History as Drama?

Tonight’s menu: Pork Paprikash. Wait, this is not that kind of blog. (But I really did make paprikash this week, and it was pretty darn good for my first time.) Anyway…

In today’s reading came the end of the first chapter, “The Curtain Goes Up: ‘Gregorian Chant,’ the First Literate Repertory, and How it Got That Way.” Taruskin’s title—especially the first phrase—cleverly sets the stage, so to speak, for the enterprising soul who has set out to read his history. “Settle in to your seat,” Taruskin seems to say, “and enjoy the OHWM, a History in Five Acts. Cue the overture!”

His use of the curtain metaphor has me thinking about the connection between the telling of history, and the presentation of a drama. We usually talk about history as a “narrative” (Taruskin included, notwithstanding his condemnation of the nefarious “master narrative”), but is there any benefit to applying dramatic theory to historiography? Or do the pitfalls of such a paradigm outweigh the benefits? Does anyone know if any work has been done on this, or have thoughts about it?

Of course, when I think drama I automatically think opera: a curtain-raising overture, several acts, a cast of characters whose relationships to one another will be revealed over the course of the evening—however ill-fated those relationships turn out to be—remember, it’s opera. How does/should the work of a historian emulate drama? (Extra points for the first commenter who uses “dramaturgical” in his/her response.)



  1. zachwallmark says:

    Had to sleep on this one. (Not that that will make my thoughts any more coherent.) First, we have to distinguish the elements of drama from the elements of history. Dramas tend to have beginnings, middles and ends; they feature a limited number of characters; action is pushed forward by the deeds of individuals; they are teleological (mostly) in the sense that they build to a wrapped-up conclusion. How about historical processes: they are formless; there is a huge number of players (whole nations, cultures, groups, etc.); action is pushed forward collectively, and while some individuals are more important than others, no one person is that powerful; it is non-teleological.

    That said, I think drama bears a very tenuous relationship to history. Select episodes in history are certainly dramatic, but the entire scope of human activity past can’t really be put under the dramaturgical lens. (Bingo!) That said, treating history as drama can really make history a lot more exciting. (Perhaps to the detriment of good historiography.) I would say that Taruskin’s opening was definitely dramatic, but the actual text hasn’t been at all.

  2. Nathan Baker says:

    Well, if we’re going to discuss drama, let’s bring in Aristotle’s three unities:

    1. The unity of action: a play should have one main action that it follows, with no or few subplots.

    2. The unity of place: a play should cover a single physical space and should not attempt to compress geography, nor should the stage represent more than one place.

    3. The unity of time: the action in a play should take place over no more than 24 hours.

    I think certain versions of history (particularly the simplified ones we tell our undergraduates) are edited/approached in ways that sort of conform to the unities. We like to start by examining a single action/thread (say, the development of chant); we then try to localize it (the spread of the Roman liturgy to the northern Franks); and, while history necessarily takes place over more time than 24 hours, we do try to neatly package things into convenient, easy-to-remember time periods (spread in 800, notation coming around 900, etc.). It seems to me that applying the rules of drama to history can make for good stories, and thus make things easier to remember (stories have been used as, among other things, mnemonic devices since long before literacy was common); at some point, however, a true student of history must move past these cleaned-up dramatic versions of history and start dealing with the messy bits that undermine the notion of a continuous narrative thread or teleological development.

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      Excellent approach to the question – you bring in the pedagogue’s perspective, which is very valuable.

      Simplifying historiography is quite possibly a necessity. When you have a group of 18-20 year olds in front of you, many of whom have no initial familiarity with the topic (and perhaps less interest in it), a reading of history without a flair for the dramatic could make the whole proceedings rambling, unclear, and – most importantly – hard to remember. “Drama makes for good stories” – although it may not be the absolutely perfect approach historiographically speaking, we as educators have the responsibility of not only conveying the material to students, but of making our material into a good story. This will spark interest and passion, which might lead a student to study the topic in greater depth, read more widely in it, and maybe even join in blog discussions like this. When they’ve been hooked, then all the caveats and complexities can come forward and joyously obscure what they thought to be The Truth.

      Thanks for the perspective on this.

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