The American Historian

Finding History in the Theater

Brian Horrigan

For the last eight or so years, every fall semester I take some time off from my day job as an exhibit curator at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul and teach a course that I call “Finding History” at a local liberal arts college. It’s a broad tour (often literally) through the public landscape of history: monuments and memorials, museum exhibits and collections storage, historic sites and houses, hard-hat visits to historic-preservation projects, and even the Mall of America (yes, history is alive if not particularly well at the Mall). We also read about and discuss the “uses of the past” in popular biographies and memoirs, high school textbooks, movies, the Internet, and television.

About two years ago, I began to feel something was missing from our pilgrimages to local lieux des memoires, and that is a place where I spend a good deal of my leisure time: the theater. At the beginning of the semester last fall, I asked my class (mostly senior history or education majors) if any of them had attended any live theater in the last year or so. None had. Had any of them ever seen a play? Mostly no, except for a young man who asked: “Does my high school musical count?”

It was a revelatory moment for this inveterate theatergoer. Perhaps I should not have been surprised that live theater does not rank high on a typical college student’s list of preferred extracurricular activities. Surely there are corners of the campus where theatergoing thrives—in drama departments, obviously, and probably a few English departments. But in history departments? Not so much.

Yet there is a great deal to be said for the unique pedagogical value of live theater, especially (though not exclusively) in courses examining the popular expressions of history. In a 2012 article in The Public Historian, David Dean, a historian at Carleton University in Ottawa, noted that public historians have neglected the study of history as it is represented in theatre, preferring to focus on “living history sites, museums, or on film or television.” Dean conducted an exit survey of audiences for a popular drama, Vimy, about the experiences of Canadians at the World War I battle of Vimy Ridge. One viewer commented that in the play, “there is total immersion that cannot be achieved through film or reading and a presentness that cannot be found in a museum display,” while another audience member said, “there is less of a filter when you see flesh-and-blood people.”

Indeed, live theater is LIVE theater: human beings come together in what are often quite intimate spaces to see other live people performing. As Ron Peluso, longtime artistic director of the History Theatre in St. Paul, which has been producing plays with resonance for state history for nearly forty years, told me recently: “We all learn from traumatic events in our lives, and we all learn from dramatic telling of events in our lives. There’s something about theater that penetrates deeper, that helps you remember better than reading it off the page, or watching a movie.” It’s the physical reality of live theater, its immediacy and riskiness, as well as our proximity to other breathing audience members and with the performers themselves, that creates a brief but often electric moment of emotion and community.

For teachers who want to incorporate live theater in their classes, the “riskiness” of theater can cut several ways: a production or the actors in it can be downright awful, perhaps guaranteeing that neophyte theatergoers will not become converts. And then there is the issue of simple availability: not every American community offers a reliable menu of theatrical productions.

Fortunately, I teach in the Twin Cities, a community with a high concentration of professional theater companies (second only to New York City, we’re often told). Earlier this year I took my students to see Baby Case, Michael Ogborn’s dazzling musical based on the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr., at the History Theatre. None of the students had heard of his father’s flying exploits or the “Crime of the Century”—except those who knew about the kidnapping as a plot point on an episode of The Simpsons. I sketched in a few of the details during the class session that preceded our trip to the production, and, more importantly, I assigned them to read through two of the many websites devoted to the Lindbergh kidnapping case to get sense of the enduring aftereffects of the media frenzy at the heart of Ogborn’s play. The show proceeds at breakneck speed, piling up the relentless, grotesque, and at times embarrassingly appalling events of the infamous case.

With the director, music director, and one of the actors in attendance we devoted a subsequent class session to discussing the show. My students connected strongly with Baby Case, a connection that came in part from the show’s prescient focus on the perils of modern celebrity culture. But the real abiding connection came, I think, simply from “being there,” a significant step towards the ever-challenging pedagogical goal of creating a community of learners.