History as theatre
Last term, I co-directed a play entitled ‘The Cambridge Companion to the History of Lesbianism’. Working from a discarded dissertation idea, I led a team of researchers in uncovering a wealth of historical material about the lives of lesbians and same-sex desire between women in British history.
Working on this project has encouraged me to look at history from a brand-new perspective. My audience was no longer the supervisor paid to teach me, but a group of people who had paid to see something we had made.
However, transforming history into something worthy of the stage left us stuck between two different aims: to educate and to entertain. The place of history in the theatre is of particular relevance in light of the success of ‘Hamilton’ in the West-End. This re-exploration of the early history of the United States not only challenges existing historical narratives, but makes the way in which historiographies construct mythologies of power a central feature of its sound track: ‘We just assume that it happens/ But no one else is in/ The room where it happened’.
The project raised some interesting issues that must be considered when making theatre out of history:
- The terms used to refer to same-sex desire between women have changed considerably over the centuries, with one source we found referring to lesbians as ‘vampire women’
- Whilst we opted for a title playing on the classic ‘Cambridge Companion to…’ series, it was important to address this changing terminology and indicate to the audience that the use of the word ‘lesbian’ may in fact be anachronistic at certain points in history
- Whilst historians have done great work in order address the previous invisibility of lesbians in history, we have to be careful not to replicate the exclusions of the past
- The primary source material we used addressed the way in which factors such as race and class have influenced experiences of same-sex love between women throughout history
- The diversity of experiences we uncovered made it all the more vital to carefully choose who would tell these stories. It was more important, to us, to have an all LGBT+ cast and crew that reflected the diversity of experiences, than to cast people with impressive theatre experience
Chronology, without teleology
- Using, and writing, material which revealed the exclusions, inequalities and setbacks at different points in the history of lesbianism, helped us to counteract the potential for producing a narrative of inevitable emancipation and progress
- Extending the scope of the show right up to the 21st century allowed us to demonstrate that meaningful and positive change had occurred with regards to the rights of lesbians. Yet as demonstrated in the set-back of Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28 in the 1980s, for example, the pathway to greater rights was far from linear.
- Cambridge can be a bit of a ‘liberal bubble’. Our audiences were therefore likely to reflect only a very small proportion of ‘the public’
- This raises a broader question in public history: how do we create public history projects that can engage diverse audiences?
- How would the show have been received if it had been performed elsewhere to a vastly different audience?
Although these particular obstacles have arisen in relation to a specific project, they have broader implications for public history as a whole. Whatever the topic, historians producing content for the public, as opposed to academic audiences, must consider issues of engagement and balance the competing demands of both entertainment and education, all whilst avoiding compromising their scholarly integrity.