What is a Performance History?
A performance history (also called production history or stage history) is an account of significant productions of a theatrical work (play, opera, dance, etc.).
There are two levels of research on performance history:
- Dates, places, interpreters: When, where, and by whom has the play been performed?
- What was each production like? What made it significant or unique in terms of style, approach, or reception?
Why study a play’s performance history?
- A play can serve as a case study of changing cultural norms and theatrical styles over time.
- Seeing how different interpreters have approached a play can deepen our understanding of it.
How do you find performance histories? Unless someone has compiled one, there’s no single, simple place to find them. You have to piece the history together from several kinds of sources, both primary and secondary.
Performance History: Secondary Sources
To find out when and where a particular play has been performed, consult secondary sources such as these. Books can be found using HOLLIS; journal articles through the e-resources listed.
- Biographies of the playwright
- Critical editions of the play
- Websites on the playwright or the play
- The John Johnson Collection: An Archive of Printed Ephemera (includes historical playbills)
- For Broadway productions, search the Internet Broadway Database and the Playbill Vault. Playbills and posters from Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional productions are collected in Alexander Street Theatre.
- For music and dance topics, consult:
- Journal articles via e-resources such as:
- Performing Arts Periodicals Database
- International Bibliography of Theatre and Dance (IBTD)
- JSTOR Performing Arts
- Project Muse
- Theatre in Context
- Oxford Reference Online: Performing Arts
- The New York Times and other newspapers (search by title in HOLLIS, in Chronicling America, or in Google News)
- Google Scholar
- MLA International Bibliography
- Stage histories of particular plays or playwrights. Example: The Chekhov theatre: a century of the plays in performance, by Laurence Senelick. To find others, see suggested library subject headings below.
Performance History: Subject Headings
Library of Congress subject headings can be useful for finding production histories in HOLLIS. Use the Advanced Search; choose "Subject;" and type keywords such as Chekhov stage history. Other terms that will work with the playwright's name, or the name of the play, are Appreciation; Influence; or Dramatic production.
Performance History: Primary Sources
Performances and productions can be documented with various types of primary sources:
- Newspaper and Magazine Articles
- Theatre Reviews (see e-resources listed above)
- Prints & Photographs
- Scene and costume design / artwork
You can often find specific primary sources (articles, reviews, etc.) cited in secondary sources about the theatrical work or its creator. Some of these primary sources are individually cataloged in HOLLIS and HOLLIS for Archival Discovery. The Harvard Theatre Collection owns all these types of materials; for information about how to find them, see this guide.
Case Study: Waiting for Godot
- The coming of Godot: a short history of a masterpiece, by Jonathan Croall. London : Oberon, 2005. (Widener / Harvard Depository PQ2603.E378)
- Beckett: waiting for Godot, by David Bradby. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2001. Covers fifty years of productions. (Lamont and Widener PQ2603.E378 E62 2001)
- Program for the original 1953 production at the Théâtre de Babylone, autographed by Samuel Beckett (in Miscellaneous theatrical papers, 1673-1976)
- Photographs by Alix Jeffry of a 1971 production at the Sheridan Square Playhouse, New York City (in Alix Jeffry photographs, 1952-1974)
- Typescript fragment of the play, autographed by Beckett (in Samuel Beckett papers, 1960-1975.
- Set design by Brian Jackson for the 1968 Stratford, Ontario festival (in Miscellaneous theatrical set designs, 1661-1975)