Defining Documentary Theatre
“Poetry is led more by philosophy, the reason and nature of things, than
history; which only records things higlety, piglety, right or wrong as they
A Short View of History (1643)1
Imagine William Shakespeare as the Ptolemy of historical drama; master of transforming moribund historical information compressed from secondary sources into orbits of plot and magical storytelling. Now, imagine the young German playwright Georg Büchner as the Copernicus of documentary theatre; a theatrical Galileo, whose purpose was to come as close to an actual event using instead primary sources at the center of his creation. This is a way to view two distinct forms of theatre art: in one, historical fact revolves around story, in the other, historical fact is the story. This chapter will provide a simpler definition of the form than is currently available.
Surprise is one response when it is learned that Büchner's Danton's Death (Dantons Tod) (1835) is a documentary play. Because it is the protodocumenetary play in the modern sense, it rightly should be the beginning point of inquiry into this field of drama. There is something oddly satisfying about the idea that this new theatre genre was invented by a young playwright who, though he died at the age of twenty-four of typhus, had published only three plays. Yet, each, on their own merits, is considered to be a masterpiece of imagination. Danton's Death premiered at Belle-Alliance in Berlin (5 January 1902). Perhaps its single most important production was Max Reihardt's at the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin (15 December 1916), after which it became a staple of German theatre, including Piscator's 1956 interpretation with design by Brecht's designer, Caspar Neher.2 Another important production of it took place