History Plays in the twenty-first Century: New Tools for Interpreting the Contemporary Performance of the Past

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New plays set in the past continue to make up a significant proportion of British theatre productions. This article argues that there is much to gain by recognising such works as ‘history plays’, deploying a broad understanding of this grouping as constituting plays that make a claim to be set in the past. We draw on a range of plays, including as case studies Moira Buffini’s Handbagged, Peter Morgan’s The Audience, and Zinnie Harris’s The Wheel, locating them in the landscape of contemporary British theatre whilst identifying tropes and conventions of representing the past that have a history of their own. Thinking inclusively about the history play also highlights the connections between how stage, screen, and Britain’s wider heritage society portray the past. Rather than another set of categories for measuring plays, this article proposes the activation of modes as a way of understanding how history is invoked in new playwriting and performance. In this theorisation, the different modes – which we name as heritage, the historical record, and creative license – become the tools through which we can consider what cultural authority is being drawn on in specific moments within a history play, addressing both playwriting and performance practice.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages22
JournalStudies in Theatre and Performance
Early online date17 Nov 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 17 Nov 2023

Bibliographical note

© 2023 The Author(s).


  • playwriting
  • heritage
  • adaptation
  • dramaturgy
  • twenty-first century theatre
  • history play

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