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Interpreting the Theatrical Past






School of Theatre, Performance and Cultural Policy Studies

TH316 Interpreting the Theatrical Past: Approaches to Theatre Historiography


Module Convenor: Professor Jim Davis (



There will be weekly two-hour seminars in the Autumn and Spring terms.



In recent years there has been a growing interest in the ways in which we study theatre history. Why do we privilege some periods over others? Why are some aspects of theatre history neglected by scholars? What are the assumptions behind our interpretation of documentary evidence? What choices do we make about the theoretical models we use? How did theatre history emerge as an academic discipline? What sorts of narrative inform our study of theatre history? What factors determine the ways in which we write about theatre history? This module aims to investigate the ways in which the historical study of acting, audiences, theatres and performance are heavily influenced by the assumptions, prejudices and ideological beliefs of those who have written about it. A strong emphasis will be placed on the close reading of set texts and we will also work with the on-line Broadview Anthology of Nineteenth Century Drama





Week 1: Introduction to Module



Reading for Week 2


Marvin Carson, ‘The Performance of History’, in Case & Reinelt, The Performance of Power, pp.272-279


R. W. Vince, ‘Theatre History as an Academic Discipline’ in Postlewait & McConachie, Interpreting the theatrical Past, pp.1-18


Joseph Donohue, ‘Evidence and Documentation’, in Postlewait & McConachie, Interpreting the Theatrical Past, pp.177-197


Chris Balme, The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Studies, Chapter 6 ‘Theatre Historiography’



Week 2 Evidence and Documentation


Reading for Week 3



Thomas Postlewait, The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Historiography, Chapters 3 & 4


Week 3 Historical and Theatrical Events


Reading for Week 4


Thomas Postlewait, The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Historiography, Chapter 5


Earlier versions of this chapter are in


Thomas Postlewait, ‘The Criteria for Periodisation in Theatre History’, Theatre Journal 40:3 (Oct 1998), pp. 299-318


Thomas Postlewait, ‘The Concept of “Period Style” in Cultural History: Problems in Definition and Classification’, Nordic Theatre Studies Special issue, 1990, pp.52-5





Week 4 Periods and Periodisation



Reading for Week 5


Christopher Balme, ‘Interpreting the Pictorial Record: Theatre Iconography and the Referential Dilemma’, Theatre Research International 22:3 (Autumn, 1997), pp.190-201




Week 5 Iconography



Week 6 Reading Week


Reading for Week 7


Thomas Postlewait, ‘Autobiography and Theatre History’ in Postlewait & McConachie, Interpreting the Theatrical Past, pp.248-272


Jacky Bratton, ‘Anecdote and Mimicry as History’, in New Readings in Theatre History, pp.95-108


Leigh Woods, ‘Actors’ Biography and Mythmaking: The Example of Edmund Kean’’ in Postlewait & McConachie, Interpreting the Theatrical Past, pp.230-247




Week 7 Biography and Autobiography



Reading for Week 8


Edward Said, Orientalism, pp.4-15, 201-211


Edward Said, ‘The Empire at Work: Verdi’s Aida’, in Culture and Imperialism, pp.133-155


Bruce McConachie, ‘The Oriental Musicals of Rogers and Hammerstein’ in

Theatre Journal 46:3 (Oct 1994), pp.385-398



Week 8 Theatre History, Theory & Ideology

Orientalism & Imperialism


Reading for Week 9


Robert K. Sarlos, ‘Performance Reconstruction: The Vital Link between Past and

Future’, in Postewait & McConachie, Interpreting the Theatrical Past, pp. 198-229




Week 9 Performance Reconstruction



Jim Davis, ed., Victorian Pantomime: A Collection of Critical Essays, Introduction, and

Chapter 1


Laurence Senelick, ‘Dames in Pantoland’, ‘Once More into the Breeches’, The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre (London: Routledge, 200), pp. 242-4, 262-5





Week 10 Case Study: Historiography of English Pantomime






Reading for Week 1


Mathews’s Trip to America




Week 1 The Broadview Anthology: Editorial Principles

Mathews’s Trip to America


Reading for Week 2


Africans (George Colman) & Christy’s Minstrels





Week 2 Africans & Minstrelsy

Reading for Week 3


Jessie Brown (Boucicault) & Ours (Robertson)



Week 3 Jessie Brown and Ours


Reading for Week 4


The Cricket on the Hearth (Smith), Alice in Wonderland & Ibsen’s Ghost (Barrie)





Week 4 The Cricket on the Hearth, Alice in Wonderland, Ibsen’s Ghost


Reading for Week 5


Dorothy (Stephenson, Scott & Cellier); Trilby (Potter) & The Finding of Nancy (Syrett)




Week 5 Dorothy, Trilby and The Finding of Nancy


Week 6 Reading Week



Weeks 7 – 9 Project Work


Reading for Week 10


Postlewait, The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Historiography, Chapter 7





Week 10: Conclusion to Module





Thomas Postlewait, The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Historiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)


Thomas Postlewait & Bruce A. McConachie, Interpreting the Theatrical Past: Essays in the Historiography of Performance (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989)


The Broadview Anthology o f Nineteenth Century Performance, ed. Tracy C. Davis (on-line resource available through School)




Peter Burke, What is Cultural History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988


J. S. Bratton, New Readings in Theatre History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)


Charlotte Canning & Tom Postlewait (eds.), Representing the Past: Essays in Performance Historiography (Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 2010)


Keith Jenkins, Re-thinking History (London: Routledge, 1991, reprinted, 2003)


  • Please note texts will occasionally be added to the Department website. Already available (with Jacky Bratton, Gilli Bush-Bailey & Katie Normington, Research Methods in Theatre History forthcoming in a volume to be published by Edinburgh University Press, ed. Baz Kershaw & Helen Nicholson) Set readings not in recommended texts will be accessible through the Librry.






Seminar Papers, 10% each


Essays, Project Work 30%


Examination 50%