The term “dramatic history” is not widely used and often refers to plays that explore historical events, such as Shakespeare’s War of the Roses trilogy. What would it mean to develop dramatic history as a new trend in, what Martha Hodes calls experimental history? This new dramatic history could focus on giving space to the fragmented and obscured stories of women, people of color, the impoverished, the enslaved, and others forced to the margins of society. The intersection of narrative, fiction, and history offers unique opportunities to explore how women and men redefined self and community in a changing world.
The participants in this panel marry narrative and fiction with the tools of the historian, including vital records, census data, passports, property records, and interviews. To demonstrate the forms this experiment can take, our papers take different perspectives on an unexpected range of places. Semley uses census data, public records, and related archival documents to create the freed black fictional character of Léonore in Bordeaux, France, at the turn of the nineteenth century. Jones contemplates using fiction and historical imagination to reveal the itinerant lives of several generations of an enslaved family who originally fled the Haitian Revolution. In his narrative-driven study of exclusion and wealth inequality in 1970s Connecticut, Kahrl uses extensive interviews to reveal racially charged protests against privatized beachfront property ownership. In linking corners of the Atlantic world, our panel engages larger historical themes with continued relevance today including, migration, urban history, economic inequality, and social movements.
Fiction-writers often describe their inspiration in the form of voices from their imagined characters. Historians usually are less willing to admit how frayed pages and images – or their absence – in the archives move us. Dramatic history may allow us to share how we hear and visualize the energy and deep emotion embedded in so many of our sources that are not so silent, after all.