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Catching Conscience

by Robert Schenkkan

Published in the LA Times

History has always confounded people. Francis Bacon thought that “Histories makes us wise,” while Henry Ford sourly declared that “History is more or less bunk.” Hegel lamented that “What experience and history teach is this – that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” 

Certainly Americans have always regarded their history with an odd mixture of both passion and disdain. We have some magnificent living historians among us writing vibrant and often best-selling works, and we also have a cadre of devoted amateurs, “re-enactors,” who spend considerable time and money on their weekends re-living in exhaustive detail the life of, say, a Confederate soldier. These individuals can speak with extraordinary passion and knowledge on the proper way a soldier from Alabama in the late 19th century folded his bedroll but the sad truth is that most American teenagers couldn’t tell you why the Battle of Gettysburg was important, or where the Declaration of Independence was signed. For Playwrights, however, History has always been not just a rich source of material but an important dramatic tool.

The very first “history” play was The Persians,  written by the Grandfather of Western Drama, Aeschylus, in 472 B.C.  Celebrating the famous Athenian naval victory over the imposing Persian forces of King Xerxes in the straits of Salamis and written only eight years after the battle, every Athenian citizen would have been well acquainted with the facts. Aeschylus’ play might have been merely a bit of jingoistic puffery, a self-congratulatory laud to Athenian military courage and bravery. Instead, Aeschylus did a very novel and dangerous thing – he used the historical events to subtly provoke his peers into a bit of soul searching regarding present day Athenian politics which to his mind (later sadly born out by experience) was in great danger of abandoning her Republican roots for a more unattractive urge to Empire. It wasn’t an appeal to pride – it was an appeal to conscience – and it was a very risky thing to do. The playwright faced much more then simply the possibility of losing the Festival competition that year – he might well have been expelled from his beloved city, or even put to death. And we complain about the power of modern critics… 

Shakespeare of course, famously borrowed from history for many of his plays, especially those dealing with the War of the Roses. In these popular works he sought not only to entertain,(he had a theatre to run, after all) but also to instruct, and ultimately to affirm the Tudor dynasty and Elizabeth’s claim to the throne. But he was certainly not ignorant of the great controversies of his day. The near religious wars between English Catholics and Protestants prevented any meaningful dialogue in solving religious differences and a playwright addressing this subject directly would certainly have left himself open to attack by either side, as well as the authorities. So, how might he comment on the tragedy of unreasoned sectarian strife? Perhaps by a change of setting, safely in the past, say, Italy’s fair Verona…”Two households both alike in dignity/In Fair Verona where we lay our scene./From ancient grudge break to new mutiny/Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean/From forth the fatal loins of these two foes/A pair of star crossed lovers take their strife.” Perhaps the story of the tragic deaths of two young lovers named Romeo and Juliet caused by an unreasoned feud between two families might bring the main point home to Elizabethan audiences. A point of view impossible for someone to accept given the alliances and bias of their own time might prove to be startlingly clear given a different framing.

Interestingly, the time Shakespeare came closest to incurring the wrath of the Crown for political reasons was when his theatre, the Globe, accepted a commission from Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, to remount a production of Richard II.  Unbeknownst to them, Essex apparently hoped the play, which details the usurpation of Royal authority, would help to stir up popular sentiment for his attempted coup, scheduled the next day. The performance was a success but the coup was a miserable failure. Essex paid for it with his head, and Shakespeare’s company spent a nervous few months in the cold shadow of royal disfavor. Devereux’s plot and the idea that a History Play could be used to provoke personal feelings to political ends might have been much on Shakespeare’s mind a year later when he wrote Hamlet, loosely based on a bit of Danish history. It is the first and only time Shakespeare uses the “Play within a play” plot device for Tragic purposes. This is Hamlet’s famous attempt to “catch the conscience of the king” by performing for the court of Elsinore a play whose plot is based on an old story, deliberately similar to the crimes of his Uncle. The “mouse trap” works beautifully, of course, publicly exposing the guilt-ridden monarch and confirming Hamlet’s suspicions.

 American playwrights have used history for similar reasons. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is one of the most famous examples of a writer using a different historical context to illuminate the issues in his own period. Based on the Salem witch trials and hangings in 1692, The Crucible comments brilliantly on the hysteria, persecution, and abandonment of legal procedures during the “witchhunts” of the McCarthy era in the 1950’s. Miller, writing in an article in The New Yorker many years later, described how the play originated. “I was motivated in some part by the paralysis that had set in among many liberals who, despite their discomfort with the inquisitor’s violations of civil rights, were fearful…if they should protest too strongly… In those days, our thought processes were becoming so magical, so paranoid, that to imagine writing a lay about this environment was like trying to pick one’s teeth with a ball of wool: I lacked the tools to illuminate miasma…In any play, however trivial, there has to be a still point of moral reference against which to gauge any action. In our lives, in the late nineteen forties and early nineteen fifties, no such point existed anymore… The more I read about the Salem panic, the more it touched off corresponding ages of common experiences in the fifties. The old friend of a blacklisted person crossing the street to avoid being seen talking to him.” Mr. Miller’s parallels did not go un-noticed. As Brooks Atkinson put it in his January 23, 1953 review of the Broadway opening, “Neither Mr. Miller nor his audiences are unaware of certain similarities between the perversions of justice then, and today.

Contemporary playwrights continue to explore the uses of history in much the same way that Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Miller and so many others have done for there is an invaluable dramatic effect in the re-imagining of a communities’ past, against which a skillful dramatist can play with an audiences’ expectations. In such a play it is possible to amuse and entertain but also to offer provocative and thoughtful commentary on very sensitive political and social issues of the day while circumventing the inevitable Blue State/Red State knee-jerk criticisms, which sadly constitute what passes for political dialogue in this country. In such a play it is possible to engage both the heart and the mind of an audience. Sometimes, it is even possible to catch their conscience.