Documentary theatre: Definition , Form and Examples

Documentary theatre is a form of drama, related to epic theatre, which is propagandist and didactic, and may make use of relatively recent history and documentary evidence of the kind provided by newspapers, governmental reports, archives, official histories, diaries, and journals. It is also referred to as Verbatim theatre, Investigative theatre, theatre of witness, Autobiographical theatre, and Ethnodrama.

The plays in this genre are constructed using the words of real people, a qualitatively different and unusual challenge for actors as compared to portraying fictional characters. It often involves a writer, researcher, and/or actors and directors interviewing a person or people about an event, experience, or topic and selectively using parts of the transcripts of those interviews to construct a performed piece. It can be seen as a theatre primarily of social and political change since they often seek to present both an entire picture and individual perspective on issues while trying also to give emotional insights into a theme or issue.

Recent exemplifications are Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War! (1963), Rolf Hochhuth’s The Representative (1966), which examined the role of the Pope and the Papacy in the Second World War; and his Soldiers (1967), which investigated part of Sir Winston Churchill’s career during the same period; Kipphardt’s In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1968), which investigated the USA’s atomic energy commission; and Peter Brook’s US (1969). Robert Nichols’s Front Page (1972) was a kind of updating of Front Page (1928), a tough comedy-drama about newspaper life written by the Americans Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. More recent instances (perhaps of a semi-documentary nature) are David Edgar’s Mary Barnes (1977) and The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs (1978). The latest examples of documentary theatre include Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities (1992), Anne Nelson’s The Guys(2001), David Hare’s The Permanent Way(2003), Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s Come from Away(2017).

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