Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Historical Re-Enactment, Extremity, and Passion

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Historical Re-Enactment, Extremity, and Passion

Article excerpt

In April, 2004, a conference was held at Vanderbilt University on the topic of historical re-enactment. It was impelled by two questions, one general and one particular. The general question concerned the growing popularity of reenacted history as popular entertainment and popular knowledge. Once a weekend activity for enthusiasts (or what Greg Dening calls the hallucination of the past as the present in funny dress), it has migrated to television to become the preferred mode of documentary presentation of, for example, life in Greenwich in 1900, life in a trench during the First World War, or life as a fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain. The particular question concerned the experience shared by four of us on the re-enactment of the latter third of James Cook's first voyage during the summer of 2001, commissioned by BBC2, and eventually broadcast on a variety of networks as The Ship. It was six weeks of privation, which in different degrees we all found intense, perplexing, and hard to summarize. In this paper, I want to outline some of the provisional answers we found to these questions, and to indicate how these might contribute to a new departure in historiography.

The answer to the general question seems at first relatively simple. History seems always to renew itself by reducing the distance between the past and the present. An axiom of Enlightenment historiography was that the emotions of the audience ought to be engaged in any representation of past events, which ought therefore to be sufficiently particular and vivid in order to fix the attention of the reader. David Hume considered it odd that Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon, should hurry over the death of Charles I without giving a single circumstance of the execution, as if he "felt a pain from subjects, which an historian and a reader of another age would regard as the most pathetic and most interesting, and, by consequence, the most agreeable." (1) For his own part, Hume paused in his History of England to give a detailed description of the death of Mary Queen of Scots, a scene so vivid one of his readers was able to form a miniature waxwork of it, and to report, "I had the sorrow of seeing the Queen, her two female domesticks ... the executioner, the coffin, scaffold etc. all under a glass case, and compleating a most affecting scenery." (2) Lord Kames was an enthusiast for this proximate and highly sympathetic approach to history. He called it "ideal presence" or "waking dream," the effect procured upon a reader by a historian who appeals to the eye, and "represent[s] every thing as passing in our sight; and from readers or hearers, transform us, as it were, into spectators ... in a word every thing becomes dramatic as much as possible." (3) There were various machines built in the eighteenth century designed to excite the sensations to the point where this dramatic transformation could take place and bring the past into the present moment. Philippe Jacques De Loutherbourg's Eidophusikon (1781) was the most elaborate, and in one of its most powerful scenes it showed the wreck of the East Indiaman Halsewell, with crashing waves and survivors clinging to a rock.

In the next century, these efforts to reduce the distance between the audience and the past were regarded as hopelessly jejune. Probably because Hume had always coolly been balancing cognitive and affective elements in his negotiation of historical distance, (4) Mill found in his history no trace of flesh and blood. "Does Hume throw his own mind into the mind of an Anglo-Saxon, or an Anglo-Norman? Would not the sight, if it could be had, of a single table or pair of shoes made by an Anglo-Saxon, tell us, directly and by inference, more of his whole way of life ... than Hume ... has contrived to tell us?" (5) Ever since, historians have been trying to reconcile cognitive impartiality with affective interest by writing histories that respond to the pressures of the lives of ordinary people, not distantly but immediately, domesticating whatever might have seemed exotic about history. …

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