Out of the success in Germany of Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy (1962) and Soldiers (1967), Heinar Kipphardt’s In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1964) and Peter Weiss’s The Investigation (1965) grew the modern documentary theater. According to The Encyclopedia of World Theater, this term
describes plays and productions which employ or are based on material such as official documents, press reports and also films, records, photos and tapes. In general, [it is] a theatre which presents fact instead of fiction. . . . The themes have almost always an historical or political character. Often used forms are transcripts of lawsuits, trials or investigations. Usually, political and economic subject-matter is combined with educative, critical and didactic purposes.
Though this definition could apply to other fact-based performances, there are significant differences. Unlike the so-called historical pageants, for instance--especially the early ones--the documentary play usually has a fully developed script and a unified plot and is presented in a non-specific performance space, such as theater, not in a historical site. Though performing Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice (1983) in the San Francisco City Hall or Hall of Justice might add poignancy, the play doesn’t lose anything by being performed at Washington’s Arena Stage or New York’s Virginia Theatre. Performing Paul Green’s The Lost Colony anywhere but its home on Roanoke Island, South Carolina, on the other hand, would diminish the impact of the pageant.
In addition, though the documentary play usually deals with recent history, such as the aspects of World War II covered in Soldiers, The Deputy, and The Investigation, or current events, such as the trial of Dan White for the murders of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk explored in Execution of Justice, this isn’t always the case. James de Jongh’s Do Lord Remember Me, based on oral histories taken in the 1930s, is about slave life in the 1840s-’60s and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1955) is drawn from court records of the Salem witch trials of the 1650s.
It’s also a general practice that the central characters be major historical or cultural figures (Pope Pius XII in The Deputy, Churchill in Soldiers; Hal Holbrook’s “Mark Twain Tonight!”), but they needn’t be. Occasionally the protagonists are significant groups such as the slaves of Do Lord or the Auschwitz guards on trial in The Investigation. Even local or family history, however, can be the subject of the non-fiction play, though such productions seldom gain general attention.
It’s also evident that, from The Crucible to Execution of Justice, the most common conceit is a trial or hearing. Even those non-fiction plays that aren’t based on trial records are often presented as a kind of trial or indictment of an injustice with the audience as the jury and the playwright, the prosecutor. The polemic tone of most factual plays, frequently liberal to left-wing, is effectively housed in the accusatory atmosphere of the courtroom, legitimate or kangaroo.
With all the lee-way afforded by the genre, diverse forms can be used with equal claim to fact. Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards, for instance, claim that most of the material for their 1969 musical 1776 was taken from historical documents, although no one sang or danced in the Continental Congress. 1776 qualifies, perhaps, as documentary drama at the lower end of a continuum, where the playwrights have heavily manipulated the facts, even though they’ve invented very little. The continuum of documentary theater would stretch from the least-manipulated facts to the classic history play in which only elements of the basic story remain. Off the scale at one end is real life; reality occurring on stage, represented by the happening or the work of performers like Spaulding Gray or Quentin Crisp whose performances were actualities; and reality recreated on stage, a kind of drame vérité, which is probably impossible. Off the scale at the other extreme is the fictional “documentary” play which uses the form but not the content of the non-fiction play.
Despite its kinship to other forms of documentary performance, the non-fiction play takes the documentary film as its model. Just as the modern documentary film is a linear descendant of the illustrated travelogue of the 19th and early 20th centuries, so, too, is the documentary play. The route, however, is less direct. Whereas the illustrated travel lecture began using more and more film until the motion picture enveloped the lecturer who became a voice-over narrator, the live lecturer left the theater for other venues, most notably the Chautauqua tent and the college campus. The earliest attempts at modern documentary theater not only used film in the live performance, returning to the travelogue practice of the turn of the century, but developed an artistic and ethical approach to the genre that paralleled the development of the documentary film over the first 30 years of the 20th century. The appearance in the 1920s of the factual play, again principally in Germany, revived in the live theater the ostensible purpose of teaching and informing over entertaining, This, of course, had been the intent of the lecture and travelogue of a generation before, and is, similarly, the intent of the documentary film. In a sense, the documentary play rejoins two strains of performance that had split with the advent of the feature-length film.
The drive to perform fact--to teach or explain events of import to the community--is as old as performance itself. The first historical performance, the precursor of the documentary drama, must have occurred the first time a Neanderthal hunting party danced around the campfire to replay the day’s success. The prehistory of the non-fiction play is the development of historical drama from the first known true history play, Aeschylus’ The Persians, which is based on actual events rather than myths, to the modern history play exemplified by romanticized spectaculars such as A Man for All Seasons, Becket, Murder in the Cathedral, and Anne of the Thousand Days in the 1950s and early ’60s.
Along the way, the factual veracity of the drama went through many guises. Shakespeare based his histories on what were accepted as facts in the 16th century--but rearranged them to suit his dramatic intentions. In 1800, Friedrich von Schiller’s Maria Stuart considerably bent truth, presenting as apparent history a meeting between Elizabeth I of England and Mary I of Scotland which never took place. In 1801, however, Schiller’s Maid of Orleans was presented at the Königliches Nationaltheater in Berlin with one of the first known historically accurate settings. While the script may not have been documentary, the production was--the first in a series of antiquarian and naturalistic productions culminating in the late-19th-century naturalism of Émile Zola, André Antoine, and David Belasco.
The first documentary play may have been Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death, his 1835 treatment of the French Revolution and its aftermath composed from 18th-century records. True documentary drama in modern times began to appear in political spectacles, primarily in the Soviet Union after the Revolution. One example, Nikolai Evreinov’s Storming of the Winter Palace in Petrograd for the second anniversary of the Revolution in November 1919, required 2,000 participants. Later in Germany, Erwin Piscator pioneered documentary productions with In Spite of Everything (1925). A montage of authentic speeches, essays, newspaper cuttings, appeals, pamphlets, photographs, and film, the production was a revue recounting scenes of World War I and the Russian Revolution. Piscator’s theater was decidedly leftist and his shows were unabashed propaganda. Indeed, the documentary form was adopted by leftists more than rightists--as least until World War II, when its nationalistic propaganda value was recognized by all the belligerents.
From the example of Piscator’s early documentary productions, it's clear that “documentary drama [adapts] for the stage . . . broad themes from life itself done without losing . . . intimacy of the human element and identifiable characters.” The characters, however,
might be impersonal, representative and even stereotyped at the expense of the individuality of realism. A more purposeful and directed dialogue might be simplified, less colloquial and more abstract. Humour, if any, was likely to be broad, and comic business could lean towards slapstick. . . . Documentary drama also inhibited the subtlety and imagination of the stage by its need to deal in facts.
The idea of documentary theater came to the U.S. in the 1930s and was adapted by the Federal Theatre Project for its Living Newspapers. Between 1935 and 1939, several Living Newspapers were produced to inform people about ills such as unemployment and the housing shortage. After the FTP, there was little documentary theater for nearly 30 years. The ‘40s saw plays supporting the war as radical sentiments became unpopular and, in the ‘50s, the history play, with social issues fictionalized and romanticized, became popular. An exception, to an extent, was The Crucible, which, though it’s not a pure documentary play, makes an important point about the genre: most documentary plays are actually about the time and locale in which they’re presented, not the ones in which they’re set. Miller’s play recounts the Salem witch trials, and certainly can be accepted as simply an indictment of community hysteria, but it’s really an exposé of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee probes. Most documentary drama, in fact, “is relevant only to certain times and places . . . .” Its “lack of historical perspective is proportional to the intensity of its moral perspective.”
In another instance, Peter Weiss asserts that everything in The Investigation, about the Frankfurt War Crimes Trials investigating the death camp at Auschwitz, is taken from the transcripts. Having edited them down, however, and selecting carefully, Weiss also acknowledges that the play’s not really about the trial of some Auschwitz guards, but that “it is capitalism, indeed the whole Western way of life, that is on trial.”
In the 1960s, documentary drama returned to the world’s stages. It had its strongest rebirth in Germany, but there are some home-grown examples, such as Martin Duberman’s In White America (1963) which depicts the status of black Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era, and Donald Freed’s The Inquest (1970) which presents an alternate view of the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The non-fiction play was again being used for instructing and opening eyes. Just as in the ‘20s and ‘30s, contemporary documentarists “believe that the dramatist should teach, and they use the stage as a podium from which they express their political views.”
Mostly concerned with World War II--and Germany’s part in it--German documentary theater was the impetus for the revival of the genre. The first modern documentary play, Hochhuth’s The Deputy, is a five-act verse play, exploring the guilt of Pope Pius XII in the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis. Asserting that all his material is documented, the playwright invented some characters to act as advocates for the absent Jews. Hochhuth, like his colleagues, doesn’t claim to hold to absolute objective fact. Objectivity is, in fact, a myth even in the most scrupulously even-handed script:
subjectivity plays the dominant role in documentary drama. From the initial choice of material to the final production, the selectivity of the playwright is at work. . . . The dramatist . . . create[s] the illusion of reportage, and pursues a thesis with the intention of enlightening the audience. Hence, the documentary drama reports facts, but only certain facts, and it investigates, but only those issues which interest the author.
Kipphardt’s In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, for example, drawn from published transcripts of the Atomic Energy Commission’s security hearing, includes several composite characters and severely edited testimony. Although Kipphardt claims he didn’t change the context of the hearing or impose his own conclusions, Oppenheimer denounced the play as inaccurate and supported a rival adaptation, The Oppenheimer Dossier (1963) by Frenchman Jean Vilar.
One of the most controversial non-fiction plays from the 1960s, Hochhuth’s Soldiers, illustrates a serious problem of documentary productions. The play posits that Winston Churchill was actively involved in the murder of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Poland’s president-in-exile, and that he approved the saturation bombing of German cities that killed thousands of civilians. Because the full script would take about ten hours, it’s usually performed in cut versions, making each production a different play. In Berlin, Hochhuth complained, the cuts in one scene removed the serious facts leaving the humorous lines and jokes, giving the scene “a false and unfortunate hilarity.” The audience at that production would assume Churchill was a silly, callous buffoon, planning the bombing of German cities from his bed.
This incident raises a problem inherent in documentary drama. Although it purports to be objective, it can’t be, even under ideal circumstances. The audience is asked to believe the truth of what’s shown, but, by the very nature of the presentation, they know it’s a performance. If the audience suspends disbelief, they’re in danger of being misled; if they don’t, the production can’t work as theater or as instruction. The documentary dramatist stands in the position of both scholar and playwright. This frequently means that “[t]he historian condemns the playwright for misrepresenting the ‘truth,’ and the drama critic complains that the documentary play . . . lacks aesthetic values.”
After the mid-1980s into the middle of the next decade, few documentary plays were produced in the U.S. with any significant success or notice. History plays continued to be written, of course, and documentaries like Execution of Justice received revivals around the country (and a 1999 television rendition on Showtime). New plays based on historical records, however, were infrequent for a decade, possibly because they tend to require large casts, multiple sets, and, often, extensive technical support. Companies around the U.S. did produce several documentary plays, often where the subjects had significance (reminiscent of the historical pageants described earlier), but few gained national attention: Digging In: The Farm Crisis in Kentucky at the Actors Theatre of Louisville; God’s Country (1988) by Steven Dietz, about the 1984 murder of Denver radio personality Alan Berg by a member of The Order, at ACT in Seattle; Barbara Damashek’s Whereabouts Unknown (1988), about Louisville’s homeless, also at ATL; In the Heart of the Woods (1987), Todd Jefferson Moore’s play about the logging and the environmental in the northwest at the New City Theatre in Seattle; Rushing Waters (1993) by Migdalia Cruz, based on 400 years of history in the Latino community in the San Fernando Valley at the Cornerstone Theatre Company in L.A.
In place of the conventional non-fiction play, perhaps, were the documentaries of such performance artists as Anna Deavere Smith, who creates her own documents through interviews and then recreates the personages who’ve been affected by such historical events as the Crown Heights riots in New York (Fires in the Mirror) or those that followed the acquittals in the first Rodney King beating trial in Los Angeles (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992). Jessica Blank, co-dramatist of The Exonerated (2002), another play based on taped interviews rather than historical documents, named Smith as a long-time inspiration, and the work of Moíses Kaufman and his Tectonic Theatre Project on such undertakings as the 2000 Laramie Project (which has just spawned a sequel/update), their exploration of the atmosphere in Laramie, Wyoming, at the time of the 1998 death of Matthew Shepard, based on interviews with Laramie, is clearly in the vein of Smith’s pioneering efforts.
Perhaps because of profoundly unsettling events, documentary dramas returned here in the early years of the 21st century. The students of New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, a public high school a scant five blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, found a way to confront the tragedy of 11 September 2001 by composing With Their Eyes, a 2002 drama drawn from the experiences of the staff, students, and faculty in a style inspired by Smith. In March 2004, Chicago’s tiny Bailiwick Repertory Company premièred Sin: A Cardinal Deposed, compiled by Michael Murphy from the depositions of Bernard Cardinal Law in the Catholic Church’s sexual-abuse scandal in Boston. In May 2004, the small London Tricycle Theatre premièred Guantánamo: “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo which examined the plight of British citizens held at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. The play combined the statements of such figures as U. S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and British Foreign Minister Jack Straw with accounts by the prisoners to create “verbatim theatre.” But although the majority of documentary plays are politically or socially oriented and focused on one historical event or phenomenon, some are occasionally not. A case in point is 1999’s Charlie Victor Romeo, a play created by Bob Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Irving Gregory directly from the transcripts of cockpit recorders of planes that crashed. (“Charlie Victor Romeo” is the military’s phonetic transcription of ‘CVR,’ which stand for “cockpit voice recorder.”)
Except for Sin and Kaufman’s earlier Gross Indecency: Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (1997), which returned to archived documents--trial and hearing transcripts once again--almost all recent documentary plays have been based on interviews with living participants or witnesses. (Mann’s 1996 Greensboro: A Requiem, her evocation of a violent response by Ku Klux Klansmen and Nazis to a 1979 anti-Klan rally, is, of course, a combination of both practices, as is Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen’s Exonerated to a lesser degree. Mann’s Having Our Say, the story of the centenarian Delaney sisters, was adapted from a book rather than taped interviews, but Amy Hill Hearth’s account was oral history.) This trend, if not begun by Anna Deavere Smith (Mann employed the tactic in her 1977 monodrama, Annulla Allen, and her 1980 play about a violent Vietnam veteran, Still Life) then certainly given prominence and cachet by her performances, seems to be linked to the near ubiquitousness of 24-hour news programs, public confessions on television, and the focus of our news media on personalities rather than great events.
The rise of blogs, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and personal websites--all of which promote interest in the thoughts, words, and ideas of ordinary people--appears to parallel the focus of the newest documentary theater, like the plays of Smith and the Tectonic Theatre, on the testimony of people whose words would otherwise not be recorded, much less heeded. There’s been a reaction, too, to the distrust of mainstream media because of errors, fabrication and falsification, bias, and control by the establishment or corporate owners. In general, the public has seen a lack of openness by public figures who are handled, advised, spun, and air-brushed to the extent that their utterances have no more authenticity than do their looks. Plays based on the historical record have been filtered through the perceptions of bureaucrats, historians, and journalists who decided what to record and how to report it, while these new texts appear to be the mostly unmediated thoughts of people brought directly to the audience unfiltered (except, of course, by the playwrights--whose hands are present in both types in any case). Mann has pronounced her fondness for “the poetry of everyday speech” and Smith, declaring “character appears in language,” explains that she looks for the “natural poetry” in her subjects’ words: “The bottom line is to speak to people and try to evoke from them performance and poetry.” While the language of the archival sources and news reports is formal, scholarly, written, edited, and perfect, the language of the oral-history plays is unaffected, spoken, immediate, and living. It’s natural dialogue.
At the same time, the personalities of the archival plays are, as noted before, historical figures or prominent people--Dan White, Pope Pius XII, Churchill, the Auschwitz guards, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Hollywood figures called before HUAC. The voices of the oral-history plays are mostly ordinary folks--the citizens of Laramie, the Delaney sisters, the people of Greensboro, death-row inmates--whose testimony would never have otherwise been noted. Indeed, Emily Mann called the citizens of San Francisco, whom she interviewed for Execution of Justice as counterpoint to the court testimony and police records, the Chorus of Uncalled Witnesses. The archival plays are reexamining recorded history, while the oral-history plays are recording history that often hasn’t been documented, at least not in one place at one time. If it weren’t for the plays, in a way, the events on which they’re based would be lost and forgotten. As one historian observes:
Unlike documents that simply come to us from the past, whether they are film clips or letters or reports, interview materials are unique in themselves being documents about the past--reflections more than simple reminiscences, in which the interpretation of a past reality is not only something the audience brings to the document, but to some degree is implicit in the document itself.
Now, that doesn’t make the new documentary plays important--but it does make them different from the tradition started, if you will, with Büchner’s Danton’s Death. Indeed, there are potential faults in either approach: on one hand, there’s the latent subjectivity of the historical record that’s the basis for the archival plays; the innate biases of the recorders, journalists, editors, minute-takers, and so on, influence the record of the events before any manipulation by the dramatists. On the other hand, interview-based plays are subject to manipulation by interviewees who say what they think the interviewer wants to hear: their words may seem authentic, but where’s the proof of veracity? As one scholar notes, “The written record . . . is permanent and verifiable.” Another trap of the oral-history play is that it may be too subjective and one-sided (whose views are set against those of the former convicts in The Exonerated?), lacking distance, multiple focuses, and the perspectives of outsider explorations. Such texts can become more narrative than drama, focusing as they do on words rather than actions and failing to develop the conflict on which most traditional Western drama depends, such as occurred in the controversial documentary play My Name Is Rachel Corrie by Katherine Viner and Alan Rickman, staged in New York (after some false starts) in 2006, which in production was little more than the oral interpretation of the letters and e-mails of the doomed young protester in the Gaza Strip. Even the warring points of view of, say, Greensboro, with the Klansmen’s and Nazis’ perspectives juxtaposed against the demonstrators’, isn’t inherently dramatic.
One theater historian identifies four “periods” of the documentary play. The first period, corresponding to the Neue Sachlichkeit (“new objectivity”) movement in the Weimar Germany of the 1920s, was defined and dominated by the productions of Piscator. The second period was epitomized by the Living Newspaper of the FTP in 1930s U.S. The third period, again centered in Germany, was exemplified by the plays of Weiss, Hochhuth, and Kipphardt but also included Duberman’s In White America and Freed’s Inquest in this country. The fourth period began here in the 1980s with Execution of Justice and continued through Mann’s other plays and the work of Smith and Kaufman. The prospects for a possible fifth period of documentary theater for the 21st century, beginning with the new interview-based works currently in vogue, are certainly intriguing.