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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Short

Handling History in Drama: Translating our pasts and presents

I am currently working on an original one-man play that I have been commissioned to write. The brief for it was broad and I was given plenty of artistic freedom in the direction that I could take it, as long as it fitted within the context of Teater Dictat’s ongoing “Queer Exchange” project. For me, this was the perfect opportunity to explore postmodern creative approaches that related to the real world and the imagined world that one experiences when doing dramaturgy, particularly working with classic “history” plays such as Edward II.

In many ways, working last year on Edward II/Den Andre was all about translation: translating the original text for a contemporary queer narrative, having my edits translated into Swedish, translating lived experiences within the rehearsal room, assisting the direction of Swedish in English and negotiating the multiple translations involved with performance. Discussing these forms of translation is easy, people will accept this under their concept of what translation is. However, there is another level of translation at play that is slightly less conventional and which I push to its limits within my drafting of this new original piece. The translation of the present and the past in the way we handle history, particularly in performance and the imagination.

When completing my MA in Applied Cultural Analysis, the focus of my thesis was literary translation and identity within the imagination of other places. This was an incredibly formative period of writing that allowed me to negotiate the creativity found in translation and the challenges of authenticity in the real/imagined world. Now I find myself in a research environment with many historians and after a few discussions with them about our respective fields, I have become ever more curious about the differences in historiography and ethnography, and how the former values objectivity whilst the latter values transparency of one’s subjectivity. If I were to tell these historians about this play I’m writing, I imagine there would be lips pursed and eyes wincing. But in my opinion, history is an act of translation and translation is a creative practice.

So this play I’m writing is in many ways a speculative auto-ethnography; it re-imagines my experience of working on Edward II in Sweden and the queer experiences of that summer, but also the experiences that had come before in a particularly thorny part of Edward’s literary history. In the late 19th century and the early 20th century, following a series of high profile gay court cases (Simeon Solomon and Oscar Wilde), the story of Edward II re-emerged sanitised of its explicit queerness. From a queer historical perspective, this is a moment of loss, where societal pressures censored free art and curated a specific narrative that suited straight patriarchal values. And so, I wanted to explore this time period and how my own queer body experiences atemporality within the present and the past as we get caught in ongoing historical conflicts that determine to suppress queer expression.

I speak of this form as speculative because it exists, in a literary way, outside of the realms of realism. It purposely confuses fact with fiction to demonstrate how our life worlds are imagined and how history is interpreted and specifically curated. It refutes the idea of history as a singular objective fact and instead proposes history as something constantly in translation, constantly changing and evolving, and ever present in the way we perceive our life worlds today. Why can’t the character that is ultimately myself get fucked by Lord Alfred Douglas in Naples when the societal ideologies of his time have globally fucked queer bodies time and time again for our differences? History isn’t a distant island but is ever entangled in our present, so to perform this closeness on stage might be fictive and speculative, but simultaneously represents the real atemporality of our lives.

The research behind this play that I’m writing is having me work with source material that documents the whereabouts of different figures, the reasons for their travelling, the expressions of queerness, and how these were met by society at large, corroborating these against other historiographies and related materials from the time. It is a very traditional methodology in terms of history, but then my writing of this history clearly deviates. I am less interested in accounting fact after fact (after all, I am writing a drama), and I am more keen to disrupt conventions, or queer them, and reclaim history through a specifically contrived translation.

When I think of translation as a creative practice, I am thinking of translation within the cultural and literary world. There are many commercial and legal settings in which translation needs to remain as faithful and accurate as possible to ensure a specific kind of understanding can be had. I remember one translator describing their work as a secondary creative form, in which you do not have the opportunity to create something out of nothing other than what’s in your head, but instead you work with a primary creative piece to recreate it, but also make it anew. This sense of primary and secondary experience makes sense in the context of crafting history. The primary bodily experience of those in an historical time might well have been documented, but what an historian writes is just a secondary interpretation; bringing something to life in words, but that something being an entirely new experience/understanding of an experience.

Dramatists are no strangers to being inspired by historical events, and we often have to preface our work to indicate that we have taken artistic liberties. This frustrates me. In the world of fake news and populism, we’ve become overly sensitive to the “unreal” and cling so dearly to the idea of fact and truth. But oftentimes we neglect to ask who has created that “fact” and that “truth”, and for what purpose. Marginalised people around the world can see what is going on when science, personal experiences, and historic accounts are manipulated to further oppress their bodies and rights to expression. I’d like to see more speculative historic drama, and not just within the queer scene, because that’s how, I believe, we can creatively democratise our pasts and our presents. Let’s celebrate the creativity of translation: translating ourselves, historic moments we feel passionate about, and de-translating culturally embedded ideologies that do more harm than good.

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