"Theatre and History: Cultural Transformations"

By Heinz, Sarah | European English Messenger, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

"Theatre and History: Cultural Transformations"


Heinz, Sarah, European English Messenger


"Theatre and History: Cultural Transformations". 23rd Annual Conference of the German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English (CDE). (University of Hamburg, Germany, 19-22 June 2014)

In spite of the proclaimed 'end of history', the historical has remained a powerful presence in plays and performances of the last decades. Many of these plays pluralize the past and challenge hegemonic historiography from gendered, postcolonial, and ecological perspectives, using forms such as verbatim or memory plays, staged biographies, or enactments 'on location'. In all these different forms, playwrights and theatre practitioners do not only stage but also scrutinize and resist linear notions of history, and they address the material or environmental processes within which these temporalities unfold. Against the backdrop of these lively debates and formal experiments, the 23rd annual conference of the German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English (CDE) addressed issues of history, how we tell stories about it and how notions of history have been challenged and re-assessed on Anglophone stages around the world.

The conference opened with a conversation between playwright Mark Ravenhill and Jorg Bochow, head dramaturge of the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg. Focusing on how and to what effect theatre and drama locate history on the contemporary stage, Ravenhill vividly talked about historical events that had shaped his life and the life of his parents. Using plays like Faust Is Dead (1997), Handbag (1998) or Mother Clap's Molly House (2001), Bochow and Ravenhill discussed the possibilities of theatre and drama to make the present talk to the past. The conversation ended with Ravenhill's impressive and haunting reading from his stage adaptation and re-writing of Candide, a version of Voltaire's classical novel first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2013.

In the first keynote of the conference that followed on the next morning, Una Chaudhuri (New York University) took the route of eco-criticism to talk about how human history is put into perspective when considering large-scale events like climate change. Using Caryl Churchill's Far Away (2000) as a starting point, she concentrated on how tiny acts of a private nature are connected to momentous developments that affect everyone's lives. She then discussed Wallace Shawn's Grasses of a Thousand Colors (2009) and its disturbing play on sexual expression, human-animal relations and food, while spinning a dystopian fantasy about ecological disaster.

Following Chaudhuri's keynote, the first panel of the conference on "Fracturing History: Staging the Moment" started with Vicky Angelaki (University of Birmingham) who, focusing on Martin Crimp's Alles Weitere kennen Sie aus dem Kino (2013), discussed how Crimp's new version of Euripides' The Phoenician Women de-familiarizes the familiar and questions historical narratives. Through its focus on strong women, Crimp creates a new collective 'ourstory' in which the audience is included. Chris Megson (Royal Holloway, University of London) followed up on Angelaki and in his paper detected a new interest in religion and secular enchantment in a whole number of contemporary plays, ranging from David Hare's Racing Demon (1990), Richard Bean's The Heretic (2011) to Howard Barker's Lot and His God (2012) or plays like Howard Brenton's Paul (2005). Megson applied the idea of the postsecular to these plays, arguing that the theatricalized postsecular imagination is both an antidote to modernism's disenchantment with the world and a means of up-ending the binary division of past and present. In the final paper of the panel, Franziska Quabeck (University of Munster) focused on the importance of individual human acts in the workings of history, using Brian Friel's The Home Place (2005). In contrast to abstract history, ruled by natural laws, Friel's play presents history as unpredictable and stresses the ethical responsibility of the individual as a historical agent. …

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