Tony Blair is reputed to have said that the problem with history is that it’s all in the past. This was the view of the political playwrights of my generation, who started writing in the 1970s, We admired – indeed revered – our predecessors Edward Bond, John Arden and Bertolt Brecht, but disagreed with their strategy of setting much of their work far away and long ago. We felt strongly that plays set in the past were a kind of evasion: if you wanted to write plays about contemporary politics you should set them in the present day.
In this we followed most of the work of the kitchen sink school of late 1950s playwrights (John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and Shelagh Delaney) and anticipated subsequent generations: the women playwrights who emerged in the 1980s, the 1990s in-yer-face school brat-pack, and the fact-based playwrights who grappled with the war on terror in the 2000s.
I believe that the fact that new writing has now overtaken revivals in the repertoire of the British theatre is largely explained by most of the new plays of the last 60 years being set – defiantly and deliberately – in the here and now.
Nonetheless, the best play about political procedure written in the 2010s – James Graham’s This House – is set in the 1970s. When Laura Wade decided to write a play about the Cameron/Osborne leadership of the Conservative Party, she wrote Posh, a play about what they got up to in mid-1980s Oxford. When London’s Donmar theatre asked Steve Waters to write about the current state of the Labour Party, he wrote a play about the 1981 foundation of the Social-Democratic Party. All of Howard Brenton’s 1970s plays were set in the present or the future. All but one of his 21st century plays are set in the past.
Beyond the directly commemorative (for example, Phil Porter’s 2014 RSC play about the 1914 Christmas Truce), there are five basic reasons for setting plays in history. The first is the reason that plays were set there by classical dramatists from Aeschylus to Racine: the historical or mythical past provides great stories in which eternal human dilemmas are confronted, and setting plays there demonstrates their universal character.
The second reason is to challenge received views of past events or people (the purpose of history plays by Pam Gems, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Caryl Churchill, Helen Edmundson and many others). One way of dramatising that process is for plays to be set in both the present and the past, in which the one investigates, challenges or questions the other (from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia to Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica).
The third is to illuminate the present by exposing its roots in past events: Howard Brenton’s recent plays seek to show how history explains the present through plays about the reformation, the middle east and the partition of India.
A fourth reason is to show how live current questions were confronted in the past: examples include free speech (in plays like Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s 1955 play Inherit the Wind, about the prosecution of a teacher for propagating evolution) or the ideological or literal weaponisation of science (from Brecht’s Galileo to Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer).
Finally, playwrights choose historical settings to write about the present by way of analogy (“Oh, I see, a politician who starts off as a meritocratic idealist and ends up as a brutal hatchetman. Who does that remind you of?”).
It’s worth noting that only one of those reasons (the second) is about the past per se – the first generalises the past to the present, and the others use the past as a way of illuminating now.
Obviously many historical plays pursue more than one of these strategies (or are so interpreted). By being about two dominant women, Helen Edmondson’s Queen Anne (RSC 2015, about to be revived at London’s Haymarket Theatre) upends the received view of 18th century history, by demonstrating the roots of the two-party system it anatomises the roots of contemporary British politics, by showing the influence of gutter press abuse on national leaders it anticipates the present day, and by showing the struggle between intellectual and moral worth (Sarah Churchill vs Queen Anne) it dramatises an eternal human conflict.
And, surely, the popularity of plays about the Tudors can be explained by the importance of the English Reformation in subsequent history (up to and including Brexit), the obvious historical analogies provided by the political careers – and sticky ends – of the Thomases Wolsey, More and Cromwell, the dominance of powerful women, and the universal appeal of stories about dynastic conflict, betrayal, revenge and sex. Hence – as well as movies and television series without number – Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, Schiller’s Maria Stuart, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (and Vivat, Vivat Regina), Liz Lockhead’s Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off, Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn, and Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. Man for all Seasons delves into history for universal human themes, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is stuffed with contemporary resonances, and Anne Boleyn sites the Reformation as a key turning point in English history.
Initially conceived as a commemoration of the 1611 publication of the King James Bible, my own play Written on the Heart (RSC, 2011) sought to expose the real roots of that work in William Tyndale’s early Tudor translation of the New Testament (thus challenging much received wisdom), and to show how the English Reformation arose out of the developing English language, without which the subsequent course of British culture, politics and indeed economics is inconceivable.
There was also an element of generalisation (young radicals becoming conservative when old, and seeking to suppress the radicalism of subsequent generations) and analogy (as radicals of my generation come to terms with younger activists seeking to continue the revolution we failed to complete).
Nonetheless, for me, analogy is the least satisfactory of the reasons to set plays in the past. Despite the obvious (and mighty) example of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (set in 17th century Massachusetts, but actually about the anti-communist witchhunts of 1950s America), direct analogy can prove either heavy-handed or obscure (to corrupt an old Hollywood saying about irony, “analogy is what people miss”). Analogies can be suspect, and the clear moral lines they draw may be hard to apply to the politics of the present day. Defending the teaching of evolution is – in most parts of the world – an easier moral call than the issues raised by press attacks on Islam or the creation of safe spaces in universities.
There are good reasons to write plays set in the past – of which setting the record straight is one of the best – and there have been many great recent plays set in that attractive Other Country. But I think my generation of playwrights was right to focus – like the playwrights of today – not on the perceived simplicities of there but the painful complexities of now.