02/06/2011 06:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Discord and Discourse in Historical Plays

Plays often ask the audience to imagine a set of circumstances, characters, setting, and complicated or interesting relationships. Good plays will do more than paint a picture, they'll get viewers to think about the way the story and interactions unfold. Two productions I saw recently, Freud's Last Session and The Whipping Man, depict conversations and situations that require and compel the audience to envision and reconsider historical events in another, more engaging light.

Freud brings together two figures, Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, to discuss such heavy topics as life, religion, and humanity. Over the course of the one act-play, the two learn valuable lessons from each other, and wind up finding common interests and perspective despite the differences that exist between them. Although it's unclear whether any such types of close conversations took place between the two in their lifetimes, the production positions the two scholars together in a Freud's quaint quarters in his later years.

Whipping likewise relies on a small cast -- just three actors highlighted by Andre Braugher -- to tell the story of the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. It's set in a Virginia mansion shortly after slaves have been emancipated. Only, in this story, Braugher's character and his fellow slave opt to (at least temporarily) remain at home in hopes to receiving deserved compensation for their work. As they await the return of their master, the master's son, a Confederate soldier, returns to the burned home inside his mostly abandoned Richmond community. The play masterfully grapples with issues of family and freedom during an era of uncertainty and fear before reformation more fully set in.

While other history-based plays have dealt with these kinds of issues, these two productions hone in on them by shrinking the cast down to its core and keeping the dialogue flowing. The drama that develops inside these stories emerges from revelations of deep-seeded beliefs or of long-kept secrets that challenge and even provoke other characters to react strongly. As they spend enough time alone with each other, in one-room sets, they let everything hang out. Whipped, which has a short intermission that build to the final, dramatic conclusion, could have easily been, like Freud, a one-act play. The mounting tension and guilt gives way to expressions of resentment and hostility in the final Passover Seder scene.

These plays provide answers to questions you might not have asked: What would happen if these two famous men had met? What did individuals do when they were suddenly told the men who were once their possessions were now to be seen as their equals? And, more globally, what would the free exchange of ideas have looked like during tough, emotional, and turbulent times? Whipped concerns basic freedoms -- including the freedom of expression -- that needed to be addressed and resolved for America to have true equality. In Freud, set during a kinder time, we witness discourse that reflects not only the worries of that era, but leaves open-ended questions that are pertinent today. These historical figures got the discussion going.