Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Creating An Identity Out Of Culture

On my commute to work I am listening to A Feast Of Words a biography of Edith Wharton written by Cynthia Griffin Wolff in the 1970s. I am enjoying it for the most part, much more than I do reading actual Edith Wharton fiction, and it is long enough that it fills up quite a bit of my commute. There is a bit too much psychoanalysis in it for my taste, the biography feels very 70s in that way, but I am learning a lot about Edith Wharton, and a little about myself too. The author spends a lot of time talking about Edith Wharton’s fiction as a protest against the stuffy late Victorian society that Edith Wharton grew up in, and frames her life as a rebellion against the repressions of her mother and the society that created her mother (see what I mean about rampant psychoanalysis?)

But this morning on my way in to work Griffin talked about Wharton’s time in France during World War I, when she witnessed first-hand the German destruction of the French countryside. She was struck by the detritus of every-day life that was left behind after the Germans had blasted away whole portions of towns, she was moved by the lives that the blasting had revealed. According to Griffin,

“[Germany] had aimed to destroy those things that support life—the countless, habitual, humdrum associations and pursuits that give meaning to existence. Plodding grimly through the mud, her quick novelistic eye missing no detail, Wharton began to formulate a new notion of tradition: it is the matrix within which individual personality is defined—a delicate framework of familiarities and understandings by which man’s sense of self is confirmed and reconfirmed in his main daily encounters. Civilization is not something external to each of us, nor is its primary function one of suppressing freedom and growth. Rather, the civilization of any given time and place becomes an integral element in the personality of all its members: it sustains them, informs their existence with meaning, and changes—even as their lives change—with a slow, measured continuity.”

- Cynthia Griffin Wolff, A Feast of Words, The Triumph of Edith Wharton

I heard the above and thought, this is so true! This is what I have been trying to get across in every historical reenactment I’ve done for a public audience. This is why I think there is a place for first person interpretation as a form of education. While I may play only one person out of an entire civilization, I believe it is possible to shed some light on that civilization in this manner. Personalities, and living history character personalities especially, are not created in a vacuum.

I think this is especially important for new reenactors to understand. It is incredibly daunting when your new persona is a blank slate, when the possibilities are almost limitless, but at the same time the facts about a given historical person are so few. I think, to many people the initial steps in character development can be the hardest to overcome when getting into reenacting.

When I start in on a new character for a new period, or maybe just a different show or event, I often go in trying to think about the larger culture that I am portraying. What has attracted me to this particular culture? What seems totally outside of my experience? What about the culture at large is important for me to get across to my audience? Often the characteristics of a person can come out of the answers to those questions. This has been especially true in the two personas that I created in the past year.

Hanne is the wife of a military leader from the Holy Roman Empire in the year 1529. That much I knew when I set out to create a character. Now I’m not crazy about the military stuff, but really wanted the chance to do cooking demonstrations and participate in a new historic encampment. So I took a look at the cooking I wanted to do and decided that Hanne should be pragmatic; though the captain’s wife, she knows how to cook, wash dishes, and doesn’t mind teaching others. One of the amazing things to me about the Landsknecht (Holy Roman Empire Military troups) or any military unit is their pride. Pride seems to be a big part of being involved in military matters, so I translated that into Hanne as a pride of family, and protectiveness of the unit of which her husband is the leader. This also allowed me to play a noble woman who is proud of the work she is doing, so she does not mind getting her hands dirty. I got to show off the fact that Hanne is lower nobility, she expects to wait on those higher up than herself, and that not all noble ladies are prissy princesses. I was too busy cooking and keeping house during most of the encampment weekends to delve much more deeply into who Hanne is, but I felt perfectly comfortable talking to audience members, and knowing that I could answer all questions as Hanne saw the world, and in a way that might get at some larger cultural traits.

Sarah is very different. We were asked to present some topics at a “Pioneer Day” school show. Stephen has a solid Wild Bill Hickock presentation, and we had a good foundation on a “Talk Like a Cowboy” presentation by our Friend Tom. Amanda was willing to tackle a campfire cooking demonstration (though that one did not fly at the last minute, hopefully next year we’ll overcome a school system’s fears about fire.) I had tons of nineteenth century research under my belt, and even a couple of characters, but the Irish Maid in the governor’s mansion did not feel right for this setting, and I did not want to do some poor downtrodden farmer’s wife. One of the topics that I found intriguing from my studies about Nineteenth Century America was the spirit of innovation; this plays out in the industrial revolution as well as the western expansion movement. Innovation did not stop there: politics, religion and family life were receiving widespread attention and undergoing a lot of upheaval in the Nineteenth Century. This applied to both the eastern United States, where most of my research had been done, and further west, especially since the railroad meant that people and ideas could travel, and printing innovations meant that opinions and ideals were traveling faster than they ever had before. Sarah turned out to be an itinerant lecturer, spreading the benefits of new educational philosophies to one and all. She is upbeat and positive that social change can be enacted. She takes for granted the availability of newspapers and magazines (I make sure to mention them often) and finds the hardships of travel to be an adventure. She is still awkward when out of her comfort zone, she is an urban dweller who is uncomfortable facing the realities of a farm life. She believes that the ideas and opinions she is presenting are cutting edge, and must therefore be the right ideas. There is not a lot of room for real life in her rigid ideals. This is also the way I think of nineteenth century reform movements, whether it was the abolition movement or the temperance movement. I only had 20 minutes to talk to these kids and get across a fuller picture of people living the pioneer life and how they saw their place in the world. I used the facts I had on hand mixed in with physical mannerisms, modes of speech, opinions, and cultural assumptions to create a living breathing person.

If you’re new to reenacting, and scared to take the plunge, the best advice I can give you is keep researching, keep reading. Find out as much as you can about a time-period, about a place and time. Keep hold on the facts that fascinate, some day they will suggest a personality to you that will let you live within the culture because, “the civilization of any given time and place becomes an integral element in the personality of all its members.”

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