Explore theatre through time travel

Dr Aleks Sierz FRSA is a theatre critic, teacher and broadcaster, and Lia Ghilardi FRSA is an internationally respected cultural consultant and urbanist. They are the authors of The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre: The First Four Hundred Years.

Here they explain how you can use imaginary characters and the concept of time travel to bring ideas about theatre history to life in the classroom. They also provide questions for further study that you can download and use with students.

What a drama!

Theatre is one of the glories of British culture. From West End musicals to classic Shakespeare plays, it is central to our national story. Enjoying theatre can give young people a way of sharing their own experience in a meaningful way. By doing so, they can see themselves reflected in characters on stage, get involved in their ethical dilemmas, and learn from such interaction. Theatre is great for cultivating empathy.

Bringing history alive

As most teachers know, bringing history alive can be a real challenge. In The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre, we have used the idea of time travel, already popular in our culture (the Tardis!), to bring to life the wonderful story of British theatre. We wanted to give a more vivid sense of stepping into another world, which is what the past is, to convey the experience of being there, feeling, sensing, even smelling, the stage.

We were also keen to make the experience of reading more immersive, by developing the narrative as if it was the storyboard for a film. We hope that the method that we chose to use, setting up scenes and imaginary conversations, will enable young people not only to gain a better understanding of history, but also to acquire a sense of ownership over their learning.

Using fictional characters

In each chapter of the book — which covers four hundred years of history from the Elizabethan age and Shakespeare, to the coronation of the present Queen Elizabeth II — we have created a different fictional character who acts as a narrator or guide to the theatre of their time. These guides give readers a helping hand — they are characters who live in the past and know all about its customs, rituals, food, politics, personalities, and, of course, its theatre.

Our guides have their own idiosyncrasies, personal prejudices and memory lapses. They help us not merely to understand what the historical past is like, but also to experience it as if we were there — right in the middle of the action.

Guiding spirits

In the first chapter, which covers the age of Queen Elizabeth and its star William Shakespeare, our guide is Walter Wickson, a fussy clerk who knows all about the Globe and other open-air theatres of this age. In 1603, when Queen Elizabeth, the last of the Tudors, dies, he hands us over to his son, Wilt, a young law student who prefers to see plays rather than studying, and who knows all the gossip at the time of James I and Charles I, the first two Stuart kings.

In the 1640s, the Puritans — who are enemies of drama — come to power and shut all the theatres for eighteen years so our next stop is 1660, when the monarchy is restored. Here our guide is Moll Farthingale, who, having been a celebrity actress herself, is perfectly well informed about thespian highs and lows. For the next century, with Britain ruled by four kings all called George, our guide is the formidable Henry Holme Lord Edgcott, a real-life lord, complete with country pile and posh town house. He will show us around British theatre in the age of the super-star actor-manager David Garrick.

By the 1790s, with news of the French Revolution crossing the English Channel, followed by war with Napoleon Bonaparte’s France, we need a new guide. Step forward Gabriel Freeman, a young black gentleman, formerly a slave in the West Indies, who campaigns for the abolition of slavery in these heady revolutionary times and, because of the social connections of his patron, is able to show us around the theatres of the age.

In 1837, when Queen Victoria comes to the throne, the fires of revolution have died down and it’s time for another guide, Jack Goodheart, a teenager who is as familiar with the slums as with the salons of Victorian London. He introduces us to music halls and melodramas. Victoria dies in 1901 and then we meet Constance Wright, a New Woman of the Edwardian age who, pedaling her tricycle, takes us around the venues where some of the radical experiments in early twentieth century drama are taking place.

After the end of the First World War in 1918, a new era dawns and with it comes our last guide, the redoubtable Sidney Roberts, a gentleman’s valet with perfect manners and great theatrical knowledge. He will introduce us to the shows of entertainer Noël Coward in the Roaring Twenties, survey the grim wartime years of 1939-45, and end with the postwar plays of modern greats such as playwright Terence Rattigan. By the mid 1950s, the tale that began with the coronation of Elizabeth I finishes with the coronation of Elizabeth II, watched on TV.

 Download Questions for Further Study

 Learn more and order your copy of The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre: The First Four Hundred Years.

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