For the third year running, I participated in the Rhode Island Historical Society’s “What Cheer Day” this past weekend. WCD is a first-person living history event which seeks to bring to life for a day the John Brown House in Providence RI, with a cast of characters ranging from maid to matriarch. I played the former for the past two years, but a few months ago when Kitty Calash contacted me about this year’s program, she offered me a different role: that of Alice Brown, the Bad Daughter. Of course I said yes. I’ve always been better at dramatic characters than meek ones, and this would be an opportunity to misbehave splendidly; a comic role, or so I thought.
One of the reasons why WCD is such a fun event is that the Brown family has all sorts of drama. But perhaps the most scandalous single event is the wedding of Alice Brown to John Brown Mason on July 16th 1800, just a day before she gives birth to their daughter. Kitty asked me if I would play Alice, circa fall 1799. The scenario would be the youngest child of the family straggling home the morning after a party. Feeling none-too-well, she would be put to bed, the doctor called, a diagnosis made: bun in the oven.
Because this was to be first person, I had to research my role. Researching for first-person interpretation (where you interact with the world as if you were a particular historical figure) is different from other types of historical research. In this case, historical facts on topics like politics weren’t particularly relevant, as Alice probably didn’t follow politics all that closely, and even if she did, she wouldn’t be expected to converse on political topics. The research I needed to do was much more self-centered: I needed to think through how Alice would react in the situation she was about to find herself in. Unfortunately, the way the cookie crumbled I ended up with less time for research than I would have liked. Though I was able to do a spot of reading on sex and premarital pregnancy in colonial and federal New England, I didn’t get a chance to plan out Alice’s every thought the way I might have liked.
Here’s how Saturday went for me/Alice:
Alice arrived home, looking rather bedraggled in her party clothes from the night before, and was immediately issued in to see Mrs. Brown, concerned over her daughter’s tardy return. Alice attempted to explain herself before begging off to go change out of her party clothes. Upstairs she encountered her sisters: widowed Abby, mother of three but with only one surviving, and Sally, long-betrothed but stilled not married to her darling Mr. Herreshoff. They were mildly sympathetic; Alice was something of a brat.
Soon Alice’s symptoms (only partially faked, as a bad night sleep led to greater accuracy than I had originally planned) caused her to climb into bed and the doctor to be called. Between him and the experienced Abby, her condition was discovered.
Here I ran into my first unanswered question: Was this news to Alice? it was possible that she already knew she was pregnant, and was simply keeping it from her family, but it was also possible that she was unaware. I, however, hadn’t decided what my character knew and what she didn’t.
Next, Sally became upset: after half a decade of engagement, she remained unmarried. Her impetuous younger sister on the other hand was now almost certain to be married to the husband she wanted (or at least lusted for) within the next 9 months. If Alice didn’t get married, that might be even worse however, as then Sally would have to deal with the scandal of a sister giving birth out of wedlock.
This produced another unanswered question: in late 18th-century New England it was not uncommon for brides to go to the alter already pregnant. Often it was an effective way of forcing the issue of marriage, and not unintentional at all. Was this true for Alice? Was this young woman innocent or wily? I hadn’t really thought about it. And no doubt just like Alice, I hadn’t thought about poor Sally’s feelings either.
Finally Mrs. Brown sent for Alice in order to decide what would be done with her.
By this time. I was truly anxious – my own uncertainly about the role I was playing had translated into Alice’s anxiety about how her family would deal with her behavior. Alice and I retreated into our respective shells and let the other participants push the scene.
Alice’s brother James was called in and sent to Mr Mason’s house to inform him of her condition, and negotiation conditions of an engagement. While this was happening Alice returned upstairs in the company of her Aunt Ruth, who was firm with her wayward niece, but still kind underneath it all.
Throughout all of this, visitors were wandering through the house and interacting with the characters. As with all first-person interpretation, we did our best to answer their questions while staying in character. By this point in the day however, I was having a hard time not associating with Alice. As the day’s events unfolded, not all visitors were sympathetic towards her plight. Some reveled in asking me hard questions, which Alice surely deserved, but which came close to hurting my own ego, tied up as it was with the character of Alice.
By the end of the day, I had been Alice the self-righteous girl just wanting to have some fun, the melodramatic youngest child needing to be taken care of while sick in bed, the chagrined young woman whose family has just learned she is pregnant our of wedlock, and the person who felt the need to defend her choices to a public who thought she was in the wrong.
I had gone into the day assuming I would play a the humorous roles of a silly young woman, obsessed with parties and the fellow she had a crush on; in reality, I had been cast in a drama. However, by observing where my preparation of Alice’s role was weak, I re-learned a valuable lesson: from the outside, it is easy to observe the actions of others, but from the inside, those actions are motivated – must be motivated – by intention. This was true of the historical figure of Alice Brown, and whether or not I did my research, I’ll never be certain of what her true motivations were. This style of living history – the first-person portrayal of an individual – is an interesting reminder that history is composed of thinking, feeling, people, not just battles, political movements, and dynasties.