History: It’s complicated

When I tell new friends or extended family that I’m a history PhD, they unfailingly ask: “So do you love Downton Abbey?” or “What do you think of Hamilton?” You’re a historian, so you must like historical drama. I mean, obviously!

The “Oslo” dramaturgy team (from left): Maren Robinson, Deborah Blumenthal, and Holly Dayton.

It makes sense: These are the touchstones most people have for historical events nowadays. But the truth is that I have a complicated relationship with historical dramas. On one hand, I think they’re amazing—they bring to life the people, events, tensions, anxieties, and joys of the past so that people today can better understand how people used to live. A historical drama like Hamilton or 1776 has the potential to make the average person care far more about the American Revolution than any number of very respected books written by academics can. As a person who believes that history needs to be discussed, engaged with, and understood, I love on principle anything that has the power to make people care.

And yet.

I also somewhat dislike historical dramas for so closely resembling history … because they are not history. They’re written by artists who balance imperatives of historical accuracy against the needs of romantic love arcs, exposition and character development, and scenographic continuity. In a historical drama, events can be shrunken or expanded, characters made more vile or more pleasant, to meet the overarching artistic demands of the work. There is nothing wrong with this, of course—I thoroughly respect artists’ freedom to do so—but audiences aren’t often aware of the size or nature of the gaps between their beautiful fiction and the much messier reality.

I became a dramaturg, in part, to address my own frustrations about historical dramas. I wanted to help artists and audiences both better understand the relationship between historical context and the events of the play.

I also somewhat dislike historical dramas for so closely resembling history … because they are not history.

Oslo was a dream play in this respect and also a very difficult challenge. There’s so much historical context to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that it’s hard to know where to start. Dramaturgs have a responsibility to produce an amount of information that is helpful and digestible, but producing a “Concise History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” is practically a contradiction in terms. As a unit, the Oslo dramaturgy team—led by co-dramaturgs Deborah Blumenthal and Maren Robinson—worked to make materials that succinctly synthesized the perspectives of many sources and presented information that might be contentious with its biases apparent. I am proud of what we produced, but I wish we would have given audiences even more! The greatest work went into editing the pages of material we produced into the short information we were able to print and circulate in places like the Backstory magazine, lobby experience at the Broadway Playhouse, and TimeLine’s mobile app.

If there’s one thought I could put in the mind of an attendee of this show—something no Backstory or lobby materials can generate—it would be to remember that this play takes place in 1993. Just looking at the stage, seeing the costumes and the technology, the world doesn’t look so different. But political affairs, international diplomacy, and America’s position in the world were very different in 1993. One of the biggest challenges for a historian is to call attention to difference when there seems to be so much similarity. This play demands such attention.

In answer to the questions at the top, I like Downton Abbey and I utterly adore Hamilton, and I think historical dramas have an enormous potential to change how people see their current time and the past. I find it a true joy as a historian to be able to help others understand the nuance of past through the exciting medium of theatre.

Holly Dayton is currently pursuing her PhD in Modern European History full-time at Northwestern University. She served as Dramaturgy Assistant for Oslo. To listen to a bonus podcast featuring the dramaturgy team from Oslo, click here.

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One Response to “History: It’s complicated”

  1. Chris Nugent

    Holly— Maggie’s Dad here. My wife Prill and I will see Oslo week after next, but as a student of history and one who still
    loves to read history (currently Roberts, Churchill), your reaction to the Hamilton question hits close to home. Prill and I loved Hamilton, but only after we had both Chernow’s book and realized it was hip hop and not rap. Your thoughts are profound. Break a leg!