The Drama of the American Past
FOR AN INTENSIVE three weeks, we will use the tools of the theatre to develop a deeper understanding of cross-cultural encounters in the American past. There’s a bit of irony in our endeavor, for theatrical performance accentuates precisely those human attributes – bodies, voices, gestures, emotions - that have been winnowed away from historical experience by the passage of time. While historians often have archaeological remains and verbal documents from past centuries, the bodies of past persons have decayed, the voices have ceased to reverberate, and even the emotions have been stilled.
From that loss springs a hermeneutic opportunity. Even for serious historians, past persons and their motivations can often seem remote and to defy our best attempts at empathetic understanding. But ac-tors, as they explore and create their characters in a play, cannot remain remote from their subjects. Each must not merely understand his or her character, but must actually be that character, must give to that character a body, a mind, a voice. By developing theatrical pieces out of primary sources about actual historical incidents, and by embodying the characters in those plays, we have the chance to stretch the boundaries of historical interpretation.
Historical texts will form the basis of our enterprise, for without documents, there can be no hope of an accurate, impartial understanding of history; we would be free invent pasts that simply flattered our own interests and biases. We will read three primary sources from widely separated moments in American history, each of them dealing with the theme of cross-cultural encounter, and each presenting worlds that will strike us as unfamiliar. It will take real intellectual labor to wrap our heads around these worlds.
But we seek more than an intellectual understanding. By crafting and performing a small play for/from each of these sources, we will attempt to embody some of the central historical questions that they raise. The task of embodiment will be at least as difficult as our intellectual inquiry, for it requires that we move and speak and feel in ways very different from our usual habits. Contrary to a rumor rampant in Holly-wood, California, historical embodiment is not simply a matter of donning an elaborate costume and speaking with a British accent. Instead, as playwrights and actors, we will have the chance to generate and to touch a historical drama that is at once more strange and truer than anything we see in the mov-ies. To do so we will develop physical and vocal skills as ways of extending and expressing our intellec-tual and emotional understandings.
The goals of our endeavor will be to gain knowledge of American life in four different centuries; to be-come sensitive to the issues that are raised whenever persons of different cultures come into contact with each other; to increase your abilities to analyze complex texts and to recast their meanings in original forms of expression; to strengthen your confidence and your abilities to communicate in diverse ways
© John Robert Pankratz