Chapter 7 – Performance

Chapter summary

An oral history interview is always a performance; a way of speaking separated from ordinary speech, a speech act performed for an audience in a particular context. This means that, in analysis, we need to think about the performance qualities of an interview. The chapter first introduces the means by which the performance element of the memory story might be interpreted, and second, it looks at how oral history may be transmitted through performance practice. It illustrates how an oral history narrative can be analysed for its performance elements: the tone of voice, the gestures, the expressions of emotion. It also indicates how some researchers have devised ways of recording paralinguistic features in transcriptions.

Discussion points

  1. What features distinguish an oral history interview from everyday conversation?
  2. What techniques are required to analyse a speech act?
  3. What are the benefits of recording the paralinguistic features of an interview?
  4. Consider the consequences of staging material gathered in oral history interviews.
  5. Is it possible to translate the performative aspects of a speech act into written words?


A: Oral History transmitted through performance practice

i) The Battle of Orgreave: artist Jeremy Deller restaged the so-called Battle of Orgreave – a confrontation between miners and police during the 1984 miners’’ strike – seventeen years after the event. The re-enactment was informed by oral histories undertaken with participants on both sides, and many of those who participated in the event were former miners and police.

Details of the re-enactment can be found here along with some of the oral history testimonies.

ii) Akenfield: Ronald Blythe’s classic study of East Anglian rural life was transferred to film in 1974. It was based on Blythe’s screenplay and directed by Peter Hall. Residents of the villages played characters in the film. In 2004 the BBC produced a documentary Akenfield Revisited which featured conversations with some of the original cast and crew.

B: Performance through storytelling

Shetlander Mary Manson was interviewed in 1982. During the course of several recordings she told this story – ‘‘the story o’ the bottle of medicine’’. This is a storytelling performance, delivered with confidence and control. The story itself contains a number of features and storytelling devices which distinguish this speech act from everyday speech. The story is reproduced below in full, transcribed in Shetland dialect. It is worth listening to the audio file to fully appreciate the performance.

Figure 7
Mary Manson (neé Ninian) age 19 (seated), with sister Betsy age 15, Westsandwick,
Yell, c.1916. (Image courtesy of Shetland Museum and Archives)

Robert Jamieson: Now what was that story aboot dee midder?

Mary Manson – Weel, I canna mind when it would have been, but onywye I should think the difference noo, although we are never thankful enough, two nurses and two Doctors here in Yell, and you just need tae feel a pain or anything, lift the phone and call the Doctor and he’s here afore you get the phone laid doon, at the door tae see what’s wrong wi’’ you, and then tae think aboot the old folk, what a life they had if anything was the matter with them, aha. But that was my midder when she was a young lass, she couldna have been very old she only had tae be in her teens maybe 14 or 15, but this cousin of theirs took ill and they had, they got this till her and the next till her and they had a thing, I mind. ..ran [rinnin] their hearts does do mind?

RJ – Cast a da heart.

MM – Yis, yis, casted the heart, and all this, I don’t know what it was but it was some sieve set on their head and boiling lead poured in till it, and if it set in if it formed, if it cam a form o’ a heart then they had tae wear this aroond their neck and drink the liquid at cam aff o’ dis for sae many days after that, weel, till the liquid was finished. So she never got ony better and she gied fae bad tae warse until eventually she was just lying in the bed. So they decided, my midder and this cousin o’ hers they heard aboot this wis n it a Catherine Winwick that stayed in Uyeasound somewye, weel anyway she stayed in Unst, and they decided that they would go out and try and locate this wife, because everybody said that she never gave them any sort of medicine but what didna cure them. So wan morning they got up and they took their way for Unst, they didna know where Unst was or nothing because they were likely never been beyond Mid Yell, but anyway, they said that it widna matter they would head for the Northered and they would always meet someone at would direct them the wye. So they travelled ower the hill, I dunna think there was ony roads then, travelled ower the hill and eventually came tae Cullivoe, so they were some folk, they were two men and a wife working out, I dunna ken what it would have been but it likely would have been some kinda Spring wark because it would’ve been when the nights were kinda light, and so they teld them what they were come aboot and windered if they would be able tae get them ower the sound, tae Unst, Oh, yis, yis, they would be nae question about getting them ower the sound, they would soon get them ower the sound, but first of all they would have tae come in and get something tae eat, so that was likely lik the North Yell folk still, dey nevir believed in onybody gyan aroon hungry, they aye liked tae be kind, but I dunna ken wha a the folk was, but Mammy had a their names when she was telling it. So they guid in and they got some kind o’ meat, tae or something in there, then they got doon tae the banks wi’ this two men and they rowed them ower Bluemull sound. And I think it was Snaravoe was the place that they came tae, because they had a faint recollection at that Snaravoe Williamsons was related tae them.

RJ – Weel, it widda been do sees da Williamsons fae ...

MM – And so they cam, I think they guid up tae the hoose wi’ them and teld them what this two lasses were come aboot, so one of this, idder the man or the wife o’ dis place cam wi’ them, they never left them, they said they might loss their way in Unst. And they cam wi’ dem and they never left them until they pointed oot this hoose whar this old wife was staying, so they got [ met her] ootside, she was working at something ootside for they teld her what they were come aboot, tell her what was wrang wi’ this lass at was so ill. Yea, yea, she says come you in she says, for I think at I’ll be able tae gie her something at’ll be able tae get her on her feet again, so they got in here tae this ald wifes hoose and the first that she did was tae come wi’ a basin of water tae them tae wash their feet in for I think their feet was that sore, travelling, my goodness, they were been travelling fae here the whole day and then they were been travelling the through Unst, and she got them something tae eat, and I’ll tell you what she got them tae eat was a bustin broonie, a piece of bustin broonie, I don’t know if it was tea or what it was but onywye it was a piece of bustin broonie, so they got eaten this. So she noo, I’ll have tae leave you and geng furt and I’ll maybe be a braw start awa, but onywye she says you’ll geng tae bed and lay you doon, I’ll pit you tae bed afore I go, and the bed at she had was a boxed bed, it was a boxed bed ootbye at the partition, and this door drew close, a wooden door at drew close in the bed, I mind Mammy saying it was a fine bed at she had, she had a tattered rug and a feather bed and of course, then a days it was likely supposed tae be a wonderful bed, onywye they got aff o dem and they got intae this bed and she drew the door across the front. So you can keen what they were likely tinkin’, locked in a dis black prison, didna know what was going to happen after that, so anyway, she left them in yunder and she guid out, and she was a braw while away, and at last they heard her comin in, but it had tae be kinda light, at had tae be the spring do sees at she could see, anywye, daylight coming up or something, but they heard her coming in and they heard her starting to get the fire up, it was a fire in the middle of the floor and they heard her gettin doon the peats and gettin this fire going, and a pouring a water and a rattling of pans and tins and all this, and then after a while they fan the smell o’ lik dis roots, lik a strong smell of roots boiling, so Mammy said they could lie no longer for they were never fallen asleep, she got up and she tried, there was a chink in the door, and she got up and she tried tae peep and see what was going on and she said that the old wife was sitting ower the heartstane wi’ all this pots and pans and a great pot hanging in the crook, boiling with this mixture. So eh, onyway she said she raise up, Mam would swear at she never made ony noise at all tae peep oot this chink and of course this old wife was sittin wi’ her back til her and she never kent til she let oot a shout, lie doon an faa asleep this minute, she says, I keen ower weel at you’re watching me, you’re going tae deystroy the medicine. So Mammy said that she got doon faster than she’d got up, and then of course after a while she cam an drew the doors ida, so she says you have a lang journey afore you she says, you’ll maybe have tae rise she says, and get you ready tae geng. So they got oot o’ dis bed Mammy said and they likely got something tae eat afore they go, they were likely anidder piece of burstin broonie, I don’t know. And they took their way for home, but they didna see no medicine aroond, so when they were just ready tae leave the house then she opened the front o’ her frock and she pulled oot this bottle o’ medicine and she says, noo, she says, I’m going tae warn dee, dis is Mammy, she says that do’s not tae allow that bottle tae touch the ground, she says do’s tae keep that bottle and she pat him inside Mammy’s breast, I dunna ken if she had a shawl tied aboot her or what it was, but anyway she pat the bottle inside of her breast, and she says, now that bottle is to remain in there till do comes tae the lass at’s ill. So Mammy says they [ ] time, they were faired tae set them doon on the hill and rest them, for she says if that bottle touches the ground you might as well never have come. But anyway they got doon yunder and yun folk rowed them across the sound tae Cullivoe and then they started aff. I just dunna ken a da oots and ins aboot what they had but anyway, they eventually reached her at Westsandwick wil dis bottle o’ medicine still carrying inside o’ Mammy’s breast. And she says when do gives this tae the lass do must pit it inside the breast o’ her frock or whatever she is wearing and she says she’s not even tae set that bottle on the table, she must keep it in there until it’s finished, but I don’t know if it was spoonfulls or if it was moothfulls at was to be taken, but the funny thing was at she wisna hardly tane two of this doses oot o’ dis bottle for she felt better and by the time that the bottle was finished, she was up and on her feet and going aroond carying on the same as ever, and she never lookit back, she never lookit back fae that day. No.

RJ – Dan she married and had a big family.

MM – She married and had 9 of a family, and lived to an old age, so that’s the story o’ da bottle ‘‘ medicine, but look noo a days.

For a detailed analysis of this storytelling performance see L. Abrams. ‘Story-telling, women’s authority and the “Old Wife’s Tale”: the story of the bottle of medicine’, History Workshop Journal, 73:1 (2012), pp.95–117

Further reading

  • R. Bauman (ed), Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments: a Communication-centred Handbook (Oxford, 1992)
  • R. Bauman, Verbal Art as Performance (Prospect Heights, Illinois, 1977)
  • K.M. Langellier and E.E. Peterson, Storytelling in Daily Life: Performing Narrative (Philadelphia, 2004)
  • Pollock (ed), Remembering: Oral History Performance (Basingstoke, 2005)