Theatre as alternative historical narrative : a study of three plays : "Ubu and the Truth Commission", "Copenhagen" and "Ghetto"

Faasen, Cornelia (2009-03)

Thesis (MDram (Drama))--University of Stellenbosch, 2009.


In this thesis I examine the way in which fictionalised and dramatised narratives in theatre have the potential to create significant alternative narratives that can potentially be regarded as a crucial part of history writing. This is done through a critical analysis of three historically orientated dramatic texts, Ubu and the Truth Commission by Jane Taylor (1998), Copenhagen by Michael Frayn (1998) and Ghetto by Joshua Sobol (1984). I investigate how these playwrights narrativised history by fictionalising and dramatising events and people of historical importance, and how each of these plays individually contributes to the debate on narrative in historiographical discourse. Drawing on Hayden White’s theory on the poetic and narrative nature of history writing, as represented by his definitive work, Metahistory, I explore different theories and works on the philosophy of history to determine the precise nature of narrative itself as well as the historical work. Chapter Two is therefore an exploration of White’s philosophy on the ‘historical imagination’ as he describes his theory on the narrative and poetic nature of the historical document. In addition, this chapter provides an introduction to narrative in a theatrical text. This is done in order to examine how we can apply White’s theory to investigate narrative in theatre that focuses on historical events for the purpose of possibly including the dramatic narrative in the broader discourse on narrative in history writing. In this I highlight the theatrical narrative as a specific practice of language beginning with an interlude on representation in theatre. This is applied as the basis for examining the three texts in subsequent chapters. There are both general and more specific advantages in pursuing these arguments. Firstly, it may generate an understanding of some of the broad claims and problems bearing on the impact that literary theory is said to have on a subject which is not normally considered to fall within its domain, namely history writing. The work of Hayden White has been singled out to represent these claims, as he challenges the traditional distinction between history and literature. As a result, we are made aware of those arguments which set out to show that there are aspects of historical writing which are often ignored or which we generally overlook. An example of such an aspect that serve as the focus of this study is the narrative in historical explanation, representing the “ineluctably poetic nature of the historical work” (White 1983:xi). As such theatre can be an important tool in the process of constructing memory and alternative narratives, arguing that these narrativised histories could provide a “countermemory to the dominant narrative of the official histories” (Hutchison 1999:3). The theatrical texts singled out demonstrate that these alternative narratives in the theatrical texts function as a discourse of multi-levelled stories that engage with the complexities of the society and the complexities present in the context of the plays, making a contribution to the practice of historiography itself.

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