Living history: myth, representation and dramatizing Catherine the Great

PhD Thesis

Janowicz, Stanislaw. 2017. Living history: myth, representation and dramatizing Catherine the Great. PhD Thesis Doctor of Philosophy. University of Southern Queensland.

Living history: myth, representation and dramatizing Catherine the Great

TypePhD Thesis
AuthorJanowicz, Stanislaw
SupervisorChalk, Daryl
Johnson, Laurie
Institution of OriginUniversity of Southern Queensland
Qualification NameDoctor of Philosophy
Number of Pages319

Catherine II of Russia entered the realm of legend already during her lifetime and now, over two hundred years after her death, she not only continues to be the subject of a steady stream of new historiographic work, but retains her presence in a wider public consciousness through fictional and dramatic representations. Her successes and the scope of her achievement could humble any leader, yet her fictionalised image seems to oscillate around murder, sexual scandal, numerous allegations of 'indecency' and even bestiality. My research investigates the various ways in which Catherine II has been represented in recent biographical histories and works of popular culture counterbalanced against the historical record of the eighteenth century in Catherine's memoirs and the memoirs of her contemporaries, their correspondence and other primary documentation of the period in view of creating a new dramatic representation of her. As can be seen in fictional constructions of Catherine – from Bernard Shaw’s Great Catherine (1913) through Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Princess (1934), Mae West’s Catherine was Great (1944) to Tony McNamara’s recent Australian play Great (2008) – they can reveal the way myth tends to override historic renderings of Catherine. This process can also be traced back to the very time of Catherine’s reign, when manuscripts and caricatures appeared in London and Paris that created fictitious narratives about her. Anxious over the way she might be perceived by posterity, Catherine tried to repudiate the slander and myth in writing and by other means; she denied being called Great – the title by which we now know her, but, in John T. Alexander’s words, “from her grave, her lifelong concern for her place in history cannot dodge constant questions, charges, and counter charges from individuals and groups.” In his book Catherine the Great: Life and Legend John T. Alexander dedicated a separate chapter to dozens of theatre, film, television and literary titles that emerged in
English language before the time of its publication in 1988. Utilising the advantage of my cultural and linguistic background, I will complement this study with the Russian language presentations that were released before and after the time of Alexander’s publication.

This analysis reveals a peculiar dichotomy of outlook which exists between the scholarly discourse about Catherine the Great, which is based on research and analysis, and her remarkably scandalised image in popular representations of her life. My PhD project has involved producing a new work for the stage about Catherine, along with a broader examination of the genre of the history play and the playwright’s responsibilities in dealing with historical evidence. From a historian’s point of view, theatre might appear a poor medium for conveying history. It carries too many subjectivities, it presents difficulties for differentiating evidence from fiction, and it is very selective in what it portrays. This is perhaps one of the reasons why representations of Catherine are mythologised so often. This project attempts to bridge the gap between the scholarly and the theatrical in search of a more detailed rendition of the historical subject. Utilising one of the oldest and most resilient terms used in relation to theatrical endeavour – energia, its employment by Freddy Rokem in his notion of historic energies in performance about history, and its central role in the art of acting, I will argue that historical playwriting can contribute to historical discourse from an unexpected point of view – the notion of experiencing history through a live performance. By using Rokem’s concept of the ‘Hyper-historian’ actor in the context of performing history on stage, and by widening its scope to encompass the role of the playwright within the circuitry of historic energy in the theatre, I will outline the possibility of restoring the historic energy of Catherine the Great on stage.

Thus the principal focus of this study is the creation of a new dramatic work based on the life of Catherine, which will participate in and interrogate these debates about Catherine's public and historic images. The text is divided into three parts.
The first one is dedicated to the mythos of Catherine, a brief overview of various anecdotes about her and their reflection in scholarly and popular representations of her. Part Two deals with the theoretical approach to historicisation on stage, my reading of historic energies recovered and performed and the placement of the playwright as a link in the chain of collective effort to bring the historic energies to stage. It details the approach to recovering and transmitting the historic energies by the playwright for the actor using the ‘organic’ approach to character building. Finally the third part deals with the building of the new play about Catherine the Great and her times using the historical energy approach to play writing in view of the mythology of Catherine.

KeywordsCatherine II of Russia; Catherine the Great
ANZSRC Field of Research 2020430308. European history (excl. British, classical Greek and Roman)
360403. Drama, theatre and performance studies
360201. Creative writing (incl. scriptwriting)
Byline AffiliationsSchool of Arts and Communication
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