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