'Welcome to the Renaissance/Where everything is new': Finding Ourselves in Dramatisations of Theatrical History

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Douglas Lanier sets out a central principle guiding fictions representing historical authors, whereby ‘authorial biographicality … is often positioned against rival models of authorship that the writer must reject to become 'authentic’’. This paper will argue that a comparable journey – from rejection of past models to authentic (and implicitly proto-modern) self-fulfilment – is a recurring trope in plays and films which dramatise theatrical history, precisely because such works themselves represent the teleological end-point of their own narratives. The idiosyncracies of period underwrite emerging modernity. A line from Antony Burgess’s bio-fiction, A Dead Man in Deptford (1993), provides the model for this pattern, as Sir Walter Raleigh tells Christopher Marlowe: ‘You are of us, who look to the future and are bent on disassembling the old way.' The works under consideration exploit anachronism and promote evolutionary narratives of theatrical history to present historical authors and performers who are already, or are becoming, ‘of us’. In Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love (2014), Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn (2015), the Broadway musical Something Rotten by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, and the 2015 film Bill by the team behind the BBC’s Horrible Histories, dramatisations of the theatrical past are offered partly as origin myths for the modern entertainment industry. By performing theatrical history in, and with an eye towards, the theatrical present, they delight audiences with their appeals to our own participation in a continued tradition: we pay homage to our theatre’s roots as we celebrate its current cultural value.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMedieval and Early Modern England on the Contemporary Stage: The Past is Back on Stage
EditorsMarianne Drugeon
Place of PublicationNewcastle upon Tyne
PublisherCambridge Scholars Press
ISBN (Print)9781527571273
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2021
Externally publishedYes

Publication series

PublisherCambridge Scholars Press

Cite this