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  • Introduction:What Is Reenactment?
  • Vanessa Agnew

As anyone who has swabbed decks and gone aloft knows, reenactment is fun. It indulges the twin passions of work and play, which are generally divorced from each other. It licenses dressing up, pretending and improvising, casting oneself as the protagonist of one's own research, and getting others to play along. Of course, it also calls for discomfort and enforced self-growth. But, like the cold nose atop the counterpane, which Melville says measures the warmth of the bed, the pain only sharpens the pleasure.1 Iain McCalman's piece in this issue, "The Little Ship of Horrors," shows that suffering also makes for a better story. Perhaps because of this winning combination of imaginative play, self-improvement, intellectual enrichment, and sociality, reenactment is booming. History enthusiasts gather weekly to enact past events, television history programs are aired to good ratings, living museums hire costumed performers, civic governments sponsor local performances on historical themes, tourists "follow in the steps" of earlier travelers, and academics venture into public history. Reenactment thus spans diverse history-themed genres—from theatrical and "living history" performances to museum exhibits, television, film, travelogues, and historiography. While there are important differences between these genres and their respective practitioners, they are linked by common methodologies, modes of representation, and choice of subject matter. They are also linked by their combined use of different medial forms and the breakdown of traditionally distinct categories such as academic historian and television personality, weekend reenactor and historical adviser.2 In its appropriation of the past, this populist phenomenon favors high-concept themes—Vikings, medieval knights, pyramid builders, pirates and mutineers, cowboys and Indians, explorers, slaves, pilgrims, and soldiers. Reenactment now includes less gaudy subjects, such as the 1984 South Yorkshire miners' strike, yet the phenomenon remains overwhelmingly committed to themes that are the perennial favorites of grade-school history. The thrall of reenactment cannot be attributed merely to an interest in colorful, familiar history. Rather, its excursions are justified on political grounds; it is argued that "history from below" provides an important public service and gives voice to [End Page 327] hitherto marginalized positions as well as economic ones—gore, adventure, and personal transformation sell.

Passion plays and pageants remind us that in the broadest sense of the term, reenactment is not new. The recent spate of "reality"-type reenactment programs like 1900 House, Regency House, and The Ship has precedents in "docudramas" such as the PBS production An American Family (1973) and MTV's Real World, launched during the early 1990s.3 Alexander Cook and Katie King, contributing to this volume, point out that such programs also share structural affinities with observational film and hence often have an experimental character. While reenactment seems endemic in the United States as well as Britain and other Commonwealth countries—a cultural phenomenon whose link to the individualist, Protestant traditions of these countries bears closer scrutiny—it is not the exclusive preserve of the Anglophone world. Reenactments of the German colonial past in Namibia and the Afrikaner legacy in South Africa, fictional American Indians in Germany, and medieval crusaders in Australia point to the fact that reenactment is a global phenomenon not necessarily confined to autochthonous historical events nor even to factual ones.4 Reenactment often verges close to fantasy role-playing in its elastic appropriation of both the real and imagined past.5 Indeed, there is a general discrepancy between the mandate of reenactment—bringing the people to history—and those same people's dislocation from the reenacted past. As historian Stephen Gapps fruitfully asks, "Why would Australians [or anyone else] want to reenact overseas history so remote from their own experience?"6 This anomaly suggests that reenactment performs political and cultural work that is quite distinct from more conventional forms of historiography. Even while reenactment claims to give voice to marginalized positions, those subject positions do not necessarily correlate to reenactment's constituency in the present; postcolonials might, for example, reenact the colonial past (as colonial masters or subjects) but might just as readily choose an entirely unrelated theme such as World War II or the Dark Ages. The substitutive character of reenactment themes suggests that...


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