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People Without History
You can't really deduce the setting or meaning from just watching the play, so reading about it beforehand achieves a new level of importance. It's ostensibly set during the 15th century Battle of Shrewsbury, but it has a much more anonymous and timeless feel. The Battle of Shrewsbury is the linchpin of Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I, which Maxwell directed at BAM five years ago. Soldiers Owain, Mendace and Rhobert march their prisoners Blunt and Sheriff to a makeshift prison after a devastating battle. They try to piece together their memories of the battle, but they've either forgotten or suppressed most everything. Enter Alice, a healer, who cannot heal what ails these men.
Coming to the play cold, all you know is that these men dressed in chain mail and red long johns have just been through a battle of some sort, that some of them are prisoners, and that their speech and syntax resembles that of PTSD sufferers. The language is not 15th century English, French or Welsh but a stunted version of modern American English (typical for Maxwell's plays). There are no references to landmarks, historical personages, the time frame, or anything else that might ground this play in the concrete. In a sense, it's a strangely accurate way of portraying what 15th century Englishman must have felt like after a battle——unmoored, lost, lacking basic information like whether they even won or lost, and too tired to care.
Lara Furniss's design, consisting of three wheeled scrims that serve alternately as backdrops and prison walls, highlights the physical and spiritual barrenness at the center of this play. The small cast exhibits an oddly moving empathy for their characters. Their collective humanity is what keeps this from being a play about automatons.
Richard Maxwell (Caveman, Boxing 2000) is known for his brief, atonal plays, usually about the dead, numbed center of everyday life, about a Beckettian existential despair. In fact, in People Without History, the soldiers' endless querying and emotional detachment is very Waiting for Godot and the play overall fits neatly into the Maxwell oeuvre — albeit in a historical context. Typical of Maxwell too is the occasional music, in this case period ballads. As seasoned Maxwell watchers can tell you, it's best not to get too caught up in the actions or the meaning of the play, to avoid leaving feeling slightly confused and empty. Instead, enjoy the subtle arrhythmic poetry of Maxwell's dialogue which is the centerpiece of all his plays.
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