Monday, 30 July 2012

Plimouth Plantation. A Lesson in Drama and Heritage.

We picked up our car from the airport, put the top down and headed, with a sense of adventure, south through the Boston suburbs, onto the Interstate and down to the Plymouth.

The arrival here of the Mayflower in 1620 is the founding myth of America as a nation and just a couple of miles away from the famous rock where the pilgrims first disembarked is the remarkable Plimouth Plantation, a living history museum taking the visitor back in time to the first puritan settlement.

The Site has two villages in one. The Wampanoag Homesite which recreates the home of Hobbamock and his extended family. The Wampanoag tribe were native to Massachusetts and had, prior to the arrival of the Europeans, had the run of the land for over 12,000 years. Hobbamock initially made friends with the settlers, teaching them many of the survival techniques that helped the colony survive the first harsh winters.

The twentieth century interpreters are all members of native nations, although today they speak to visitors in modern English, and the village abounds with demonstrations of traditional craft skills. In one corner a father and son were burning out the centre of a felled pine trunk to make a dug out Mishoon canoe whilst across the way a young man told stories of his ancestors under the shaded shelter of the domed shaped Wetuash house that he and his brothers had built earlier in the Spring. Elsewhere hides were being tanned, stews prepared and jewellery forged.

We continued on to the English village, slightly further up the hill. It's an amazing set up as you step through the gates straight back into 1627.

The key to the museum is its covert theatricality. At any one time 40 or so role players populate the fenced village. They are organised according to experience as Apprentice-Interpreters, who are given juvenile introductory roles, Journeyman-Interpreters, who develop more complex narratives and Master-Interpreters who take on leadership roles.

Each has had an extensive training and rehearsal and remains absolutely fixed in first person character for the entire day.

Unlike other costumed interpretations, however, the actors don't look to engage the visitors directly, but go about their business, preparing food, cultivating livestock, repairing buildings, in relative private. Occasionally interaction is induced by with a nod of welcome, but it's up to us to decide how deeply we wish to delve into the dynamics of the community.

And it's worth delving into. The colony's early governor, William Bradford, left a wonderful diary account of the Plantation's early years and from this the role players choose and develop daily scenarios, usually choosing the same calender date to ensure seasonal authenticity. The politics of these events can be teased out by talking to the players. The coherence of this private world is perfect.

Today a dispute was threatening to divide the village. Pilgrims John Oldham and the Rev John Lyford opposing the separatist practice of the Colony had begun to agitate for a return to a more Anglicised form of worship. Governor Bradford had intercepted disparaging letters en route back to England and challenged their sedition. Oldham, upset, had by way of protest, refused to stand guard as a watchman and in the subsequent dispute with Miles Standish, the colony's military adviser, had pulled a knife.

Yesterday had seen the trial of both men and for 'plotting and disturbing the peace, both in respects of their civil and church state' they had been banished.

We bumped into Oldham as he was making his way back to his house. He greeted us as members of the old country and told us, in a perfect Derbyshire accent, the story of the trial and how he feared for the ungodly practices of the people. We asked him where he and his family would go and he thought he'd try his luck trading with the natives up the coast in Nantasket, where a new settlement had recently been established.

We wished him well and went to seek a village elder able to give us a counter view and soon came across William Brewster, one of the original Mayflower pilgrims, eating lobster in his house. As religious adviser to the colony Brewster, a Nottinghamshire man by birth, was grieved by Lyford and Oldham's actions, all the more so as his son John had only recently married Oldham's sister Lucretia. He felt though that for the good of the colony, both men needed to leave. This public dispute acted out immersively in a site-specific environment was brilliantly done.

We could have spent all day scratching for gossip and news, but had to push on. I left with a sense of awe at the pedagogic effectiveness of these rigorous interactive sequences. There are huge lessons here for those who would 'perform' heritage.

We nipped into Plymouth itself, walked the cramped decks of the replica Mayflower and looked at the rather sad rock, stamped unceremoniously with a 1620 date mark  and ostentatiously protected under a neo-Grecian temple.  Already, though, the sun was setting, the sailors were bringing their yachts to shore and we were keen to get down to our overnight stop in Hyannis.


No comments: