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Enacting History ed. by Scott Magelssen, Rhona Justice–Malloy (review)

From: Alabama Review
Volume 66, Number 1, January 2013
pp. 69-71 | 10.1353/ala.2013.0007

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Enacting History examines an increasingly popular, yet established, genre of historical performances practiced outside of a traditional theatre setting. This volume tackles how living history museums, battle reenactments, pageants, renaissance festivals and adventure–tourism destinations scattered across the country address the many facets of historical interpretation. A very wide net was cast, from popular sites such as Conner Prairie Farm in Indiana to a bicentennial play on the Lewis and Clark story. All of the sites mentioned have a unique story that shows how they are using living history or theatre programs to communicate the past to varied audiences.

The book has ten essays written by experts in different aspects of historical performances. Each contributor mentions one particular facet of the profession with the overall goal of teasing “out the contours of contemporary performance practices that bear witness to a moment or set of moments of the past” (p. 3). In these writings contributors like Lindsey Adamson Livingston writes about how certain geographical sites associated with Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–day Saints have been charged with meaning integral to Mormon identity. Catherine Hughes reports on the how real and/or authentic historical theatre programs are depends on the how audience views the production. Finally, Rhona Justice–Malloy’s essay documents a production in her own community on oral histories of diverse individuals living in Oxford, Mississippi.

One word could be used to describe the book’s theme: authenticity. It is a concern in every essay in the collection. This appears in the very first essay, “Present Enacting the Past” by Leigh Clemons. In her section, Clemons tackles the reality of battle reenactments, specifically the Battle of Coleto Creek and Goliad Massacre in Texas. Battles are among the most popular events for individuals to attend at historic sites. These events provide an excellent opportunity to educate the public about any event from a personal perspective. She examines how reenactors and living historians portray themselves. In this discussion she quotes the father of interpretation, Freeman Tilden, in how he discusses individuals doing this type of work are “amateur” or typically not professional historians (p. 12). She contends many of these people are not amateur, but instead very knowledgeable and even include professional living historians hired at venues such as Colonial Williamsburg.

One of the most shocking, yet intriguing, essays was Scott Magelssen’s “Tourist Performance In the Twenty–First Century,” about a simulated crossing by illegal immigrants on the U.S–Mexican border. Just the inclusion of the article invokes responses from everyone in society, not only historians. In an article written for the Los Angeles Times on his experience that night, Mr. Magelssen received some criticism complaining that the program was a training ground for illegal immigrants coming into the country. However, after reading about the experience myself with all of the embellishment to enhance the dangers associated with a border crossing there is no way it can represent a real event (p. 184). Fake border agents fire blanks towards the groups, sirens and loudspeakers are used to try and coral participants in a fashion not the best to catch illegal immigrants. With these dangers embellished it was argued by the author that taking the tour helps to dissuade individuals from attempting the trek between the two nations. The embellishment though did not matter to people criticizing the history tour and Magelssen’s work on the issue of illegal immigration provokes a very strong response, either positive or negative, from the reading audience (p. 190).

As a closing thought, Enacting History relates directly to Freeman Tilden’s thoughts on interpretation even though the volume refers to these examples as historical performances. His fourth principle of interpretation is: The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation. Each essay accomplishes this feat by provoking a discussion on how to authentically represent the past. Whether it is in plays, battle reenactments or reality cooking shows all of these historical events authentically represent a portion of the past. In both the case studies mentioned earlier, the programs elicited a response from a wide range of people, from living historians to participants running from the “border patrol.” Reading this book may provoke...

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