One of the most important functions of theater is to chronicle, to shine light on the events that shape our world, both big and small. This record can include earth-shattering events, like those of September 11th as seen through the lens of the musical Come from Away to more personal tragedies like that of Floyd Collins, the titular character in a musical about a man who lost his life exploring the caves of Kentucky in the early 20th century. Big or small, these plays and musicals go beyond history to explore relevant themes to provide poignant commentary and relevance for an audience.
Amadeus is a frequently produced and discussed example of this type of work. Playwright Peter Shaffer uses history as a starting point to explore a mostly imagined rivalry between Mozart and a fellow composer Salieri as a template for the manner in which mediocrity attempts to quash genius. Besides being a brilliant play and movie featuring performances of such luminaries as Tim Curry and Sir Ian McKellan, Amadeus demonstrates the power of theater in rewriting history in the popular consciousness. If polled, many of the people who are aware of Mozart would believe that the events within the play are historical fact, supplanting the actual historical record.
The same holds true for Shakespeare’s “history” plays, which are not so much history as they are historically based propaganda designed to prop up the regime contemporary to Shakespeare’s writing, first Elizabeth I and then James I. Plays like Richard III and MacBeth really stand out in this regard as alterations of the historical record for political purposes. Richmond slays Richard in the Battle of Bosworth Field, becoming King Henry VII, aka Elizabeth I’s grandfather. In the original chronicles of MacBeth, Banquo is described as a conspirator, but in Shakespeare’s play Banquo is made MacBeth’s enemy, probably as a play to King James’s affections, since he was directly descended from Banquo.
More recently, we’ve seen plays memorialize important moments in our history, from the musical Titanic to the modern classic The Diary of Anne Frank. These pieces seek more to capture a time and place than to bend its meaning to a particular purpose, possibly because the events depicted are so powerful and profound that they almost speak for themselves, simply requiring a playwright, and sometimes lyricist and composer, to distill it into theatrical form.
These plays all exist as a record of our society and culture. Some also become a part of that culture in a unique way. The Crucible depicts the events of the Salem Witch Trials, serving also as a parable for the McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950’s when it was written, and now a part of many high school curricula across the country. It serves as an artifact against mob mentality and violence and a warning to the dangers of an oppressive society. The Laramie Project similarly is becoming important in the theatrical canon, clearly and straightforwardly depicting actual interviews and events following the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming.
These plays and musicals keep these characters and events alive for us. They encourage greater inquiry and curiosity. They inspire us to both question and interpret the world around us. In an age of reality television and 24 hour news cycles, it is valuable to experience work done on a slower, more methodical scale. This work is designed to inspire, commemorate, and convince us of its truth, but it is never designed for an instant to make us stop thinking. On the contrary, these works are the genesis of critical inquiry and as such represent the antidote we need today.
Take a look at BroadwayHD’s historic plays and musicals, available to subscribers.