In the 8th grade, my class was visited by a costumed performer portraying a Nineteenth Century Irish peasant. To this day I can vividly remember my reaction.
The 8th grade where I attended middle school had a great program, where all the students got to be Irish immigrants during the potato famine and we all kept diaries from the perspective of a real person who came to Boston during the mid-1800s. it was a fantastic learning opportunity, lasting for an entire quarter of the school year, and I’m sure I’ll be writing more here, since it was one of my first reenactment and living history experiences. but for the purposes of this post, it is enough to say that by the time it was over I knew a heck of a lot about the Irish potato famine for a 15 year old student from New Hampshire.
Later in the same year, once the program was over, but not over so long ago that the teachers did not think it was still beneficial, we had a special guest at our school. A woman came to our classroom to do a one-woman show called The Bog Man’s Daughter. I remember the teacher introduction barely, but it went something along the lines of: this woman is coming from the Museum of Science in Boston, she is a professional at the sort of stuff we’ve only been playing with. She is going to do a play about bogs and turf, which we’d learned about earlier in the semester, and about the ancient bodies that had been found preserved in the bog. In fact, the title, the bog man’s daughter game me the strong impression that this would be a woman portraying an ancient Irish culture hundreds, perhaps thousands of years before the stuff we’d studied.
When she stepped in to the area at the front of the room that had been cleared she pulled a piece of paper out of her basket, read to herself for a little then peered at is the audience and recited a line:
“I’m nobody, who are you?”
And I was instantly turned off. I was disgusted and disappointed. I felt justified as she continued:
“Are you nobody too?
Then there’s a pair of us
Don’t tell they’ll banish us you know.”
Now I don’t believe that many or possibly anyone else in my 8th grade class had the same reaction, because as far as I knew none of them had read poems by Emily Dickinson, and that poem in particular, before. I loved the poem and was upset that someone else was using it, but I was more upset that it was a nineteenth century American poem, and this woman was supposed to be from Ancient Ireland! Truly I do not remember much else from the show, other than I spent a lot of it thinking that I could have done a better job, had a better accent, been more consistent and certainly would not have started with an American poem, even if the word “bog” did appear at the end of the second stanza.
I have thought about my experience quite a bit, especially before I visit a classroom where I am in costume, in character, giving a lesson in a history I know and love. I know that we will not reach all students, but I certainly hope that we will reach most, and especially the ones that love history as much as I did/do.
This year as part of my readings for graduate work in Museum Studies I have read a lot of articles and books on museum theater (or theatre if you prefer) and two of them have mentioned the Museum of Science’s theater program, in fact, both of those have talked quite a bit about The Bog Man’s Daughter. The first article I read was in Case Studies in Museum, Zoo and Aquarium Theater. The article was written by the playwright, of the Bog Man’s Daughter and talked about finding a hook to make bogs interesting to a modern American Audience. The second was a book: Museum Theatre by the first woman who acted the part of the bog man’s daughter and for all I know may have actually been the person who visited my school. They both talk quite eloquently about bringing a vague topic (bogs) to life, from one of their most famous perspectives (the Nineteenth Century Irish maid.) They both mention the ingenious use of the Emily Dickinson poem, and neither of them find anything wrong with it, since the poem is read in a letter, supposedly from the character’s brother in America.
Did 8th grade me misunderstand their intent? yes, partly. The writer and performer had never meant it to be about Ancient Ireland but had always set it in the nineteenth century, and were fairly consistent about that. Did they misrepresent the culture even so? Yes, partly. The use of a well known American poem might have been initially put in because it is recognizable to many (and a fantastic poem.) But it put me off right out of the gate because Emily Dickinson is so tied to New England and America, so I had a hard time believing all the Irish stuff that came after that point, even if the performer had gone on to explain the poem’s place in her story. I didn’t buy it, so the performer had an uphill battle with me, and never quite won me back over.
We performers know we can not reach everyone, and for most of us knowing that we’ve reached even a few can make the performance worthwhile. But recreating history, when our audience has such a mixed amount of knowledge and tie to history, can be treacherous, in ways we may not first suspect.
Photo of Alena Shumway as Bess Brown, Photo by Jess Boynton.