“Not Instruction, but Provocation”: Public History in Modern Theatre

In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the action begins as Alexander Hamilton enters New York City’s harbor: “Another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom / His enemies destroyed his rep, American forgot him.” Themes of immigration and forgotten voices are the meat of the show, a supercharged epic that dazzled Broadway and the world. As “revolutionary” as it was, however, Hamilton wasn’t exactly the first theatrical foray into the history books in recent years. Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky made its debut at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA in 2011. This five-person play tells the story of real-life astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, who discovered the mathematical standard by which we measure the universe. “Wonder will always get us there,” she says, “those of us who insist that there is much more beyond ourselves…and I do.” These two works are very different, but both dramatize historical events for audiences that have enthusiastically responded. When I recently performed in Silent Sky, several audience members told me they were going to Google Henrietta when they got home. 

Though it’s always been an arena for experimentation, expression, and political debate, live theatre is reimagining itself as a classroom. Whether it’s a hip-hop musical about a Founding Father, a deep and sparkling play about an astronomer, or anywhere in between, classroom Humanity’s lessons are being taught using historical people and places. 

Scripts, actors, and a stage may seem unfamiliar tools to some in the mission to educate, but there are three key reasons why they work. Information conveyed through live theatre often sticks with people. As an art form, it is particularly intense, immediate, and emotional. A dramatic work by its nature lends distance from controversy, even if its subject matter is clearly controversial. Also, theatre often marries historical events to current issues to make them relevant to modern audiences, as Hamilton did with the afore-mentioned themes of immigration and forgotten figures. With many other examples to choose from: 1776The CrucibleThe Diary of Anne Frank, it’s clear that history-based theatre fits squarely within the realm of Humanities education. It is also very much at home in the practice of public history.  

What is public history? It’s a tough concept to pin down, even for those who specialize in it. Christopher Newport University defines it as “an action or approach that allows historical knowledge to reach the public.”[i] Faye Sayer calls it “the communication of history to the wider public” and “the engagement of the public in the practice and production of history.”[ii] If we work from these three broad definitions, performance art certainly fits the bill. It can communicate historical information in a unique way that engages audiences as both spectators and participants, for theatre cannot happen without an audience. It’s presently one of the most attractive and effective methods of presenting public history, if the stats surrounding Hamilton have anything to say about it, and I believe this is where theatre and education will interest people in the future. 

Interpreting Our Heritage by Freeman Tilden, a writer and playwright who was asked to study interpretation by the United States National Park Service,[iii] aligns with the aims of historical theatre. In this seminal book, he introduces and expands on six essential principles for effective historic interpretation which just so happen to connect with effective historically-inspired performance. First, to paraphrase Tilden, if an interpretation doesn’t relate the subject being discussed to something within the person or experience of the observer, it’s dead on arrival. Theatre has addressed this for decades. Realism worked its way into American theatrical practice in the 1930s to react to the need for representation of mistreated workers. It initially competed with melodrama, which first appealed to audiences with its uncomplicated morality and the consistent promise of a satisfying conclusion. As the Depression dragged on, however, grittier plays like Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets came along that portrayed “the economic circumstances and character psychology of its protagonists in as detailed and accurate a manner as possible.”[iv] In this way, they connected on a more genuine level with audiences full of workers, who saw themselves in the play’s characters. Theatre acts as a mirror to humanity, whether reflecting a culture’s values and flaws at the current historical moment or a moment ninety years ago.

The next principle, put simply, is that spouting straight facts at people will not engage them. Interpretation is “revelation based upon information.” This revelation very often materializes as the creative license many plays and musicals take with their source material. Some gripe about the 1960s musical 1776 which stages the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th of that year when it historically took place two days before. But composer Sherman Edwards and librettist Peter Stone knew that American audiences would connect more deeply with the architects of America and experience more of a catharsis if the seminal action took place on the accepted summer date.[v] The quirky characters of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson who face real human challenges, including swelteringly hot weather and equally hot sexual frustration, aren’t simply presented as a list of historical facts; they must be created as living, breathing human beings in conflict by contemporary performing artists based upon the true accounts of the time. 

Third, Tilden addresses those who might resist utilizing the performing arts in teaching history, literature, or science. He writes that interpreters must use the arts of theatre and storytelling to create the human story behind the historical person or event. If they can do this dramatically, the lives and events of the past may live again in the present. Tilden’s emphasis on the importance of dramatizing history is relevant to the story arc (beginning, middle and end) in theatre, especially when an historical event or life builds in suspense and keeps the audience engaged through to the climax of the story. A skillfully told interpretive story, on or off the stage, will allow the audience to be “in the know” as it unfolds, so that the themes and experiences pay off at the conclusion. Tilden’s statement on storytelling style is even great advice for artists creating a historical play:  

“The interpreter who creates a whole, pares away all the obfuscating minor detail and drives straight toward the perfection of his story will find that his hearers are walking along with him – are companions on the march. At some certain point, it becomes their story as much as his.”[vi]

For many practicing public historians and actors, the key action in either field is to engage the viewer and provoke a response. To paraphrase Tilden’s fourth principle, the primary purpose of interpretation, whether it be based on an historical figure or event, is to inspire members of the audience to do their own research, and to really “get it.”[vii] But first, they have to care. Most audiences will not absorb information that is merely read to them, no matter how expressive the docent or actor may be. A compelling interpreter strives to engender empathy in their audience for the characters populating their story. An actor informing an audience about the deaths of a woman and her children may be sad. An actor creating his fireman character’s unsuccessful attempt to rescue a mother and her children can be empathetic and evenprovocative. Once a figure or event is made real to them, people will often seek more information outside of the theater. They now have a relationship with these historical or factual figures. As much as historians may tell us about the factual character of John Adams and how difficult he was to deal with, I empathized with the human character of John Adams created by an actor in 1776.

In his musings on the fifth principle, Tilden describes the typical visitor to a historic site as “a whole man who seeks new experience, relaxation, adventure, imitation of friends who have told him ‘you mustn’t miss it’, curiosity, affirmation, information, and 1,000-odd other motives.”[viii] The typical audience member attending a performance is the same: a swirling mixture of motives, wants, and needs that make up a whole person. This whole is the target. If an interpreter or an artist attempts only one trick to hold their listener or viewer’s attention, they will likely lose them. Instead, historic interpretation and theatre should take cues from the German term Gesamtkunstwerk, which translates to “a total work of art” or an “all embracing art form.” Any artistic work that seeks to be engaging and convey information will, at its most effective, appeal to several aspects of the receiver. Hamilton weaves imagery, sets, costumes, lighting, and different types of modern music into a whole art form that has clearly affected many.

As a Public History major in graduate school, I interned with the Nantucket Historical Association at the Whaling Museum in Downtown Nantucket. I assisted in many capacities around the Museum and at the historic sites, from event setup to social media posting to writing a new tour outline. However, my favorite duty by far was running the ArtifACK Cart once a week. This was a small cart on wheels that I would roll into a corner of the first level and stand behind wearing a white lab coat. I called passersby to me, inviting them to come learn about whales and 19th century whaling from my objects: a piece of baleen, a sperm whale’s tooth, diagrams showing whale size in relation to humans and buses. Though the adults would often ask some interesting questions, my best visitors were always children. Children refused to be satisfied with pure informational answers. I absolutely had to tell them a story with the objects to keep them engaged. It became a performance, one that contained almost exactly the same information I would tell an adult, but in a language that children could understand. In this way, I found myself embodying Tilden’s final principle: programming for children should not be a dilution of adult programming, but instead must follow a fundamentally different approach. Well-told stories are powerful tools, especially when teaching children, and particularly when teaching them about history. Though all six of Tilden’s principles are important to effective interpretation, taking the time to mold “adult” material into child-accessible programs may be the most important. It’s an objective to which we should pay much more attention going forward. Historically conscious children can grow up into historically conscious adults. I’m extremely excited to see what happens as collaboration between historians and playmakers, and storytellers continue, and these newly historically conscious adults attempt to educate others using the performing arts. 

[i] “What Is Public History?” Christopher Newport University. https://cnu.edu/publichistorycenter/whatispublichistory/index.asp (Accessed April 2 2020).

[ii] Sayer, Faye. Public History: A Practical Guide. London: Bloomsbury, 2015. Pp. 7.

[iii] Smaldone, Dave. “A Crash Course in Interpretation.” National Park Service. 2003. https://www.nps.gov/grte/learn/management/upload/interp.pdf (Accessed April 6 2020).

[iv] Saal, Ilka. New Deal Theater: The Vernacular Tradition in American Political Theater. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. 95.

[v] Peter C. Rollins, ed. The Columbia Companion to American History on Film. Columbia University Press, 2004, pp. 153-165.

[vi] Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Pp. 58.

[vii] The direct quote by Tilden is, “…the purpose of interpretation is to stimulate the reader or hearer toward a desire to widen his horizon of interests and knowledge, and to gain an understanding of the greater truths that lie behind any statements of fact. Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Pp. 59.

[viii] Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Pp. 73.