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Title: The acted life : twentieth-century biographical drama
Author: Johnstone, I. H.
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2011
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This dissertation identifies patterns in biographical drama during the long twentieth century, investigating the persistent popularity of the dramatic re-enactment of historical lives on both stage and screen. It demonstrates the diversity, depth and continuing relevance of a genre which has frequently been dismissed as conservative and unchallenging. The reaction against Victorian hagiography in early twentieth century life writing, coupled with the surge of interest in the potential of psychoanalysis to unlock the mysteries of the ‘inner’ self, led to heightened awareness of the discrepancy between the private (or unperformed) life and public self-presentation. This study contends that, as a direct consequence, biography came to be increasingly imbued with the language of theatre and role-play. It argues that a defining characteristic of twentieth century biography is its attraction to individuals who were, in some sense, actors during their lifetimes, constructing and performing fictionalised versions of themselves. This thesis argues that drama is both a logical and representative form for the expression of biography in the twentieth century, and that stage and screen biography actively engages with distinctively modern concerns about the relationship (or discrepancy) between social performance and the private self. The protagonists of modern biographical plays and films, contrary to the nineteenth-century ideal of extraordinary men and women as the shapers of historical events, are frequently presented as trapped within an inflexible or repetitions narrative structure, or imprisoned by an artificial public image, struggling – often unsuccessfully – for the freedom of self-authorship. Chapter One situates the discussion of dramatised biography within the framework of developments in the theory and practice of life writing from the 1920s to the present day. The four remaining chapters compromise detailed analysis of a selection of representative texts. Chapters Two and Three discuss versions of the lives of ‘Jeanne d’Arc’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, contrasting Jeanne’s unwavering commitment to a single role with depictions of Lawrence’s descent into self-fragmentation and role-play. Chapter Four turns to recent dramatisations of royal lives, a significant subgenre of nominal authority of the monarch and the demands of his or her ‘audience’ for particular modes of public performance. Lastly, Chapter Five examines ‘metabiographical’ plays from the 1990s and early 2000s that self consciously dramatise the challenges of reconstructing and reinterpreting the past. The plays and films discussed illuminate the tension between the provision of a definitive account of a life and the presentation of identity as an ever-changing performance, subject to multiple interpretations.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available