Historical drama


Sometimes writers use drama to try to re-create a particular event in history for a particular purpose, for example for a local cultural festival. This kind of play usually involves trying to be as faithful as possible to the time being portrayed. The emphasis is on historical accuracy in costume etc in order to create a sense of the past. Whilst this is a perfectly valid form of drama it is not the kind of historical drama I wish to address. Here I am more interested in the use of the past as a vehicle to say something about the present. In other words the story and its themes are of most importance. Many writers have of course used stories of the past in this way. Shakespeare immediately springs to mind as does Bertolt Brecht, Arthur Miller (The Crucible) and many others.

Writing an historical drama is much the same as writing a contemporary play in most respects. Considerations of set and style are the same. Dialogue can be tricky. How accurate of the period do you want your dialogue to be? Too reminiscent of the times may render your dialogue incomprehensible to modern audiences. On the other hand if the dialogue is too contemporary it can be discordant.

Plot too can be problematic. Historical events may not follow a neat story arc, a smooth building of tension, leading to a climax and resolution. Real life can be dramatically uncooperative and dramatic solutions (“licence”) is sometimes required. Historical characters too can be uncooperative. Sometimes historical personages are just not up to the dramatic task. Sometimes too, information about  an historical figure’s personality may be scant and their character can only be inferred from events. These are some of the creative problems and judgments the author must confront and solve.

Truth then is what is at issue here. But what kind of truth? It depends on the intention of the writer in using an historical story for dramatic purposes. Theme is key here. Communicating the theme of the play effectively allows the audience to enter into the spirit of the drama and its dramatic/historical truth. (Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is a great example of an historical story and setting but with powerful modern themes.) Obviously historical truth or accuracy is also of importance. The writer should not stray too far from actual facts. Balance is important.


Masscare at Myall reek

John Summons presents the historical background of his play “Massacre at Myall Creek” at the City-Country Alliance Conference*, June 25th 2017.  This play was based on events that happened in colonial times (1838)  in northern New South Wales, Australia. It involved the massacre of twenty-eight Aboriginal people and the subsequent trials of the massacre’s perpetrators. The play toured extensively throughout many Australian states for ten years, from 1988 to 1998, playing to both metropolitan and country audiences.  In 1993 the play was published internationally by Cambridge University Press. (*A network of NSW school communities striving to increase intercultural understanding.)

Click on the link below to read the talk by John Summons about Massacre at Myall Creek.

Massacre at Myall Creek Talk

Massacre at Myall Creek Talk pdf


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