The use of historical material in contemporary British drama.

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(Thesis) M.A.
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An interesting feature of post-1956 British drama is the concern of many playwrights to explore problems of contemporary relevance from an historical perspective. It is the purpose of this thesis to examine the use of historical situations and historical settings in six selected plays of the period. ?one each by Robert Bolt, Peter Shaffer and John Gsborne and three by John Arcien?? to show that John Arden best understands the problems posed by the dramatic use of historical material. Such a topic invites any number of approaches, none of which is necessarily superior to another. One could examine the history plays in terms of the thematic concerns prevalent in the non-historical dramas of the various authors, for instance. Or one could study the political or ideological orientations as revealed, in the critical and non-dramatic writings of the playwrights and then relate such concerns to similar considerations in their history plays. In either case, the result would be relevant to our study of the use of historical material. However, because the topic is concerned primarily v/ith the dramatic use of such material, and because the works of four playwrights are under consideration, neither approach is employed. Instead, the method is constituted principally of in-depth studies of individual plays. The aesthetic and thematic aims of the authors are given full consideration, of course, but so far as possible these aims are related to the plays at hand rather than to broader and hence less manageable considerations. Common to the six plays is a decided break with the familiar fourth-wall conventions of naturalistic or realistic drama. As this study shows, however, the use of overtly theatrical devices or conventions, like the use of historical material itself, is neither new to drama nor is it a viable substitute for thematic evasions on's part. Bolt's A Man for All Seasons and Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun provide convincing illustrations of this point. Conversely, a playwright's conscientious attention to such matters is insufficient to compensate for dramaturgical deficiencies. Osborne's Luther and Arden's Left-Handed Liberty prove that thematic thoroughness does not necessarily result in viable historical drama. However, Arden's Armstrong's Last Goodnight and Serjeant i'-iusgrave' s Dance illustrate that a happy combination is possible, from both an historical and dramatic point of view. These plays suggest that a playwright's success with the use of historical best achieved if he is conversant v.'ith both the academic aspects of the period under consideration and the vast array of artistic conventions by which the various issues may be exploited to great dramatic effect. In other words, Arden shows that intelligent historicism and theatrical craftsmanship must be molded in such a way that neither dominates or submerges the other and in which neither can fairly be evaluated independently of the other. In so doing, Arden demonstrates that an historical approach remains a valid?? often exciting??ue by which problems of contemporary relevance can be explored.
Thesis (M.A.) - Dept. of English - Simon Fraser University
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Thesis advisor: Page, Malcolm
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