By James Jefferies.
Whenever I get asked what I studied at the University of Essex I always seem to be given a strange look when I say I studied Drama and History. “Oh that’s an interesting choice of degree, I never knew you could do that” people respond to me with a rather bemused face. I’ll then reply by saying that it was actually two separate degrees rather than one. My Bachelor’s degree was in Drama and my Masters in History. They then say something along the lines of “I never knew the two could link.” Well, neither did I, but in many ways they did. Both were about discovering truth and understanding humanity. They are, after all, both subject of Humanities. It’s kind of obvious when you think about it.
Many of my favourite films when growing up were often historical and I often found myself asking two questions – What was the real truth behind the story? How can it be discovered? Both questions could be explored through historical research and through the process of performance. When studying History, I would examine sources to unravel the truth and in Drama, I would understand how a theatrical medium could be used to express and explore much of a historical story from fact.
Of course, sometimes the historian in me would roll his eyes at glaring historical inaccuracies, but then the drama student within me understands that this is an interpretation, not a documentary. It is an exploration of what it is to be human; an interpretation of fact. A theatrical piece may explore a particular part of a historical event in a way that no historian ever could. For many people, I included, it may be the gateway to explore history further. It was watching Schindler’s List that made me want to understand more about the Holocaust. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person this happened to either.
It is also beneficial for historians to examine plays written in the past. Aphra Behn’s The Rover, for example, is a fascinating insight into the restoration period of British history and offers unique insights into the society’s attitude towards sexuality and gender during this time. Restoration comedy itself stood in defiance to the stale, dull and restricted Puritan period which had preceded it. Such plays were energetic, extravagant and full of wild humour. Such a work is fascinating to me both as a historian and as a student of drama.
Pieces of drama often reflect a ‘snapshot’ of time and imprint a visual memory of it. Poldark can be many people’s first view and interpretation of Cornwall in the later eighteenth century. Was The Other Boleyn Girl really what the court of Henry the Eighth was like? Often people’s first engagement with history depends on what’s on the TV on a Saturday night.
Often when something was written, the politics of the time influences it’s writing and even leaves a common historical memory. Take Shakespeare’s historical play Richard the Third. The image of Richard as a deformed, cruel, backstabbing, murdering, power-hungry King has been entrenched into how we think of him today. This image is one that most historians argue was not at all correct. But why paint him like that? He lost the throne to the family that now sat on it. Yet Shakespeare’s image is embedded in our minds. Who, however, has the right to criticise Shakespeare’s wonderful language and exploration of humanity in Richard the Third, despite the fact it ignores many historical truths? Not me that’s for certain.
The adjustment from Drama to History was only difficult in a logistical sense (such as source gathering) but otherwise the transition was relatively simple. Both certainly gave me unique insights into understanding what it is to be a human. Both made me understand more about how we became what we are today and how to explore that. Studying Drama and History made me appreciate how to tell and understand a story. They say that truth is stranger than fiction. I believe that the reality of both leaves a lot to the imagination.