by Arpita Bajpeyi.
Chances are that, when you encounter the word ‘history,’ certain images come to mind: old buildings, monuments, and significant events, dates, people or eras from your nation or region’s past. All seemingly irrelevant to our lives today.
And yet, if we look closely at the shapes of our lives, nothing truly escapes history’s net. What if we stop thinking of ‘history’ as a series of connected names, dates, and places and look for the histories that inform our lives: what are the pieces of the past that tell us why we live where we live, and why our mothers speak a certain language? What histories can tell us why our kitchens are filled with a melange of specific scents no other home can replicate? The answers to these questions are parts of the past too. But they are also things that we experience and even perform daily, that our bodies encounter and engage with. Our tongues learn to move around the syllables and consonants we inherit, and our palates are trained to appreciate cuisines that developed over time and trade. We learn to navigate our city’s streets, perhaps passing under the shadow of an old palace or an historic site marked by a plaque. We continue the performances of our pasts, and will pass them on, too, adapting them as we go.
So what constitutes ‘history’? Whose past belongs to ‘history,’ and whose outside of it? Why does this matter? How are we to know — or how do we decide which histories are the most important to keep and share? Certainly, you might say, it is easier to look to the permanence of an important building, lasting stories of the founding of a nation, or the material presence of a significant document. But when we decide not to acknowledge that an individual, a community, or a people have a history either because of their place in society or because the way they recount their pasts does not comply with our notions of ‘history’ (textually traceable, or even ‘factual’), we pile a series of judgments and assumptions onto them, placing them in a hierarchy that leaves us on a rung somewhere above them. And that can open up dangerous doors.
What ‘history’ actually is, beyond its disciplinary boundaries, proves difficult to pin down. We often forget that our sepia-toned images of the past were inhabited by real living people who built buildings, learned languages, and ate food. When we recount the past, within the purview of the discipline of history or outside of it, there is a certain performance inherent in it. Here, in the essay that follows, I will attempt to remind us — you and I both — of the performance inherent in the recounting of the past. Your past, our past, any past. Even in the academic practice of history – in the research as well in the writing of it. But what is to be gained by looking for these performances? Can we arrive at a more inclusive notion of history? Can expanding our definition of what it means to ‘do’ history make room for more voices?
There’s plenty of theatre in the archives: the archives as a site of performance
‘Performance’ seems like an easier thing to define. You could say that performance is something that requires an artist or storyteller (if the distinction must be made), and an audience — even if the audience is yourself. “Performances — of art, rituals, or ordinary life,” Richard Schechner writes, “– are ‘restored behaviors,’ ‘twice-behaved behaviors,’ performed actions that people train for and rehearse.” (Schechner, 2013, 28) Australian historian Greg Dening, in his essay “Performing on the Beaches of the Mind”, speaks of the centuries-old performances he researches — performances by people, now long gone, on the beaches of Pacific islands where worlds met, collided, and forever changed. Performances that shaped the world Dening grew up in, and his professional life as a historian. Performances that have left traces, evidence of changing worlds, now stored in dusty tomes that Dening searched through in the archives:
the two-hundred-years past I visit is stilled onto paper, millions of pieces of paper. Written-on paper. One-off pieces of paper, mostly without a copy. Not printed paper. Hand-written paper. Script. The first mark of my history is always a pen’s or a pencil’s. My first performance as a historian is to be a reader. And those first readings I make are always shaped by the transience of the moment in which they were made. The hand that writes them is still trembling with anger or fear or sorrow. Or it is scribbled in a hurry. Or it is flourished with power. […] It is corrected and erased. It belongs to times that are as long or short or broken or continuous as the human experience that sustains it. (Dening, 2002, 3)
Dening colors the sources he uses to ‘do’ history. He colors them with emotions and action. These sources textual are more than just evidence for the arguments and narratives he writes in his work as a historian. It is almost as if he reads these scraps of paper to re-imagine the human performances behind them. He finds in these material remains of the past the expression of human transience, moments enacted and then disappeared but for a scrap of paper in front of him.
Dening writes of his own work as a historian as a performance too. And why not? Writing is one way of performing the past, just as reading is too, Dening says. You, in reading this, are processing my thoughts, and formulating your own – questioning, connecting, conversing with other voices, and thoughts in your head. (2002, 4) Is that not performing, too?
As I write this, I am following Dening’s (and my editor’s) lead and reflecting more thoughtfully on the performance of my writing. I tend to stray towards a more academic, “top-down” omniscient voice given a historical — especially a more theoretical topic. It takes real effort to bring my own voice into this piece, instead of slipping into more familiar patterns. And while you cannot see my edits and revisions and scribbles, I am trying to make my performance more visible to you in other ways.
As a historian, most of my training focussed on the text and learning to read texts for what they could tell me about multiple pasts. The archive holds a primary place in the historian’s theatre. Dening’s performances are primarily on pages: he reads so that he can write, and enact his performance. “There’s plenty of theatre in the archives,” he writes. (2002, 5) The performances of the written word, reading and writing, are not the only ways to tell a story, though. We tell stories with our bodies too — stories that are captured by our voices, movements, and passed on to other bodies in ways that cannot be captured on paper. What of those performances not captured by pen and ink, but shared with live audiences?
Traces, presently: re-enacting pasts through performance
If the archive is a home for material remnants of the past, the term ‘repertoire’ has come to represent its embodied counterpart. Like ‘history,’ it is a difficult thing to pin down. Let me offer you the definition that I keep returning to. The repertoire, performance studies scholar Diana Taylor says, “enacts embodied memory: performances, gestures, movements, orality, dance, singing — in short, all those acts usually thought of as ephemeral, nonreproducible knowledge.” (2003, 20) The act of hurried writing on Dening’s scrap of paper was enabled by a repertoire of movement, of learning to hold a writing instrument, form letters using deft movements of the fingers and wrist. That particular action, the scrawling of a few paragraphs in a diary — once performed, unrepeatable in its entirety — falls into the repertoire, but the scrap of paper on which it was written falls into the archive. We can trace our hand over the script on the page, and try to imagine how the pen was held, the speed of the hand, decode the spaces between letters and words to feel the pace of the writing hand. Together, the paper and the hand tell a slightly more complete story of the past. Even so, they cannot restore that moment for us. That is always lost to us. All we have left is stories.
As a historian and as a dancer, I turned to the repertoire as a way to move away from the archive, and as a response to it. The archive had come to feel cold, foreign, alienating. It did not hold the voices I wanted to hear, nor did it offer markings made by hands whose versions of history I wanted to read. The repertoire, by contrast, felt warm and inviting to me. I could understand my body in relation to it, feel my muscles react to it as it came to sit in my bones. Through the repertoire, I came to encounter history in a way that I could not through text. This isn’t to say that that the repertoire is an answer to text, or its opposite, or a way to ensure that every voice is heard. As Diana Taylor writes, “[p]erformance belongs to the strong as well as the weak […] The modes of storing and transmitting knowledge are many and mixed and embodied performances have often contributed to the maintenance of a repressive social order” (2003, 22).
So what if, with this in mind, we look to the repertoire to piece our stories together? What if we turn away from the archive to non-textual traditions or, more accurately, non-material sources, like storytelling or performance, which last only as long as they are performed? How do they allow us to understand the past?
Let us return to Dening’s hand. Or better yet, to a series of movements a dancer may learn — or a telling of the oral narrative of the Ramayana. In tracing those letters on the page, in traversing space through a series of movements, poses and transitions, in reciting an epic, moving lyrically from one scene to the next — in all of these instances — a repertoire is enacted, re-visited, and re-interpreted by a body in the present. In all of these performances, the past is temporarily made present. Not the full past, but a version of it. A story of it that is being made sense of for the present. And as the performer interprets the past for an audience in the present, she or he does so through their body, using their whole being to bring the past into the present moment. Their body and/or their voice acts as a conduit for the past and becomes the site where the audience can make sense of the history being shared, in the present.
By embodying the past, a performer re-presents it, creating a new space where a version of the past is accessible for an audience to experience it. The audience does not passively receive the experience, but work with the performer to aid in ‘presencing.’ It is a collaborative effort that is only possible if the performer has an audience, and if the audience opens themselves to the story the performer shares with them. The intimacy of such a performance, the shared work of creating a space between audience and performer, past and present, is also what makes this kind of history-sharing so powerful.
Oral and performative history-telling practices are not immune to the passage of time, though. Embodied practices change. Penmanship standards evolve with writing instruments, dance repertoires are redefined, and epics adapted as societies and cultures re-imagine themselves. The narratives that are passed from one body to the next reflect the shifts that each body experiences in their lifetime: changes to their social, political, cultural, spiritual, and material contexts. Sometimes these shifts leave traces in the repertoire of practice, but many times they do not. The transitions are fleeting and last only as long as they are performed. We can only see these shifts in our own present, as practitioners experiment, create, and respond to the narratives that shape the world around them.
Disappearings: rendering the invisible visible, through performance
The repertoire holds many stories. It contains layers and layers of stories, told through echoes of many bodies and voices. A repertoire requires live bodies and voices in order to remain in existence, to transmit knowledge to audiences, and to the next keepers of memory. The repertoire is a living, shifting entity, always in the process of becoming. It is a site of forgetting, and of disappearances. The archive, you may say, is also a site of forgetting. It requires bodies — archivists — who must sort through collections of dusty papers, cataloging, evaluating, discarding.
The difference, perhaps, is that, in the repertoire, the act of forgetting or disappearing is not performed between archival stacks and administrative desks, behind closed doors, but for audiences in studios, classrooms, and on stages. “Only through performance can disappearance be rendered visible,” writes Diana Taylor. (2003, 205)
Performance mirrors history in many ways, I find. Performance, like the past, is never fully ‘knowable.’ There are always multiple actors and agents involved, always a plethora of perspectives. A performance will look different depending on where you are situated — whether you are seated near the stage, at the back of the audience, watching from the wings, managing the lights, or on stage yourself. From each of these positions, a performance will mean something different too. You may experience it as a series of lighting cues, as a story, or as an act of labor for an audience. And in retelling a performance to a new audience, each perspective will reflect these differences too. Does that make any one perspective less ‘truthful’ than the others?
This is the crux of the matter, I think. Can performance be a ‘true’ way of doing history? Is it reliable? To answer, I will turn us back to Greg Dening. “The ultimate performance for a historian,” he writes, “is truthfulness.” (2002, 22) A historian’s task is to tell ‘true stories,’ but there is more than one way to tell a true story. So Dening does not stop there. “You are true storytellers, too,” he says. (2002, 5)
A number of years ago I heard a true story that changed me. Thomas King’s 2003 Vincent Massey Lectures, a series of five stories of Indigenous lives in North America, bled pasts into presents as he pulled his audience through his narrative. His stories danced through time, circularly, always returning to the same idea: “The truth about stories is that’s all we are.” (2003, 2)
That thought has stayed with me. I also think of Diana Taylor’s idea, that there is something worthwhile in not fully understanding — of being aware of that “stumbling block that reminds us that ‘we’ – whether in our various disciplines or languages or geographic locations […] – do not simply or unproblematically understand each other.” (2003, 18). To that, we might add ‘our various times.’ When the past is performed, we are keenly aware of this. It may be one of the truest things about performance; we always see performance being performed. It is a truth shared by performer and audience alike, a meeting point for other times and places with our own. That in-between is something the repertoire allows us to embody — an in-between space of translation, where past moments become present stories, true stories, that disappear as they are told. Perhaps the truth is in the disappearing.
Further Readings: Dean, David, Yana Meerzon, Kathryn Prince, eds. History, Memory, Performance. Studies in International Performance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Dening, Greg. “Performing on the Beaches of the Mind: An Essay.” History and Theory, vol. 41, no. 1 (February 2002): 1-24. King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2003. Roach, Joseph. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Rokem, Freddie. Performing History: Theatrical Representations of the Past in Contemporary Theatre. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000. Schechner, Richard. Media edited by Sara Brady. Performance Studies: An Introduction. Third Edition. London and New York: Routledge, 2013. Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.