider the study of history both boring and irrelevant to their lives. These same students grow up to become book publishers and editors, university administrators and trustees, voters and legislators. In short they have a major say in the lives and livelihood of professional historians, and it is an unaffordable luxury to write them off, so to speak, as barbarians. I would argue that the survival of the discipline may well depend on maintaining a positive connection with them.

The irony is that while the discipline of history is increasingly on the defensive, interest in historical events remains popular as ever. Films about everything from medieval Scotland to early twentieth century Atlantic travel attract vast audiences and win numerous awards. …

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