State of Nation Plays, Essay Excerpt

The consideration of any dramatic text as a ‘state of nation play first requires the details of the term to be examined. However, since ‘state of nation’ plays are not so easily defined, focus instead will be drawn towards ‘nation’, the definition of which is ‘a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory’  (Simpson and Weiner, 1989). While only two of the plays that will be discussed in this essay, namely Jerusalem and The History Boys, take place within England, Our Country’s Good set instead within a newly established penal colony in Australia, all three plays could be considered as concerning themselves with the state of England. That ‘state’ could be explored through the common elements detailed in the definition above, all of which are covered in the selected plays, and will be explored in the main body of the essay – specifically culture, history and language. Ultimately, however, the underlying question in a state-of-nation play should be asking ‘what does it mean to be British?’ (Abrams, 2010, p.9) because a nation is the sum of its parts and as such, the state of England cannot be considered in a play without considering the state of the English.

Culture holds an integral part to the state of England, or of any nation, especially so because that culture is always changing. One way of looking at the fluctuating nature of England’s culture is asking whether or not, through the constant changes, England is losing that culture. While this is addressed in all three plays, it is especially apparent throughout Our Country’s Good, which not only covers the daunting prospect of being cut off from one’s home country, but also upon criminality. The play brings dramatic focus onto the idea that criminals are not born bad, a radical idea that would later help spark the French Revolution. It drives Ralph’s belief in theatre’s redemptive powers, because for a person to be redeemable, they cannot be wholly bad to begin with. The changes in the convicts that arise through The Second Rehearsal clearly reinforce that belief, especially through the scene’s stage directions. Take, for instance, the more implicit scripting for the body involving Sideway’s ‘modesty’,

‘I have seen the white of this animal’s bones, his wretched blood and reeky convict urine have spilled on my boots and he’s feeling modest?’ (Wertenbaker and Keneally, 1991, p.64)

While it is a more subtle redemptive action, Ross’ suggestion that Sideway is feeling modest implies that the actor is attempting to hide the exposed sign of his status as a convict, his scarred back. This decision projects a shame of Sideway’s ‘inferior’ status to Ross, which is an attitude that would precede the desire to redeem himself and raise that status to be equal with his current superior. At the same time, the idea that criminals are not inherently bad fuels Captain Ross’ vehement opposition to those powers, and to any merit of the play itself. The implication of convicts acting above their status is most troubling to characters such as Ross because it brings them closer to his level and even suggests there is no difference between the two, that acting or appearing like an upper-classman is all it takes to be considered one. This explains his eagerness to reassert the convicts’ inferior position as ‘animals’, and rejecting that they can be anything better, a complete dehumanisation and denial of their imagination. The entire scene of the rehearsal is a power struggle between the two sides, with one trying raise itself and become equal while the other tries to force it back.

A similar power struggle can be found in The History Boys, especially through the implied commodification of education, with the schoolboys trying for Oxbridge ‘because other boys want to go there’ and the Headmaster concerned only with how he and his school will profit, ‘thinking (about) league tables’ (Bennett, 2004, p.6-8) and generally dismissive of ‘unquantifiable’ education. Jacobi (2006, p.84) suggests that the three teachers represent three parts of classical education, known as the trivium, consisting of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, roles all filled by the teachers. Lintott’s role is grammar, as the essential ‘basics they need to succeed‘. Hector’s is dialectic, the education of thought and ‘how to generate hypotheses’ and back them up, while Irwin’s more analytical rhetoric allows the students to find the most effective hypotheses and ‘what strategies will make those hypotheses most reasonable’. Jacobi (2006, p.78) also notes that the headmaster is portrayed as a villainous character through a collection of unattractive traits intended to set the audience against him, including a dismissiveness of the humanities that would suit well a conservative officer from Our Country’s Good. However, the Headmaster could be considered the fourth facet of an expanded trivium, the overly pragmatic educator partial to quantifiability, the catalyst for struggles between the parts. His latter nature is evident in his decision for Hector and Irwin to share lessons, both suppressing the status of Hector’s education and pitting it against Irwin’s. This decision immediately creates a mild identity crisis for the students, as Dakin says ‘we don’t know who we are, sir.’ (Bennett, 2004, p.70) Their uncertainty is clearly shown through scripting that of ‘sulking’ and staying quiet, whereas in the separate lessons they are generally more talkative. Due to the teachers’ differing approaches, the boys treat the separate lessons differently. Their attitude in the shared lesson implies that one approach must win over the other, retaining control over their teachers: ‘It depends if you want us thoughtful. Or smart.’ (Bennett, 2004, p.70)

Through the suppression of Hector’s ‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake’ mode of teaching, the concern about the nation is that  where the differing approaches of education should balance each other out by keeping students thinking, the removal of ‘less quantifiable’ approaches might create parrots instead, concerned only with marks and impressing the examiner through the spouting of rehearsed essays. Although the impression of presentation is dangerous to the likes of Hector, to the convicts of Our Country’s Good it is influential, although it is less involved with the loss of culture than the changing of it, hopefully for the better. Lately it returns in its relevance to the nation with education secretaries considering the replacement of GCSE’s with the English Baccalaureate, but without focus on subjects like that of the theatre, potentially resulting in a generation that ‘will be impoverished if the creative arts… are gradually eroded from the curriculum,’ (Millar, 2013) a future that would gladly be avoided by the sentiments of the play.

by Jenny Steiert
written May 2014 to the question:
Explore the dramatic methods of THREE plays studied on the module that might be described as ‘state of nation plays’. Can you argue for or against them as ‘state of nation plays’?