Pure Americana Chautauqua Tent Will Go Up for a Week of Religion, History, Theater

Article excerpt

Religion, history and theater will come together under a circus tent at Civic Park in O'Fallon next week with a uniquely American cultural event - the chautauqua.

In a monologue format similar to Hal Holbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight" and Julie Harris' "Belle of Amherst," five costumed scholars will portray historic figures who affected history in Missouri.

Each evening at 7:30 p.m. from June 27 to July 1, one of the scholar-actors will take the stage with an extemporaneous talk based on the life of his or her character. Musical entertainment will precede the program at 7 p.m. Following the 45-minute presentations, the characters will take questions from the audience.

The chautauqua scholars also will speak during the day at various sites in St. Charles and St. Louis. All chautauqua events are open to the public at no charge.

The Missouri Chautauqua is co-sponsored by the Missouri Humanities Council and the O'Fallon Chautauqua Committee, consisting of members of the O'Fallon Historical Society, Chamber of Commerce, Parks and Recreation Department and O'Fallon Branch Library employees.

This is the second year the Missouri Humanities Council has sponsored the chautauqua, which is an Indian name for "meeting place." O'Fallon is the last gig on a month-long tour that included Kansas City, Neosho and Hannibal.

The Chautauqua has been described by audiences as a scholarly circus, the first adult education program in America and and the rural 19th century broadcasting system.

According to Christine Reilly, executive director of the Missouri Humanities Council, older Missourians remember when traveling chautauquas brought education and entertainment to small midwestern towns by presenting great oratory, music and drama under a big tent.

"Permanent chautauquas were based at lakeside pavilions throughout the country. But even the tiniest village could look forward to an annual visit by the traveling versions," Reilly said.

Famous chautauqua orators from the past included William Jennings Bryan and Teddy Roosevelt, who said, "Chautauqua is the most American thing in America."

Reilly explained that this season's program is not intended to proselytize or advocate any specific religion or to resemble a religious service.

"We want people to understand it is possible to study religion or religious history the way you study art, politics or literature," Reilly said. "And we choose characters that are important to the whole country's diverse religious heritage as well as Missouri."

The council advertised nationwide for history and religion scholars to represent the five chautauqua characters. Candidates were asked to submit videotapes as part of their auditions.

"You have to be a bit of a ham as well as a scholar to play one of the parts," Reilly said.

The historical figures who will take the Civic Park stage are:

Joseph Smith Jr., founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Smith's followers, also known as Mormons, were ousted from Jackson County, Mo. Smith is portrayed by Gary Holloway, associate professor of church history at the Institute for Christian Studies, Austin, Texas.

Father Pierre De Smet, a famous Jesuit priest based in St. …