Monday, August 20, 2007

Hysterical Reinterponstration

I often say that I "spent time in the Eighteenth Century." That's not just a cleverer way of saying that when I wasn't sailing the ship model that was my house, I got paid to give tours dressed up like Fletcher Christian.
It's weirder than that.

Every so often, this whole place just gets all lit up by people dressed in scratchy"mywifemadetheses." Like at last weekend's Rev War Battle Re-en-act-ment at Fort Taber in New Bedford. These guys are generally referred to as enthusiasts. Wallbank's Etymologies explains that:
enthusiasm is derived from the Greek en, "in" + thuzias,
"wool that smells of perspiration and mothballs"
A certain serious New Bedford idealist suggested recently, in a Letter To The Editor, that "dedicated costumed interpreters" should be "activated" to wander through the Belgian block streets, portraying whaleshipmen. And whaleboat owners. And historical figures like Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville. And characters from Moby-Dick. And Thomas the Tank Engine and Harry Potter.
Right, and as soon as the stasis pods that hold those costumed interpreters are activated, I'm sure we'll be thrilled with their occupants' charming expertise. Surely every town must have a bunch of fully-trained actors and historians stashed away, all capable of volunteering to provide impromptu improvisation for the tourists. It's a wonder that we even bother with museums and casinos and such, what with all that free historical entertainment lying packed up somewhere.
I'm sorry that Mr. Bourassa (whose hardware store is excellent, btw) mentions Edie Nichols in his piece. For those who can't read ham-handed hometown jingoist drivel, let me explain that the late Ms. Nichols dressed in stingy black and wandered about the immediate neighborhood of her shop, portraying the Witch of Wall Street, Hetty Green. Hetty was a pretty loathsome character. Arguably the richest woman in America, she was unwilling to pay a hospital to help her son, caused his leg to be amputated and inflicted any number of personality flaws upon him. He lived not far from my mooring (at Round Hill, the one with the big martini) and had a number of collections, not all of them pornography.
As a person who has portrayed both historical and fictional characters on stage and in more informal circumstances, let me be clear: It can be done. Unfortunately, it can be done poorly, indifferently, ineptly, and mawkishly. It can embarrass you. It can embarrass the audience, and it can embarrass someone's great-grandfather. Someone who just paid 4 bucks to watch you do just that.
The conscientious historical interpreter brings a remarkable amount of knowledge to the deck. Or the kitchen. Or the battlefield. I mean it. Costumed interpreteers have to know certain things before they don the silly hat or uncomfortable bustle. You can't just stand there and make up shit. Although many do, and that's what seaside festivals are for. But on land, you're probably familiar with the high school kid whose summer job requires wearing knickers and explaining the thatched roof, usually missing a few elements, like where the straw comes from. I, however, am familiar with the guy who lives in the hut all year and cooks johnny cakes on a shovel. I was his best man. Because I had the kilt and wouldn't ride side-saddle in it. (Stop it. I heard you say Renn Faire.)
When I say "conscientious"(see above), many laypeople scoff and assume that I'm saying "OCD" when I refer to my colleagues who really do research which button remains unbuttoned on the waistcoat, or which corner of the calling card gets folded over when suggesting a tryst, and which flutter of the fan signifies "suggestion noted."
It's important to do that kind of homework, even if you're just the kid in the tricorn making the extra eight bucks an hour and blowing it all on that chick from EngLit who looks like Kristen Bell. If one's job is to historically interpret, it's just shoddy workmanship if you can't translate the past into the lexicon of the present. The past is dead enough, one shouldn't go about killing it any further by not knowing the answer to a question like, "Then if you didn't have cell phones, couldn't you just raise flags with letters on them to ask the Admiralty for more bullets?"
Of course it takes research to recreate a living breathing historic moment that an audience can accept as a true representation of a given place in time. It also takes imagination. Except in the case of those people who are actually showing off their great-grand-parents' homes. They can just stop and stare significantly off through the nearby open window. (It's in the training manual. That you got from your mom.) I met the great-or-something-grandson of Fletcher Christian, who still lives at the old family place, Pitcairn Island. A really nice guy. And he has to remember that 34,872 people have written 279,348 books, magazine articles, movies, radioplays, musicals, papers, treatises, and paper towel brands about his great-whatever-grandfather. But his wide smile and eager laugh goes where all that book-learning never could. Of course, I wasn't dressed as his bipolar mutineer ancestor at the time.
Every conscientious "history ranger" (or whatever) that I know has the imagination and stamina of a high-energy prop comic. Without actually being Carrot Top. I know people who know Carrot Top, and they show signs of acute stress disorder. Which you shouldn't have when you deal with kids who are looking around your carefully-maintained quarterdeck for Captain Jack Sparrow. Or allosaurs. Or General Lee. Because, well, history is history.
Unfortunately, the goofy history teacher who dresses up like Napoleon hasn't learned that teaching is about engendering interest -- honest, questioning, inquisitive, quizzical, investigative, critical, concerned, life-long interest. And not only should those of us in the private sector endeavor to teach those around us, but we should also endeavor to be taught. Those costumes are visual shorthand for, "Hey, let me tell you about..."
That is the point to historical re-enacting, interpreting, demonstrating. Yeah, playing dress-up is damned serious business.

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