Theatre History

York mystery play

The Department has a number of researchers working in Theatre History over a wide range of both history and geography. Theatre History explores the material and cultural conditions of dramatic production which in our research includes puppet-plays, pantomime, melodrama, opera, and court odes, as well as more conventionally 'literary' texts. Theatre History investigates many aspects of the rich cultural form of theatre, for example: the theatre-buildings themselves; the social character of actors and audiences; transformations in production style; costume; music; the transmission of the drama text; groups of playwrights (regional, national, issue-based). Particular strengths of the research group are:

Medieval theatre

York mystery play

Medieval English theatre history does not end with the middle ages. New histories of medieval theatre have been created in post medieval times and the tradition continues in both community and commercial theatre. This 'theatre history' links the medieval and the modern and looks at various types of textual continuations, both in the form of the adaptation of medieval texts and the imitation of earlier models. Text and practice are considered against the backdrop of their social and ideological contexts.
Dr Margaret Rogerson is currently engaged in a study of the modern production history of the 'medieval' York Mystery Plays from 1951-2006. This study considers ways in which the history of these modern community productions intersect with other histories, social, cultural and theatrical.

Shakespeare in performance

Shakespeare's plays (and to a lesser extent those of his contemporaries) have survived in the theatre for 400 years through a variety of re-writing and re-conceptualising, often radical, and always responding to diverse cultural pressures. Professor Penny Gay has published extensively on the question of how Shakespeare's women have been represented on stage, in Britain, America, and Australia: this work raises issues that can be explored from a number of perspectives, including gender theory, semiotics, actor training, and the institutional politics of theatre. Associate Professor Anthony Miller works especially on the performance history of the Roman plays, and the way this history responds to issues of power in different periods. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, performance history includes the transformation of Shakespearean plays in film adaptations.

English theatre: Restoration to nineteenth century

Jane Austen Theatre book cover

Professor Penny Gay has recently published a monograph on Jane Austen and the Theatre (Cambridge University Press, 2002), which extensively explores the plays that Jane Austen knew, and the use she made of them in her novels. She is now pursuing the theatrical fortunes of a number of those playwrights (e.g., Hannah Cowley and Elizabeth Inchbald) and questioning the reasons for their virtual disappearance in the nineteenth century. Prof Gay and A/Prof Miller have also published on the opera and ceremonial odes of this period. A/Prof Miller is interested particularly in the political uses of these forms, and A/Prof Gay in theoretical questions concerning the relation between words and music.

Australian theatre

Professor Elizabeth Webby's research on Australian theatre history has concentrated on the period to 1850, for which she has prepared a performance calendar. She contributed a number of entries to Phillip Parsons, ed., The Currency Companion to Australian Theatre. She has recently published on Australian Shakespearean performance in this period and on adaptations of Marcus Clarke's His Natural Life for the later nineteenth-century stage. She also helped produce a documentary video on Sydney's first purpose-built theatre, the Royal Victoria. Theses completed under her supervision have included a study of J C Williamson's pantomime productions (1880-1914) and a performance portrait of Harry Rickards. She is currently supervising a PhD thesis on the history of the Independent Theatre, Sydney.

Resources for research in theatre history

Medieval and Renaissance: Fisher Library has all of the Records of Early English Drama series, the Malone Society record collections and reprints of plays, and reprints of the extensive publications in the sixteenth century debate about the virtues and/or vices of the theatre.

Shakespeare in Performance: Fisher Library has an extensive collection of printed facsimiles of early editions and rewritings of Shakespeare, as well as the online databases Editions and Adaptations of Shakespeare and the World Shakespeare Bibliography.

English Theatre, Restoration to Nineteenth-Century: Fisher Library has a very large collection of microfilms of original documents relating to British theatre history: journals and newspapers from the eighteenth century to the twentieth; playbills and programmes; and special manuscript collections such as the Larpent Collection relating to late Georgian plays. The English Drama online database covers published plays in English from the mid-sixteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century.

Australian theatre history: research at Sydney University is considerably enhanced by significant holdings in nineteenth-century literature at Fisher Library, and the outstanding collection of primary and secondary material on Australia at the State Library of New South Wales.

Kate Flaherty
Carolyn Lowry