Plays

The Astronaut’s Chair

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Rona Munro's The Astronaut's Chair is a play about the race to be the first woman in space. The second of a proposed trilogy of plays about space exploration, it followed her earlier play Little Eagles (2011), about the engineer behind the Soviet space programme.

The Astronaut's Chair was commissioned by and first performed at the Drum Theatre, Plymouth, on 20 September 2012.

The play's protagonist, Renee Coburg (loosely based on pioneer woman aviator Jacqueline Cochran), is a gritty, glamorous aviator, the fastest, highest, bravest woman in the world. A self-made pilot, she battled against a poor childhood to fly planes in World War II. As America and the USSR enter the space race, she becomes determined to be the first woman to go into orbit. However, it won’t all be plain sailing as she faces stiff competition from an ambitious new rival. Jo Green is a determined, brilliant and much younger pilot with her eye on all Renee’s records. They both want to be the first woman in space but there’s only one chair at the top of the rocket.

The Drum Theatre production was directed by Simon Stokes and designed by Bob Bailey. The cast included Ingrid Lacey (as Renee Coburg), Tom Hodgkins, Jack Sandle, Eleanor Wyld and Amanda Ryan.

Battle Royale

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

1795: England is at war with France, women are seen but not heard, and the Prince Regent, a man with ‘an undeserved reputation for enjoying the amusements of his position whilst not embracing duties’, is under pressure to marry and produce and heir.

audio Becket, or The Honor of God

LA Theatre Works
Type: Audio

Waiting to be punished for his part in Becket's murder, King Henry II re-lives his deeply felt relationship with the saint, once his dearest friend and partner in unbridled decadence. His catastrophic mistake? To appoint Becket Archbishop - for Becket finds his allegiance shifting from king and country to God and Church.

An L.A. Theatre Works full-cast performance featuring Asher Book, Kevin Daniels, Ken Danziger, Jean Gilpin, Alan Mandell, Charlie Matthes, Tim Monsion, Denis O' Hare, Jennifer Rau-Ramirez, Simon Templeman, John Vickery, Douglas Westen and Greg Woodell.

Featuring: Asher Book, Kevin Daniels, Ken Danziger, Jean Gilpin, Alan Mandell, Charlie Matthes, Tim Monsion, Denis O' Hare, Jennifer Rau-Ramirez, Simon Templeman, John Vickery, Douglas Westen, Greg Woodell

Berlin Bertie

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

An intimate and at times savagely funny psychological study of two sisters, one of who has made her home in East Berlin and one who has stayed on in their native London.

Fleeing from an encounter that has destroyed her marriage, Rosa Brine leaves Berlin in the wake of the downing of the Wall and seeks shelter with her sister Alice. But the sinister figure of 'Berlin Bertie' follows and finds her. A turbulent Easter weekend of explosive confrontations ends in an oddly comic kind of salvation.

The Blinding Light  

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Howard Brenton's play The Blinding Light is about the playwright August Strindberg, focussing on a period of crisis in his life when, in 1896, he suffered a mental breakdown in a hotel room in Paris. The play was first performed at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London, on 6 September 2017.

The play is set in February 1896 in a squalid top-floor room in the Hotel Orfila, Rue d’Assas, Paris. The room is occupied by the famous Swedish playwright August Strindberg, who, having abandoned theatre, is living a life of squalid splendour, attempting to make gold by finding the philosopher’s stone, the secret of creation. As his grasp on reality weakens, his first two wives, Siri and Frida, visit him to bring him to his senses. But their interventions spin out of control.

In an introduction to the published script, Howard Brenton writes: 'I wrote The Blinding Light to try to understand the mental and spiritual crisis that August Strindberg suffered in February, 1896. Deeply disturbed, plagued by hallucinations, he holed up in various hotel rooms in Paris, most famously in the Hotel Orfila in the Rue d’Assas. ... Before and after the crisis in Paris he always wanted to make the theatre more real, at first by being true to the minutiae of everyday life – the famous cooking on stage in Miss Julie – then by trying to stage psychological states so vividly you think you are dreaming wide awake. By ‘realist’ or expressionist’ means he wanted audiences to see the world in a new light.'

The Jermyn Street Theatre production was directed by Tom Littler with a set designed by Cherry Truluck for Lucky Bert. It was performed by Laura Morgan, Jasper Britton (as August), Susannah Harker and Gala Gordon.

Blood and Ice

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Liz Lochhead's earliest play, Blood and Ice is a psychodrama that tells the story of Frankenstein’s creation and weaves a web of connections between Mary Shelley’s own tragic life and that of her literary monster. It was first performed at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 1982. It was later revived, in a revised version, by David McVicar at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1988, and subsequently toured by McVicar's company, Pen Name. It was again revived, in the version that was ultimately published, at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, on 24 October 2003.

The play unfolds as a series of flashbacks from the perspective of Mary Shelley in later life, disillusioned, let down by her friends, and struggling to understand her own creation, Frankenstein, or why she wrote it in the first place. It focuses on the summer of 1816, when eighteen-year-old Mary and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley are joined at a house party on the shores of Lake Geneva by Mary’s half-sister Claire and the infamous Lord Byron. They take part in a challenge to see who can write the most horrifying story. Little do they know that Mary’s contribution is to become one of the most celebrated novels of all time, nor how her life, already burdened with the death of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, is to be so full of tragedy.

Liz Lochhead, in a 2009 Introduction to the published text, writes 'It’s exactly thirty years since I first took down from a library shelf Muriel Spark’s Child of Light, her wonderful biography of Mary Shelley, and, shortly after, began my own pursuit. Could I make a play…? Naively, I was, at the time, quite blithely unaware that I wasn’t the first, and certainly wouldn’t be the last, to be fired by the dramatic possibilities of this moment in history, that iconic stormy summer of 1816 by the shores of the lake and beneath the high Alps.'

The 2003 Royal Lyceum production was directed by Graham McLaren and performed by Lucianne McEvoy, Phil Matthews, Alex Hassel, Susan Coyle and Michele Rodley.

Bloody Wimmin

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Lucy Kirkwood’s Bloody Wimmin is a short play written for the Tricycle Theatre’s Women, Power and Politics season, staged at the Tricycle, London, in June–July 2010. The play examines the impact of the 1980s Greenham Common protests and the fight for nuclear disarmament. It was first performed at the Tricycle on 4 June 2010, in rep with short plays by Marie Jones, Moira Buffini and Rebecca Lenkiewicz.

It’s 1984 and the peace camp at Greenham Common is in full swing. Mother-to-be Helen is torn between her commitment to the cause of nuclear disarmament and her expectant husband back home. Twenty-five years later and her now adult son, James, is an environmental activist, railing against what he perceives as sexual exploitation in the way the media is covering their protests.

The Tricycle Theatre production was directed by Indhu Rubasingham with a cast including Niamh Cusack, Stella Gonet and Kika Markham.

Boudica  

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Tristan Bernays' play Boudica is a history play in verse that tells the story of Boudica, queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe in the first century AD. It was first performed at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, on 8 September 2017.

The play is set in the year 61 AD in Britannia, on the furthest western borders of the Roman Empire. The King of the Iceni has died and his widow, Boudica, has tried to claim her rightful throne. For her insolence in defying Rome, the queen has been flogged, her daughters have been raped, and they have been banished from their homeland. But now, Queen Boudica has returned with an army, seeking revenge.

The premiere production was directed by Eleanor Rhode and designed by Tom Piper. It was performed by Bethan Clark, Samuel Collings, Owen Findlay, Jenny Fitzpatrick, Kate Handford, Joan Iyiola, Brian Martin, Forbes Masson, Gina McKee (as Boudica), Anna-Maria Nabirye, Abraham Popoola, Clifford Samuel, Natalie Simpson and Tok Stephen.

The Business of Good Government

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Business of Good Government was written for and first performed in 1960 in the village of Brent Knoll, Somerset. Telling the traditional story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, it focuses less on the divine and miraculous, and more on the geopolitical forces at play in Herod's kingdom.

Under threat of Roman invasion from the west and Persian invasion from the East, Herod is disconcerted to receive a party of Persian delegates, wise men, whom he fears are spies for his neighbour. Realising the threat that might come from a child born which might match and ancient prophecy, he issues an edict to slaughter all males aged under two-years-old.

In spite of this heinous crime, The Business of Good Government presents a not altogether unsympathetic portrait of that infamous king, in whom we can perhaps see echoes of calculated government policy in modern times.

Still, it is the goodness of Joseph and Mary, who parent a newborn, then bear it to safety out of a hostile kingdom, which shines through. The Business of Good Government is a traditional, if human, version of the story of Jesus' birth, and was first performed in Brent Knoll's Church of St. Michael, in 1960.

Bye Bye Columbus

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Peter Barnes mockingly dramatises the distinctly unheroic expedition of Christopher Columbus, which changed the face of the globe, though not entirely in the way he was expecting.

Columbus’s famous venture begins with a desperate struggle for funding, as well as an attempt to convince his backers that the /world was a lot smaller than everyone else thought. Eventually the Spanish King and Queen concede to his terms, which demanded extravagant personal rewards for services of dubious integrity. When he finally claims the Americas for the Spanish Empire, he isn’t entirely sure which country they are, but that doesn’t stop him finding ways to make money out of the people he found there.

Bye Bye Columbus is a wry and mocking portrait of a man who sailed halfway across the world for a hint of gold. The play was broadcast by BBC Television in 1992.

Historical drama is almost as old as theatre itself and continues to play a viable role in contemporary theatre. For the oldest surviving play, The Persians in 472 B.C.E., Aeschylus drew on events from the Greco-Persian War in which he had fought eight years earlier. Using historical characters and events, he imagined dialogue, compressed episodes for dramatic effect, and dramatised material to make points relevant to his contemporary audience, all strategies that remain part of the genre. In The Poetics almost 140 years later, Aristotle advised that tragedies based on history increased an audience’s belief in the probability of events and thus heightened the emotional impact of the play.

“History play”, describing a genre as opposed to the subject matter of a play, has imprecise origins and boundaries. When the editors of the 1623 folio edition divided Shakespeare’s plays into comedies, tragedies, and histories, they already had some sense of the history play as a distinct dramatic type, but among the histories they included Richard II and Richard III, which today we consider as tragedies, emphasizing the difficulty of making sharp generic distinctions.

In the 19th century the term “chronicle", which had medieval origins, was introduced to describe plays that depicted a series of events in temporal order, unified usually by a central character or a specific occasion. Some critics posited a more disconnected, episodic sequence in the “Chronicle play", contrasting with a cause and effect order of events in the history play. While a useful distinction, it was not observed by playwrights in any period. Today the term history play describes any play ostensibly drawing on actual events.

With the development of theatre in the Renaissance, the history play re-emerged from the religious moralities, a process we can see in England with John Bale’s King Johan, written about 1538 for the court of Henry VIII. Here the abstract characters of the morality play morph into historical figures with King John depicted as a proto-Protestant battling an evil pope. Christopher Marlowe developed the genre more fully with his Edward II and The Massacre at Paris, both probably written in 1593, and Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy and the Richard II/Henry IV/V tetralogy follow in the 1590s. After the death of Elizabeth in 1603, the popularity of the genre rapidly declined to the point that John Ford in the prologue to his history play Perkin Warbeck, published in 1634, commented that the genre was “of late so out of fashion, so unfollowed.” This was in large part because the focus of art in this period was to depict universal truths unencumbered by the peculiarities of specific times and places.

Interest in history plays revived in the early 19th century with the Romantic rejection of neoclassicism in favor of a view that history depicts a metaphysical plane revealing itself as it unfolds through the material world. Historical precedent was also enlisted to support emerging forces of nationalism, democracy, and spiritualism. Friedrich Schiller in Germany, Victor Hugo in France, and most of the important English Romantic poets wrote history plays, though of the latter group only Alfred Lord Tennyson’s plays had any degree of commercial success. Historical authenticity became a new standard for elaborate stage spectacles throughout Europe and America, and even melodrama explored historical or pseudo historical material.

In spite of elaborate staging, the 19th century history plays were basically biographical dramatisations of major historical figures. Early 20th century historical drama kept this focus, but reflecting the rise of realism, often shifted toward domestic settings and greater emphasis on the private rather than public lives of “shakers and movers.” The English playwright John Drinkwater created half a dozen successful bio-dramas between 1918 and 1925, two of the most popular dealing with prominent Americans Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. George Bernard Shaw, in separate plays, reshaped General John Burgoyne, Julius Caesar, and Joan of Arc into social iconoclasts who advocated Shaw’s political and social ideas.

Saint Joan was also the subject of one of the American Maxwell Anderson’s more than half a dozen historical dramas. Of these, three of the most successful, written in verse, dealt with British queens: Elizabeth the Queen (1930), Mary of Scotland (1933), and Anne of a Thousand Days (1948). The most successful verse dramatisation of the period was T.S. Eliot’s one historical play Murder in the Cathedral (1935), depicting the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett. Christopher Fry also cast historical material into verse. His most successful play, Curtmantle (1962), dealt as well with Beckett, but focused more on King Henry II, who was also the subject of James Goldman’s popular 1966 play The Lion in Winter. This, like John Osborne’s 1961 psycho-biographical history play, Luther, was successfully adapted as a film.

Another variation of historical drama developed in the 1930s— outdoor summer productions, often with musical accompaniment, staged principally in America. The first outdoor symphonic drama, Paul Green’s The Lost Colony, opened in 1937 and is still performed. Green wrote eight subsequent history plays for outdoor theatres, often built especially for each play. His plays usually retained a central male figure, but focused more broadly on how events impact a community, reflecting the influence of the early 20th century Community Pageant Movement. The even more prolific Kermit Hunter wrote as many as 40 outdoor historical plays. While the vogue for outdoor historical plays peaked in the 1960s, more than 30 are still produced each summer in the United States. Their impact is measurable more as a social phenomenon and an economic resource for communities than in the quality of the scripts produced.

After World War II attitudes toward historical studies began to shift, a change eventually echoed in the structure of history plays. Traditional historical studies, termed pejoratively “Old History” or “Whig History", focused on political and military events, commonly from a Euro-centric perspective. Individuals, usually male representatives of the dominant culture, shaped events that led progressively to the ascendance of the hegemony. Historical “facts” that could be discovered and objectively reported were assumed to exist. The first challenges came from Marxist historians who viewed history in terms of economic forces and class conflict. Later a group of French historians known as the Annalistes shifted attention away from dominant figures to social, cultural, and demographic processes. The Deconstructionists, influenced by Jacques Derrida, called into question the efficacy of any metanarrative of history and rejected the positivist confidence that historical data could be objectively discovered and reported.

Many contemporary historical dramas exploit the strategies of new history. In addition to Marxist histories, social histories dramatise group actions rather than those of individuals, and oppositional histories depict events from the outlook of the oppressed, the losers, or the disenfranchised. Feminist drama borrows from other historical approaches to reposition women and gender issues in the historical account. Conventional narratives are challenged by Deconstructionist histories that use pastiche techniques and emphasize micronarratives.

Traditional historical methods were not abandoned but reconfigured. For example, Joan Littlewood in satirizing World War I in Oh What a Lovely War! (1963) intermixed music hall techniques with projected charts, clippings, and graphics, the latter used earlier by the Living Newspaper docudramas of the Federal Theatre project to dramatise recent events.

Historical drama had always carried messages, but in contemporary theatre, history serves even more blatantly to support specific agendas. For example, Charles Wood’s pacifist play Dingo (1967) used expressionist and music hall techniques to deconstruct World War II in North Africa from the viewpoint of common soldiers, a technique of social history. David Hare’s Fanshen (1975) is a Marxist micro-history recreating the collective process at work in a Chinese village. Caryl Churchill combined social, Marxist, and feminist history in a number of plays. Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976) dramatises the English Civil War in terms of the frustrated objectives of Levelers, Diggers, and Ranters, with multiple actors playing a single character to deemphasize the individual’s role in shaping historical events.

This more complex view of history has reawakened contemporary playwrights, particularly in the British theatre, to the rich possibilities of the history play.

Richard H. Palmer, Ph.D., Professor of Theatre, The College of William and Mary