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The Introduction outlines the way that theatre (in the West) has explored historical topics and considers the work of playwrights who have sought to raise social issues in their plays and have sought to write plays that encourage social change. Authors discussed include Augusto Boal, Bertolt Brecht, Tony Kushner, Anna Deavere Smith, and August Wilson. The chapter discusses the value of the emerging trend of research-based performance, which has become current at many colleges and universities, and which encourages cross-disciplinary intellectual engagements.


  • Theatre and social change
  • Historical drama
  • Research-based performance
  • Boal
  • Brecht

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-84009-9_1
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  1. 1.

    See Freddie Rokem, Performing History: Theatrical Representations of the Past in Contemporary Theatre (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 2000).

  2. 2.

    Gene A. Plunka, Holocaust Drama: The Theater of Atrocity (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009), 124–26.

  3. 3.

    Ibid., 31–32.

  4. 4.

    Helga Finter, “Primo Levi’s Stage Version of ‘Se questo è un uomo’,” in Staging the Holocaust: The Shoah in Drama and Performance, ed. Claude Schumacher (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press,1998), 234.

  5. 5.

    For a select bibliography of Holocaust plays, see Schumacher, Staging the Holocaust, 298–334.

  6. 6.

    Robert Skloot, “Introduction,” in The Theatre of the Holocaust: Four Plays (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1982), 21. Rokem in Performing History also discusses three Holocaust Plays.

  7. 7.

    Robert Skloot, “Introduction,” The Theatre of the Holocaust: Four Plays, 9. See also Robert Skloot, The Darkness We Carry: The Drama of the Holocaust (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1988); and Edward R. Isser, Stages of Annihilation (Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickenson Univ. Press, 1997).

  8. 8.

    Inez Hedges, “Living Memory: Representations of Drancy,” in World Cinema and Cultural Memory (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 11–30.

  9. 9.

    Charlotte Delbo, “Who Will Carry the Words?” in Skloot, Theatre of the Holocaust: Four Plays, 291.

  10. 10.

    Charlotte Delbo, “Les Hommes,” (“The Men”) in Qui rapportera ces paroles et autres écrits inédits (Paris: Fayard, 2013), 540.

  11. 11.

    Quoted in Plunka, Holocaust Drama, 14.

  12. 12.

    Robert Skloot, “Introduction,” in The Theatre of the Holocaust, Vol. 2: Six Plays (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1999), 8.

  13. 13.

    Plunka, Holocaust Drama, 16.

  14. 14.

    Lisa Traiger, “The Night of the Walking Wounded: In Its Second D.C. run, ‘The Admission’ Reveals Its Characters’ Battle Scars,” Washington Jewish Week, May 18, 2014.

  15. 15.

    Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Vol. 1 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), 98.

  16. 16.

    Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (NY: International Publishers, 1971), 12.

  17. 17.

    Hauser, The Social History of Art, Vol. 1, 405.

  18. 18.

    However, Hauser remarks that Molière should paradoxically be reckoned “as one of those writers who, in spite of all their subjective conservativism, have become the pioneers of progress by their unmasking of social reality.” Hauser, The Social History of Art, Vol. 1, 456.

  19. 19.

    Hauser writes of Ibsen’s “gospel of individualism”: “Ibsen owed his European fame to the social message of his plays, which was reducible […] to a single idea, the duty of the individual towards himself, the task of self-realization, the enforcement of one’s own nature against the narrow-minded, stupid and out-of-date conventions of bourgeois society.” See Hauser, The Social History of Art, Vol. 2 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), 916.

  20. 20.

    Bertolt Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, trans. John Willett (London: Methuen Drama, 1978), 17 and 85.

  21. 21.

    Bertolt Brecht, “Das Moderne Theater ist das Epische Theater,” in Schriften zum Theater (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1989), 19–20.

  22. 22.

    Bertolt Brecht, “Vergnügungstheater oder Lehrtheater?” in Schriften zum Theater, 64.

  23. 23.

    Ibid., 72.

  24. 24.

    Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, trans. Charles A. and Maria-Odilia Leal McBride (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985, 1979), 122.

  25. 25.

    Ibid., 122.

  26. 26.

    Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, revised edition (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2013), 329. See also the interview with Carl Weber, “I Always Go Back to Brecht,” in Tony Kushner in Conversation, ed. Robert Vorlicky (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1998), 105–24.

  27. 27.

    “How Do You Make Social Change?” in Theater 31, no. 3 (Fall 2001): 63.

  28. 28.

    Alice Clapie, “Poetry, Politics and Popcorn: Angels in America at the National Theatre,” Miranda 15, 2017. Kushner, in his interview about Brecht, defines the actor’s “gestus” as “finding the visual motif that will help to string ideas together for an audience.” See Tony Kushner in Conversation, “I Always Go Back to Brecht,” 111.

  29. 29.

    Adam Mars-Jones, “Tony Kushner at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain,” in Tony Kushner in Conversation, 27–28.

  30. 30.

    Anthony Jackson, “The Dialogic and the Aesthetic: Some Reflections on Theatre as a Learning Medium,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 39, no. 4 (Winter 2005): 106.

  31. 31.

    Ezra Brain, “Towards a Marxist Theatre,” Howlround Theatre Commons, April 15, 2021,

  32. 32.

    Freddie Rokem usefully widens the concept of catharsis to include “the emotional, intellectual, moral, or even physical energies that may be experienced by spectators while watching a performance or as a result of it.” Rokem, Performing History, 189.

  33. 33.

    For a good summary of August Wilson’s plays, see Regina Naasirah Blackburn, “Erupting Thunder: Race and Class in the 20th Century Plays of August Wilson,” Socialism and Democracy 33 (Winter-Spring 2003): 339–58.

  34. 34.

    Motti Lerner, “Facing the Trauma of 1948 as a Step Toward Reconciliation,” International Conference: Writing, translating and staging the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Paris VIII University, September 27th 2019 (unpublished talk).

  35. 35.

    Kathleen Berry, The Dramatic Arts and Cultural Studies: Acting Against the Grain (NY: Falmer Press, 2000), 41 and 65.

  36. 36.

    The Public Theater Web site states that it is “a civic institution engaging, both on-stage and off, with some of the most important ideas and social issues of today.”; The People’s Theatre Project is “an ensemble-based theatre to amplify and humanize the immigrant experience in the United States.”; Tectonic Theater Project stresses “courage and risk taking, innovation, theatricality, social & political change, and egalitarianism.”; Unexpected Theatre seeks to “to illuminate the lives and amplify the voices of women in fresh and unexpected ways, to offer a forum for women to share their stories and explore their collective history,”; New York Theatre Workshop “strives to empower artists to make the space for audiences to contend with our pasts, our shared present, and to collectively envision our future.”; Central Square Theater “is dedicated to the exploration of social justice, science and sexual politics through theater,”; Company One uses “art as a tool to work toward justice,”; Theater Offensive seeks “to present liberating art by, for, and about queer and trans people of color that transcends artistic boundaries, celebrates cultural abundance, and dismantles oppression,”; Penumbra Theater “creates professional productions that are artistically excellent, thought-provoking, and relevant and illuminates the human condition through the prism of the African American experience,”; the San Francisco Mime Troupe “seeks to “to create and produce theater that presents a working-class analysis of the events that shape our society, that exposes social and economic injustice, that demands revolutionary change on behalf of working people,”; Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont is known world-wide for its political activism and visual presence in anti-war and pro-democracy demonstrations,; Rimini Protokoll) “has expanded the means of the theatre to create new perspectives on reality,”

  37. 37.

    Sasha Colby, Staging Modernist Lives (Montreal: McGill-Queens Univ. Press, 2017), 11.

  38. 38.

    Nancy Kindelan, Artistic Literacy: Theatre Studies and a Contemporary Liberal Education (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 131.

  39. 39.

    Mary Taylor Huber, Pat Hutchings, and Richard Gale, “Integrative Learning for Liberal Education,” Peer Review 7, no. 4 (2005): 5.

  40. 40.

    Jen Harvie and Dan Rebellato, “Series Editors’ Preface,” Theatre and Globalization, ed. in Dan Rebellato (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2009), vii.

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Correspondence to Inez Hedges .

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Hedges, I. (2021). Introduction. In: Staging History from the Shoah to Palestine. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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