There’s a real mystique to the Royal Opera House — a gravitas lent by the red velvet cushions, ornately carved balconies, and frescoes. Yet when I found myself there one chilly Thursday night, the grandeur of the theater was sharply juxtaposed by the intimate story of Martin Lynch’s “The History of the Troubles (According to my Da)” with its cast of merely three powerhouse actors and a minimalist set. In typical Northern Ireland fashion, the play is darkly humorous and fueled by crisp, unexpected dialogue. And viewing this small, powerful play within this sprawling operatic setting somehow created a kind of electricity through contradiction that left the audience — or, at least, just me — buzzing as we left our seats that evening.
I shuffled out of the theater to the lobby, where I paused on my way out to ask the playwright to sign my copy of the script. He glanced up at me, taking in my age and American accent, as he scrawled his name for probably the fiftieth time that night.
“How old are you?” he asked me.
“I’m twenty five,” I said.
“So this is all just a history lesson to you, I guess?”
I’ve seen four plays since I arrived on the island, each of which has imparted a history lesson in some way. In “Joyce’s Women,” I saw the life and death of James Joyce through the eyes of the reviled and revered women behind his storied career. In “Propaganda: The Musical,” I went on a strange, dark journey through 1940s Berlin. In “History of the Troubles (According to my Da),” I saw ordinary lives torn apart by the Troubles. And in “Agreement,” I witnessed the peace process that ended the conflict.
After my brief interaction with Martin Lynch, I found myself thinking back to each of the plays I’d seen and thinking further about the nature of portraying history through narrative. There’s a profound power, and even danger, to the fact that most people’s understanding of history is shaped first and foremost by stories, rather than by dissertative historical texts or data. The historiography at work in playwriting and all creative work is foundational to how we come to understand conflicts.
As someone fascinated by how we communicate about conflicts and public policy — much of my professional work has centered around combating misinformation, which too has its roots in the darker sides of the narrativization of history — I found myself trying to put myself in Lynch’s shoes during that little snippet of a conversation. He likely wrote his play with an understanding that it would be performed within and viewed by a community that had lived this history in real-time or, at least, seen the immediate after-effects of it. Whereas for me, I was viewing it as a student, an outsider to this community, hoping to immerse myself within it and learn as much as I can.
In this sense, his play did indeed hold a kind of dual purpose — part storytelling, part history lesson. Yet the effect it had on me — and the effect all of these wonderful theatrical productions have had on me when paired with my coursework this semester — has been a lesson in how we tell history, in understanding the importance of creative forms in constructing our understanding of conflicts and of how the lines between history books and playbills are often more diffuse than we immediately realize.