Plays

Dorothea's Story (Play Two from The Middlemarch Trilogy)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Dorothea's Story is part of The Middlemarch Trilogy, a three-part stage adaptation by Geoffrey Beevers of George Eliot's novel Middlemarch (published 1871-2).

The Middlemarch Trilogy comprises three interconnected plays (Dorothea's Story, The Doctor's Story and Fred and Mary's Story) telling the story of Eliot's fictitious town of Middlemarch from the perspective of three different sets of characters: from county, town and countryside. They were first performed at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, in 2013. Dorothea’s Story opened on 23 October.

In Dorothea’s Story, set among the big houses of the local aristocracy of Middlemarch, young, intelligent Dorothea is so enamoured of the pedantic Reverend Casaubon that she marries him, much to everyone’s disbelief. But her friendship with Casaubon’s young cousin Will Ladislaw arouses suspicions in her new husband, who will do anything to thwart their mutual affection.

The Orange Tree production was directed by Geoffrey Beevers and designed by Sam Dowson. The cast was Georgina Strawson, Daisy Ashford, Christopher Ettridge, Christopher Naylor, Jamie Newall, Liz Crowther, Ben Lambert, Michael Lumsden, NiamhWalsh, David Ricardo-Pearce and Lucy Tregear.

In his introduction to the published script (Nick Hern Books, 2014), Geoffrey Beevers writes, 'I’ve always loved the challenge of huge themes in intimate spaces, where the principle must be, not: ‘What can we do with this?’ but: ‘What can we do without? How can we tell this story, as simply as possible, so the story will shine through?’ I wanted to use only her words, a few actors and a minimum of setting, and leave as much as possible to the audience’s imagination.'

Drawing the Line

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Howard Brenton's Drawing the Line is a historical drama about the partition of India in August 1947, an act that was to have huge ramifications for the modern world. It highlights the extraordinarily contingent and chaotic political circumstances that lay behind such a momentous historical act. It was first performed at Hampstead Theatre, London, on 3 December 2013.

The play opens in London in 1947. Summoned by the Prime Minister from the court where he is presiding judge, Cyril Radcliffe is given an unlikely mission. He is to travel to India, a country he has never visited, and, with limited survey information, no expert support and no knowledge of cartography, he is to draw the border which will divide the Indian sub-continent into two new Sovereign Dominions. To make matters even more challenging, he has only six weeks to complete the task. Wholly unsuited to his role, Radcliffe is unprepared for the dangerous whirlpool of political intrigue and passion into which he is plunged – untold consequences may even result from the illicit liaison between the Leader of the Congress Party and the Viceroy’s wife. As he begins to break under the pressure he comes to realise that he holds in his hands the fate of millions of people.

The play's premiere at Hampstead Theatre was directed by Howard Davies with Tom Beard as Cyril Radcliffe, Silas Carson as Nehru, Andrew Havill as Mountbatten and Abigail Cruttenden as Antonia Radcliffe.

The performance on Saturday 11 January 2014 was live-streamed to a worldwide audience for free by the theatre in association with The Guardian.

Edward II

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

When the courageous and impressive Edward I dies, his son, Edward II, is a disappointing successor. He prefers domestic tasks to waging wars, and he prefers men to women. However, Edward I’s death is good news for Piers Gaveston, who has been exiled and is now allowed to return to England under the young Edward’s wishes. The new King bestows extravagant favours upon Gaveston, including the protection of his life, while his sovereign duties are neglected. Not everyone is as smitten with Gaveston as the King, however, and the King’s nobles pressure Edward to banish the favourite to Ireland. It is Edward’s Queen, Isabella of France, who will only be satisfied with Gaveston’s murder.

Based on Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587) and set in early fourteenth century England, Marlowe’s play is a portrait of a flawed monarch, driven by his animal passions and by an overwhelming romantic obsession.

Copyright © 1997 A & C Black Publishers Limited

Flare Path

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Terence Rattigan's Flare Path, written while he was serving as an air gunner with the RAF during the Second World War, is a story of love and loyalty following a group of RAF airmen and their wives over the course of one day. It was first produced (after a short run in Oxford) at the Apollo Theatre, London, on 13 August 1942.

The play is set in The Falcon, a small hotel in Lincolnshire, close to an RAF base. We meet a series of airmen and their wives, as well as the imperious landlady and her staff. Into this hotel walks Peter Kyle, a famous British film actor, who has come to whisk his lover Patricia Graham away. The only problem is that Patricia is married to Flight Lieutenant Teddy Graham. She has been putting off telling her husband of her affair. However, Peter and Patricia’s elopement is delayed by the sudden announcement of a bombing raid; the airmen take off and they all return but one. Count Striczevinsky, a Polish airman stationed with the RAF, sent out a distress signal, but then nothing was heard and he is presumed lost at sea. The emotional stresses of war are felt by all, notably Teddy, who fears he may have lost his nerve. Patricia is moved by his need for her and resolves to give up Peter; Peter seems unwilling to accept this and plans to tell Teddy himself. However, reading a letter from the Count to his wife, Doris, he has a change of heart and leaves. At the last minute, the inhabitants of the hotel are joyfully surprised by the return of the Count, whose long and eventful journey back is the cause for impromptu celebration as the curtain falls.

Rattigan's script (originally entitled Next of Kin but renamed Flare Path at the suggestion of his psychiatrist, Dr Keith O. Newman, who found the original too bland) was rejected by two of the principal backers of his earlier West End hit French Without Tears on the assumption that the last thing that the public wanted was a play about the war. It was however accepted by Hugh ‘Binkie’ Beaumont at H. M. Tennent Ltd., already on his way to becoming the most powerful and successful West End producer of the era.

The production was directed by Anthony Asquith, with Adrianne Allen as Countess Skriczevinsky (Doris), Martin Walker as Peter Kyle, Dora Gregory as Mrs Oakes, Leslie Dwyer as Sergeant Miller (Dusty), George Cole as Percy, Gerard Hinze as Flying Officer Count Skriczevinsky, Jack Watling as Flight Lieutenant Graham (Teddy), Phyllis Calvert as Patricia Warren (Mrs Graham), Kathleen Harrison as Mrs Miller (Maudie), Ivan Samson as Squadron Leader Swanson and John Bradley as Corporal Jones (Wiggy).

The play was well received by the critics, though several found fault with the happy ending, summed up by Roger Manvell in the New Statesman & Nation as a ‘wanton sacrifice to the wishes of the audience’. Nevertheless, audiences responded enthusiastically, and the play ran at the Apollo for almost 700 performances, a remarkable success for a war play. It re-established Rattigan’s reputation and was the first of five successive box-office successes that put him in the front rank of West End playwrights.

Rattigan scholar Dan Rebellato, in his introduction to the play (Nick Hern Books, 2011), notes that 'There is a curious side-story to this production; Dr Keith Newman decided to watch 250 performances of this play and write up the insights that his ‘serial attendance’ had afforded him. George Bernard Shaw remarked that such playgoing behaviour ‘would have driven me mad; and I am not sure that [Newman] came out of it without a slight derangement’. Shaw’s caution was wise. In late 1945, Newman went insane and eventually died in a psychiatric hospital.'

Twentieth Century Fox paid Rattigan £20,000 for the film rights – a remarkable sum at the time. Even so, the film was never made, though aspects of Flare Path make their way into The Way to the Stars (1945), one of the finest British movies of the period, with a screenplay by Terence Rattigan and Richard Sherman.

The play was revived as part of the Rattigan Centenary celebrations at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, on 10 March 2011 in a production directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Sienna Miller and James Purefoy as Patricia and Peter, with Sheridan Smith as Doris. It was the first major London revival of the play since 1942.

Gabriel (Adamson)

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

This is noisily Protestant England - the England of William and Mary's Glorious Revolution at the end of a century of civil strife. This is London in the 1690s, the monster city tamed into awe by our only Orpheus: Henry Purcell.

Monarchs, princes, prostitutes, wigmakers, composers, tapsters, musicians, transvestites and watermen jostle for attention in the teeming, unruly world of late seventeenth-century London, where enthralling stories both real and imagined merge and intersect.

Gabriel premiered at Shakespeare's Globe, London, in July 2013 with Alison Balsom, one of the world's finest trumpeters, performing the music of Purcell and Handel.

Gilbert is Dead

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Gilbert Is Dead is a Victorian scientific mystery play: a clever, funny and moving portrait of grief, faith and science.

The plot follows Lucius Trickett, London's most celebrated taxidermist, who finds himself in cahoots with Queen Victoria and the hero Gilbert Shirley, to disprove Darwin's theory of evolution. The key is a stuffed specimen of the mysterious ghost loris, suicidal enough to disprove the theory that every animal struggles for survival. But Gilbert goes missing and the fate of Trickett’s private museum hangs in the balance. The play’s distinctive, often surrealist voice is characterised by historically intelligent, meticulously researched subjects and a precise, quirky sense of irony. It is an academic, mad-cap labyrinth, toying with history, scientific theories and popular beliefs.

Gilbert is Dead premiered at Hoxton Music Hall, London in 2009.

Glory On Earth  

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Linda McLean's play Glory on Earth is a historical drama about Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. It was first performed at the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh on 20 May 2017.

The play is set in Scotland between 1561 and 1563. The French-raised Mary Stuart arrives in Leith docks with her female retinue. She is eighteen and on her young shoulders rest the hopes of the Catholic establishment of Europe. The nation that receives her has just outlawed her church and its practices. Its leader is the radical cleric and protestant reformer, John Knox. Both believe themselves ordained by God. Both believe themselves beloved by their people. Both were exiled and returned home... but only one can make Scotland their own.

The premiere production was directed by David Greig and designed by Karen Tennent. It was performed by Rona Morison (as Mary), Jamie Sives (as John Knox), Christina Gordon, Christie Gowans, Kirsty Eila McIntyre, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Shannon Swan and Fiona Wood.

The Glove Thief  

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Beth Flintoff’s play The Glove Thief is a historical drama about a group of Elizabethan tapestry-makers whose embroidery expresses their deepest longings and perhaps has the power to change the course of English history.

The play was commissioned as part of the Platform initiative from Tonic Theatre in partnership with Nick Hern Books, aimed at addressing gender imbalance in theatre by offering a series of big-cast plays with predominantly or all-female casts, written specifically for performance by young actors.

It was first performed by students of Rose Bruford College of Theatre & Performance at Ugly Duck, London, on 15 June 2017.

The play is set in the year 1569, and Elizabeth I is Queen of England. With no heir to the throne, political unrest is growing. Elizabeth has spies everywhere, and there are rumours of threats against her life, which begin to centre on her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. When Mary arrives in England, escaping Scotland in fear for her life, Elizabeth sends her to Tutbury Castle, the home of Bess of Hardwicke, once the richest woman in England. Is Mary a guest, there for her own safety, or is she Elizabeth’s prisoner? In the play, the three most powerful women in England are seen through the eyes of an ordinary young girl, Rose. When Rose is accused of stealing, Bess steps in and takes her into her household, on condition that Rose spies on Mary for Queen Elizabeth. Rose must spend her days sewing with Mary and her attendants. Sewing is a subversive and escapist act: for Rose, it is an art form and a chance to break away from her background; for Bess, it is an expression of her love and loss, and liberation from her marriage; and for Mary, it might literally be her way out of captivity.

The play can be performed by a minimum of sixteen people (twelve female, four male), with no maximum size.

In an Introduction to the published playtext, Beth Flintoff writes: 'This is the fourth in a series of historical plays I am lucky enough to have been asked to write in the past couple of years. The experience has made me realise how profoundly dissatisfied I am with the way history has been presented to us so far, and how happy to discover that all along there have been countless stories of remarkable women, sitting unnoticed in the dustbin of history, waiting for someone to brush them off. This story, of a group of women forced to spend years closed up together and trying not to go mad in the process, was one such forgotten tale of courage and ingenuity that deserves to be told.'

The Rose Bruford production was directed by Ola Ince and designed by Elle Rose. It was performed by Katie Spencer-Blake, Adriana Moore, Daisy Adams, Jesse Bateson, Alice Renshaw, Ellie-Jane Goddard, Siobhan Bevan, Rachel Lemon, Billie Hamer, Grace Liston , Jorginho Osuagwu, Robert Rickman, Niall Cullen, Tayla Kovacevic-Ebong and James Killeen.

A Hard Rain

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper's A Hard Rain is a play about a key moment in the history of gay rights, set in New York in the weeks leading up to the Stonewall riots in 1969. It was first performed on 26 February 2014 at Above the Stag Theatre, London, a fringe theatre with a focus on producing LGBT-themed theatre. Above the Stag Theatre had previously staged several adult pantomimes written by Bradfield and Hooper.

The play's action takes place mostly in New York City in June 1969. It centres around a seedy, illicit gay bar in Greenwich Village owned by the mafia. Kicked out of the military after a year in Vietnam, cross-dressing Ruby (male, aged 26) winds up in Greenwich Village with no prospects. There he meets Jimmy, an abused, cheeky 16-year-old street kid who will change his world.

The premiere production was directed by Tricia Thorns and designed by David Shields. It was performed by Nigel Barber, Stephanie Willson, Michael Edwards (as Ruby), Rhys Jennings, Oliver Lynes and James El-Sharawy (as Jimmy).

video Henry IV (Donmar)

Donmar Warehouse
Type: Video

What makes a king? What makes a father? Shakespeare’s monumental history play travels to the heart of family, duty and country.

This innovative film, recorded before a live audience, documents the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female stage production, adapted from William Shakespeare’s two plays about King Henry IV, Prince Hal and Falstaff.

The bold, contemporary production is presented as if played by inmates of a women’s prison and was described by critics as ‘unforgettable’. The director for both stage and screen is Phyllida Lloyd, and Dame Harriet Walter is Henry IV.

The Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy began in 2012 with an all-female production of Julius Caesar led by Dame Harriet Walter. Set in a women’s prison, the production asked the question, ‘Who owns Shakespeare?’ Two further productions followed: Henry IV in 2014 and The Tempest in 2016, all featuring a diverse company of women. The Trilogy enthralled theatre audiences in London and New York and was shared with women and girls in prisons and schools across the UK. The film versions were shot live in a specially built temporary theatre in King’s Cross in 2016.

For teacher resources, visit this page.

For more videos about the trilogy, visit this page.

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