PDA

View Full Version : An Australian view of Re-enacting and Living History



Robert A Mosher
08-21-2007, 11:53 AM
I just read this announcement of a planned conference in Australia reflecting an academic attempt to come to grips with historical re-enactments or living histories. The reference to the Endeavour voyage is I believe talking about the sailing ship voyage attempted on the anniversary of James Cook's visit to Australia which was the subject of a television series shown in the US on cable. I watched the series and thought it was interesting television but it fell short as a living history experience (a fact for which the participants I imagine were very greatful). On the other hand, I thought the Australian "Outback House" programs were greatly superior to the "Texas Ranch House" series - though I roared at the ignorance of the Commanches shown by "settlers" on the "Texas frontier" - and loved it when the ranch hands all quit and the program's experts told the ranch owner he would have a very hard time hiring any new hands.

Robert A. Mosher

Title: The Annual History Lecture 2007: Historical Re-enactments.
Should we take them seriously?
Date: 2007-09-14
Description: Professor Iain McCalman in conjunction with the
History Council of NSW will present Historical Re-enactments.
Should we take them seriously? Iain McCalmans encounter with
re-enactment began in a television series purporting to retrace
the Endeavour voyage of Captain James Cook along the Barrier
Reef ...
Contact: office@historycouncilnsw.org.au
URL: www.historycouncilnsw.org.au/whats_on_annual.html
Announcement ID: 157744
http://www.h-net.org/announce/show.cgi?ID=157744

redleggeddevil
08-21-2007, 01:32 PM
I don't know about the "Texas Ranch House" tv program, but I do know that the similar shows I have seen have been uniformly dreadful. Participants seem to be deliberately chosen for their historical ignorance, personal unsuitability, lack of practical skills and rotten attitudes. If they really wanted to learn something about the past-- rather than cooking up phony drama for the benefit of the camera-- they might try recruiting people with at least the willingness to try. Instead they take "Survivor" wannabes, put them in funny costumes and expect them to interact with totally alien material culture. Hilarity ensues.

I don't consider these programs to be any more "living history" than a Star Trek convention is part of the space program.

hoosiersojer
08-21-2007, 03:16 PM
Amen,Brother.....

Robert A Mosher
08-21-2007, 03:21 PM
I don't know about the "Texas Ranch House" tv program, but I do know that the similar shows I have seen have been uniformly dreadful. Participants seem to be deliberately chosen for their historical ignorance, personal unsuitability, lack of practical skills and rotten attitudes. ...........
I don't consider these programs to be any more "living history" than a Star Trek convention is part of the space program.

While I'm not advocating a proliferation of such programs, I would have to disagree with the description of them as "uniformly dreadful." I've found that in most cases, each is dreadful in its own unique way, but I've learned something from each of them, including "Texas Ranch House" and they appear useful in getting some people interested in learning more about the history of the period represented.

Robert A. Mosher

redleggeddevil
08-21-2007, 05:19 PM
There was one of these programs I can wholeheartedly endorse, although the name escapes me. It was done by the BBC in the 1970's, and the premise was that a group of modern Englishmen and women were placed in an Iron Age reconstruction at Butser Farm.

What set the participants apart from all the American programs I have seen is this-- they were chosen for a positive attitude, then given intensive training in the necessary areas of material culture to make the scenario work. They knew what was expected of them and were given the basic tools to do it successfully.

What was extraordinary about the program is that, when the program ended, the participants all expressed dismay that they had to return to the "modern era". Even with all the hardships of Iron Age life, those who took part found the rhythms to be preferable to their regular lives. THAT is living history. It completely confounded expectations, and it made for fascinating viewing.

One recent American production for PBS (I am terrible with names, but it was set in a 17th century settlement in New England) showed me the opposite. The characters struck me as caricatures, especially one mouthy, arrogant woman who decided that she would "make her mark" by going against everything the village elders decided.

They had a name for women like that in 17th century New England, and it wasn't a nice one. In fact, she should have been imprisoned, banished or forced to do the (simulated) hempen jig. That too would be living history.

sbl
08-21-2007, 06:38 PM
I like the British ones...1900 House, Regency House, and 1940 House. The folks cheated once in a while but seemed to be supported in staying period by the TV people and the hired characters that interacted with them. The men seemed to enjoy their period status more than the women.

The American shows had much more internal conflict. One couple in Frontier House divorced afterward. The Colonial House folks needed more people like the Southern minister and the Hard-a$$ that showed up to make the colony work. I was surprised that the women in Ranch House fell apart after the men left.

Tarheel57
08-21-2007, 07:51 PM
...What was extraordinary about the program is that, when the program ended, the participants all expressed dismay that they had to return to the "modern era". Even with all the hardships of Iron Age life, those who took part found the rhythms to be preferable to their regular lives. THAT is living history. It completely confounded expectations, and it made for fascinating history...

This is far from the same scenario of course, but it just reminded me of Colonial captives taken by the Native Americans who refused to return to "civilization".

Rob Weaver
08-22-2007, 06:13 AM
1900 House was the best of the lot, although I liked the way they simulated the privations of war on the home front in 1940 House.
The Us productions were infuriating. The participants on Frontier House could not have been more poorly chosen or prepared for their experience, and the couse of the show took those people and turned them into perfectly good Farbs. I fumed from beginning to end about their misuse of material culture and their utter failure to grasp 19th century culture.
Then there was Colonial House. The props were better. The people were better prepared and educated for their roles, but wouldn't play them. One of my wife's ancestors was thrown out of Plymouth for being a Baptist. At this end of history, how cool is that? He worshipped with Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, and paid the price the same way they did. I am Baptist clergy, and I take our spiritual heritage seriously. The members of the group who thought that they could take modern nonconformity lightly seemed to have no idea of how dearly that right was bought. They should have been sent home immediately as the simulated equivalent of being banished into the howling wilderness. Both shows were extremely disappointing from a historical standpoint.

redleggeddevil
08-22-2007, 07:04 AM
Rob, you have hit on the problem perfectly. These programs take good research, good planning and (usually) excellent material culture and turn it into...nothing. By choosing participants seemingly for their hopelessly modern outlook, failing to adequately train them and then totally failing to enforce "period" reality, the producers guarantee the result I think they wanted all along.

The Colonial village was a perfect example. 17th Century New England was a terribly unforgiving setting, and there was little room for "colorful" characters. People who would not contribute to the common good were considered witches, loafers or worse. The rest of the community had neither time nor inclination to support such people, and they would have been shunned, expelled, imprisoned or left to shift for themselves.

Instead, in these modern productions, the "colorful" character gets extra camera time. All this does is reenforce our present day prejudices--The past was yucky; The past was dumb; I wouldn't have gone along with all those dumb old rules.

Perhaps that is true, but they had a word for people like that in 17th century New England--"deceased".

sbl
08-22-2007, 08:20 AM
Andrew,

I talked to a 1st person intepreter at Plimouth Plantation who credited the discipline at Plimouth for it's success over the lack of discipline at Jamestown. (He was speaking in 1626 not knowing of Jamestown's ultimate success.) The gay man at Colonial House coming out was a pain, but there was a record of "two wicked sodomous boys" from early records of New England settlers.

redleggeddevil
08-22-2007, 08:55 AM
I think discipline is the key, combined with a strictly enforced communal structure. We like to think of individualism as a foundational American characteristic, but I think you can see where individualism gets you in an almost completely unfriendly setting. At Jamestown, it led to starvation, cannibalism and the spectre of total destruction.

Plymouth, a much more communal society (even if divided by religious differences) survived. "He who does not work, neither shall he eat" was the credo of the Pilgrims, and there isn't too much room for individuality in that sort of subsistence economy. Those who insisted on somehow marginalizing themselves from the community were shipped home (Morton of Merry Mount), expelled (Anne Hutchinson) or executed (the unfortunate young man who was found to have a romantic fondness for barnyard critters).

This tendency is best exemplified in the treatment of witchcraft in 17th century America. Most Europeans burned their witches for the crime of blasphemy. Americans hanged our witches because witchcraft undermines the social order. It was a crime against the state, not against God.

I would LOVE to see that factored into a "reality" show!

Rob Weaver
08-22-2007, 05:11 PM
They also understood that only together could they complete the goals the company had set for them. For me, the show fell down at that point at which period nonconformity was not answered with a period response.

sbl
08-22-2007, 05:42 PM
Rob,

One of the men in Frontier House complained that the participants weren't allowed to have any firearms for hunting or protection. I don't remember seeing any weapons with the Colonial House people to enforce conformity. Would these people have gone that far anyway? Funny that in the UK series Regency House some reenactors came over to teach the gentlemen how to live fire the Brown Bess. I think I remember the ladies learning archery or firing pistols.

redleggeddevil
08-23-2007, 04:43 AM
Isn't it ironic that gun-o-phobic Britain is able to do it right, yet America is afraid to upset viewers with the mere sight of weapons? Especially in 17th Century New England, where visitors noted that locals assembled for church "to the beat of the drum, and each man armed."

What these shows really need is a dose of my mother. She is, alas, deceased, but she grew up on a dirt-poor farm in Dust Bowl Oklahoma. She shot and ate any form of protein that moved, lived on a diet of gin, black coffee and Lucky Strikes and she could have whipped these pussies into shape better than a legion of Marine drill instructors.

That is the dose of reality that "reality" shows lack.

Rob Weaver
08-23-2007, 05:59 AM
The area of firearms was particularly poorly handled in Frontier House. They taught the men how to shoot a 12 ga. pump at one point, but then never capitalized on that experience. A pump gun! Come on - when good reproductions, and thousands of shootable original guns still exist, they pulled out something completely modern. (I know, pumps existed in the 1880s for the shows timeframe, but they didn't teach them to fire an old hammered pump. Loved those - used to collect them.) Understanding that you can't just wander the prairie shooting things anymore (game laws apply) nevertheless, they could have set up a range with a simple scoring system, and handed out fresh meat for achieving certain scores. While I've come to realize that American frontier families were not the walking arsenals the Cartwrights were, nevertheless, it's not a far stretch to say that guns were ubiquitous on the frontier. (Plus I get to use that fun word!)
I think the job of removing dissenters from Colonial House belonged to the producers under the guidance of the historical consultants. They had to pull them in at least once to resolve a dispute. They should have been willing to again. "Look, play by period conventions or you get back on the boat. That's it." This wasn't a recreational reenactment; the different standard would have been appropriate. I found it interesting that the Baptist clergyman who was factor (or whatever the title was) threw himself into the task of recreating the religious laws and enforcement of the day. I've got to hand it to him, because his own tradition would have been the people thrown in jail. Ironically, in interviewing him, he didn't seem to be particularly aware of that paradox.

sbl
08-23-2007, 08:11 AM
"Look, play by period conventions or you get back on the boat. That's it."

Right Rob. I didn't think of that. The non conforming could have been "voted off the island."

Parault
08-24-2007, 02:47 AM
When my wife & I watched the Cattle Ranch House on PBS, we both said " We could so do that show." We sat there and picked that show apart before the judges picked them apart. I think the reason they picked those people was that they didn't have any history background. I guess that was to make the show more interesting. Several things that we did not like were, the way the women wore their undergarments throughout the day. The Ranch owner not letting the Boss do his job,without sticking his nose into the day to day activity. The deal he made with the Indian after the one Cowboy was " kidnapped." Now I will probably get crucified for this because it is for sure not PC. Here is what I would have done or attempted to do. "Look you can either bring the cowboy back and get x amount of cattle from us per year at no cost to you. You can set your villages on any part of my land at any time,and, during the seasons where the garden is over producing then we will share our crops with you. If you "kill him" then he will not be helping out the situation with making sure there is enough animals for everyone. The other route we can take is this" you want a war brother I will give you a war. You kill that hired hand, I will then make you and your tribe will suffer the consequences. I will make sure that there is nothing for you to eat for miles around including the buffalo. I will kill every living thing that grows or can be construed as edible. I will play a Sherman on your a$$ Then I will get the Army after what is left of your tribe. So much for my rant.

The ironic thing to that deal was this,I guess "Chief" wanted payment for the hired hand the payment was made by the whinning of the owner. The owner wanted to get stupid again with the army on selling his beef.

The Lady of the house should have kept herself out of the buisness of the cattle part,and running the ranch. If she was doing the things around the house that she was supposed to, like I don't know tending the garden, keeping that kitchen clean, making the girls get off their duffs to do the young lady things then she wouldn't have time to run everything else.

The girl that wanted to be out riding the herd. She would either be helping around the house like she was supposed to,or on the next wagon train moving through. This was supposed to be the 1860's not 2000 and something.

As reenactors we all know that in order to survive each member of a household during the 19 century had their jobs. Was it right? no,not by our standards,however,the point of that show was to see if someone of "our time" could make it. The no brainer answer for us is yes. I think that truth be told they didn't want reenactors on the show because it would not have been entertaining.

(getting off the soapbox now)

Rob Weaver
08-24-2007, 05:05 AM
You've got it - they wanted modern attitudes. Unfortunately, period competence increases with period knowledge.

7thNJcoA
08-24-2007, 09:20 AM
EASY ON THE MARINE COMMENT BUDDY! LoL


Isn't it ironic that gun-o-phobic Britain is able to do it right, yet America is afraid to upset viewers with the mere sight of weapons? Especially in 17th Century New England, where visitors noted that locals assembled for church "to the beat of the drum, and each man armed."

What these shows really need is a dose of my mother. She is, alas, deceased, but she grew up on a dirt-poor farm in Dust Bowl Oklahoma. She shot and ate any form of protein that moved, lived on a diet of gin, black coffee and Lucky Strikes and she could have whipped these pussies into shape better than a legion of Marine drill instructors.

That is the dose of reality that "reality" shows lack.

redleggeddevil
08-24-2007, 10:10 AM
Believe me, there is nothing on earth I respect and fear more than an angry Marine! Well, uh, except for my mother. You see, she has one ability that even the USMC lacks-- she can still strike me down from Beyond The Grave.

tompritchett
08-24-2007, 10:16 AM
she could have whipped these pussies into shape better than a legion of Marine drill instructors.

Actually, you should consider it a compliment that she used Marine drill instructors instead of Army or Air Forces DI's. After all, when one uses such comparisons to make a point, one tends to make the comparison only to the best.