Using Theatre to Find Family and Revolutions
A review of History, History, History by Elena Maria Piech
If everything went according to plan Deborah Pearson’s grandfather would have been a famous movie star. In a streak of bad luck, the Hungarian revolution happened instead. History History History is a multilayered performance that intertwines the stories of Hungary’s history, Pearson’s grandfather, and Pearson’s personal journey to self-discovery. Pearson explores these issues through playing a recording of the film her grandfather was set to star in. Through mixing real and satirical English subtitles with the Hungarian film and pausing to provide interludes for background information, Pearon’s performance is both personal and an explanation of a bigger picture. At some points, the piece did come somewhat across as a lengthy, academic lecture, the final form of the performance worked.
Pearson formulated the original idea for a story about her Hungarian grandfather and grandmother back in 2009, but this idea first came to her as a play. By 2010 she had written a play about the Hungarian revolution and her grandparent’s immigration to America. Her family members watched and enjoyed preview versions of the play complete with performers acting out specific characters. But to Pearson, something seemed to be missing. Pearson then had the idea of creating a separate piece which would explain the film her grandfather starred in. The comedy film tells the story of a pen salesman (played by Pearson’s grandfather) who gets mistaken for Ferenc Puská, a Hungarian football star. The pen salesman decides to live a life filled with riches and pretends to be Puská, but faces some trouble when he is forced to play a football match. Yet, the film is also part of a bigger political narrative. Pearson said she could not explain the film without explaining Hungary’s climate in the 1950s. Weaved into this hilarious tale of a pen salesman is the story of a dictator who wants to rule the football world, which mirrors the climate between Hungary and the powerful Soviets. Her grandfather’s film was set to air on October 23, 1956 the same day a revolution began in Hungary.
After completing the script for her original play, finding actors, and presenting previews to her family members, something did not feel right for Pearson. She wanted to explain her grandfather, the film, politics in Hungary, and her relation to those three issues. She then scrapped the play and began working on her individual performance piece. As Tom Stoppard thoughtfully put it, “Because theatre is a story-telling art form, we feel entitled to assume that the playwright got there before we got there.”
Dr. Pearson attributes her to success in part to advice given to her by English comedian Daniel Kitson. When it comes to appealing to audiences, Kitson told Pearson “If you want to be universal, you have to be specific.” Pearson understood that not every audience member will have a Hungarian movie star for a grandfather, but audiences can relate to the concepts of family and discovering oneself.
History History History works because it’s able to explain a myriad of complex issues in one comical, heartfelt, and moving performance. At some points, the 90-minute piece did feel slightly like an academic lecture and at other points the mix of fake and real subtitles felt confusing, but when everything finished the piece worked. Certain questions an audience member might have at the beginning are explained by the end. One can hear a loud giggle in the venue whenever a witty subtitle appears on screen. Audience eyes open wide when Pearson displays a photo of the crowd at the 1956 revolution. Heartfelt moments are had when Pearson describes her relationship to her grandmother. With such a wide array of topics to cover, audience members can expect to feel an eclectic swing of emotions. Pearson has a lot to talk about. In History History History, the title’s repetition of the word history seems to represent her grandfather’s story, Hungary’s story, and Pearson’s story.
View Deborah Pearson’s Trailer for History History History.