History is constructed by the gaze of the beholder. To say this is not to deny the existence of hard historical data – to deny for example that a given number of real people suffered and died in Nazi-run gas chambers in the early 1940s. But as soon as bits of data are put together to form a story, the historian is at work, and the history that emerges reflects the perspective of whoever has assembled the story. There is no single authentic history out there to be recorded, although there are important disciplines by which the historian must abide, if she or he is to function as an ethical human being in search of truth.
Today the economic and political dominance of the ‘West’ is discernibly waning, which prompts a rethink about how we look back at cultural history. Ancient Greek maps placed Greece, often Delphi within Greece, at the centre of the world, while maps in medieval Christendom placed Jerusalem at the centre. In 1569 the Flemish map-maker Mercator used mathematical principles to render the globe as a flat surface, and he placed Europe in the centre because his map served the needs of European explorers who sailed north or south, east or west in search of new and profitable lands. Mercator’s projection remains the basis of most modern maps of the world, and the same principle governs most works of theatre history. We describe the past from the perspective of where we stand. Though history is not necessarily organised around places, the drive to create a local and national history is particularly strong because of the interplay between history and community: to have a shared history is to have a shared identity. In this section we shall focus upon what happens when history is written from a different physical point of orientation, when one looks at the world from the perspective of communities that do not regard themselves as satellites of London or Paris or New York.
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