Stuff Happens: Historical Writing or History Play?

Contemporary British Drama

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010
24 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Introduction

2 Defining ‘History Play’

3 Historiography in Stuff Happens

4 Stuff Happens as Documentary Drama

5 Political aspects in Stuff Happens

6 Conclusion

7 Bibliography


Rumsfeld “I’ve seen the pictures. […] Stuff happens! But in terms of what’s going on in that country, it is a fundamental misunderstanding to see those images over and over and over again of some boy walking out with a vase and say, ‘Oh, my goodness, you didn’t have a plan.’”

(Hare 2006, 3f)

The ‘War on Terror’ and the ‘Iraq War' have been dominant topics of recent time and led to many responses of art. Especially the rhetoric used by the Bush administration has offered several opportunities for political satire. On the one hand this is due to way the invasion of Iraq was legitimized but also to the way some of the most powerful politicians have been arguing for their positions in front of cameras. Contemporary playwrights have felt addressed to contribute with plays to the democratic process and the approaches to the topic of war have been various. Chris Megson provided an overview by categorizing plays concerned with the Iraq topic into four different major groups: political satire, revivals or adaptations of canonical plays, small-scale theatre presentations, and documentary plays (Megson 2005, 369). Especially the latter has had an enormous increase in number within the last years.

David Hare, who has been a dominant force on the British stage for many years, focused with two plays on the military intervention in Iraq. His plays Stuff Happens (2004) and the Vertical Hour (2006) can be seen as different interventions in form. While Stuff Happens is often categorized as a documentary play, focusing on the global political scale, the Vertical Hour, which Hare himself sees as a companion piece to Stuff Happens, takes a closer look at the impact of the Iraq War on a more personal level (Boon 2007, 2). Hare claims in his author’s note to Stuff Happens that the play is a history play dealing with recent historical events (Hare 2006, vi). Reviews and scholars propose different categories for the play as for example political play, documentary play, or postmodern play. Therefore, the central question of the present paper is whether Stuff Happens can be called a history play and if so, how does it succeed in portraying recent history.

With the title of the paper pointing at the evaluation of Stuff Happens as historical writing or as a history play, the second chapter starts off by dealing with a categorization of recent ‘history plays’ proposed by Mark Berninger. In the following, based on the definition and characteristics for categorization provided by Berninger, specific aspects of this definition will be discussed. Because history plays a decisive role in Berninger’s definition, chapter three is going to portray the development of historiography towards a postmodernist historiography as advocated by Hayden White. Furthermore, the emplotment of facts in historical writing and the discussion of Stuff Happens as a metahistorical play will be discussed. In reference to the postmodernist neglect of one single historical past the notions of ‘authenticity’, ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ are addressed in chapter four setting the stage for a discussion of Stuff Happens as a documentary play. Further, the different functions of documentary plays, and Stuff Happens in special will be discussed. Chapter five focuses on political aspects in the play and reflects upon the use of language and the portrayal of public persons and fictional characters. The conclusion of the paper recapitulates the findings and offers a concluding statement about Stuff Happens as historical writing and as a historical play.

The play’s title comes from a quotation of Donald Rumsfeld, which is represented in the play as well. The second scene of the play states that the quote originates from a response of Donald Rumsfeld to a question concerning the looting and pillage in Baghdad (Hare 2006, 3). Opening the play with such a quote sets the tone and leads to the question, ‘Do things just happen in history?’ and ‘Did they really have no plan?’. Something the audience will certainly look for to be answered and David Hare tries to answer by providing fictive insight to private and public meetings between the global players of politics, the protagonists of recent history.


Stuff Happens is a history play, which happens to centre on very recent history.”

(Hare 2006, vi)

History plays have always been enjoying great popularity in Britain. Thus, it is strange enough that definitions of what is to be understood by ‘history play’ have often been unhelpful and misleading as pointed out by Mark Berninger. Therefore, he suggests a more useful definition: “a history play is a play that deals with history” (Berninger 2002, 37), which seems to resemble Hare’s definition of Stuff Happens as quoted above. At a first glance the proposed definition seems to be recursive, defining a ‘history play’ with history but this definition needs some clarification in order to unfold its full potential. For Berninger a history play is defined by its topic which allows for various combinations with other topics (Berninger 2002, 37). Hence a history play needs not to be exclusively concerned with history but may as well be political. Additionally, his definition gives no standard what is to be understood by history (Berninger 2002, 37). Moreover, concepts of history may vary and history plays can be considered in the context of their understandings of history. Although Berninger emphasizes that the relation of the play to history should not be considered as the main characteristic to distinguish between history plays (Berninger 2002, 38) it is nonetheless of great importance, something which will be addressed in detail in the following chapter about historiography.

Next to historiography Berninger proposes further aspects on which history plays can be distinguished from one another. History plays differ in the amount of documentary and fictional material incorporated in the plays (Berninger 2002, 38). Some history plays stick to the sole use of documented material, e.g. Justifying War by Richard Norton-Taylor, while in other plays as Stuff Happens documented material interweaves with fictional elements. The decision about the amount of fictional elements used does not only depend upon the playwright’s decision but also upon the portrayed event itself. Some historical events are well documented as trials and inquiries while others, as meetings and the processes of decision making in Stuff Happens, provide only limited insight to the public. David Hare refers to this in his author’s note to the play: “When the doors close on the world’s leaders and on their entourages, then I have used my imagination” (Hare 2006, vi).

Another element to differentiate between historical plays proposed by Berninger is the level of self-reflexivity as a history play. This can either be achieved by the use of metatheatre and/or metahistorical discussion (Berninger 2002, 38). A play as Justifying War adheres to stage realism, trying to convey the theatrical illusion by the exact reproduction of the courtroom and court proceedings. On the other hand Stuff Happens uses epic elements as narrators, who introduce the characters and comment on their speeches, or the constant change of place and time. Insofar scenes following each other or even within scenes themselves time gaps appear. In act one, scene eight the measures taken in the direct aftermath to 9/11 are being presented in a time lapse where an actor introduces the dates and places of action in order to make the plot coherent and accessible for the reader. Nonetheless, the chronological sequence of events is mixed up as the last event dated with November the 21st of 2001 should have preceded the penultimate event where Blair is already referring to the past when talking about December 11th of 2001 (Hare 2006, 30). Although Hare might have done that for dramatic reason it can nonetheless be seen as an epic element pointing at the constructedness of a play.

Finally, Berninger goes on to draw the distinction between different history plays by focusing on plays that can be considered as prototypical plays of the genre of ‘history play’. He describes the characteristics of the ‘traditional history play’ with the enumeration of the following features:

“Interest in the central (mostly male) figures of history, concentration on political and military events (on what has been called 'Haupt- und Staatsaktion' in German), Eurocentrism, use of stage realism (in the paradoxical form of 'historical realism'), chronological presentation of events, adherence to documented history but with the addition of fictional elements (which do not undermine the plays' claim of historical authenticity), and a subscription to the dominant view of history and the prevailing interpretation of the historical events presented. Connected elements include: 'trushery', the use of archaic speech, 'costume drama', hero-worship, and a tragic plot.”

(Berninger 2002, 39)

This description of the ‘traditional history play’ allows differentiating between new forms of history plays as they adhere to or differ from certain features of the traditional type. Accordingly five new types of history plays can be named: the ‘documentary history play’ which is characterized through the extensive use of documentary material, the ‘realistic history play’ which mainly adheres to the presented characteristics of the traditional history play, the ‘revisionist history play’ which challenges either form of history plays or dominant historical accounts, the ‘metahistorical play’ which is either concerned with discussion of historical accounts or how history is made, and the ‘posthistorical play’ which can be characterized by a high degree of fictionalised history challenging the traditional historiographic understanding (Berninger 2002, 39f). According to Margarete Rubik such a categorization would lead to the conclusion that Stuff Happens must be considered as a ‘realistic history play’ because it does not contradict documented history, focuses on mostly male figures of history, and concentrates on political and military events. However, she argues that it becomes difficult to attain to such a categorization as Stuff Happens contains anti-realistic dramatic techniques (Rubik 2006, 255). Furthermore one could argue that Stuff Happens carries elements of a metahistorical and posthistorical play as well, something which will be discussed in the following chapter about historiography and postmodernism. It should be noted that Berninger himself points at the fuzziness of his categorization and the necessity to understand the proposed categories as overlapping (Berninger 2002, 41). Each of the following chapters will pick up a different aspect of Berninger's definition and discuss its implications for Stuff Happens.


Excerpt out of 24 pages


Stuff Happens: Historical Writing or History Play?
Contemporary British Drama
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
Hauptseminar: The London Stage sinse the 1990s
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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538 KB
Bewertung: "Eine sehr überzeugende Arbeit, die auf der Grundlage einer differenzierten Aufarbeitung ihrer theoretisch-konzeptionellen Prämissen eine sehr eigenständige und kohärente Argumentation entwickelt. Die Form entspricht den Vorgaben. Der sprachliche Ausdruck ist sehr gut."
Contemporary British Drama, Theatre, David Hare, Stuff Happens, Political Drama, History Play, Iraq War, Theater, Documentary Play, Verbatim Theatre, Political Play, Documentary Drama
Quote paper
Timm Ole Bernshausen (Author), 2010, Stuff Happens: Historical Writing or History Play?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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